The best defense is a good offense

The White House fires back at Democrats -- singling out Hillary Clinton -- while trying to limit further inquiries.


Anthony York
May 19, 2002 2:49AM (UTC)

The White House came out swinging Friday, accusing Democrats of insinuating that President Bush could and should have done more to prevent the attacks of Sept. 11.

At a Rose Garden ceremony for the Air Force Academy football team, Bush called Washington "a kind of place where second-guessing has become second nature. The American people know this about me and my national security team and my administration: Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning, I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people."

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White House spokesman Ari Fleischer repeated the "second-guessing" line at an afternoon press conference. But Fleischer went a step further, specifically accusing Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., of being among the most guilty of political opportunists on the other side of the aisle. The White House's decision to call out Clinton -- whose mere name still makes partisan Republicans' skin crawl -- is perhaps the clearest sign of just how political this Sept. 11 finger-pointing has become.

"When there was a suggestion that Bush knew about this, in print, Bush knew about 9/11, Mayor Bloomberg of New York said that suggestion was ridiculous," Fleischer said. "I have to say with disappointment that Mrs. Clinton, having seen that same headline, did not call the White House, did not ask if it was accurate or not. Instead, she immediately went to the floor of the Senate, and I'm sorry to say that she followed that headline and divided."

In remarks on the Senate floor Thursday, Clinton spoke about the New York Post's sensationalist headline "Bush Knew!"

"The president knew what?" Clinton asked Thursday. "My constituents would like to know the answer to that and many other questions, not to blame the president or any other American but just to know, to learn from experience, to do all we can today to ensure that a 9/11 never happens again."

"This should not be made into something political, because it is truly a matter of our national security," Clinton said in New York Friday. "On behalf of my constituents and my colleagues, we have a responsibility to ask for information. And I think that it is not only appropriate, but necessary. You know, nobody is more entitled to answers to some of these questions than the people of New York. And I take that responsibility very, very seriously."

As to the assertion that Clinton did not contact the White House, Clinton spokesman Jim Kennedy said his boss spent the afternoon in a briefing with Bush's National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, and had a "very good idea where the administration was coming from."

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The White House's line of attack is similar to the strategy the Bush team mastered during the presidential campaign -- taking thinly veiled partisan jabs while trying to claim an apolitical high ground.

For example, when Fleischer was asked about a 1999 Library of Congress report -- which states, "Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al-Qaida's Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives (C-4 and semtex) into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the White House" -- he used it as an opportunity to include Congress and the Clinton administration in any blame for ignoring warning signs leading up to Sept. 11. Saying the report "was available in 1999 to members of Congress, the previous administration," Fleischer concluded that "It existed in some form which did not come to the attention of this administration when we took office on Jan. 20. And I think what it shows is this information that was out there did not raise enough alarms with anybody."

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Fleischer cited comments Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, made in July 2001 when she told CNN, "Intelligence staff have told me that there is a major probability of a terrorist incident within the next three months."

"Clearly, if Sen. Feinstein, a Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, was aware of this, the question arises, 'What did the Democrats know and why weren't they talking to each other?'" Fleischer said.

Feinstein was not amused. "I am very surprised by the tone of the comments by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer regarding concerns I raised last summer about a possible terrorist attack on our nation," she said Friday. Feinstein said she was so concerned about an imminent terrorist attack "that I contacted Vice President Cheney's office that same month to urge that he restructure our counterterrorism and homeland defense programs to ensure better accountability and prevent important intelligence information from slipping through the cracks." The White House, she said, did not honor her request.

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Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, blamed both sides for allowing the political rhetoric to heat up. "The president's loyal Republicans on Capitol Hill quickly painted it as a partisan attack to try to diminish any criticism of the White House," he said. "But I just think frankly that some of my Democratic colleagues are on the wrong track here."

He maintained, however, that Fleischer continues to be less than truthful by contending that Congress was given the same intelligence information the president received on Aug. 6. "That's just not true, and he ought to know better," Durbin said.

The White House counteroffensive began last night with Vice President Dick Cheney's comments at a New York fundraiser at the home of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

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"[Democrats] need to be very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions that were made by some today that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the tragic attacks of 9/11," Cheney said. "Such commentary is thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war."

Even Laura Bush got into the act, releasing a statement from Budapest, Hungary, to defend her husband's honor. "I know my husband. And all Americans know how he has acted in Afghanistan and in the war with terror. I think, really, we need to put this in perspective and I think it's sad to prey upon the emotions of people as if there were something we could have done to stop" the attacks, she said.

In an interview with CBS Friday, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt denied Democrats were trying to blame Bush for not doing enough to stop the attacks, or trying to score political points with the issue. "That's just not what's happening here," Gephardt said. "We have a duty and responsibility to keep the American [people] safe. Obviously, that didn't happen on Sept. 11. We've got to do a better job in the future, and with this information, finding out what happened at the CIA, the FBI, in the White House, maybe we can do a better job in the future."

Supporters of a proposal by Sens. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., to have an outside investigative commission look into the events of Sept. 11, including Gephardt, said the events of the last two days simply highlight the need for further inquiry.

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According to Leslie Phillips, spokeswoman for the Senate Governmental Affairs committee, the commission would be composed of no elected officials, and members of each political party would be equally represented. She cited "plenty of precedent" for such independent inquiries, including investigations into the attack on Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, the attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000.

Fleischer bristled at the topic, and -- just moments before attacking Hillary Clinton -- seemed to appropriate a complaint straight from the Clinton White House, saying the Bush administration worried that the inquiry would turn into "a fishing expedition or another endless waste of taxpayer money in an open-ended congressional investigation." Fleischer said the White House would limit its support to the investigations underway by the House and Senate intelligence committees. Other prominent congressmen from both parties agreed.

"Some people say it is a justification to start a whole new series of investigations. It might be a good idea to let us finish our investigation," said Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., and House Intelligence Committee chairman. "We have both the Senate and the House, and both parties involved in it, and a lot of professional staff and a lot of professional people, the full cooperation of the White House."

Durbin said he is considering support for the independent commission, but is inclined to agree with Goss. "I wonder if it's going to duplicate what we're doing, slow down the process even more," he said. "Because this is the intelligence committee and we do have security clearances, we may get a lot more information than any independent commission is going to come up with."

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But Durbin did call on the White House to release the "Phoenix memo," which FBI agents in Arizona sent to Washington to call attention to possible terrorist infiltration in flight schools. Durbin called the memo "explosive," and the clearest illustration of the "total breakdown on the part of the FBI."

FBI director Robert Mueller and the White House oppose making the memo public, but, Durbin said, "The pressure's going to build."


Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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