WASHINGTON, March 28 - The White House acknowledged Sunday that on the day after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush pressed his top counterterrorism adviser, Richard A. Clarke, to find out whether Iraq was involved.
Mr. Bush wanted to know "did Iraq have anything to do with this? Were they complicit in it?" Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, recounted in an interview on CBS' "60 Minutes."
Mr. Bush was not trying to intimidate anyone to "produce information," she said. Rather, given the United States' "actively hostile relationship" with Iraq at the time, he was asking Mr. Clarke "a perfectly logical question," Ms. Rice said.
The conversation - which the White House suggested last week had never taken place - centers on perhaps the most volatile charge that Mr. Clarke has made public in recent days: that the Bush White House became fixated on Iraq and Saddam Hussein at the expense of focusing on Al Qaeda's role in the terrorism.
In his new book, "Against All Enemies" (Free Press), Mr. Clarke recounts that the president pulled him and several other aides into the White House Situation Room on the evening of Sept. 12, 2001, and instructed them "to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this. See if he's linked in any way."
Mr. Clarke was incredulous, he said in the book. "But, Mr. President, Al Qaeda did this," he said he responded.
Mr. Bush answered, "I know, I know, but ... see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred," according to Mr. Clarke's account. Mr. Clarke added in later interviews that he felt he was being intimidated to find a link between the attacks and Iraq.
Last week, the White House said it had no record that Mr. Bush had even been in the Situation Room that day and said the president had no recollection of such a conversation. Although administration officials stopped short of denying the account, they used it to cast doubt on Mr. Clarke's credibility as they sought to debunk the charge that the administration downplayed the threat posed by Al Qaeda in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks and worried instead about Iraq.
The political fallout over Mr. Clarke's charges intensified on Sunday, as he and four of the president's top advisers traded jabs in separate televised appearances over the question of whether the Bush White House did enough to deter terrorism before Sept. 11.
Mr. Clarke, in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press", urged the Bush administration to make public the testimony he gave in 2002 to a joint Congressional committee that was investigating the attacks.
He said declassifying his testimony - as well as other memos and materials from Ms. Rice and the administration - would show he had long complained that the Bush administration failed to take aggressive action against Al Qaeda before the Sept. 11 attacks.
In particular, he urged the administration to make public a memo on counterterrorism initiatives that he wrote just days after Mr. Bush took office, as well as a counterterrorism plan that the White House ultimately approved more than seven months later, a week before the attacks.
"Let's see if there's any difference between those two, because there isn't," he said.
"And what we'll see when we declassify what they were given on January 25th and what they finally agreed to on September 4th is that they are basically the same thing, and they wasted months when we could have had some action."
Meanwhile, members of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks pressed Ms. Rice to appear publicly before the commission to explain the events leading up to the attack.
Ms. Rice " has appeared everywhere except my local Starbucks," Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the commission, said in an interview. "For the White House to continue to refuse to make her available simply does not make sense."
Ms. Rice met with the commission in February to discuss pre-Sept. 11 initiatives, but an official involved in that meeting said the White House insisted that she not be put under oath and that the session not be recorded. Commissioners were allowed to take notes, but no transcript of her comments is thought to exist.
The White House says that having the national security adviser testify in public would compromise executive privilege and the president's ability to get confidential advice.
The commission and the White House are continuing to discuss the possibility of Ms. Rice's reappearance. Thomas H. Kean, the former New Jersey governor who is co-chairman of the panel, said on "Fox News Sunday" that "we are still going to press and still believe unanimously as a commission that we should hear from her in public," although he added that a subpoena was unlikely.
Ms. Rice, for her part, said on "60 Minutes" that "nothing would be better, from my point of view, than to be able to testify."
Analysts say Mr. Clarke's charges could do significant political damage to a president who has built his foreign policy record largely around the campaign against terrorism. Republican leaders have responded in force, suggesting that Mr. Clarke's testimony last week was at odds with the closed testimony he gave before the joint Congressional panel in 2002 and that he may have lied in one or both appearances.
But intelligence officials familiar with his classified briefing said they were aware of no obvious contradictions. Mr. Ben-Veniste said he thought Mr. Clarke's earlier testimony should be declassified to resolve any dispute, but he added that "it is not my recollection that there were any notable or substantive differences in testimony."
