- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2002

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt backed away yesterday from earlier suggestions that President Bush had failed to act on warnings that might have prevented the September 11 attacks.
"I never, ever, ever thought that anybody, including the president, did anything up to September 11 other than their best," the Missouri Democrat said on "Fox News Sunday."
Republicans had criticized Mr. Gephardt for politicizing the war on terrorism and for the Watergate-style questions he had asked about what the president knew and when he knew it.
But when asked about his rhetoric, Mr. Gephardt said on Fox that "sometimes people overreact to things and think we're in a political campaign. This is not about politics."
The accusations last week by Mr. Gephardt, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and other Democrats were based on leaked reports of an intelligence briefing that Mr. Bush received Aug. 6.
Mr. Gerphardt's turnabout yesterday came three days after Vice President Richard B. Cheney warned Democrats against making a political issue of the September 11 attacks.
In a speech Thursday, Mr. Cheney implied that the Democrats and the press would be held responsible if the administration were unable to prevent another al Qaeda attack because of leaks that compromised intelligence sources.
Mr. Cheney yesterday raised by several notches the potential costs to Democrats of treating the war as a partisan political campaign. On NBC's "Meet the Press," the vice president denounced the "feeding frenzy" of criticism that erupted after disclosures of the August briefing.
Mr. Cheney talked of his "deep sense of anger that anyone would suggest that the president of the United States had advance knowledge that he failed to act on."
As recently as Friday, however, some Democratic state party leaders were still following Mr. Gephardt's lead, questioning Mr. Bush's leadership in the war on terrorism.
"Clearly it's more permissible to start asking questions about Bush's conduct of this whole thing than it was only a few days or a week ago," Ron Oliver, the Arkansas Democratic Party chairman, said in an interview.
"We could get to the bottom of it and find he did all he could have done," Dr. Sheila McGuire Riggs, the Iowa Democratic Party chairman, said in an interview. "But right now the pieces from the CIA and FBI that we have in front us lead us to believe he failed to protect the American people."
Such questions and accusations pose a serious problem for the administration, some Republicans with access to the White House said privately.
They said that how the administration handles the matter over the next few days could determine whether there is a second Bush administration.
Specifically, they said the White House must convince both the Democrats and the press that a return to the national unity that prevailed until last week is essential to the health and security of the nation. Some said Mr. Cheney's speech on Thursday would help do just that.
But Mr. Oliver, the Democrat from Arkansas, said there is building among the public "a lot of curiosity that could turn to anger if more and more about what the president knew continues to be revealed. That's what I'm hearing."
Dr. Riggs, a dentist, said the question of what the president knew and when was "topic A" in the elevators and corridors of the building where she works.
"I would say without a doubt the administration is going to be feeling a backlash on two levels for not putting their intelligence data together correctly and not making it public till eight months past the event," Dr. Riggs said.
Republican state leaders projected a different world beyond the Beltway.
New Jersey Republican National Committee member David Norcross said that since the story broke Wednesday night he has received no calls from anyone in his state about the ruckus.
Although the Philadelphia Inquirer "ran a big headline," he said, "for the most part it looks like it's getting treated as it should as a nonstory."
Mr. Oliver said he wanted to emphasize that as his state's Democratic Party leader and as a member of the Democratic National Committee, he is "still giving the administration the benefit of the doubt. But I'm beginning to hear more and more rumblings."
Mr. Oliver did say that once the story broke about the intelligence reports, the White House "handled it the only way it could."
Illinois Republican National Committee member Robert K. Kjellander Jr. said the White House did better than that.
"Cheney was absolutely right when he said that for anyone to suggest the president knew about [September 11] in advance is an outrage. And most people out here are reacting that way," he said. "They are seeing it as a blatant way to tarnish a popular president with spurious accusations."
Mr. Kjellander said most people he talks to in the Midwest "feel like this is just politics. Nobody seriously believes the implication of some of these charges that somehow the administration knew about this and kept it quiet and didn't issue an alert." He said sensible people think that is "ridiculous on the face of it."
But Mr. Oliver said the Bush administration has begun a campaign to intimidate the Democrats and the press. "Their line is: 'We're in state of war, and you shouldn't be questioning the administration or the president.'
"But the more they pursue that line, the more the resentment will build. They should come absolutely clean. If they did make a mistake, they should say so that's maybe the thing they can say," Mr. Oliver said.


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