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National | 9/11 HEARINGS: In his criticisms of President Bush, Richard Clarke is offering a far different yardstick for fighting terrorism than the one he offered just a few years ago

Issue: "Darwin's meltdown," April 3, 2004

ROBERT McILVAINE CAME prepared for a long day. He stumbled in late for a second round of hearings before the bipartisan commission investigating the 9/11 attacks, sliding into one of the first 12 rows reserved for victims' families. Two-and-a-half years after his son Bobby perished in the collapse of the World Trade Center, he'd learned how to navigate the corridors of power in search of answers. Despite the warm spring weather, he wore a khaki jacket-there's no telling about the air conditioning on Capitol Hill-and he carried both a cup of coffee and a box of Nilla Wafers.

He carried something else, too: a copy of Against All Enemies, the explosive new book by Richard Clarke, formerly the anti-terrorism czar in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Mr. Clarke would be testifying in a few hours, and his provocative account of the days before and after 9/11 was just one more bit of data to be considered.

&quotUnderstanding whether or not they screwed up means a lot to lessening my grief," he whispered to a reporter as the hearings droned on. Who exactly screwed up, and how? &quotIt's very complicated," he answered, his jaw quivering. &quotMy anger is not at Bush, but I think that it [al-Qaeda] was not their priority. I don't have as much anger as I had, and that is important."

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If Mr. McIlvaine's anger has subsided over the years, however, the political firestorm over 9/11 has only grown more intense. With Iraq still unsettled and international terrorism far from conquered, polls show increasing skepticism over the president's handling of foreign affairs. Democrats, once wary of attacking a popular wartime president, now question Mr. Bush's decisions-and even his motives-at every turn.

Given the mounting doubts, the hearings of March 23-24 couldn't have been good news for the Bush-Cheney reelection team. No matter what the witnesses actually said, the television pictures of top administration officials being hauled in to testify on Capitol Hill could only reinforce the notion that something had gone terribly awry.

It was Mr. Clarke who came right out and said so. Until he took the hot seat on Wednesday afternoon, earlier witnesses had been remarkably unanimous, despite their political differences, that the 9/11 attacks could not have been foreseen or prevented. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld-along with their counterparts in the Clinton administration-testified that no one could have comprehended al-Qaeda's sophistication or launched an effective preemptive strike against a loosely organized foe harbored by a rogue government in Afghanistan.

Mr. Clarke, however, took a different view. He insisted that the Bush administration downplayed the terrorist threat, delayed coming up with a policy for dealing with terrorism, and ignored his repeated warnings simply because he was a holdover from the previous Democratic administration.

He made the same charges-and then some-in his book, which hit store shelves just as the 9/11 commission sat down for its historic inquiry. The timing was not lost on the White House. &quotHe is bringing this up in the heat of a presidential campaign," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan, noting that Mr. Clarke is a close friend of a top adviser to presumed Democratic nominee John Kerry. &quotIf he had some grave concerns, why didn't he come out with them sooner?"

If the timing of Mr. Clarke's charges seemed suspect, their content was nothing short of spectacular. He said national security adviser Condoleezza Rice appeared never to have heard of al-Qaeda until a transition briefing in early 2001; that the president pressured him to link Saddam Hussein to 9/11 when all the evidence pointed to Osama bin Laden; and that the White House calibrated its response to the attacks with an eye toward political gain.

&quotThe [Iraq] crisis was manufactured, and Bush political adviser Karl Rove was telling Republicans to 'run on the war,'" Mr. Clarke wrote.

&quotThe tragedy here is that Americans went to their deaths in Iraq thinking that they were avenging September 11th, when Iraq had nothing to do with September 11th," Mr. Clarke told Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes as part of the inescapable promotion for his book. &quotI find it outrageous that the president is running for reelection on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11, maybe. We'll never know."

This directly conflicts with a 2002 background briefing that Mr. Clarke gave to reporters about the Bush approach to terrorism. The Bush &quotprocess which was initiated in the first week in February [2001] decided in principle in the spring to add to the existing Clinton strategy and to increase CIA resources, for example, for covert action, five-fold, to go after al-Qaeda.... Over the course of the summer [Bush officials] developed implementation details ... and then changed the strategy from one of rollback with al-Qaeda over the course [of] five years, which it had been, to a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination of al-Qaeda."

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