Mr. Clarke's Congressional testimony, given while he was still at the White House, put a more "positive spin" on the administration's counterterrorism efforts, just as he did in a 2002 press briefing that was released last week, according to a senior Democratic Congressional aide who spoke on condition of anonymity. But factually, it did not appear to contradict what Mr. Clarke told the Sept. 11 commission last week, the aide said.
Mr. Clarke's assessment last week is also generally consistent with journalistic and Congressional accounts of the early Bush administration's approach to terrorism.
In Bob Woodward's "Bush at War," (Simon & Schuster, 2002), the president himself acknowledged that Osama bin Laden had not been a central focus in the eight months before the attacks.
"I was not on point," Mr. Bush was quoted in the book as saying. "I have no hesitancy about going after him. but I didn't feel that sense of urgency, and my blood was not nearly as boiling."
Similarly, the public report of the joint Congressional inquiry into Sept. 11 intelligence failures, released last December, said that the Bush administration did not begin a major counterterrorism policy review until April 2001 and that "significant slippage in counterterrorism policy may have taken place in late 2000 and early 2001," in part because of Mr. Clarke's "unresolved status" as head of counterterrorism. He had that role under Clinton and for the first few months of the Bush administration. After Sept. 11, 2001, he had a more limited role as cyberterrorism adviser.
The public report does not describe Mr. Clarke's testimony before the joint committee in great detail, but it does suggest that he found areas of concern in counterterrorism coordination during both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Although Mr. Bin Laden would become an urgent priority in the late 1990s, "Mr. Clarke told the Joint Inquiry that Iran and the Lebanese Hizbollah were the most important terrorist concerns during the first Clinton Administration," the report said.
In general, the report said, "Mr. Clarke noted that the White House `never really gave good systematic, timely guidance to the Intelligence Community about what the priorities were at the national level,"' although the time period he described was unclear.
The Bush administration, which fought successfully to keep sensitive parts of last year's joint inquiry out of the public report, did not say whether it would agree to declassify material from Mr. Clarke or Ms. Rice.
But Secretary of State Colin Powell, appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation," said he would prefer publicizing as much relevant material as possible. "We're not trying to hide anything," he said.
Mr. Powell said an examination of Mr. Clarke's assessment in 2002 showed "inconsistencies and contradictions between what he is saying now and what he said then." And he said it was wrong to suggest the Bush administration simply abandoned the counterterrorism priorities of the Clinton administration.
"That's not the case," he said. "They weren't out bombing Afghanistan and invading Afghanistan and we suddenly said stop."
Ms. Rice, in particular, "is getting a bit of a bum rap," Mr. Powell said. She and other key advisers aggressively formulated counterterrorism policy, he said, but "unfortunately, we never got the information or intelligence that we needed to tell us that these 19 guys were in the country and already there was a plot under way."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Terry Holt, the chief spokesman for the Bush campaign, both said on Sunday that the administration had devoted sufficient attention to terrorism and had not been unduly focused on Iraq. Mr. Holt, appearing on CNN's "Inside Politics Sunday," called Clarke "a political opportunist." Mr. Rumsfeld appeared on "Fox News Sunday" and ABC's "This Week."
Mr. Clarke said the administration is intent on attacking him personally through a "character assassination campaign" rather than debating the arguments he has raised about Mr. Bush's prosecution of the campaign against terrorism.
"After 9/11, I say that by going into Iraq he has really hurt the war on terrorism," he said. "Now, because I say that, the administration doesn't want to talk on the merits of that. They don't want to talk about the effect on the war on terrorism of our invasion of Iraq."
To rebut the administration's criticism of his credibility, he produced a handwritten letter from Mr. Bush at the time of his resignation, dated Jan. 31, 2003, that read: "Dear Dick: You will be missed. You served our nation with distinction and honor. You have left a positive mark on our government."
Last week, the White House produced a resignation letter of its own - one from Mr. Clarke to Mr. Bush - in which the seasoned adviser praised the president for his "courage, determination, calm and leadership" on Sept. 11.