Commission report could tip presidential election

Bush's greatest strengths, honesty, anti-terrorism, might get skeptical look

9/11 Commission's Report

July 23, 2004|By David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis | David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a brief ceremony in the Rose Garden yesterday, President Bush accepted the report of the Sept. 11 commission from the panel's chairmen, praised their work, pledged to consider the recommendations, then set off to tend to his image as protector of the nation.

He had his picture taken at the White House with police and signed legislation allowing certain law enforcement officers to carry weapons when not on duty. Then Bush was off to Illinois, where he declared at a police training academy that he has forcefully defended the country against terror threats.

"Today, because we are on the offensive against terrorist networks, the American people are safer," Bush said. "But this does not mean that our nation is fully secure. In a vast, free society such as ours, there is no such thing as perfect security. And no matter how good our defenses are, a determined enemy can still strike us. Terrorists only need to be right once. We need to be right every single time."

More steps to take

Bush said he agreed with the commission that terrorists on Sept. 11 "were able to exploit deep institutional failings in our nation's defenses that developed over more than a decade." He added that "this report will help our country identify even more steps we can take to better defend America."

The twin appearances with police reflected an aggressive push by the president to inject himself into the news as a leader working tirelessly to protect citizens - on a day when Americans were learning much about how their government had failed to respond adequately to the terrorist threat prior to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The stakes for Bush, who opposed the formation of the commission for more than a year, could not be higher. Locked in a tight campaign battle with Democrat John Kerry, Bush has received higher marks for fighting terrorism than he has on other major issues. If voters lose confidence in Bush in that area - and polls show faith in him has faded already - the road to re-election might turn uphill.

Not to blame

Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, sought to deflect any suggestion that failings by the president allowed the Sept. 11 attacks to take place.

"Responsibility and blame for the attacks lies squarely with al-Qaida," he said. The threat from Osama bin Laden's network, he said, predated Bush and was "emerging and building for more than a decade."

Yesterday, Kerry urged quick action on the commission's recommendations.

"This report carries a simple message about our current state of security for every American who remembers that dark September day," he said. "We can do better. We must do better. And it's time to act - now."

Kerry campaign aides made clear they were eager to use the report's findings to question Bush's credibility but said they are steering clear of the question of blame for the attacks. Rather, they said, they hope to persuade Americans that the president is not the only leader who can fight a tough war against terrorism and that the Massachusetts senator has made proposals mirroring the commission's recommendations.

Even as more voters have lost confidence in Bush's ability to wage war in Iraq and to manage the economy, his strength has remained his approach to terrorism.

A poll released two days ago by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 54 percent of Americans approve of Bush's handling of terrorist threats. The number has remained stable for several months but is 10 to 15 points lower than it was last fall.

Several analysts said they do not think Bush will suffer severe political repercussions from the report, mostly because it does not implicate him personally in what the commission called a government-wide failure spanning two administrations.

Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University, said Kerry's campaign believes that Bush's political advantage on terrorism is no longer insurmountable. But he said the report is not likely to be "a winning issue for Democrats" because it did not show clear negligence by the president.

"That is what would have to be shown for this to draw a gusher of political blood," Lichtman said.

Steven Kull, executive director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, which is affiliated with the University of Maryland, College Park, said the report's scathing critique of the nation's intelligence services would not erode much confidence in Bush because most Americans do not think their government could have prevented the 9/11 attacks.

"Do people have this feeling of, `Oh my God, the government was asleep at the switch and had they not been asleep, this would not have happened'?" Kull said. "No."

Questions of honesty

He added that the commission's finding that there was contact between al-Qaida and Iraq but never evidence of a collaborative relationship could undercut Bush's credibility. It could call into question what many voters see as his greatest quality: plain-spoken honesty.

"This could hurt him if people begin to believe now that the intelligence just wasn't there, but that Bush really wanted to go to war so he made some insinuations," said Kull.

In a conference call with reporters organized by Kerry's campaign, Rep. Jane Harman of California, the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said, "The Bush administration remains in a deep state of denial about the fact that our intelligence community is broken."

"There has really been nothing except for pleasantries - `Gee, we welcome this recommendation,'" she said, adding that the administration "should be measured by whether it steps up to admit the failures, and comes forward with constructive ideas for how to fix them."

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