Short memories confer immunity on politicians, who are rarely accountable for the opportunistic, irresponsible or dishonest remarks they so often utter. In Washington's fetid culture of personal destruction, the powerful and privileged can trash an adversary's reputation without concern that the truth will embarrass them when it emerges months or years later. Consider the case of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
Last March, Frist rose on the Senate floor to demonstrate his fealty to the White House by attacking Richard Clarke in the ugliest and most personal terms. Seeking to discredit the former counter-terrorism chief after his stunning appearance before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Frist essentially accused the former counter-terrorism chief of committing perjury.
But now we know who was telling the truth and who wasn't, thanks to the release of a newly declassified document. That document is the transcript of Clarke's testimony before a closed, joint congressional hearing in June 2002, when he discussed "the evolution of the terrorist threat" leading up to 9/11 with members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. While the declassified text contains lengthy redactions, it also shows conclusively that Frist slandered Clarke last spring.
The Frist assault was among the most publicized fusillades in a concerted effort to destroy Clarke, who had dared to criticize the Bush administration's halting, inadequate response to the looming threat from al-Qaida. Predictably, Frist echoed the White House sniping at Mr. Clarke's credibility, but went much further. In his furious floor speech, the senator mocked Clarke for acknowledging his own responsibility in the government's failure to prevent the 9/11 disaster, berated his "profiteering" from the tragedy with his revealing memoir, "Against All Enemies," and went on to insinuate that the star witness had lied and might be prosecuted:
"Mr. Clarke has told two entirely different stories under oath," said Frist. "In July 2002, in front of the Congressional Joint Inquiry on the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Clarke testified under oath that the administration actively sought to address the threat posed by al-Qaida during its first seven months in office ... .[It] is one thing for Mr. Clarke to dissemble in front of the media. But if he lied under oath to the United States Congress it is a far more serious matter. As I mentioned, the intelligence committee is seeking to have Mr. Clarke's previous testimony declassified so as to permit an examination of Mr. Clarke's two different accounts. Loyalty to any administration will be no defense if it is found that he has lied before Congress."
Clarke reacted by urging the immediate declassification of the entire six-hour transcript of his secret testimony, confident that he would be vindicated. Eventually, Frist's own spokesman admitted that his boss hadn't read Clarke's testimony -- and that his only "evidence" was gossip from other unnamed legislators who had called the majority leader to complain that Clarke's "tone" differed from what he had said two years earlier. Some Republicans who had heard Clarke's testimony quietly suggested that Frist didn't know what he was talking about, including Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas.
At the time, though, Roberts declined to release the declassified testimony, despite repeated requests from his ranking minority colleague, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V. Perhaps Roberts thought it wiser to wait until after Election Day to revive this sore subject.
In fact, Clarke's declassified testimony contains very few references to the Bush administration -- but what he did say wasn't flattering. Neither criticizing nor praising the administration's efforts, Clarke offered a dry factual account of the bureaucratic approach toward terrorism taken by the president's appointees and advisors during the months that preceded 9/11. Clarke allowed the lawmakers to draw their own conclusions -- if they chose to do so -- by contrasting the slow official process with his vivid recollection of CIA warnings during the summer of 2001, when al-Qaida was preparing an "imminent" offensive that might include "multiple, simultaneous attacks, some overseas and some in the U.S." He didn't say one word that was later contradicted by his far more dramatic testimony before the 9/11 Commission.
Clarke's circumspect attitude toward the Bush administration was understandable, since he was still working for the president in 2002. But perhaps to the annoyance of the Republican legislators in attendance at the closed hearing, he went out of his way to praise the counter-terror efforts of the prior occupant of the Oval Office.
"You know," said Clarke, whose government résumé dates back to the Nixon era, "it is very rare in my experience when the President of the United States picks an issue after his administration has begun because the world has changed, and says, 'This is a priority, guys. I want you to create some new programs and deal with it.' But that happened, and I think both [of Clinton's] national security advisers and the Clinton administration spent an enormous amount of time on the overall issue of counterterrorism and the new threats."
His detailed description of those efforts, which explodes Republican attempts to blame Clinton for 9/11 and confirms both his testimony and his book, should be required reading for mythologizers like the Senate majority leader. And when Frist has finished reading the 103 pages, the majority leader ought to be decent enough to apologize publicly for lying about this remarkable public servant.