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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. [IMGCAP(1)]

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 be taken.”

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 preparations.

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 strike.

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.

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