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White House rebuffs terror expert's savaging of Bush over Iraq

By Rupert Cornwell in Washington

23 March 2004

A nervous White House is pulling out all the stops to squelch the impact of the memoirs of the former top counter-terrorism aide Richard Clarke, which constitute perhaps the most damaging insider's critique yet published of President George Bush's handling of the war on terror and his decision to invade Iraq.

Bush aides fanned out yesterday to denounce as "flat wrong" Mr Clarke's assertion that the administration neglected the al-Qa'ida problem before the multiple attacks of 11 September 2001. Condoleezza Rice, the President's national security adviser, insisted that throughout the spring and summer of that year the destruction of the terrorist group was its top priority.

"This became the first major foreign-policy strategy document of the Bush administration - not Iraq, not the ABM Treaty, but eliminating al-Qa'ida," Ms Rice wrote in The Washington Post yesterday.

But that is not how it appears in Mr Clarke's book, Against All Enemies. Indeed, Ms Rice is blamed for downgrading his post, that of national co-ordinator for counter-terrorism, from its previous quasi-cabinet level rank.

When Mr Clarke gave Ms Rice a first briefing on al-Qa'ida in January 2001, he writes, "her facial expression gave me the impression she had never heard the term before". That observation pales beside Mr Clarke's criticism of the decision to go to war with Iraq, which he suggests was taken very early in the life of the Bush administration, and which has made the war on terrorism harder.

"Nothing America could have done would have provided al-Qa'ida and its new generation of cloned groups with a better recruitment device than our unprovoked invasion of an oil-rich Arab country," he writes.

The aim of the White House, which wants to turn the November election into a referendum on Mr Bush's handling thus far of the war on terror, is to discredit Mr Clarke by portraying him as an embittered closet Democrat. But his 30 years of service in government, during which he held senior anti-terrorism posts under three Republican presidents, as well as under Bill Clinton, could make that a hard sell for Mr Bush's aides.

Mr Clarke is indeed a close friend of Rand Beers, another former terrorism specialist under Mr Bush, who left the administration in 2002 to become a senior foreign policy adviser to John Kerry, the Democratic nominee designate.

The book quotes a disillusioned Mr Beers complaining to Mr Clarke that he was on the point of resigning from the National Security Council because "they're using the war on terror politically". A few months later, he did leave.