9/11 Panel: Partisan, Schmartisan

Sandy Murphy and Ted Binion
CBS
This article from TNR was written by Peter Beinart.

Republicans say they are dismayed by the partisanship of the 9/11 Commission. And, if you define partisanship as criticism of the Bush administration -- the working definition on much of the right -- they are exactly right. But, if you define partisanship the way it's traditionally understood -- as placing party interests above national ones -- then the 9/11 Commission hasn't been very partisan at all. And that's what really irks the GOP: They're dismayed that the 9/11 Commission isn't partisan enough. Because the less partisan the Commission is, the harder it is to discredit its findings.

So conservatives have tried to gin up Democratic bogeymen at every turn. They feasted on Democrat Richard Ben-Veniste's obnoxious questioning of Condoleezza Rice -- a genuine partisan moment! They obsessed over John Ashcroft's accusation against Commissioner (and former Clinton Deputy Attorney General) Jamie Gorelick -- a partisan face-off! They even tried appending the partisan attack-dog label to Democratic Commissioner Bob Kerrey, a difficult trick given that he famously backed the Iraq war and loathed Bill Clinton. Their purpose is clear: to turn the most important national security investigation of our time into a "Crossfire"-style he-said, she-said signifying nothing. Who says Republicans don't like relativism?

The problem is that the important he-said, she-said isn't between Republicans and Democrats. It's between the Bush administration and career CIA and FBI officials. In some cases, it's even between the Bush administration and itself. Consider a few examples.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE VERSUS THE CIA
The Bushies' first big problem with the 9/11 Commission came when the administration's former counterterrorism coordinator, Richard Clarke, said it ignored Al Qaeda despite grave warnings in 2001. Clarke -- a career official who had served under George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan -- was an unlikely Democratic partisan. But Republicans noted that he was more critical of Bush than of Clinton -- in other words, a partisan of the first order. And they tried mightily to drag the Kerry campaign into the fray -- suggesting that Clarke was close to Rand Beers, who left Bush's White House to join John Kerry's campaign.

Unfortunately for the Bushies, other counterterrorism officials corroborated Clarke. Deputy Director of the CIA John McLaughlin told the Commission that, in 2001, there was "a great tension ... between the new administration's need to understand these issues and his sense that this was a matter of great urgency." Two CIA counterterrorism officials said they were "so worried about an impending disaster" that they considered resigning to protest the Bush administration's lack of interest in Al Qaeda.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE VERSUS RICHARD ARMITAGE AND STEPHEN HADLEY
To combat Clarke's claim that the Bushies didn't accord terrorism the same priority it had enjoyed under the Clintonites, Rice said the administration spent 2001 developing a tough new game plan against Afghanistan -- one that "called for military options," including ground troops. But Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said no such military plan existed. And the Commission found "no evidence of new work on military capabilities or plans" before September 11. Rice also denounced the Clinton administration's strategy of trying to "just roll back Al Qaeda," which she contrasted with the Bush administration's efforts to "eliminate" it. But the distinction was lost on her deputy, Stephen Hadley, who, in a written statement in 2002 to the joint congressional September 11 inquiry, described the Bush administration's counterterrorism policy in exactly the terms Rice had derided: as an effort "to 'roll back' Al Qaeda."

JOHN ASHCROFT VERSUS FRED FIELDING
No one tried harder to turn the 9/11 Commission into a partisan slugfest than Ashcroft. On the eve of his testimony, he conveniently declassified a memo on law enforcement cooperation that Gorelick had written as deputy attorney general. And he accused the Clinton administration of lacking the guts to try to kill -- as opposed to merely capture -- Osama bin Laden. How, exactly, Ashcroft squared this analysis with the Clinton administration's 1998 decision to lob missiles at bin Laden's Afghanistan camp, the attorney general didn't explain. But his assertion was quickly disputed by Commissioner Fred Fielding, who said, "We have received recent information in regard to MONs [Memoranda of Notification from the President], which I believe may alter your evaluation." Fielding, alas for Ashcroft, is a Republican.

JOHN ASHCROFT VERSUS THE FBI
But, try as he might to keep the spotlight on Bushies versus Clintonites, Ashcroft kept confronting pesky criticism from the FBI. Former Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard said that, after two briefings on terrorism in the summer of 2001, Ashcroft "told him he did not want to hear this information anymore," according to a Commission staff report. Pickard also said Ashcroft turned down his appeal for more FBI counterterrorism funding; Pickard received the formal rejection on September 12, 2001. Ashcroft angrily denied Pickard's claims. Unfortunately for him, then- FBI Counterterrorism Division Assistant Director Dale Watson told a similar story, recounting to the Commission that, when Ashcroft's Justice Department issued a budget memo in May 2001 omitting terrorism from its list of priorities, "he almost fell out of his chair." Just in case Watson, too, is a stealth Democratic operative, a Commission staff report itself says, "The FBI's new counterterrorism strategy was not a focus of the Justice Department in 2001."

In a March 27 column, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks criticized the partisanship that has accompanied the 9/11 Commission and suggested that Americans focus on the Commission's staff reports instead. Brooks is absolutely right. I suspect the Bush administration, however, may disagree.

Peter Beinart is the editor of TNR.

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