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Jewish World Review March 30, 2004 / 8 Nissan, 5764

Roger Simon

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Stubbing toes | According to the White House game plan, this was supposed to be the week that we were asking, "Can Richard Clarke hang on?"

Instead, I know more people who are asking, "Can Condoleezza Rice hang on?"

It is not that the White House counter-attack on Clarke has been an utter failure or that it did not raise some questions about him.

But rarely has the White House tried to kick somebody so savagely and ended up stubbing its own toe so hard.

Clarke, a former top counter-terrorism adviser to George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, has made serious charges against the Bush administration in a new book. He says that Bush did not take terrorism seriously enough before Sept. 11, 2001 and that by launching a war in Iraq, Bush managed to strengthen rather than weaken al Qaeda.

One of the most dramatic scenes in the book, which Clarke talked about on television, involves a meeting on Sept.12, 2001 where Bush drags Clarke into a small room and tries to shift the focus of U.S. retaliation to Iraq, even though Clarke has made clear to him that al Qaeda and not Iraq had just flown airplanes into our buildings.

The White House was caught by surprise by Clarke's book even though the book had been over at the White House for months. Clarke followed the rules by shipping his book to the National Security Council last November so it could make sure he had not revealed any national secrets.

But did the National Security Council, a White House agency, alert anybody else at the White House? Apparently not.

So the White House was caught flat-footed and kicked back hard: Clarke was an embittered publicity seeker trying to make a quick buck, we were told, and that meeting he said took place Sept. 12, 2001? There was no record of it at the White House.

That particular denial lasted almost a week. Today, the White House admits the meeting took place.

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I was sick at home all last week and so I got to lie on a couch and watch every minute of the Sept. 11 commission hearings on TV, in which Clarke and others testified in public and under oath.

Clarke's simple apology at the beginning of his testimony was both wrenching and seemingly sincere.

"Your government failed you," Clarke said to the families of those who were killed on Sept. 11. "Those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter, because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask — once all the facts are out — for your understanding and your forgiveness."

It was a simple statement and when I heard it, I thought, "Somebody ought to have apologized before now."

But just to show how much the White House attack machine did not get it, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist not only blasted Clarke for his apology, but mischaracterized what Clarke had said.

"In his appearance before the 9/11 commission," Frist said on the floor of the U.S. Senate, "Mr. Clarke's theatrical apology on behalf of the nation was not his right, his privilege or his responsibility. In my view it was not an act of humility, but an act of supreme arrogance and manipulation. Mr. Clarke can and will answer for his own conduct, but that is all."

But that is all Clarke was saying. He never apologized "on behalf of the nation." That was Frist creating a straw man in order to knock it down.

The administration ran into other problems in its efforts to stomp on Clarke: According to an article in the Washington Post, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice's rebuttals to Clarke "contradicted other administration officials and her own previous statements."

Oh, no! This is not what the White House wanted! Richard Clarke was supposed to be the guy who contradicted himself, not Condoleezza Rice!

And right in the middle of things, President Bush went to one of those awful press dinners that are considered very big deals in this town and did what he is supposed to do - - try and be funny. He showed a slide show in which he poked fun at himself for trying to find weapons of mass destruction in the Oval Office.

Some people were offended by this. Personally, I thought no offense was meant and Bush's joke was within the bounds of good taste.

So when his Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was asked at a press conference whether the joke was appropriate, did he make the same defense I just made? No! He refused to defend the president at all.

"I am just not in a position to be judgmental about that," Rumsfeld said.

As the week ended, Clarke was selling tons of books and Condoleezza Rice was trying to explain why she could go on every TV show in the world to attack Clarke, but would not do what Clarke had done: Raise her right hand and swear under oath that what she was saying was the truth.

Think it couldn't get worse? On "Sixty Minutes" Sunday Ed Bradley asked Rice: "Will the families of those people who were killed hear an apology from you, do you think that would be appropriate?" Rice refused. She did say she was "deeply sorry" for the "loss" that people endured, but concluded: "The best thing that we can do for the memory of the victims, the best thing that we can do for the future of this country is to focus on those who did this to us."

But part of what Clarke is shining a light on and part of what the Sept. 11 commission is investigating is not just who did this to us, but who let them do it.

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