With her credibility at risk, Rice striking back at critics

Bush adviser leads charge against ex-aide Clarke

March 28, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - For three years at the pinnacle of power, Condoleezza Rice has been a picture of steely self-confidence and a symbol of what brains, grit and poise can achieve in a country where her African-American ancestors, as she has said, were considered "three-fifths of a man."

Now, having served as President Bush's close friend, confidante and adviser through two wars, while leading a revamping of U.S. foreign policy, Rice, 49, finds her credibility and competence under fire in a politically charged public duel with a former White House counterterrorism chief.

For a few moments last week, flashes of anger pierced Rice's famously cool demeanor. She was responding to accusations by the former aide, Richard A. Clarke, that she and Bush largely ignored the al-Qaida threat before Sept. 11 and that Rice had once even appeared not to have heard of al-Qaida.

"I find it peculiar that Dick Clarke is sitting there reading my body language," she told TV network correspondents. "I didn't know he was good at that, too."

Tonight, she will appear on the same TV venue that first aired Clarke's attack - CBS' 60 Minutes - to tell the story that White House lawyers have barred her from giving publicly under oath to the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

Rice's high-profile response reflects the White House's fear that Clarke's blistering charges, some of them buttressed by the commission staff reports, have struck at the heart of Bush's re-election campaign. Most polls now show him dead even with his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry.

Campaigning as a self-described "war president," Bush is trying to capitalize on the one area where he consistently outpolls Kerry: his leadership in combating global terrorism.

Rice may have calculated that she has little choice but to engage Clarke in a messy public brawl to defend herself. But, her decision to join a partisan effort to discredit Clarke is unusual for a White House national security adviser, and it has drawn further criticism of Rice herself.

"The vituperation coming out of the administration and out of Condoleezza Rice herself directed against Dick Clarke speaks very poorly for the administration," Vincent Cannistraro, who once led the CIA's counterterrorism center, said in a radio interview yesterday.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has made clear he wants no part of any anti-Clarke campaign. While observing that Clarke's best-selling book is "not the complete story," Powell suggested in an interview on PBS' NewsHour that aired Friday night that the former White House official had "served his nation very, very well" and was "an expert in these matters."

But unlike Powell, Rice has never shrunk from political debate. She served as a foreign policy spokesman, as well as adviser, for Bush during the 2000 race, forming a relationship of trust with him that has since made her almost a member of the first family.

`Quite personal'

The White House declined to make Rice available to be interviewed for this article. But it's clear that her duel with Clarke goes beyond politics.

"It's become quite personal," a senior administration said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In a CNN interview with Larry King last week, the official noted, Clarke all but held Rice responsible for failing to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.

On the program, Clarke had said, "If Condi Rice had been doing her job ... if she had a hands-on attitude to being national security adviser," then vital bits of information would have been "shaken out" from the CIA and FBI that, taken together, would have pointed to the catastrophe.

For Rice's reputation, the stakes are huge. Born in Jim Crow-era Alabama, she has acquired almost legendary status as an American success story by dint of her drive and support from a family that valued education, accomplishment and religious faith.

A lifelong perfectionist, Rice excelled at figure skating and as a pianist before pursuing an academic career specializing in the former Soviet Union. As a protegee of Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush, she went to work on his staff and helped guide America's response to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Before joining the George W. Bush campaign, she was the youngest provost in Stanford University history. She's expected to leave the White House at the end of Bush's term and return to the university, but she is widely mentioned as a potential Republican candidate for political office.

Other critics have joined Clarke in saying that Rice's training left her ill-prepared for the threat posed by Islamic terrorism. Schooled during the Cold War on the importance of great-power relationships and rivalries, they say, she became an academic specialist on the Soviet Union. Critics say she and others on the Bush team may not have grasped the danger of a militant network that flourished outside any nation's control.

Rice rejects the charge that her policy background was too narrow.

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