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Published: Wednesday, 3/24/2004

Obsessed on Iraq

THE most credible information to date that the Bush Administration was dangerously preoccupied with Iraq when it should have been pursuing al-Qaeda in the days before and after 9/11 comes from the administration's own counterterrorism coordinator.

The account by civil servant Richard Clarke foreshadowed important testimony this week by officials of the Bush and Clinton administrations before the national commission investigating whether the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented.

And it touched off a vicious and uncalled for White House campaign to discredit Mr. Clarke, who held top anti-terrorism jobs under four presidents during a 30-year career in government from which he resigned more than a year ago.

Mr. Clarke, in a new book and a forceful appearance on CBS-TV's 60 Minutes, portrays George W. Bush and his top aides as focused intently on Iraq, even though they were assured by the CIA and FBI that all evidence indicated that al-Qaeda was behind the 2001 terrorist attacks and had no significant ties to Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Clarke says that Mr. Bush pulled him aside the day after the attacks and ordered, "Go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this." When Mr. Clarke protested, "But Mr. President, al-Qaeda did this," the President replied, "I know, I know, but ... just look. I want to know any shred."

Despite the administration's initial claim that no such conversation took place, CBS News and the Washington Post both verified the incident from people who were there.

Mr. Clarke's story lends credence to an account by Paul O'Neill, Mr. Bush's former treasury secretary, that the President and his top aides were obsessed with invading Iraq even as they took office, eight months before 9/11.

The allegation that the administration got sidetracked from the war on terrorism in its zeal for revenge against Saddam for the attempted assassination of Mr. Bush's father following the 1991 Gulf War shadows the President's foreign policy. It's now a key point of contention in his election campaign against Democrat John Kerry.

But just because the issue carries political overtones does not mean that it should be dismissed out of hand.

Mr. Clarke is a career civil servant who has been on the staff of four presidents, three of them Republicans, in the high-level counterterrorism advisory post. If he is motivated by partisan politics, as various Bush officials now claim, why was he kept on by the administration for more than two years? If he had been dissatisfied that his cabinet-level job was downgraded when Mr. Bush took office, wouldn't he have resigned then?

The fact that it took Mr. Clarke nearly eight months - until Sept. 4, 2001, - to get a cabinet-level meeting to present warnings about an imminent al-Qaeda attack against the United States suggests that someone at the administration's highest level was asleep at the terrorism alarm bell.

We hope that testimony before the 9/11 commission can shed more light on what happened on that fateful day and why. The panel's findings are too important to the nation's security to be clouded or cast aside in the fuss over presidential politics.



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