Newsweek has learned that in the months before 9/11, the U.S. Just…

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.

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.”