Blowing the whistle on Mr. Bush

March 24, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The intensity and vehemence of the White House's attacks on its former anti-terrorism chief, Richard A. Clarke, show how clearly President Bush's political strategists recognize that Mr. Clarke's allegations strike at the heart of his bid for re-election.

His charge that the president pressed him on the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to look for a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida feeds the notion that Mr. Bush, early on, sought to use such a link as a rationale to go to war against Iraq.

That view, in turn, reinforces the argument that the ultimate invasion of Iraq was a colossal blunder, a diversion from the broader requirement of seeking out and eliminating the al-Qaida terrorist network and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Clarke's additional allegation that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his chief deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, were so intent on going after Mr. Hussein that they lost the more critical focus on al-Qaida further challenges the premise that Mr. Bush has been an effective wartime president.

Mr. Clarke charges in his new book, Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror, that the president and his aides, rather than pursuing the war on terror with vigor and wisdom, brushed off warnings by him and CIA Director George J. Tenet of an impending major al-Qaida attack before 9/11.

It's no wonder, therefore, that the White House decided to go into a full-bore campaign to discredit Mr. Clarke as a disgruntled subordinate and even as an agent of the presidential campaign of rival John Kerry, flooding the airwaves with administration damage-controllers.

Tactically, however, this heavy-handed approach risks being dismissed as no more than the standard Washington procedure for dealing with whistleblowers. Mr. Clarke, at the least, has credentials as a counterterrorism expert - in both Republican and Democratic administrations - that command serious consideration of what he has to say.

The opening White House assaults on Mr. Clarke ran from ridicule to slander. Presidential press secretary Scott McClellan dwelt on the timing of the book's release in the presidential election year, labeling it "Dick Clark's American Grandstand" - a sophomoric play on the ageless TV host's long-running show.

Mr. Clarke has noted that the White House took three months to clear the manuscript for security concerns. That left only 10 months to write and publish the book, an unusually swift amount of time considering he left government service only 13 months earlier.

That's not to suggest that Mr. Clarke was unaware of the benefit - political and financial - of publishing the book now, especially when the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks is holding televised hearings. Mr. Clarke is on the witness list.

Joining the opening attack on Mr. Clarke was Vice President Dick Cheney, whose tenure since 9/11 has been marked by very rare public appearances - until his blossoming as the Republican national ticket's chief Kerry critic. Mr. Cheney chose the Rush Limbaugh radio show to allege that Mr. Clarke "wasn't in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff" and "may have had a grudge to bear" for not being in "a more prominent position."

But in his book, Mr. Clarke placed three aides in the White House Situation Room at the time of his brief conversation with Mr. Bush about Mr. Hussein and Iraq. The three have confirmed it took place.

Mr. Clarke quotes Mr. Bush as saying, "See if Saddam did it. See if he's linked in any way." When he assured the president that "al-Qaida did this," Mr. Clarke wrote, the president pressed him to "look for any shred," and repeated, "Look into Iraq, Saddam," and left the room.

The question is whether the effort to discredit Mr. Clarke will put out this fire. The attempt already is under way by Republicans in the 9/11 commission hearings.

At the same time, Democratic campaigners and antiwar activists will be working hard to fan the flames on an issue critical to Mr. Bush's credibility and his re-election.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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