- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2004

President Bush’s willingness to investigate his justifications for the Iraq war, and to lengthen the inquiry into the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, boils the 2004 presidential campaign down to who can best protect national security.

Focusing on security will no doubt play to Mr. Bush’s strong suit. Virtually every poll gives him high marks on how he has conducted the war against terrorism. Democrats, however, still suffer from a perception of being weak on national security issues, exacerbated by their party’s sharp criticism of the war in Iraq and the suggestion by some of their leaders that we had no business toppling Saddam Hussein from power.

Many observers think Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, now the undisputed front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, can overcome his party’s weakness on national security because of his military service in Vietnam and his experience in foreign policy matters.

But Mr. Kerry’s long political career — from Vietnam War protester to a “ban the bomb” crusader — is marred by a highly questionable voting record on defense issues: against increases in intelligence spending, against defense increases, against an anti-missile system, against our nuclear deterrent in the Cold War, against going to war to drive Saddam’s army out of Kuwait.

Mr. Bush, meanwhile, is now making sure he is not seen as an impediment in investigations as to what led up to the September 11 attacks and whether Saddam had any weapons of mass destruction when it was decided to drive him from power.

The 10-member National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States has been seeking more time to complete its inquiry before a May 27 deadline, something the White House had opposed. Republican leaders wanted the panel to finish its business early to avoid any political repercussions if the investigation uncovered damaging information in the midst of the presidential campaign.

But the administration, bending to mounting pressure from lawmakers and the families of those killed in the attacks, reversed course last week, saying it would agree to a two-month extension.

Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, have introduced a bill extending the deadline to next January, a move even the commission’s staff opposes.

The commission is a bipartisan panel that has been largely free of any political infighting. Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, a Republican, its chairman, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, a Democrat, its vice chairman, are highly respected on both sides of the political aisle for fairness and integrity.

But if there is any political hay to be made in the panel’s findings, there is no doubt the Democrats will attempt to turn it to their advantage in the final months of the campaign. The White House knows this. It also knows any attempt to rush the work of the commission would not look good.

So when commission sources assured senior presidential advisers that their findings would focus more on the pre-Bush years, and mostly on the Clinton administration, the White House offered a two-month extension to complete the panel’s remaining interviews and investigation. Congress would have to approve any change in its timetable.

The report will likely “have some criticism of the White House, but it will not conclude that there was a failure by Bush himself,” a senior White House official told The Washington Post last week.

“A lot of it will be pre-Bush and about the Clinton era, and there is very little direct ammunition aimed at the president himself,” this official said.

One of Mr. Bush’s first steps after being sworn into office was to give Vice President Richard Cheney the go-ahead to launch a complete review of the government’s anti-terrorist policies. The White House was in the midst of that policymaking re-evaluation and overhaul when the terrorists struck.

The Kean-Hamilton commission is expected to detail the steps that were being put in place to combat terrorism and the Clinton administration’s failure to more forcefully address this threat, other sources told me.

The administration’s turnabout on the commission’s deadline followed its decision to name a blue-ribbon panel to look into all the intelligence evidence that led to the decision to go to war against Saddam’s terrorist regime.

The decisions to create the panel and extend the commission’s deadline, as I see it, will largely defuse the political explosiveness of these issues. Mr. Bush is seen giving the September 11 commission the time it wants to conduct a thorough investigation and agreeing to open up his national security justifications for going to war in Iraq to the fullest public inquiry.

As for the political timing of all this, the proposed White House deadline calls for releasing the September 11 report about a month before the Republican National Convention is held in New York. Any inquiry into what happened to Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction would not be completed until long after the November elections.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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