Former counterterrorism chief leaves Bush's case in tatters.

Pity poor George Bush. For some reason, he has been beset by delusional aides who, once they leave the White House, write books containing lies, exaggerations and -- this is the lowest blow of all -- do not take into account the president's genius and all-around wisdom.

The latest White House aide to betray the president is Richard Clarke, who was in charge of counterterrorism before and after the attacks of 9/11. He says Bush "failed to act prior to September 11 on the threat from al Qaeda."

As with former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, another fool who had somehow risen to become chairman of Alcoa, Clarke's account of his more than two years in the Bush White House was immediately denounced by a host of administration aides, some of whom -- and this is just the sheerest of coincidences -- had once assured us that Iraq was armed to the teeth with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Among them, of course, was Condoleezza Rice, who on Monday insisted in a Washington Post op-ed essay that Bush not only did everything just right, but so, really, did Bill Clinton. Both administrations "worked hard,'' she writes.

Clarke, however, says the Bush administration not only belittled the terrorist threat -- China and missile defense were its initial preoccupations -- but took its own sweet time coming to grips with al-Qaeda.

From the start, he says, certain White House aides were fixated on Iraq, and after September 11th, apparently so was Bush. He said he encountered the president the next night in the Situation Room. "See if Saddam did it,'' the president ordered.

"But Mr. President, al-Qaeda did this,'' Clarke says he replied. The president persevered: "I know, I know, but ... see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred.''

As Rice did prior to her Post article, Vice President Cheney's chief aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, virtually blamed the Clinton administration for September 11th. In a New Yorker interview in 2002, he listed terrorist attacks on U.S. or allied interests going back to 1993 and concluded that America had shown only weakness in response.

The United States did do precious little. But it took awhile to stir the U.S. and pinpoint bin Laden. That juncture was reached during the Clinton administration when, among other things, an attempt was made to kill bin Laden with missiles. If the Clinton administration had indeed acted slowly, what can then be said about the Bush administration, which had been specifically warned by Clinton aides about al-Qaeda? Clarke says he asked for a Cabinet-level meeting or access to the president to discuss the al-Qaeda threat. For eight months, he got neither.

Instead, he says, the administration was obsessed with Saddam. As did O'Neill, Clarke says that the September 11th attacks were viewed by some high administration officials as an opportunity (pretext?) for going after Saddam. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz wondered out loud why so much attention was being paid to bin Laden when Iraq was the clear danger. Iraq was on the table by September 12th.

The White House has opened its guns on Clarke. He is being contradicted and soon, as with poor O'Neill, his sanity and probity will be questioned. It's getting to be downright amazing how former White House aides tell the same tale -- a case, the White House wants us to believe, of hysteria or unaccountable betrayal. I'd like to believe my president, but as Clarke quotes him in a different context, "I'm looking for any shred.''

As with Saddam, it doesn't exist.

Richard Cohen is a columnist for The Washington Post.



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