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Gore: Bush Attacks Civil Liberties

Democrat Al Gore, criticizing President Bush as he tests the waters for another possible presidential bid, accused the administration Thursday of an "attack on civil liberties" and ignoring signs that Osama bin Laden had been planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

It was the former vice president's second scathing attack on Mr. Bush in a week.

Speaking at a Democratic fund-raising breakfast in Wilmington, Del., Gore took issue with the administration's handling of intelligence information prior to the Sept. 11 attacks and for its treatment of some terrorism suspects since then.

"The warnings were there" before the attacks, Gore said. He asserted that Bush's Justice Department had devoted more time and agents to investigating a suspected brothel in New Orleans than to monitoring bin Laden and his al Qaeda network.

"Where is the sense of priorities?" asked Gore.

On Monday, in San Francisco, he accused Mr. Bush of squandering the international goodwill that the United States had accumulated in the aftermath of the terror attacks by his increasingly hard line on Iraq.

Gore, who was narrowly defeated by Mr. Bush in 2000, challenged both the wisdom of targeting Saddam Hussein at this time and the president's suggestions of unilateral U.S. action should he fail to win United Nations backing.

The strong words of the San Francisco speech — a rare direct challenge of the popular president's conduct of the war on terrorism — caught some Democrats by surprise. But analysts suggested it also emboldened others to speak out, and may have helped pave the way for harsh criticism of Mr. Bush on Wednesday by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

The vice president's activity was widely seen as an attempt to position himself for another run at the presidency in 2004 — and to set himself apart from Mr. Bush as well as other would-be Democratic contenders — ahead of the presidential primary-election season.

"Al Gore is stepping up his political activity in a number of ways by speaking out and traveling across the country to help raise resources for Democrats in the 2002 election," said Jano Cabrera, a Gore spokesman. Gore plans to give another strongly worded policy speech in the coming days, though the exact topic and timing have not been announced.

Gore's Thursday comments came at a fund-raising breakfast for Delaware attorney general candidate Carl Schnee.

Gore said "highly questionable" decisions are being made in the criminal justice system under Attorney General John Ashcroft.

"What's going on nationally, with the attack on civil liberties, with American citizens in some cases just disappearing without right to counsel, without access to a lawyer, I think that is disgraceful," he said.

"I think we need to stand up for our principles in this country and stand up for what this nation represents, even as we face the terrible dangers that we have to confront in the world today," he added.

Gore also decried any efforts to portray Democratic critics of the administration's homeland security plans and possible war with Iraq as unpatriotic or unconcerned about national security.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's vice presidential running mate two years ago, has taken issue with some of Gore's earlier comments that targeting Saddam could damage the war on terrorism.

But he said Thursday on CNN that he considered Gore's criticism of Bush's national security policies "definitely responsible."

He said of Gore, "He's got great credibility on national security matters. He was vice president for eight years, making these kinds of decisions. I think his voice is important to be heard."

Lieberman is exploring a potential presidential bid himself, although has said that he won't run if Gore does. Gore has said he'll make up his mind by December.

Analysts saw Gore's tactic as maneuvering for position in such a race.

"He has gotten out in front of all the other Democrats, even those who have offered some criticism of Bush," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. Sabato said that Gore is seeking to distinguish himself as "the peace candidate," which can help particularly in Iowa — the first presidential caucus and home to a considerable number of anti-war Democrats.

"This is a nomination strategy," Sabato said.