President Bush failed the country in its hour of greatest need, according to his administration's top anti-terrorism advisor during the crisis. Richard Clarke, who served every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan before resigning last May, has leveled a powerful charge that must be answered with something more than the usual White House smears.
"Frankly, I find it outrageous that the president is running for reelection on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism," Clarke said on "60 Minutes." "He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe he could have done something to stop 9/11."
Clarke's critique of Bush's leadership in a time of crisis is documented in a new book, "Against All Enemies," and will be amplified in testimony before the national commission on the 9/11 attacks.
And just in time, too. Bush's "I am the war president" speeches have made it clear that terrorism will be the central theme in his campaign. This is not surprising, since opinion polls suggest that Americans are unimpressed with the administration except when it comes to its response to 9/11.
Knowing this, the administration has launched a frontal attack on John Kerry's ability to fight the war on terror, which the president again defined on Friday in apocalyptic terms. "There is no neutral ground, no neutral ground in the fight between civilization and terror, because there is no neutral ground between good and evil, freedom and slavery, and life and death," said Bush, implying that anybody who differs with the administration on the best way to fight terrorism is basically in the camp of the "evildoers."
The appalling indifference of the incoming Bush team in 2001 to the clear and present danger presented by Osama bin Laden's organization has been noted before, perhaps most strikingly by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who reported that Bush and most of his Cabinet were obsessed with Iraq, not al-Qaida, from the first day of the administration. This, despite the fact that al-Qaida attacked the U.S. destroyer Cole just weeks before Bush's election, killing 17 U.S. sailors. The outgoing Clinton national security team said it pleaded with the incoming Bush team to make al-Qaida its No. 1 security priority.
"We had a terrorist organization that was going after us!" Clarke told CBS' Lesley Stahl. "That should have been the first item on the agenda. And it was pushed back and back and back for months." Clarke was never invited to brief the president before 9/11, even after he says he wrote a memo to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice "asking for, urgently -- underlined urgently -- a Cabinet-level meeting to deal with the impending al-Qaida attack. And that urgent memo wasn't acted on."
After more than 3,000 people were killed on 9/11 by 19 hijackers, none of whom were Iraqi, Clarke said, "The president dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door and said, 'I want you to find whether Iraq did this,'" Clarke told CBS. "Now, he never said, 'Make it up.' But the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said Iraq did this. I said, 'Mr. President. We've done this before. We have been looking at this. We've looked at it with an open mind. There is no connection.' He came back at me and said, 'Iraq! Saddam! Find out if there's a connection.' And in a very intimidating way. I mean that we should come back with that answer. We wrote a report."
That report, based on all available intelligence evidence and cleared by both the CIA and the FBI, showed no Iraq connection to 9/11. However, Clarke said, "We sent it up to the president and it got bounced by the national security advisor or deputy. It got bounced and sent back, saying, 'Wrong answer ... Do it again.'"
If what Clarke says is true, the American people would be wise to bounce this president right out of office come November.