In the Months Before 9/11, Justice Department Curtailed Highly Classified Program to Monitor Al Qaeda Suspects in the U.S

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'They Came in There With Their Agenda and [Al Qaeda] was not on it,' Says Former Counterterrorism Chief Clarke of Bush Administration

Newsweek has learned that in the months before 9/11, the U.S. Justice Department curtailed a highly classified program called "Catcher's Mitt" to monitor Al Qaeda suspects in the United States, after a federal judge severely chastised the FBI for improperly seeking permission to wiretap terrorists. During the Bush administration's first few months in office, Attorney General John Ashcroft downgraded terrorism as a priority, choosing to place more emphasis on drug trafficking and gun violence, report Investigative Correspondent Michael Isikoff and Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas in the March 29 issue of Newsweek (on newsstands Monday, March 22).

Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism chief of the national-security staff, tells Newsweek that at an April 2001 top-level meeting to discuss terrorism, his effort to focus on Al Qaeda was rebuffed by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. According to Clarke, Wolfowitz said, "Who cares about a little terrorist in Afghanistan?" The real threat, Wolfowitz insisted, was state-sponsored terrorism orchestrated by Saddam Hussein.

In the meeting, says Clarke, Wolfowitz cited the writings of Laurie Mylroie, a controversial academic who had written a book advancing an elaborate conspiracy theory that Saddam was behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Clarke says he tried to refute Wolfowitz. "We've investigated that five ways to Friday, and nobody [in the government] believes that," Clarke recalls saying. "It was Al Qaeda. It wasn't Saddam." A spokesman for Wolfowitz describes Clarke's account as a "fabrication." Wolfowitz always regarded Al Qaeda as "a major threat," says this official.

Clarke tells Newsweek that the day after 9/11, President Bush wanted the FBI and CIA to hunt for any evidence that pointed to Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. Clarke recalls that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was also looking for a justification to bomb Iraq. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, Rumsfeld was arguing at a cabinet meeting that Afghanistan, home of Osama bin Laden's terrorist camps, did not offer "enough good targets." "We should do Iraq," Rumsfeld urged.

Six days after the president's request, Clarke says, he turned in a classified memo concluding that there was no evidence of Iraqi complicity in 9/11-nor any relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda. The memo, says Clarke, was buried by an administration that was determined to get Iraq, sooner or later. In his new book, "Against All Enemies," Clarke portrays the Bush White House as indifferent to the Qaeda threat before 9/11, then obsessed with punishing Iraq, regardless of the what the evidence showed about Saddam's Qaeda ties, or lack of them.

The Bush administration is already pushing back. A White House official tells Newsweek that Bush has "no specific recollection" of the post 9/11 conversation described by Clarke, and that records show the president was not in the Situation Room at the time Clarke recalls. "His book might be called 'If Only They Had Listened to Dick Clarke,'" says an administration official.

As soon as Clarke's charges began appearing in print, Sen. John Kerry, the Democrats' presumptive nominee, put them on his campaign Web site. But for Kerry and the Democrats, the catch is that President Bill Clinton did no better to tame the terrorist threat during his last years in office. As Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll recently showed in his new book "Ghost Wars," those in the national-security bureaucracy under Clinton spent more time wringing their hands and squabbling with each other than going after Osama bin Laden.

Clarke was the White House counterterror chief during the late '90s and through 9/11. A career civil servant, Clarke was known for pounding the table to urge his counterparts at the CIA, FBI and Pentagon to do more about Al Qaeda. But he did not have much luck, in part because in both the Clinton and early Bush administrations, the top leadership did not back up Clarke and demand results.

In his new book, Clarke recounts how on Jan. 24, 2001, he recommended that the new president's national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, convene the president's top advisers to discuss the Qaeda threat. One week later, Bush did. But according to Clarke, the meeting had nothing to do with bin Laden. The topic was how to get rid of Saddam Hussein. "What does that tell you?" Clarke remarked to Newsweek. "They thought there was something more urgent. It was Iraq. They came in there with their agenda, and [Al Qaeda] was not on it."