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As probes mount, Bush has allies

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 5, 2004


President Bush faces a daunting accretion of investigations - topped by his creation this week of an independent commission on WMD intelligence - but he has a resource many of his embattled predecessors did not possess: a Congress controlled by his own party.

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The inquiries pose real risks to the president, especially with election-year attacks from Democrats mounting. Ongoing inquiries now cover the nation's vulnerability to the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001, the decision to go to war in Iraq, and the illegal outing of a CIA operative's name.

But in an era when the question "What did the president know and when did he know it?" has become commonplace, Bush has a political edge that others in the Oval Office have lacked.

Facing a hostile Congress, Presidents Nixon and Clinton watched a bungled burglary and a sex scandal morph into resignation and impeachment. President Reagan faced a tough Iran-Contra investigation on Capitol Hill. The Bush administration, by contrast, has been wielding at least some say in the timing and focus of investigations, and restraint on Capitol Hill can help preserve a his credibility, presidential experts say.

"Despite the increasingly contentious climate in Washington, the fact that the president's party controls both houses of Congress provides President Bush a much greater degree of insulation," says Richard Ben-Veniste, who was involved in the Watergate investigation and Whitewater (as chief counsel for Senate Democrats), and now serves on the 9/11 commission. President Clinton, by contrast, was tangled in "an endless series of investigations."

The willingness of the GOP Congress to limit the scope of their investigations to the gathering of prewar intelligence - and not to its possible political manipulation -has shielded Bush from potential damage.

Meanwhile, Bush is setting his own parameters for the new independent commission on WMD. The commission won't report until after the presidential election, for example. And while its scope will be expanded to include WMD intelligence regarding North Korea, Iran, and Libya, the focus will still be on intelligence, not its use by politicians.

But in the leak-prone world of Washington, this investigation and others create uncertainties for the White House at a time when polls suggest Bush is vulnerable in the fall election.

No matter how valid their basis turns out to be, investigations can eat deep into an administration's credibility.

The challenge is hardly unusual. Official investigations of presidential actions has been a constant since Watergate, amplified in recent years by a 24/7 news cycle and a climate of intense partisanship here.

The contrast between Bush and the previous administration, however, is striking. Mr. Clinton faced inquiries into alleged crimes, but which predated his election or savored of closeted intrigue: the Lewinsky affair, the Whitewater probe, and the firing of White House travel aides.

The investigations of the Bush administration relate to affairs of high state:

• A probe of 9/11 is focusing on what factors allowed the deadliest attack on America to occur.

• Two congressional investigations and at least four other probes within the Bush administration explore whether faulty intelligence on WMD led America to war in Iraq.

• A grand jury investigation into White House leaks that revealed the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame, thus possibly endangering the agent and other contacts.

In addition, Democrats are calling for the release of all documents that the White House used to calculate its cost estimates for the president's Medicare prescription drug legislation, which has jumped $134 billion since narrowly passing the Congress last November. Critics say the White House deliberately lowballed the initial estimate to win congressional support.