White House accused of trying to defame critics

WASHINGTON -- Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle accused the Bush administration Thursday of making former terrorism aide Richard Clarke the latest target in a campaign of "character assassination" against those who stand in President Bush's way. "They've known for months what Mr. Clarke was going to say," Daschle said in a Senate speech one day after the former White House aide sharply criticized the president's stewardship of the war on terror.

"Instead of dealing with it factually, they've launched a shrill attack to destroy Mr. Clarke's credibility," Daschle said.

The senator said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., former Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., and retired Amb. Joseph Wilson had suffered similar treatment at the hands of Bush's aides. "I saw the White House ferocity first hand," added Daschle, whom Republicans often depict as the Democrats' obstructionist-in-chief in Congress.

The South Dakota Democrat spoke after Clarke appeared before the bipartisan commission that is investigating the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Clarke, the author of a new book critical of Bush, testified that the administration accorded a lower priority to combatting al-Qaida when it came to power than the outgoing Clinton administration had shown. He also said the invasion of Iraq undermined the war on terror.

The White House has mounted a furious counterattack, dispatching Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other officials to challenge Clarke. "He needs to get his story straight," said Rice, Bush's national security adviser, as the White House identified Clarke as the senior official who had praised Bush's anti-terrorism efforts in an anonymous briefing for reporters in 2002.

And White House spokesman Scott McClellan continued the counterattack against Clarke on Thursday, saying that he "has a growing credibility problem."

"He continues to make statements that are flat-out wrong," McClellan said.

Bush defended his handling of the war on terror in a trip to New Hampshire during the day, without mentioning Clarke by name.

"Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to strike America, to attack us, I would have used every resource, every asset, every power of this government to protect the American people," he said.

The commission held two days of public hearings this week and is to hold additional public sessions next month.

Daschle urged the White House to reverse course and permit Rice to answer questions in public, saying she "seems to have time to appear on every television show."

Republican and Democratic members of the commission also have urged the administration to abandon its refusal to allow her to testify. Some GOP members of Congress, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they, too, believed Rice should appear, at least in part to offer a rebuttal to Clarke.

"Some things are more important that politics, and Sept. 11 ought to be at the top of the list," Daschle said. "We need the facts on Sept. 11, not spin and character assassination."

Daschle's comments extend the controversy ignited by Clarke's criticism, but they went well beyond the White House's response to the case of the former aide.

Referring to the Bush campaign's attacks against McCain in the 2000 Republican primaries, he said, "I will never forget the distortions, the recklessness, and the viciousness of those attacks. They were wrong and they impugned one of our great patriots." McCain spent several years as a prison of war in Vietnam.

Daschle said Cleland, a triple amputee Vietnam war veteran, had his "reputation and patriotism smeared" in a losing campaign for re-election in 2002. His rival ran an ad including images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and accusing him of voting against Bush's plan to create a new Department of Homeland Security.

Daschle also said that when Wilson challenged a key claim Bush made about Iraq's efforts to seek weapons of mass destruction, the White House "put his wife in danger by disclosing publicly that she was a deep cover agent for the CIA."