Was Bush fixated on 'getting Saddam'?

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A Texas Democratic fundraiser, speaking not for attribution, told me about the lunch he recently had at the home of former President Clinton in the New York suburbs. Clinton recounted his last meeting with President Bush over coffee, just before the inauguration on Jan. 20, 2001.

The outgoing president counseled his successor that he would face five challenges in the international arena - the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, the Al Qaeda terrorist threat, a nuclear-armed North Korea, the India-Pakistan confrontation, and the Saddam Hussein dictatorship in Iraq.

Clinton was surprised at Bush's response. He said he disagreed with Clinton's order - that he considered Saddam Hussein to be the primary threat that he would have to deal with.

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The story casts a light - as it probably was intended to do - on the current controversy over whether President Bush allegedly neglected the war on terrorism in his single-minded preoccupation with bringing down Saddam Hussein, the man who plotted the assassination of his father.

Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said in his memoir that from the first meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) 10 days after the inauguration, the White House seemed obsessed with Saddam Hussein as "a bad person who needed to go."

The White House dismissed O'Neill as a disgruntled employee. But now we have the dramatic account of Richard Clarke, who served as antiterrorism coordinator for 10 years under four presidents. In his newly published memoir, Clarke says that ousting Hussein was "Topic A" from the first NSC meeting, just as O'Neill had said, and there was little discussion of why the Iraqi dictator was being targeted.

Clarke wrote that the day after Sept. 11, 2001, the president pulled him and a small group of aides into the Situation Room, closed the door and said, "Go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this." Clarke said he replied, "But Mr. President, Al Qaeda did this."

"I know, I know," Mr. Bush is quoted. "But see if Saddam is involved. Just look. I want to know any shred."

The Bush administration has been saturating the airwaves with denials of Clarke's charges. But they seem to fit with the public statements of the president and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, seeking to link Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda.

The great concern in the White House is that the Saddam fixation to the neglect of the terrorist threat may end up as a campaign issue. And it well may.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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