To Voters, Bush's Post-9/11 Record Trumps Pre-9/11
They call it "the ultimate fortress" - President Bush's
reputation for fighting terrorism - and, after Bush aides waged
an all-out defense against a rocket attack from former colleague
Richard Clarke, I'd say the fortress stands.
It's pockmarked, but it stands.
It was clear even before the Sept. 11, 2001, investigating commission
began its work that President Bush did not give terrorism sufficient
priority prior to al Qaeda's attack on the Twin Towers and the
Pentagon. Bush rarely, if ever, talked about the problem.
The commission's staff, Richard Clarke and still-loyal Bush aides
now have provided details of what was and wasn't done - planning
was conducted, but slowly and not at the highest level; the FBI
was not upgraded; and no attempts were made to capture or kill
Osama bin Laden.
But Clarke was unable to provide anything like "smoking
gun" proof of willful negligence on the part of the president
or his staff or compelling evidence that the Sept. 11 attacks
could have been prevented.
The closest he came was to contrast the behavior of the Bush
White House during June and July 2001 to that in the Clinton White
House in December 2000, when he said that Clinton National Security
Adviser Sandy Berger held daily meetings with the FBI, the CIA
and the attorney general in response to alerts that terrorists
were planning to attack the United States.
A bomber headed for the Los Angeles International Airport was
apprehended at the Canadian border. Clark said, "Now, contrast
that with what happened in the summer of 2001, when we had even
more clear indications that there was going to be an attack. Did
the president call for daily meetings of his team to try to stop
the attacks? Did [National Security Adviser] Condi Rice hold meetings
of her counterparts to try to stop the attacks? No."
And, yet, there's no evidence anywhere that the 2001 warnings
were specific enough to have prevented airliners from being used
as missiles. Bush was meeting daily with CIA Director George Tenet,
who said he was "setting his hair on fire" with worry
over an impending attack. There's no evidence that Bush was yawning.
And, as part of its defense against Clarke, the White House released
an e-mail that he wrote to Rice on Sept. 15, 2001, recounting
meetings that were held during a period of high alert.
"At the special meeting on 5 July were the FBI, Secret Service,
Federal Aviation Agency, Customs Coast Guard and Immigration.
We told them that we thought a spectacular Al Queda terrorist
attack was coming in the near future. We asked that they take
special measures to increase security and surveillance.
"Thus, the White House did insure that domestic law enforcement
(including FAA) knew that ... a major Al Queda attack was coming
and it could be in the U.S. ... and did ask that special measures
It seems to me that, in the absence of proof of negligence, what
counts politically is what President Bush did after 9/11. This
is something that citizens of the country have witnessed first-hand,
and they have been giving Bush high marks ever since.
They continue to do so. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll conducted
as Clarke was testifying showed that 52 percent of voters found
his accusations believable - and yet 65 percent still approve
of Bush's responses to 9/11.
That's because Bush was undeniably forceful - both in expressing
the country's grief and rage and in waging a military campaign
against Afghanistan that ousted the Taliban government and denied
sanctuary to al Qaeda.
Clarke and various Democrats, including presidential candidate
Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), have accused the White House of engaging
in vicious character attacks to discredit Clarke.
But Clarke, after all, has been vicious in attacking Bush. The
Bush response has been, in the main, factual.
On CBS' "60 Minutes," Clarke declared, "I find
it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on
the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism.
He ignored it ... for months, when maybe we could have done something
to stop 9/11. Maybe. We'll never know."
Besides making some petty observations that Clarke was trying
to sell a book, the White House released - and was entirely within
its rights to release - a background briefing that Clarke held
with reporters in August 2002 in which he defended White House
Contrary to a Time magazine assertion that the Bush administration
rejected Clinton administration anti-terrorism plans out of "animus,"
Clarke told the reporters that Bush had kept on Clinton officials
- notably, Clarke himself - and that Clinton never had actually
developed a full-blown "plan" to fight terror.
Questioned sharply by 9/11 commission members about the contrast
between the background transcript and his book, Clarke claimed
- in essence - that he'd "spun" reporters at the urging
of his White House superiors. The only alternative, he said, would
have been to resign. Surely, he could have simply declined.
The most damning single challenge to Clarke's credibility is
the fact that he urgently sought to stay on in the Bush administration
to be No. 2 man at the Department of Homeland Security.
Friends of Clarke's have told me that he was deeply bitter when
he was denied the job. Clearly, were he in that post today, his
book, "Against All Enemies," would never have been written.
In the process of attacking Bush, Clarke has extolled the Clinton
administration's record on terrorism, which he said had "top
priority." But the fact is that after repeated attacks on
U.S. targets - the World Trade Center, two U.S. embassies and
the USS Cole - Clinton responded only once, with a cruise missile
And, the record shows that, during the Clinton days, Clarke felt
Clinton did not do enough to fight terrorism, either.
In fact, he's right. Neither Clinton nor Bush actually waged
a "war on terror" before 9/11. But there's no question
that Bush is waging one now, and voters understand it.