Clarke's Political Bombshell

News Analysis By Chief Political Writer David Paul Kuhn

President Bush's former top counterterrorism adviser, Richard Clarke, testified Wednesday that, "By invading Iraq, the president of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism."

In testimony before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, Clarke steadfastly defended his recent book deeply disparaging President Bush's handling of the war on terror. He declared himself a Republican, responding to White House criticism that Clarke's condemnation was partisan.

Over the past two days of highly visible Capitol Hill hearings, Clarke's book, "Against all Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror," has been referenced more than possibly any other document. What is of little doubt is that the resonance of Clarke's book, as well as his testimony, is political, whether he intended it to be or not.

The war on terrorism is no longer the secure footing for Mr. Bush it appeared to be following the December 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein. Beyond Clarke's condemnation, notable Republicans like Sens. John McCain and Chuck Hagel have defended presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry on defense, just as the Bush campaign had been targeting the Massachusetts senator (and decorated war hero) by highlighting votes limiting defense budgets.

That, combined with the near daily deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and the recent terrorist attack in Madrid where more than 200 people died, has tarnished the Bush campaign's attempt to portray the president as a forceful commander in chief winning the war on terror.

Months of testimony by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, as it is formally called, climaxed over the past two days with top officials from both the Clinton and Bush administrations testifying publicly.

Expected to be the most politically heated of all testimony, Clarke spoke calmly, leaned forward on his elbows throughout, aware of the consequences of his words, as he answered panelists' questions. Yet his testimony was not limited to Mr. Bush.

He criticized both administrations and a decade of congressmen who along with the media "had taught" CIA leaders that "the use of covert action would blow up in their face."

Most problematic for the president has been Clarke's claim that Mr. Bush insisted, on the day after the Sept. 11 attacks, that he look into whether Iraq was responsible. This "incredulous" request, as Clarke put in his book, was made despite the fact that Clarke and other top security officials insisted that al Qaeda was solely responsible for the deaths of 2,976 Americans on 9/11.

For Clinton officials, the hearings have been a defense of legacy; for those in the Bush administration, it's about more than history. Indeed, beneath all their testimony is an ever-present threat of further terror attacks stateside.

In spite of the heated partisan debate over the significance of Clarke's book, officials' testimony as a whole has been surprisingly becoming of statesmen. There has been a collective understanding, bridging both Democratic and Republican White Houses, that no single blow could have definitively disabled al Qeada, nor likely prevented Sept. 11.

Whether the current Secretary of State Colin Powell or his predecessor Madeline Albright, the partisan blame game has been mostly without players – for those testifying, that is. Why the sanguine testimony has not devolved into a Bush vs. Clinton brawl is likely because officials in both administrations are culpable. The panelists essentially found that the CIA sat on its hands because, prior to Sept. 11, ranking officials felt neither Congress nor the American public would accept a full-scale military assault on al Qaeda.

One missed opportunity was a 1999 CIA sighting of Osama bin Laden at a "hunting camp" in Afghanistan. No action was taken. Why? Two words: "actionable intelligence" – a term repeatedly used by top officials for having unconfirmed espionage pinpointing a target. Officials were not confident that the '99 opportunity was confirmable.

The two days of testimony ostensibly absolved the Clinton administration of Republican criticism that the 1998 Tomahawk missile strike against a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant was intended to distract the public from the Monika Lewinsky scandal.

Yet since the attacks came only eight months after the transition of administrations in the White House, Clinton officials have found themselves on the defensive.

On Wednesday, Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger testified that, "There was never a situation where we were presented with a situation that bin Laden was here and we didn't take it, because of civilian causalities."

In the end, the panel will have to decide if the "CIA hedging" on strikes against al Qaeda was understandable or inexcusable. Then the commission will assign blame; likely, there will be enough to go around for both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

But Mr. Clinton is not running for reelection; Mr. Bush is, and any blame befalling his administration will clearly be detrimental to his candidacy. All presidential reelections are at their core judgments on the incumbent, for this reason, the Bush campaign has the most at stake.

On the radar of both political parties is the fact that the commission will issue its final report on July 26, coincidently the first day of the Democratic National Convention, and within weeks of when Kerry will likely announce his running mate.

The 10-member bipartisan commission was established by Congress to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the attacks; its conclusion meant to be apolitical.

Kerry has largely stayed out of the political fray over the Sept. 11 commission hearings. And with Clarke telling the panel that the Clinton administration had "no higher priority" than combating terrorists while the Bush administration made it "an important issue but not an urgent issue," why would Kerry speak up? The Democratic nominee has a Republican counterterrorism czar to fight that fight.

Apolitical criticism of such magnitude invariably has political implications. Kerry hopes so, at least.

By David Paul Kuhn