Inside view casts new shadow over re-election hopes

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The Independent US

Richard Clarke's explosive memoirs are the latest in a long and honoured Washington tradition - the insider's account of a Presidential administration, motivated usually by revenge or a large publisher's advance, that becomes a instant sensation.

This time however the stakes are exceptionally high, as the ferocity of the White House response to his charges demonstrates. If his accusation sticks - that George W. Bush, fixated by Iraq, neglected the al-Qa'ida threat before 9/11 - the consequences for the President's election campaign could be devastating.

By charging that Mr Bush and his senior advisers mistakenly neglected al-Qa'ida in the spring and summer of 2001 to focus on Iraq, Mr Clarke has not only re-ignited the debate over whether the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington could have bene prevented. In Against All Enemies, he challenges the central theme of the President's re-election campaign, Mr Bush's resolve and competence in dealing with terrorism.

Oddly the in-house whistleblower is a species that flourishes under Republican, rather than Democratic administrations, in part because daily leaks from the former tend to be fewer.

True, there were several insider accounts of Bill Clinton's White House. But most, like All Too Human by George Stephanopoulos, his former close adviser, had a somewhat wistful quality, depicting Mr Clinton as a potentially great President diminished by failings of the flesh.

Memoirs of this Bush White House have taken an exactly opposite tack. Their broad thrust is that the moralistic, super efficient fay¿ade of this administration hides a ruthless, politically motivated and sometimes bumbling reality.

There have been three examples thus far. The first was a long 2002 magazine article by John DiIulio, head of the White House's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives until August 2001, who charged that the entire Bush operation was run by his political advisers acting at the behest of right wing groups.

For his pains, Mr DiIulio was forced into a grovelling apology reminiscent of a set-piece recantation at a Stalinist show trial - driven, it was widely said, by a threat to cut federal funding for the University of Pennsylvania where he was a professor.

That squall quickly blew over. Far more damaging were the recollections of Paul O'Neill, the Treasury Secretary sacked by Mr Bush in December 2002, depicting the President as a man who never listened to an opposing point of view, and whose administration was fixated with Iraq from the moment it came to office.

Mr O'Neill's views were damaging enough for the White House to mount a harsh counterattack, portraying the former Cabinet member as a loose cannon whose views were not to be trusted, and who was never close to the real centre of power. Given Mr O'Neill's prolific record of gaffes, that strategy largely succeeded.

But Mr Clarke may the exception to the general rule that critical memoirs by former insiders have little lasting impact. For one thing, his timing could not have been better, at the start of a 2004 Presdiential campaign in which Iraq and terrorism will be key issues, and co-inciding with yesterday's public testimony by top Clinton and Bush officials to the bipartisan commission investigating 9/11.

Second, his version bears out Mr O'Neill on a crucial point - that Iraq was an obsession for the incoming administration, and that the basic decision to go war was probably taken if not before September 11 2001, then not very long afterwards.

Mr Clarke moreover may have been a sharp elbowed and ambitious bureaucratic operator. But he was one of the most experienced US counter-terrorism specialists and, contrary to the assertion of vice President Dick Cheney, very much 'in the loop.' His judgement was deeply respected by both Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

Top Bush officials have attempted to present him as a disgruntled Democrat, angry at being passed over for a senior post in the new Homeland Security department after leaving the White House. Politically however he is an independent with Republican leanings, who cannot be accused of partisanship.

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, tried to suggest that Mr Clarke, through his long friendship with John Kerry's foreign policy adviser Rand Beers, was basically a Democrat. But in his book, the former White House adviser is critical of both Democrats and Republicans.

Colleagues too have spoken out in support of Mr Clarke's main thrust, that in almost every instance of terrorism - from the attempted Iraqi assassination of the first President Bush in 1993 to the al-Qa'ida attacks in the Middle East and Africa, he argued for a more massive response either the Clinton administration was willing or capable of delivering.

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