Fri, Mar 26, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Terror expert pans Bush

TESTIMONY Former official Richard Clarke said US President George W. Bush never placed a high enough priority on fighting terror, and 'undermined' it instead

REUTERS , WASHINGTON

Former US counterterrorism official Richard Clarke on Wednesday told the commission probing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US that President George W. Bush did not take the terrorism threat seriously enough, and the head of the CIA admitted more could have been done to foil the strikes.

Clarke, who served the last four US presidents, said the Clinton administration was active in tracking Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network but the Bush administration, which took office in January 2001, did not consider the issue urgent.

"I believe the Bush administration in the first eight months considered terrorism an important issue, but not an urgent issue," said Clarke, who shook Washington this week with his book directly criticizing Bush.

Clarke told the hearing that Bush had "greatly undermined the war on terrorism" after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by invading Iraq last year.

Seeking to discredit Clarke, the White House released the transcript of a briefing he gave in early August 2002 praising the way the Bush team had taken over the war against al-Qaeda. Clarke was only identified as a "senior official," but the White House has now revealed his identity.

On the second of two dramatic days of open testimony, commissioner Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman, asked Clarke about a letter he wrote to Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, one week before the Sept. 11 attacks.

"You urge policymakers to imagine a day after hundreds of Americans lay dead at home and abroad after a terrorist attack and ask themselves what else they could have done. You write this on Sept. 4, seven days before Sept. 11," Roemer said.

Rice said the letter from Clarke was a theoretical rather than an actual warning.

"Of course we all knew that one day a catastrophic attack was possible," she said.

Some Republican commissioners said Clarke had damaged his credibility by sensationalizing his charges against Bush to sell his book. The White House has also attacked his motives, citing Clarke's close ties to a top aide to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

The national commission of five Republicans and five Democrats is due to issue its findings by July 26, at the height of the presidential campaign.

Commission Chair Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said he believed the Sept. 11 attacks could have been prevented.

Earlier, CIA Director George Tenet dismissed criticism that his agency had a fear of conducting high-risk operations.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said it was no wonder if the CIA was hesitant to conduct risky covert operations given its history of being vilified by Congress and the public for some of its past actions.

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