Poisoned by politics

April 01, 2004|By Linda Chavez

WASHINGTON -- The president's decision to send National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify publicly, under oath, before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States is not likely to quell the furor sparked by former White House counterterrorism expert Richard A. Clarke's testimony before the panel last week.

Mr. Clarke's testimony, which accused President Bush of ignoring the terrorist threat to this nation prior to 9/11, has so politicized and poisoned the commission's work, it is doubtful it can be salvaged. Thanks to Mr. Clarke, the commission has become just another forum for partisan bickering, score-settling and finger-pointing.

Mr. Clarke's motives may never be fully known. Certainly the desire to sell copies of his new book, Against All Enemies, affected the tone of his testimony, which should go down as one of the most stunning displays of hubris in the history of Washington political melodrama. In a grandiose display of self-importance, Mr. Clarke opened his testimony by apologizing to the victims of the terrorist attacks. As Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said later, "Mr. Clarke's theatrical apology on behalf of the nation was not his right, his privilege or his responsibility."

Mr. Clarke made clear that at least one of his motives for attacking President Bush was his vehement disagreement over the war in Iraq. In answer to a question about why he hadn't raised some of his concerns earlier, he said, disingenuously, "In the 15 hours of [previous] testimony, no one asked me what I thought about the president's invasion of Iraq.

"And the reason I am strident in my criticism of the president of the United States is because by invading Iraq -- something I was not asked about by the commission, it's something I chose to write about a lot in the book -- by invading Iraq, the president of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism."

Most of all, Mr. Clarke seemed motivated by a messiah complex. He had the familiar air of a man who believes he is smarter and better than all the fools under whom he's labored for decades -- and now, finally, the world was about to grant him the recognition he deserved.

But Mr. Clarke isn't really the issue. His motives, the inconsistencies in what he has said and done, even his undeniable arrogance, aren't the real problem, which lies with the commission itself. By inviting Mr. Clarke -- whose timing, if nothing else, was suspect -- to deliver his jeremiad in open session, the commission lost all pretense of serious inquiry.

From the moment its members were named, this commission labored under a cloud of suspicion. For the most part, commission members were not chosen because of their national security expertise, and some of the members have reputations for fierce partisanship, not to mention vested interests in the outcome of the inquiry.

Richard Ben-Veniste, former Democratic counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee investigating former President Bill Clinton and a veteran of the Watergate inquiry that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation, has a well-earned reputation as a partisan attack dog. Jamie S. Gorelick served as both the deputy attorney general and the general counsel of the Defense Department during the Clinton administration, roles that put her in the line of fire with respect to questions about the Clinton administration's antiterrorism policies.

Nor are some of the Republican members any more qualified or less actively partisan. Fred F. Fielding may be good at keeping secrets -- Mr. Bush entrusted him with vetting Cabinet officers for the current administration, and he served as White House counsel in the Reagan administration -- but his foreign policy credentials are pretty thin. Former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson, too, has little background in intelligence, national security or foreign affairs -- and both Mr. Fielding and Mr. Thompson are unquestionably loyal Republicans.

You can go down the commission list on both sides of the partisan divide, and with the possible exception of former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, most of these members seem to be either inexperienced in the areas they are examining or too political.

It's easy to say that these members can put aside partisanship in the national interest, but it is a great deal more difficult to do. This commission should have been rigorously nonpartisan. It is too late to fix now; the damage has already been done. The real tragedy is that we may never learn the necessary lessons from our past intelligence and policy failures to prevent future ones from occurring -- and costing American lives.

Linda Chavez's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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