PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Retired Army General Wesley K. Clark yesterday suggested that President Bush bears some responsibility for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saying the administration had been warned about the threat of Osama bin Laden but did not act quickly enough to prevent the tragedy.
"Now, we know who did 9/11," Clark told a roomful of business people at a law firm in Portsmouth, saying the Bush administration should be investigated for its actions prior to the attacks. Bush, he said, is "responsible for our preparation, our defense, and that's the issue. . . . This was a president who was in charge in this country for almost nine months, and failed" to defend the country.
Clark's remarks, among his sharpest critiques of Bush, were delivered as his campaign has stepped up its rhetoric. At other points yesterday, Clark referred to Bush as "a reckless, radical, and heartless leader" and said the war in Iraq "casts doubts on his competence as a commander in chief."
Later, Clark elaborated on his 9/11 criticism, saying that President Clinton's former national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, had warned the Bush administration about the dangers of bin Laden but that Bush spent his first nine months in office focusing on Russia rather than the Al Qaeda leader.
"What he should have done is put the priority on dealing with the threat that was facing America," Clark said. "Apparently, he didn't."
But Clark said he did not agree with his rival, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, for citing rumors that Saudi Arabia might have warned Bush about the attacks in advance. "I think it's highly unlikely that that would have happened," he said.
Clark made several references to Dean throughout the day, saying candidates who exceed state spending limits -- as Dean is considering -- "might be representing the Republican wing of the Democratic Party."
He also suggested that Republicans consider Dean an easy target in the general election.
"There's a reason why Karl Rove is supporting my friend, the former governor of Vermont," Clark said.
Later, at a library in New Castle, Clark downplayed the importance of the endorsement Dean won from former vice president Al Gore.
"I think elections are about the people, and not about the powerful," Clark said -- repeating, nearly verbatim, one of Gore's 2000 campaign slogans.
Clark also discussed his environmental plan yesterday, meeting with middle school students in New Castle. He did not focus on his campaign's promise to save the lives of 100,000 people who, his campaign contends, would otherwise have died from cancer or respiratory ailments by 2020. Instead, he had more harsh words for Bush, saying that the president's environmental policies "are being written by polluters for the benefit of polluters" and that his "clear skies" policy "reeks as much as a cattle pen after a feeding."