Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Conspiracy theories continued to sprout among Democrats yesterday in the wake of the capture of Saddam Hussein. Some Democrats expressed alarm that the party was drifting out of the “mainstream.”

Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state in the Clinton administration, in a conversation with Morton Kondracke, executive editor of Roll Call and a Fox News Channel political analyst, suggested that Osama bin Laden has been captured by U.S. forces and will soon be produced to the public.

“Do you suppose,” she asked, “that the Bush administration has Osama bin Laden hidden away somewhere and will bring him out before the election?”

Mrs. Albright said last night she was kidding. “She was not smiling when she said this,” Mr. Kondracke said.

The disclosure of Mrs. Albright’s remark followed by a day the charge by Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington that the Bush administration could have captured Saddam “long ago if they wanted,” but held off until Mr. Bush could use it as a boost in his approval ratings.

“There’s too much by happenstance for it to be just a coincidental thing,” he said.

Earlier, Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, the presumed leader of the Democratic presidential candidates, spoke of “a theory,” which he later said he didn’t believe, that President Bush had prior knowledge of the September 11 attacks and did not take steps to prevent them.

Mrs. Albright tried late yesterday to dampen the controversy over her remarks. “Last night, in the makeup room at Fox News,” she said, “I made a tongue-in-cheek comment to Mort Kondracke concerning Osama bin Laden.

“To my amazement, Mr. Kondracke immediately went on the air to repeat this comment, which was made to a person I thought was a friend and smart enough to know the difference between a serious statement and one that was not,” she said.

“My only regret is that the powder puffs were on Mort’s face and not in his ears,” she said.

Mr. Kondracke said yesterday there were others in the room “and they didn’t think it was a joke. But if Ms. Albright said she was joking, then I take her at her word.”

Joe Cerell, a Democratic campaign consultant who has worked in every presidential campaign since 1956, said the comments — even if in jest — do not help the party. “You’d better know what you’re talking about, you’d better have some evidence, or it’s counterproductive,” Mr. Cerell said. “The more outrageous the comments are, the greater the chance that it’s going to turn into a headline.”

Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state for Presidents Nixon and Ford, called Mrs. Albright’s comment “absolutely ridiculous” and said it exposes a kind of “paranoia” that has engulfed the Democratic Party.

“I am very fond of Madeleine, but there’s something about President Bush that blows the Democrats’ minds,” Mr. Kissinger said on “Fox and Friends” yesterday. “They get so rabid in their dislike that they say things which are absurd. If we could find Osama bin Laden on the same day that we could find Saddam, we would do it. It’s just not possible that these captures are timed to embarrass the Democrats. It’s a sort of paranoia. I think she got carried away.”

Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000, said the comments of Mrs. Albright and Mr. Dean and Mr. McDermott have “no place in our dialogue on this very serious issue. I think most Americans have some lingering doubts about what happened on September 11, but until the commission and Congress completes its investigation, I think it best if people hold these views to themselves. But because we don’t yet have a nominee, it’s all out in the open.”

One Democratic consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said his e-mail box is “filled daily with conspiracy theories” about supposed Bush administration plots.

“There’s no way to get away from it. To say the CIA knew where the world’s No. 1 terrorist is right now and won’t bring him forward, that’s immoral.”

Mr. Dean, in a Dec. 1 interview on National Public Radio, was asked about claims that Mr. Bush is suppressing information that he was warned about September 11.

“The most interesting theory that I have heard so far,” Mr. Dean said, “is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis.”

Asked if he had reconsidered the remark six days later on “Fox News Sunday,” Mr. Dean said that “we don’t know” whether the theory is true or not.

Other Democrats have questioned the Bush administration’s motives in going to war in Iraq. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts said in September that the war was “made up in Texas.”

The Bush administration “announced it in January to the Republican leadership that the war was going to take place and was going to be good politically,” Mr. Kennedy said. “The whole thing was a fraud.”

Rep. Robert T. Matsui, California Democrat and member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the war was waged “to an extent to take attention from the economy.”

Scott Reed, a Republican consultant, predicted that such comments will not be forgotten as the 2004 presidential election grows near — especially if Mr. Dean is the Democratic nominee.

“Dean, McDermott and Albright sound like the Democratic foreign-policy dream team,” Mr. Reed said. “I also heard a rumor that aliens were coming down to Earth to occupy the bodies of three prominent Democrats, and it looks like it came true.”

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