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Clark says administration focused on missiles

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Clark says administration focused on missiles

By TODD DVORAK/Associated Press Writer
GRINNELL -- Prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration appeared to be focused more on stopping a rogue nation missile attack than terrorism, a retired State Department analyst said Tuesday.

Greg Thielmann also defended the credibility of Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief who has said Bush was slow to act against al-Qaida before the attacks.

Thielmann, 54, worked with Clarke on intelligence projects both early in his career as a foreign service officer and later, when Thielmann became head of the head of the State Department's Office of Strategic Proliferation and Military Affairs.

Shortly after Bush took office, Thielmann said he was surprised to see the administration shift priorities and devote more energy to thwarting missile attacks and building a missile defense system than terrorism.

"It wasn't like they were ignoring the terrorist threat. But the administration seemed to have other, higher priorities," Thielmann told The Associated Press in an interview after speaking to students at his alma mater, Grinnell College.

He cited the administration's decision to back out of international missile treaties and reluctance to join nations seeking stronger bans on chemical and biological weapons.

It's not the first time Thielmann has questioned the president and his senior advisers since retiring from the State Department two years ago.

Thielmann was one of the first former government officials to publicly question the accuracy of statements Bush and other senior officials made about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction before and after the invasion.

He is not surprised at Clarke's critical assessment of the Bush administration in a best-selling book and in testimony last week to the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

Thielmann described Clarke as ambitious, confident, truthful and extremely skilled at winning policy debates. He also praised Clarke, a Republican, for his ability to keep partisan politics out of decision making and for risking his career reputation by criticizing Bush at such a critical time.

Clarke has criticized the president as a failure in the fight against terrorism, blaming Bush and others focusing on outdated Cold War policies after taking office and diverting energy toward Iraq when the focus should have been on al-Qaida.

"I found his testimony to be very credible," Thielmann said. "I think the attempts to undermine his credibility, the credibility of a civil servant who served administrations of both parties, are unfair. I'm surprised in fact at the crude forms of attacks against him."

Several top Republicans in Congress have attacked Clarke and vowed to declassify statements Clarke made in testimony before the Sept. 11 panel.

Senate Majority leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has said Clarke's statements supportive of the administration during those hearings will expose Clarke as an opportunist and leave him open to perjury charges.

Thielmann disagrees, saying Republicans have yet to produce any examples showing clear inconsistencies in Clarke's testimony. Moreover, Thielmann said it's not unusual for top level policy officials to put their best face forward on an issue while serving the president, but to voice criticism and disagreement in private life.

"My advice to the public and the press is when you see a cluster of foreign service officials leave or resign, there is reason to be concerned about something," he said. "In many cases, they are the ones with everything to risk, leaving pensions, burning bridges and threatening their careers."

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