A National Intelligence Estimate, President Bush's pique over a leak and former President Clinton's barbs about the hunt for Osama bin Laden have inflamed clashes over national security.

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WASHINGTON — The election-year debate over terrorism has triggered a full-blown spat between the camps of President Bush and former President Clinton as the sides trade barbs over who was more responsible for failing to disrupt al-Qaida before it could attack the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

Bush complained Tuesday that Clinton was engaging in “finger-pointing” by attacking the current administration’s actions before the hijackings. “I don’t have enough time to finger-point,” Bush said. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did, calling Clinton’s version of events “flatly false.”

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said her husband would have paid more attention to intelligence warnings before the attacks than did Bush.

The crossfire during the past few days broke a tacit peace between the 42nd and 43rd presidents that has prevailed for most of the past two years.

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But with the midterm elections weeks away, the president has tried to focus the nation’s attention on the threat of terrorism, and Clinton has become more irritated at what he sees as attacks on his performance. The ABC miniseries “The Path to 9/11” especially irked the former president and his partisans because of what they saw as a skewed portrayal blaming Clinton for not doing more to get al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Clinton, when asked about the matter by Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday,” erupted with anger and finger-jabbing. Clinton said that though he failed, at least he tried to kill bin Laden, while Bush did not. “They had eight months to try,” Clinton said. “They did not try. I tried.”

Rice bristled at that in an interview in Tuesday’s New York Post. “The notion somehow for eight months the Bush administration sat there and didn’t do that is just flatly false, and I think the 9/11 Commission understood that,” she said. “What we did in the eight months was at least as aggressive as what the Clinton administration did in the preceding years.”

Statements scrutinized

Hillary Clinton referred to the intelligence memo presented to Bush in August 2001. “I’m certain that if my husband and his national-security team had been shown a classified report entitled ‘Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States,’ he would have taken it more seriously than history suggests it was taken by our current president and his national-security team,” she said.

Jay Carson, a spokesman for Bill Clinton, rejected Rice’s contention: “Every single fact that President Clinton stated in his interview is backed up by the historical record, including the 9/11 Commission report.”

A number of Clinton’s interview statements have triggered scrutiny. Clinton said that after the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, “I had battle plans drawn to go into Afghanistan, overthrow the Taliban and launch a full-scale … search for bin Laden. But we needed basing rights in Uzbekistan.”

The Sept. 11 Commission, however, found no plans for an invasion of Afghanistan or military operation to topple the Taliban, just more limited options, such as plans for attacks with cruise missiles or Special Forces. Nothing in the report indicated basing rights in Uzbekistan prevented a military response.

Clinton also said the Bush administration “didn’t have a single meeting about bin Laden for the nine months after I left office.” In fact, the Bush team held several meetings on terrorism by the interagency group known as the deputies committee and one on Sept. 4, 2001, through the principals committee composed of Cabinet officers. What Clinton may have been referring to was counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke’s frustration that the principals disregarded his urgent calls to meet sooner because of a months-long policy review.

Rice came under fire for her assertion that “we were not left a comprehensive strategy to fight al-Qaida” by Clinton’s team. In fact, Clarke sent Rice a terrorism memo Jan. 25, 2001, along with a strategy to “roll back” al-Qaida, but the Bush team decided to conduct the policy review.

Outburst or plan?

Some conservatives were gleeful about Clinton’s interview. “We should replay that interview as often as possible,” Republican strategist Nelson Warfield said Tuesday. “Nothing motivates the Republican base more than some puffy pontification from Bill Clinton.”

There was a lack of agreement on whether Clinton had planned his outburst. Conservative columnist John Podhoretz, in Tuesday’s New York Post, called it “the Bubba blowup” and “a full-bore tantrum on the small screen.”

But fellow conservative William Kristol, writing for The Weekly Standard, suggested Clinton might have been laying out a battle plan for Democrats to fight GOP claims that they are “unreliable in the war on terror. … With this interview, Bill Clinton has the entire left wing of the Democratic Party rallying to him.”

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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