Clarke, who left government service last year, alleges that the focus on Iraq dangerously weakened homeland defense and the global war on terrorism. He served in the same position under President Clinton and is the latest of several former officials to criticize the Bush team's counterterrorism record. The Administration insists that the Iraq war has not diverted it from attacking al-Qaeda. Clinton, says Clarke, was more focused than Bush on the terrorism threat and launched a covert operation against Iranian interests in retaliation for a 1996 attack on U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia. Clarke also says that Tom Ridge, the head of the Homeland Security department, opposed its creation. A spokesman for Ridge insists he supported setting up the agency; Clarke admits he was passed over as Ridge's deputy.
At the bush administration's first high-level meeting on terrorism in April 2001, Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism czar, was briefing on al-Qaeda. "Wait a minute," Clarke recalls Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz saying. "Why are we talking about al-Qaeda? We have to talk about Iraqi-sponsored terrorism." Clarke says that Wolfowitz insisted that al-Qaeda was incapable of mounting a major attack without the help of Saddam Hussein. (A spokesman for Wolfowitz told TIME, "The allegation that [Wolfowitz] dismissed the threat from al-Qaeda is false," and a senior Administration official present at the meeting insisted that "Wolfowitz couldn't possibly have said it, because it goes directly counter to what he believed.") But when that story and others are discussed after the publication of a new book by Clarke this week, the performance of the Administration is sure to come under renewed scrutiny.