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March 20, 2004, 10:38AM

Adviser: Rumsfeld wanted Iraq attack after 9/11

Associated Press

WASHINGTON  -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld almost immediately urged President Bush to consider bombing Iraq after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington, says a former senior administration counterterrorism aide.

Richard A. Clarke, the White House counterterrorism coordinator at the time, recounts in a forthcoming book details of a meeting the day after the terrorist attacks during which top officials considered the U.S. response. Even then, he said, they were certain that al-Qaida was to blame and there was no hint of Iraqi involvement.

"Rumsfeld was saying we needed to bomb Iraq," Clarke said. "We all said, 'But no, no, al-Qaida is in Afghanistan."

Clarke, who is expected to testify Tuesday before a federal panel reviewing the attacks, said Rumsfeld complained in the meeting that "there aren't any good targets in Afghanistan and there are lots of good targets in Iraq."

A spokesman for Rumsfeld said he couldn't comment immediately.

Clarke makes the assertion in a book, "Against All Enemies," that goes on sale Monday. He told CBS News he believes the administration sought to link Iraq with the attacks because of long-standing interest in overthrowing Saddam Hussein; Clarke appears Sunday night on the network's "60 Minutes" program.

"I think they wanted to believe that there was a connection" between Iraq and the al-Qaida attacks in the United States, Clarke said in an interview segment that CBS broadcast Friday evening. "There's just no connection. There's absolutely no evidence that Iraq was supporting al-Qaida."

Clarke also criticized President Bush for promoting the administration's efforts against terrorism, accusing top Bush advisers of turning a blind eye to terrorism during the first months of Bush's presidency.

The Associated Press first reported in June 2002 that Bush's national security leadership met formally nearly 100 times in the months prior to the Sept. 11 attacks yet terrorism was the topic during only two of those sessions.

The last of those two meetings occurred Sept. 4 as the security council put finishing touches on a proposed national security policy review for the president. That review was finished Sept. 10 and was awaiting Bush's approval when the first plane struck the World Trade Center.

"Frankly, I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism," Clarke told CBS. "He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something."

There have been earlier published accounts of the administration's suspicion during the week after the 2001 attacks that Iraq might have been involved, but none by a direct participant in such senior-level meetings and none that suggested there was a push to attack Iraq so soon afterward.

A discussion among President Bush and Cabinet members at Camp David. Md., on Sept. 16, for example, included remarks about whether it was prudent to attack Iraq after the terror attacks.

Bush told reporter Bob Woodward of The Washington Post that he decided not to heed advice on Iraq by some officials who also had served his father's administration during the first Gulf War.

"One of the things I wasn't going to allow to happen is, that we weren't going to let their previous experience in this theater dictate a rational course for a new war," Bush told Woodward for his 2002 book, "Bush at War." He said discussion later that day "was focused only on Afghanistan."

Clarke retired early in 2003 after 30 years in government service. He was among the longest-serving White House staffers, transferred in 1992 from the State Department to deal with threats from terrorism and narcotics.

Clarke previously led the government's secretive Counterterrorism and Security Group, made up of senior officials from the FBI, CIA, Justice Department and armed services, who met several times each week to discuss foreign threats.


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