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Iraq was distraction, Clark says

by Raja Mishra and Joanna Weiss
Boston Globe
Tuesday, Jan 13, 2004
link to original

BISMARCK, N.D. -- Retired Army General Wesley K. Clark said yesterday that the Bush administration, distracted by plans to invade Iraq, discounted intelligence on Al Qaeda handed over by outgoing Clinton administration officials in 2000, leaving security gaps that made it easier for Osama bin Laden's terrorist agents to strike on Sept. 11, 2001.

Clark's charges follow public statements from former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who, in a forthcoming book, says the Bush administration had been planning an invasion of Iraq since its first days in the White House.

But Clark's accusation that Bush bears responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks has increasingly become the national security centerpiece of Clark's campaign, with Clark going beyond standard Democratic critiques of the Iraq war to confront Bush on the event that has come to define his presidency.

"They didn't do everything they could have before 9/11 to prevent the tragedy that was 9/11," Clark said on board his campaign plane. "This is a story that needs full investigation."

Yesterday, Clark -- who served during the Clinton administration in several high-ranking Army positions -- went into further detail than he has in the past, saying Clinton's national security team had compiled a lengthy intelligence record on Al Qaeda, accelerating its efforts in 1998 after a bin Laden lieutenant issued a fatwa, or religious directive, calling for the killing of Americans.

After the bombings at American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and the attack on the USS Cole, Clark said, the Clinton team spent months devising a detailed special operations plan to dismantle Al Qaeda that was in place in 2000.

"They built a plan and turned it over to the Bush administration," said Clark, who said the plan was ignored. "This administration failed to do its duty to protect the United States of America before 9/11." A spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee shot back at Clark yesterday, questioning whether the Clinton administration should have acted on such a plan, and pointing to rumors she said Clark has cited as truth. In October, for example, Clark said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had leaked his own memo charging that the United States had no strategy for dealing with terrorism. When questioned, Clark said he had heard rumors to that effect.

"Wesley Clark is long on wild accusasion and conspiracy thories and very, very short on facts to back these things up," said Christine Iverson, the RNC spokeswoman. "His comments on 9/11 have drawn fire even from his fellow Democratic primary candidates."

Clark said he believes Bush administration officials were more focused on ousting Saddam Hussein than Al Qaeda from the outset. However, Clark stops short of asserting a causal link between the Sept. 11 attacks and Bush's alleged neglect, saying "You can never really know if the Sept. 11 attacks could have been prevented."

Yesterday's accusations also follow a New York Times report that in October 2002, Clark -- who was reportedly mulling a race for president -- told a New Hampshire gathering that he believed there was a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.

Clark's aides said yesterday that, at the time, Clark was referring to a New York Times story that cited a leaked letter from CIA director George Tenet, asserting a tie between Al Qaeda and Iraq.

"Hindsight is 20/20, but at the time, everyone thought that there was the possiblity of some kind of connection," said Clark's press secretary, Bill Buck. "When you see a front-page story saying that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, an organization that [Clark] had relied on during his career, was telling the United States Senate that there was a tie, well then if he was asked about it, the logical answer is that there is."

Earlier this fall, former Vermont governor Howard Dean was criticized for publicly raising the rumor that Bush had advance notice about Sept. 11. Dean, however, quickly distanced himself from the rumor.

Dean's antiwar position has been a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Other leading candidates have focused their foreign policy criticism on Bush's diplomacy before the war and ongoing efforts to rebuild Iraq.

Raja Mishra can be reached at rmishra@globe.com.

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