Just as George W. Bush’s election campaign was wrapping its candidate in the bloody flag of 9/11–using footage of the dead victims in an ad blitz that praised Bush’s leadership and assailed presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry as a weak-on-terrorism waffler–reality intruded. Its bearer was Richard Clarke, a longtime national security official who was White House counterterrorism coordinator for Clinton and, early on, for Bush. In his new book, he accuses the Bush crowd of neglecting the effort against Al Qaeda before September 11 and of misguiding the war on terrorism afterward.

According to Clarke, shortly after the 9/11 strikes, Bush encouraged him to examine whether Iraq was behind the event. When Clarke informed Bush that the national security community had already established that there was no connection, Bush insisted Clarke look again–“in a very intimidating way,” Clarke told 60 Minutes. When Clarke, FBI experts and CIA analysts re-examined the issue and produced a report that reached the same no-connection conclusion, the White House, he says, replied, “Wrong answer.” Clarke claims that Bush and his aides immediately wanted to use 9/11 as a pretext to bomb Iraq. But, he notes, there never was evidence that Iraq was in cahoots with Al Qaeda. For Clarke, the Iraq war was a distraction that “strengthened the fundamentalist, radical Islamic terrorist movement worldwide.” And he maintains that the Administration misled the public regarding a link between 9/11 and the war on Iraq. (“The White House carefully manipulated opinion. Never quite lied but gave the very strong impression that Iraq did it.”)

The Bush crew did not only exploit 9/11, Clarke alleges; it failed to respond vigorously to warnings about the threat from Al Qaeda. He tells of an April 2001 meeting in which Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz dismissed Al Qaeda as a concern and said Iraqi terrorism was the number-one issue. Wolfowitz denies that, but the charge that the Bushies fixated on Iraq is not new. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill maintained that Bush was obsessed with attacking Iraq practically from Day One. And there were previous indications that the Administration was less than vigilant before 9/11. In July 2001 an intelligence warning noted that “we believe that [Osama bin Laden] will launch a significant attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties.” How did Bush respond to this dramatic warning? There are no signs that he did much. The White House even refused to allow the House and Senate intelligence committees to say whether this warning reached Bush; committee sources report that it did.

“There’s a lot of blame to go around, and I probably deserve some blame, too,” Clarke says. But Bush has managed to escape blame for the government’s performance on and before 9/11. After the attacks, he said that before September 11 no one could have imagined such a plot. But since the mid-1990s the US intelligence community had collected information that Al Qaeda was interested in a 9/11-like attack. And the CIA had tracked two of the hijackers before the strikes but failed to tell the FBI they were in or coming to the United States. Bush has refused to hold anyone accountable for the screw-ups that led to 9/11.

Clarke’s indictment is tough: “I find it outrageous that the President is running for re-election on the grounds that he’s done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it.” Given the rough treatment Clarke–a Republican hawk who served under Reagan and Bush I–got from the Bush White House in response to his book, it is important to note that he is not the first national security professional to blast Bush’s approach to terrorism. Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former head of Central Command

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called the war on Iraq “a brain fart.” Rand Beers, the National Security Council’s senior director for terrorism, quit in disgust over Bush’s policies. (He went on to work for Kerry.) And there have been others.

The Administration, naturally, denies Clarke’s complaints. That is why the work of the independent 9/11 commission is important. The panel, if it does its job, can sort this out and provide the public with evidence for judging Bush’s handling of 9/11. Right after Clarke’s book hit, the commission received testimony from him and other officials. The less-than-enlightening sessions (with Clarke’s appearance the exception) showed that the commission will have to penetrate plenty of cover-your-ass rhetoric to assess accountability. Clinton aides said they did all that was possible; Bush aides claimed they were moving ahead with plans to smash Al Qaeda before 9/11. But in interim reports, the commission notes that the Bush I and Clinton administrations were slow to understand the Al Qaeda threat. It also found that Bush II failed to continue Clinton’s efforts to enlist Saudi Arabia in the campaign against Al Qaeda and that Donald Rumsfeld’s team at the Pentagon had not been “especially interested” in counterterrorism.

It is telling that Bush has taken a dodgy attitude toward the commission. In January the White House said Bush would not grant the commission a much-needed time extension or more than an hour of his time. Bush later retreated from these positions, but the White House still said he would appear before only two of the ten commissioners, not the entire body. (And though National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice went on TV to slam Clarke, she refused to testify publicly before the commission.) Clarke’s book and the public record offer plenty of material that could keep ten commissioners and Bush busy for several hours, if not days. No wonder Bush is trying to minimize his time before the body.

Bush, looking to win votes as a wartime President, wants to make 9/11 a campaign issue. Perhaps he ought to be careful what he wishes for.