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Backroom boy who had the President running scared

By Rupert Cornwell in Washington

27 March 2004

Until this week, al-Qa'ida expert Richard Clarke was a backroom nobody. Not any more, he ain't. And what's worse, he now spells nothing but big, big trouble for George W. Bush and his presidency.

Because not only is Richard Clarke a political sensation, the man who alleges that Bush's national security team was asleep at the wheel in the months before September 11 2001 when intelligence specialists were warning of an impending terrorist strike; he is also a publishing sensation of the first magnitude.

In just four days his book 'Against All Enemies' sold out an initial print run of 300,000, and the 150,000 hurridly reprinted extra copies also look set to fly off the shelves. Which, for serious non-fiction dealing largely with arcane matters of policy process in Washington, is astonishing.

Of course, the moment of publication was perfect - 24 hours before the federal commission set up to examine whether the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented held its highest profile public hearings thus far, featuring the CIA director and the Secretaries of State and Defense for both Presidents Clinton and Bush.

But it was Mr Clarke's own appearance that provided arguably the most gripping testimony at a public hearing since the Iran-Contra affair in 1987 briefly threatened the Presidential prospects of George Bush senior.

This was no Washington insiders' feast, which typically leaves the rest of the country indifferent. A poll found that 42 per cent of the population was very aware of the furore set off by Mr Clarke, and that only 10 per cent knew nothing about it.

No wonder the Bush administration was scared stiff, summoning reporters to the White House for on-the-record trashings of Mr Clarke and generally doing all in its power to smear his motives. He was represented as either a mischief-making Democrat (though he voted for Mr Bush in 2000) or a man embittered by being passed over last year for the No.2 job at the new Department of Homeland Security. The White House even produced a briefing that Mr Clarke gave to selected journalists back in summer 2002 in an attempt to show that what he was saying then is the exact opposite to what he says now.

One way and another, even by the brutal standards of this White House, the wrecking operation has been unprecedented.

But the stakes could not be higher. Mr Clarke's central charge - that before 9/11 the administration was so obsessed by Iraq that it took its eye off the al-Qa'ida threat - trumps the most powerful single card in Bush's campaign for re-election.

Thus Democrat nominee designate John Kerry could not have believed his good fortune as the Bush crowd messed up one thing after another.

First there was Dubya's 'joke' at a correspondents' dinner here on Wednesday about him searching under the furniture in the Oval Office for those missing Iraqi WMDs.

This is lapse of taste which will be potent ammunition for Mr Kerry in the campaigning months ahead, as will the hiring freeze announced yesterday at the same Homeland Security department that was set up to protect against future terrorist attacks on the US mainland.

Then there is the small matter of Condoleezza Rice, the President's national security adviser and the person most directly implicated in Mr Clarke's memoirs. So far the White House has turned down repeated requests by the 9/11 commission that Ms Rice testify in public, citing the separation of powers in the constitution whereby a Presidential adviser who is not subject to Congressional approval does not give evidence to bodies set up by the legislative branch - which has not stopped Ms Rice from summoning reporters to her office for on-the-record rebuttals of Mr Clarke's charges.

Meanwhile the White House has offered the commission another opportunity to meet privately with her. But why not in public, like Messrs Tenet, Rumsfeld and Powell? Now, rightly or wrongly, that dread Washington murmur - 'cover-up' - is starting to do the rounds.

At the same time, Ms Rice's public utterances have only fuelled the controversy, contradicting Mr Clarke on a host of points. Startlingly, she is at odds with none other than Mr Bush's most powerful adviser of all, Dick Cheney. Mr Clarke, sniffed the vice-President this week, was "not in the loop", which is normally the ultimate Washington bureaucratic put-down. But not this time. Because in order to shore up the White House's basic contention that it did know what it was doing before 9/11, Ms Rice has had to make clear that its own counter-terrorism chief was indeed "in the loop." No wonder that newsrooms are dusting off that old headline 'White House in Disarray,' not seen since the most chaotic days of the Clinton presidency.

Today a successor administration trembles. And all because of a man of whom, just a week ago, no-one had ever heard.