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Richard Clarke's warnings

RICHARD CLARKE, a former counterterrorism chief in President Bush's National Security Council, is playing an important therapeutic role by criticizing the president for failing to grasp the threat from Al Qaeda before and immediately after Sept. 11, 2001. Clarke and the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks that will hear his testimony today are obliging policy makers to account for what they did or did not do to protect the country against terrorism.


The claim from Bush and his backers that Clarke timed the publication of his book and his appearance Sunday on "60 Minutes" for maximum political effect is beside the point. The ultimate virtue of America's presidential campaigns is to create a quadrennial forum for questioning and criticizing those who govern. Political campaigns, conducted properly, keep the politicians accountable.

The core of Clarke's criticism is that Bush and his national security team refused to heed repeated warnings in the summer of 2001 that Al Qaeda was preparing a megaterrorist operation. Clarke told "60 Minutes" that the director of central intelligence, George Tenet, was "saying to the president -- because he briefed him every morning -- a major Al Qaeda attack is going to happen against the United States somewhere in the world in the weeks and months ahead. He said that in June, July, August" of 2001.

Bush refused to mobilize his administration against the threat, Clarke charged. And after the Sept. 11 atrocity, Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared determined to connect Saddam Hussein to the attack despite CIA and FBI assessments that there was no evidence tying the Iraqi despot to Sept. 11.

Clarke's disclosures are a healthy antidote to the malady of an imperial presidency. And because Clarke's account tallies with that of former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill and some of the terrorism commission's preliminary findings, Bush owes the public an explanation that can be weighed and judged by voters on Election Day.

The explanation Bush proffered yesterday -- "had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on Sept. 11, we would have acted" -- was more a red herring than an explanation. There is rarely such a precise warning. But if Bush had heeded the early warnings he did receive, he might have known more about the terrorists' plans and might have been able to thwart them.

By casting light on the errors of omission and commission committed by both the Clinton and Bush administrations, the terrorism commission is rising above narrow partisan politics. But the truly important conclusions will have to be drawn in the political arena, by voters deciding about an incumbent's competence to protect the country.

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