28 March 2004
(Los Angeles) - After a week of relentless attacks on its credibility, the White House is desperate to muzzle Richard Clarke, the former counter-terrorism chief who claims that the Bush administration was too preoccupied with Iraq even in its first months in office to pay proper attention to the most immediate threat to national security.
Shutting him up, though, is not proving easy. None of the usual attack-dog techniques - character assassination, intimidation and reciprocal mud-slinging - has entirely worked on Mr Clarke, though it has not been for want of trying. His testimony before the committee investigating the 11 September attacks last week not only shook received wisdom about the Bush administration's "war on terror", it also upstaged every other contribution so far through the simple act of Mr Clarke's apologising to relatives of the victims for letting them down.
His book, Against All Enemies, has become a sensation and is already in its fifth printing. The earthquake rumbling through Washington and beyond has not been deterred by Vice-President Dick Cheney's attempts to depict him as a disgruntled bureaucrat left "out of the loop" - a peculiar description of the man in charge of the counter-terrorism effort in the immediate wake of 11 September.
It was not deterred when the White House chose to put a background press briefing of Mr Clarke's on the record, 18 months after the fact, in an effort to show he was really much more in favour of the administration's policies than he now claims. Mr Clarke explained, fairly plausibly, that at the time he was merely doing his job as an administration official, which required him to put the best possible spin on the facts.
The Republicans' latest attempt came on Friday when Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, pushed to declassify a briefing Mr Clarke gave to the congressional joint intelligence committee in July 2002, insinuating that he might be accused of lying under oath because of inconsistencies with his present account. Mr Frist accused Mr Clarke of being "consumed with the desire to dodge any blame" for the 11 September atrocities and called him "self-serving".
This new initiative seems no more promising. Bob Graham, the leading Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said he could recall no inconsistencies between the 2002 briefing and the latest testimony. He had no objections to declassifying the briefing, he said, as long as it was not done selectively.
One major reason the administration and its supporters are having such difficulty in discrediting Mr Clarke is that, aside from the authority he brings as a counter-terrorism expert who has served four presidents - three of them Republican - his allegations are remarkably consistent with those of previous whistle-blowers and officials speaking off the record to the press.
As early as May 2002, Newsweek magazine described a handover meeting at the start of the Bush administration in which President Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, briefed his successor, Condoleezza Rice, in detail about Osama bin Laden and said: "You will be spending more time on this issue than on any other."
By the end of April 2001 - only three months later - the first annual terrorism report issued by the Bush administration made scant mention of al-Qa'ida. A senior State Department official told CNN at the time that the Clinton administration "made a mistake in focusing so much energy on bin Laden".