9/11 scrutiny hits Bush aura on terror

All week, the Bush team was on the defensive over charges that it made fighting terror a low priority.

Until now, it has been an article of faith that President Bush's stewardship of the nation right after 9/11 would help him win reelection. It would give this self-described "war president" an automatic measure of goodwill among many voters, shielding him from bad news about the economy and Iraq.

Now, after two days of testimony before the independent commission investigating 9/11, punctuated by harsh criticism from a former National Security Council counterterrorism chief, the Bush administration is on the defensive - and facing questions over whether 9/11 will present quite the political boon it had expected in November.

The campaign-year timing of the testimony allows the administration to cry politics. And many Bush voters will perceive the criticism that way, even though the sharpest critique comes from a career public servant, former counterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke, whose 30-year service spanned administrations of both parties.

Mr. Clarke alleged, in his testimony and in a new book, that Bush didn't make the Al Qaeda threat a priority before 9/11 and then allowed Iraq to divert attention from Al Qaeda after 9/11.

The two days of testimony, featuring top defense and diplomatic officials from both the Clinton and second Bush administrations, were marked as much by the nonpartisan agreement over the limits in combating terrorism as by the flashes of partisanship that Clarke's testimony brought out.

"My gut sense on this is that for Americans who are paying attention, they're paying attention to the half of it that they want to hear," says independent pollster John Zogby. "For those who hate or are not inclined favorably toward the president, this is fuel for more anger. For those who are angry at the Clintons and hence the Democrats and John Kerry, the same thing - this is fuel to say, well, it's all Bill Clinton's fault."

Still, even if public memory of this week's testimony fades by Nov. 2, it was not a positive week for the Bush White House, analysts say. Administration officials, including Vice President Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and press secretary Scott McClellan, were put on the defensive, often uttering identical phrases that showed the care taken in a coordinated response.

In one embarrassing exception, Cheney claimed Monday that Clarke had been "out of the loop" in the fight against terror, raising the obvious question of why a White House would not involve its counterrorism chief in major decisions.

On Wednesday, Ms. Rice stepped forward to correct the vice president, asserting that, indeed, Clarke "was in every meeting that was held on terrorism."

After two weeks of Republican offense against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator got the real vacation he wanted - a chance to sit back and watch the Bush White House squirm.

Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Center, says he believes the public was paying close attention to the 9/11 testimony this week, and that questions over one of Bush's strongest areas in polls - his handling of the war on terror - could be "potentially damaging."

"Over the long term, it may be less so, simply because this will be overshadowed, I think, by the commission's findings" on July 26, Mr. Doherty adds. "I think it's possible if not probable that the commission could give a more critical view of both administrations [Clinton and Bush] for failing to take the needed actions."

For now, though, the sight of Clarke, the former counterrorism coordinator, apologizing to and hugging the 9/11 victims' family members may be the most memorable moment of the week - allowing Democrats to make the contrast with the Bush White House's defensive crouch.

And if Tuesday's testimony was marked by a rare setting aside of partisan differences, Wednesday saw the gloves come off. Republican members of the 9/11 commission attacked Clarke's credibility, teeing off on a transcript the White House gave to Fox News of Clarke - speaking in 2002 as an unnamed administration official - defending the president's performance in fighting terrorism.

Clarke responds that he was asked by the White House to brief the press on what the administration was doing right on terrorism.

"Basically, the way it's lining up is Condi Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and the president's word against his," says GOP strategist Charlie Black. With some of the charges Clarke is making, he adds, "you can demonstrate whether he's right or they're right. By Monday or so, I don't think he'll have much credibility left."

Still, he expects that by next week Senator Kerry will be "citing Clarke in every speech. You watch."

The president, meanwhile, from his bully pulpit will continue to make the case that he's doing all he can to defend the country, says Rutgers University professor Ross Baker.

"Really, the course of reconstruction in Iraq will have a much greater impact than what Richard Clarke says," Professor Baker states. "People have short memories. And they're going to judge the candidates by their overall appraisal of them."

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