Clarke, Watergate Echoes Prompt Rare Bush Reversal

Tuesday’s White House decision to permit National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify publicly under oath before the so-called 9/11 Commission marks an unusual reversal by an administration that has fiercely resisted taking any moves that suggests it is capable of making mistakes.

It also signals recognition by President George W. Bush’s political handlers that last week’s testimony before the commission by the administration’s former senior counter-terrorism official, Richard Clarke – and, even more, its own ferocious efforts to discredit Clarke – have inflicted serious damage to Bush’s reelection campaign.

So ferocious were the administration’s attacks on Clarke that more than one commentator was moved by the end of last week to compare the tactics to those of former President Richard Nixon, whose downfall 30 years ago in the Watergate scandal was prompted by “dirty tricks” against his real or suspected foes.

“This administration’s reliance on smear tactics is unprecedented in modern U.S. politics – even compared with Nixon’s,” noted New York Times columnist Paul Krugman on Tuesday in an article that quoted John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, who himself has just published a book on the Bush administration titled, Worse Than Watergate.

Clarke, whose own book, Against All Enemies, elaborates on the 15 hours of testimony he has delivered to the commission that was set up to investigate the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, has come to be regarded by the administration as a particularly dangerous enemy.

A career civil servant who coordinated counter-terrorism on the White House National Security Council (NSC) staff from 1992, when Bush’s father was in power, until the eve of the Iraq War in February 2003, Clarke is the first high-level insider to attack Bush’s campaign pose as the leader in the war on terrorism as hollow.

On the CBS show “60 Minutes,” the most watched public-affairs network television program in the country, he said Bush did “a terrible job” pursuing terrorists.

Specifically, and of special interest to the 9/11 Commission, Clarke said the Bush administration completely failed to respond to intelligence and his own urgings through the summer of 2001 that the al-Qaeda terrorist group of Osama bin Laden was planning a major attack on US targets.

This was a marked contrast to the Clinton administration, Clarke added, where he had the authority spur key agency chiefs to heighten their vigilance whenever intelligence “chatter” indicated an imminent attack, as in the December 1999 “Millennium Plot” to attack the Los Angeles Airport and other targets.

That scheme was successfully broken up when border agents in Washington State arrested an Algerian terrorist trying to enter the United States from Canada.

And, instead of pursuing al-Qaeda after the ouster of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in November 2001, according to Clarke, the administration began preparing its attack on Iraq, which he insisted had nothing to do with al-Qaeda. In doing so, the administration diverted key intelligence and military resources, including highly specialized intelligence officers, from Afghanistan to the Iraq theater.

“By invading Iraq, the president of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism,” Clarke told the commission last week, arguing that not only did it make the pursuit of al-Qaeda more difficult, but also made the group’s anti-U.S. propaganda more credible to the Islamic world.

Clarke also said Bush had personally pressed him to find a connection between former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and 9/11 shortly after the attacks, even though Clarke assured him there was none.

The major points of Clarke’s critique have been made before, and, indeed, little of what he said was surprising for the policy cognoscenti who have followed the debate over the war on terrorism.

But the combination of Clarke himself as a 30-year veteran hard-liner of the national-security bureaucracy who had served in high positions in Republican and Democratic administrations alike, the “60 Minutes” forum in which he appeared and the timing of his appearance in the opening stages of a political campaign in which Bush is running primarily as a “wartime president” guaranteed a major impact.

The White House and its allies in the media responded with all guns blazing. Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, depicted Clarke as a disgruntled staffer who had been passed over for promotion and was in any case “out of the loop,” while White House spokesman Scott McClellan charged that Clarke was “grandstand(ing)” to sell his book and or gain a post in a future administration headed by presumptive Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry.

Clarke’s “best buddy,” noted McClellan, was Rand Beers, Kerry’s coordinator for national security issues, who had succeeded Clarke in the NSC post only to resign in March 2003, to protest the Iraq War’s impact on the anti-al-Qaeda campaign.

On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist unleashed a furious attack on the floor of the Senate, accusing Clarke of “profiteering” and suggesting he had committed perjury in his commission testimony which, according to Frist, was at odds with the praise he had heaped on the administration in classified testimony to Congress two years before.

But the administration’s most ubiquitous assailant was Rice, Clarke’s former boss, who not only produced a column in the Washington Post just a few hours after “60 Minutes” was broadcast defending the administration’s pre-9/11 performance, but who was also interviewed on “60 Minutes” to rebut Clarke the following Sunday.

In between, she appeared on virtually every other major national news program, making her omnipresence a required joke on late-night talk shows.

The campaign to discredit Clarke, which was widely decried by major newspapers and even some prominent Republicans, was partly successful – the latest polls indicate that some 50 percent of respondents believe his disclosures were motivated by personal or political reasons.

But at the same time, they also made the book an instant bestseller and Clarke, who had long kept to the bureaucratic shadows, a very prominent figure. By the end of last week, a whopping 89 percent of the public said they had heard of him; 42 percent said they had heard “a lot” about him.

Moreover, his charges appear to have further dented Bush’s campaign image. While the Bush-Kerry race remains extremely tight, Newsweek found a decline in the percentage of voters who approve of the president’s handling of terrorism, from 65 percent just five weeks ago to 57 percent last weekend, and a rise in those who disapprove, from 28 percent to 38 percent.

It also found a rise in the same period in the percentage of voters who believe Iraq was a “distraction” from the war on terrorism, from 42 percent to 47 percent.

Meanwhile, Rice’s accessibility to the media made a mockery of the White House’s insistence that she should not testify publicly and under oath before the 9/11 Commission itself. (She has voluntarily given four hours of unsworn testimony to specific commission members to date.)

Traditionally, national security advisers have not been required to testify before Congress (although her predecessor, Sandy Berger, did so twice) under a doctrine of “executive privilege,” the notion that the president should have some close advisers who can give policy advice on an entirely confidential basis.

The administration has insisted that the exemption should apply to the commission as well because it was created by an act of Congress.

But with Rice appearing almost everywhere except before the commission, that position became increasingly politically untenable, and on Tuesday, the White House relented, saying Rice could testify on the understanding that she could not be recalled later in case she left unresolved key discrepancies between her testimony and Clarke’s.

Rice now faces a difficult task, because previous unsworn public statements about Clarke’s charges, including his encounter with Bush after 9/11 and even his actual status within the White House, have subsequently been contradicted by other senior administration officials.

During her private testimony to the commission last month, she even asked to revise a statement she made publicly on several occasions during 2002 and 2003.

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.