Wednesday's must-reads

By Geraldine Sealey
Published March 24, 2004 2:35PM (EST)

Bush told of al-Qaida threat
In a report prepared by the 9/11 commission for today's public hearing, the panel said the CIA told President Bush and his senior officials before they took office that Osama bin Laden was one of the gravest threats to the United States, according to a Reuters report from the hearing.

"'President-elect Bush asked whether killing bin Laden would end the problem,' and was told by top CIA officials that it would have an impact but not stop the threat  During the summer of 2001 the volume of intelligence about threats grew alarming. 'By late July, there were indications of multiple, possibly catastrophic, terrorist attacks being planned against American interests overseas,' the national commission's staff report said  During this period, some CIA officials expressed frustration at the pace of policymaking, the report said. Tenet's deputy, John McLaughlin, 'told us he felt a great tension -- especially in June and July 2001 -- between the new administration's need to understand these issues and his sense that this was a matter of great urgency,' the report said."

CIA Director George Tenet and former counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke are set to testify today.

The 9/11 commission action from Tuesday, including testimony from Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Madeleine Albright and William Cohen, can be read on the New York Times Web site. Here are a few excerpts, and the whole thing.

Don't cry for Powell
After you've pored over Colin Powell's testimony to the 9/11 commission, check out this piece in the latest American Prospect that analyzes the Secretary of State's role as tragic figure for many liberals and moderates. Don't feel sorry for Powell, the writer says. He has no one to blame but himself.

"When Powell was appointed secretary of state, such was his stature at home and abroad that he was widely expected to be the new administration's vicar of foreign policy. Three years on, he finds himself the fig leaf of that foreign policy -- the moderate front man for an administration that has been anything but moderate in its statecraft. On almost every critical issue -- the Kyoto Protocol, the future of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Middle East peace process, North Korea, and, of course, Iraq -- Powell has been the odd man out, his influence minimal to nonexistent."

"That's obvious in Washington, where Powell's vanishing act is a source of curiosity and not a little sadness. More importantly, it's obvious overseas  Outgunned, undermined, and frequently humiliated, Powell is expected to step down next January whether or not Bush wins a second term. His unhappiness is an open secret 

"How did it all go so wrong for Powell?  His troubles with Cheney and Bush have rendered Powell a sympathetic figure outside conservative circles -- a tragic figure in the minds of many liberals. In fact, though, Powell has mostly been hobbled by his own liabilities. He came into office without a strong and specific idea either of what he wanted to accomplish at Foggy Bottom or of what America's role in the world should be. At heart he is a functionary, not a visionary, a doer rather than a thinker. Unfortunately for him, he is serving a president who likes to throw bombs (the metaphoric and occasionally the literal kind) at a moment in history when big thinking and bold action have been required. The neocons, for better or worse, had a vision, and something usually trumps nothing."

(This little faux-pas from Powell is getting some press today, too. The administration might have learned from Bush's "crusade" speech from 2-plus years ago.)

Clarke: Person of the week
Richard Clarke certainly sent the White House into a tailspin with the timely publication this week of his book on counterterrorism policy before and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Salon's Joe Conason has an insightful interview with Clarke, getting his reaction to the vicious White House attacks on his motives and record as Clarke prepared to speak publicly to the panel investigating 9/11.

Over at Slate, meanwhile, Fred Kaplan -- who has known Clarke for years -- writes an analysis of why he thinks Clarke's book is right on.

"First, his basic accusations are consistent with tales told by other officials, including some who had no significant dealings with Clarke. Second, the White House's attempts at rebuttal have been extremely weak and contradictory. If Clarke were wrong, one would expect the comebacks -- especially from Bush's aides, who excel at the counterstrike -- to be stronger and more substantive. Third, I went to graduate school with Clarke in the late 1970s, at MIT's political science department, and called him as an occasional source in the mid-'80s when he was in the State Department and I was a newspaper reporter."

"There were good things and dubious things about Clarke, traits that inspired both admiration and leeriness. The former: He was very smart, a highly skilled (and utterly nonpartisan) analyst, and he knew how to get things done in a calcified bureaucracy. The latter: He was arrogant, made no effort to disguise his contempt for those who disagreed with him, and blatantly maneuvered around all obstacles to make sure his views got through. The key thing, though, is this: Both sets of traits tell me he's too shrewd to write or say anything in public that might be decisively refuted. As Daniel Benjamin, another terrorism specialist who worked alongside Clarke in the Clinton White House, put it in a phone conversation today, 'Dick did not survive and flourish in the bureaucracy all those years by leaving himself open to attack.'"

He can't run on his record 
Ron Brownstein's latest piece in the Los Angeles Times looks at how the president's campaign strategy to attack John Kerry rather than make a strong case for his re-election could backfire.

"For President Bush, resolving doubts about his own leadership may be a more urgent goal than raising doubts about rival John F. Kerry. Although Bush has opened his 2004 campaign mostly by criticizing Kerry on national security and taxes, reelection bids by presidents have pivoted more on assessments of the incumbent than of his opponent, many political experts agree."

" Bush's political team mounted a major offensive Monday against the Massachusetts senator's tax and spending plans. But overshadowing the effort was the accusation that before the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush and his aides had failed to take seriously the threat posed by Al Qaeda. The charge by Richard Clarke, the administration's former top counterterrorism aide, forced the White House on the defensive Monday and again Tuesday. In the end, many analysts believe, Bush's fate is likely to turn more on his success in answering such questions than his ability to generate skepticism about Kerry."

"If you look at the Bush campaign strategy, it looks as though they are trying harder to undermine Kerry than sell people about Bush," said Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta and an expert in presidential elections.

GOP Medicare law threatens program
The Washington Post reports that the "Medicare system's financial condition has deteriorated sharply during the past year, according to a government forecast that says the program has been weakened by the new Medicare law that Republicans had said would solidify its future. The report, issued yesterday by the trustees who monitor the fiscal health of Medicare and Social Security, concluded that the fund that pays hospital bills in the health insurance program will run out of money by 2019, seven years sooner than they predicted a year ago. The report said that the new law is a significant factor, because it will steer more money to private health plans and increase payments for health care in rural areas."

"Yesterday's assessment is the most recent reminder of the enormous financial pressures that confront Medicare  This year's prediction, however, carries uncommon political and budgetary implications. It arrives as the political parties are feuding over the new Medicare law, which President Bush pushed through Congress four months ago, and as fiscal conservatives have become preoccupied with whether the government is spending more than it can afford."

Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at

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