- The Washington Times - Friday, May 24, 2002

Some Republicans are criticizing White House efforts to deflect questions about the Bush administration's response to terrorist threats before September 11.
While some in the party say that Democrats' Watergate-style questions what did President Bush know, and when did he know it? are politically motivated or even unpatriotic, others argue that such questions are entirely legitimate.
"Democrats have an obligation to ask questions about who knew what, but so does everybody else in the Senate and House have an obligation to scrutinize events and to think for themselves," Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby said in an interview.
"Republicans ought to be asking questions that go above politics, and that go to the security of this country," said Mr. Shelby, the ranking member of the Select Senate Committee on Intelligence.
"It's bad politics and policy for Republicans to complain about Democrat inquiries as to how the administration is handling these things," said Michael T. Hellon, a Republican National Committee member from Arizona. "The administration doesn't need to be on the defensive, but they are acting that way, and it makes them look bad."
Some Democratic critics, responding to leaked documents, have suggested Mr. Bush may have known enough to head off the terrorist attacks but did not do so. With Vice President Richard B. Cheney leading the way, the administration has called such suggestions outrageous.
Mr. Cheney hinted that the administration will hold Democrats and news organizations responsible if lack of unity and leaked intelligence frustrate U.S. efforts to prevent future terrorist attacks on the nation.
The tactic bothers some conservatives. They say in principle it is the Democrats' patriotic duty to ask what the administration, including intelligence and investigative agencies, knew about terrorist threats prior to September 11.
But Republicans also resent insinuations of negligence by the Bush administration lobbed by Democrats since May 15, when an Aug. 6 White House intelligence briefing was leaked to the press.
"It's what they're saying and why," said Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican and former CIA analyst. "Leaking documents simply to provide ammunition for criticizing the administration, to say the administration did something wrong that's what's infuriating and unpatriotic."
Mr. Bush's poll numbers remain strong despite Democrats' attempts to suggest he somehow failed to act to prevent the September 11 attacks.
"Democrats were champing at the bit for so long to get [Mr. Bush] that they jumped before they looked, and it boomeranged on them," American Conservative Union executive director Chuck Muth said. "The public is not stupid and would not believe Bush knew about the coming attacks and did nothing."
Republicans hold an advantage that could be undermined if they become defensive in response to Democrats' questions about terrorism policies, Mr. Hellon said.
"Ours is an adversarial political system, and the Democrats have a problem now," the Arizona RNC member said. "The Republicans have a very popular president and the Democrats have no toehold to challenge him effectively."
For this reason, he said, "You have to expect the Democrats to take whatever shots they can, whenever they can. And whining about it is silly."
The leaked Aug. 6 memo from the intelligence briefing included a warning that terrorists from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network might try to hijack commercial jets. It did not address hijacked airliners being used as missiles against buildings or other civilian targets.
On Monday, a national poll showed Mr. Bush still enjoyed a 76 percent job-approval rating.
Some Republicans, however, say the White House should have responded more effectively.
"Someone in the White House should have gone on TV and read the Aug 6. [briefing], leaving out only the intelligence sources, to show it had nothing new in it and was leaked only to make the CIA look good," said a Capitol Hill Republican with access to intelligence information.
"What we don't know was whether the public understood that the leaked [briefing] had nothing to alert the president about what was to come a month later or whether the White House's counterattack did the trick," said another Republican source who is an authority on defense intelligence matters.



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