AUSTIN, Texas -- I'd like to thank Richard Clarke for doing the most obvious, decent and necessary thing this country needed from its government after 9-11, and that is to apologize to the families of those who died in those attacks and to admit: "We failed you. ... I failed you." Thanks to former Sen. Bob Kerrey for underlining it.

            Coulda, woulda, shoulda is not necessarily a useful exercise, but the 9-11 commission was given that responsibility -- after the Bush administration made every effort to stop it -- and appears to be doing its best. That some members seem more interested in protecting the Bush administration than in finding out what actually happened is perhaps just the nature of politics, but still disappointing.

            Clarke's bottom line, so succinctly stated in response to former Navy Secretary John Lehman, is that the reason he is so critical of President George W. Bush is because he believes the war on Iraq has greatly undermined the war against terrorism. He believes this administration has done "a terrible job" of fighting terrorism. He's certainly critical of the Clinton administration as well, but he seems to find the difference is that the Clinton people took it seriously, while the Bushies came in with an Iraq agenda and didn't want to hear about anything else.

            He paints a sad tale of both arrogance and ignorance: repeated warnings by both Clarke and George Tenet apparently made no impression on an administration obsessed with Saddam Hussein.

            This thesis is born out by the eerily prescient and tragically ignored Hart-Rudman report on terrorism, presented on Jan. 31, 2001. (And let me point out that the media deserve much blame here, as well: All the networks ignored it entirely save for CNN, which did it justice. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal never printed a line about it, though The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times both did thorough jobs.)

            That commission concluded, "Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers." They recommended a series of practical and effective steps. Of the various institutions, Congress deserves some credit for trying to pick up on the report, which clearly would have moved us ahead by six moths on terrorism planning. Donald Rumsfeld, not one of my favorites, also deserves credit for vigorously backing the report. Congress scheduled hearing for May 7, 2001, but according to reports at the time, the White House stifled the move because it did not want Congress out in front on the issue.

            True, the report was initiated by President Clinton, but the commission was bipartisan and included former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Republicans. On May 5, the White House announced that rather than adopt Hart-Rudman, it was forming its own committee on terrorism headed by Vice President Cheney. That group never met.  

            The whole discouraging process of plans ready to go and prepared but delayed by Bush people whose priorities were elsewhere was repeated internally with Richard Clarke's recommendations.

            There is reason to question whether the current 9-11 commission is designed to get to the bottom of these still lingering questions. In addition to some patently partisan members, the commission's executive director, the man in the most critical role, is Philip D. Zelikow, a member of he Bush transition team on national security and later one of Condoleezza Rice's closest assistants.

            Then we come to the White house campaign to discredit Clarke. What a travesty. The man is a registered Republican who worked for Ronald Reagan and Bush the Elder, as well as Clinton and George W. As to the supposedly "political" timing of the book, the White House held up its publication by three months before clearing it.

            I need to counsel those innocent little Heathers in the Washington press corps who think the White House attack on Clarke is confused simply because it is often contradictory -- "Democrat," "disgruntled former employee," "out of the loop" and "we did everything he wanted." Y'all, Karl Rove often issues contradictory attacks -- just throws a whole lot of stuff up in the air so people will think, "There must be something to all this noise."

            The Bush administration's record of sliming its critics is getting to be a scandal in itself. Joe Wilson's wife was outed as a CIA agent. Poor former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill (who was the focus of a book that certainly confirms the administration's obsession with Iraq) was dismissed as a nutcase. And now it's Clarke's turn. I suppose we should all be grateful no one is investigating anyone else's sex life.

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