Politicizing the 9/11 probe

March 26, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The riveting two days of hearings before the 9/11 commission were supposed to be nonpartisan, but the explosive testimony of former White House chief counterterrorism expert Richard A. Clarke turned them into an undisguised political battlefield.

In his testimony as well as in his just-published book on the inner workings of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations in fighting the war on terrorism, Mr. Clarke was sharply critical of both. But on balance he came down much harder on the Republican incumbent.

Mr. Clarke contended that Mr. Bush demonstrated much less urgency about the terrorist threat in the months between his inauguration and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks than Mr. Clinton had shown in his second term. Most damaging was Mr. Clarke's charge that a detailed plan for addressing the al-Qaida threat was ready for Mr. Bush's consideration on his taking office but that it didn't get high-level attention until a week before the attacks. In effect, he said it was short-stopped by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

The commission was unable to pursue the matter publicly because Ms. Rice declined to appear. She declined on the questionable White House argument that, as a member of Mr. Bush's staff who was not confirmed by the Senate, she could not be so required. This rationale did not prevent Ms. Rice, however, from calling in reporters afterward to challenge Mr. Clarke's testimony.

The intended scope of the hearings did not extend to the president's subsequent decision to invade Iraq. But some commission members, by injecting Mr. Clarke's book into the discussion, gave him the opportunity to reiterate his charge in it that Mr. Bush was more focused on Iraq after 9/11 than on al-Qaida, to the detriment of the broader war on terrorism.

Mr. Clarke's book, in triggering an all-out White House assault on the views and integrity of its former terrorism expert, sent a signal to at least three of the five Republicans on the commission to accuse Mr. Clarke of crass self-promotion and dishonesty.

John F. Lehman, a Republican former secretary of the Navy, insultingly asked Mr. Clarke whether his sharp criticism of Mr. Bush in the book might have been the work of his editor and publicist. Contradictions in it with his private commission testimony, Mr. Lehman said, had created a "credibility problem," and "I'd hate to see you [being seen as] ... an active partisan selling a book."

Former Republican Gov. James R. Thompson of Illinois also jumped on Mr. Clarke for what he said were contradictions between criticisms of Mr. Bush in the book and earlier public statements of support on fighting terrorism. He challenged Mr. Clarke's "standard of candor and morality."

The Republican attacks, in turn, inspired several Democratic commission members to rally to Mr. Clarke's defense, posing questions that enabled Mr. Clarke to put his responses in the most favorable light. Former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who had been sharply critical of all witnesses from the administrations of both parties, told Mr. Clarke that "everything that you've said today and done has not damaged my view of your integrity."

Mr. Thompson, after his barrage against Mr. Clarke, blithely observed that in all the deliberations and decisions of the 9/11 commission to date, not a single partisan "vote" had been cast. But despite the diligent efforts of the commission chairman, former Republican Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, to avoid partisanship, the White House attacks on Mr. Clarke frustrated Mr. Kean's objective.

The reaction on both sides to Mr. Clarke's appearance was unfortunate because the commission staff had turned out a well-balanced report that documented shortcomings in counterterrorism in both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

But Mr. Clinton is now a private citizen who only has to be concerned about the resultant damage to his legacy. Mr. Bush is campaigning for re-election using his record as a wartime president as his strongest argument.

The spectacle of his former top terrorist hunter charging him with a lack of urgency before the 9/11 attacks, as well as damaging the war on terrorism with his invasion of Iraq, explains the fierce assault on Mr. Clarke from the White House and from the Republican commissioners.

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

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