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Clarke saga fraught with political peril for Bush

Week Two of the Richard Clarke saga began with a bang Sunday, as the former White House counterterrorism chief contended on national television that the Bush White House is conducting a “taxpayer-paid character assassination campaign” to wreck his reputation.

And regardless of whether that is true – the Bush team says it is merely defending itself from an unfair attack – the reality is that the Clarke imbroglio has already penetrated the public consciousness; that it will not fade any time soon; and that it threatens to sow doubt among swing voters about President Bush’s credentials as a war leader.

There are two or more sides to most stories, particularly inside the Washington bureaucracy. But Clarke’s core allegation – that the President “ignored” the terrorism threat, despite repeated warnings, before Sept. 11 – is potentially explosive for a number of reasons:

Clarke hits Bush from the right, not the left. Most Bush critics tend to be liberals and Democrats. This Bush critic, a national security hard-liner for decades, cut his teeth on terrorism policy as an aide to Ronald Reagan. And on television Sunday, he brandished a handwritten note from Bush – sent to Clarke when he retired last year – praising him for having “served the nation with distinction and honor.”

Clarke’s allegations, contained in his new book and amplified on TV talk shows and in sworn testimony before the Sept. 11 commission, are distracting voters from the message of the Bush campaign’s current TV ad – that the president offers “steady leadership in times of change.”

Although Clarke said under oath last week that he seeks no position in a John Kerry administration, the inescapable truth is that every day he is out there contending that Bush was soft on Al-Qaeda, that Bush’s greatest perceived strength is really his prime weakness, the Kerry campaign and the Democrats do not need to spend a dime on the issue.

The Clarke story will stay alive because the Sept. 11 commission will stay in business until midsummer. It has yet to meet with Bush (who wants to limit his time to a single hour), and it wants to publicly quiz National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice under oath. (Bush says no to that – an act of refusal that Bush-friendly commissioner John Lehman on Sunday called “a political blunder of the first order” because it creates the impression that the White House has something to hide.)

Rice, quizzed Sunday night on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” said although her refusal to testify publicly is a matter of principle, she wants people to know that Clarke’s allegations are wrong: “Of course (terrorism) was an urgent problem (before Sept. 11). I’d like to know what more could have been done.”

Most Americans, already polarized, appear to be treating the Clarke affair in predictable fashion: The Bush bashers view him as the answer to their prayers, and the Bush loyalists view him as an opportunist who is out to make a buck on a book. What really matters is the reaction among swing voters – the independents who have the potential to sway close elections. And the evidence thus far is that Clarke has inflicted some short-term political damage on his former boss.

A barometer is a poll conducted by Fox News last week. Among surveyed independent voters, 55 percent said that Clarke was very or somewhat believable; 33 percent said otherwise. (Fox also found that 65 percent of all Americans still praise Bush as a war leader after Sept. 11. Sunday morning, Fox ran that statistic on the “crawl” at the bottom of the screen. But it did not run the numbers that found Clarke credible among independents.)

On the credibility front, however, one problem for the White House thus far is that its response to Clarke may have merely confused people. At first, Vice President Dick Cheney told Rush Limbaugh last week that Clarke’s charges were not important because he had been “out of the loop.” Limbaugh immediately responded, “Well, now that explains a lot.”

Actually, it explained nothing, because – as Rice later pointed out, contradicting Cheney – Clarke was still the counterterrorism czar when the terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001.

The White House also questioned Clarke’s credibility for writing that on Sept. 12, 2001, he was pulled aside by Bush and told to find any possible link between the attacks and Saddam Hussein. The White House insisted that such an encounter never happened. Then, after several news outlets produced eyewitnesses, the White House backed off.

And now we are heading into a period when declassified documents might be wielded as political weapons.

Some Capitol Hill Republicans want to declassify testimony that Clarke gave in 2002 to a joint congressional inquiry on Sept. 11; they suggest that Clarke may have given rosier testimony about Bush’s antiterrorism efforts back in 2002, thereby impeaching his credibility now.

On Sunday, Clarke said that move would be fine with him, as long as everything else is declassified – including his Jan. 25, 2001, memo urging an antiterrorism action plan, which he says Rice essentially buried until Sept. 4, 2001.

On “60 Minutes,” Rice was also confronted with a remark that Bush himself made to journalist Bob Woodward in the 2002 book Bush at War. Bush told Woodward that before Sept. 11, “I was not on point (about Al-Qaeda). … I didn’t feel that sense of urgency.”

Asked about this, Rice stood firm, “The administration took seriously the threat.”