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A Handle On Scandal

"If there's an abuse of intelligence here, it's certainly a scandal," says Blumenthal, author of "The Clinton Wars."

He sees signs of nefarious activity at multiple nodes of the government. The vice president is in the thick of it, behind the scenes, Blumenthal believes. Figures from the Iran-contra scandal have resurfaced with jobs in the Bush administration, he says.

President Bush delivers the State of the Union address, and the Sixteen Words that may or may not constitute a scandal. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

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"The character of this is more like Iran-contra than it's like anything. It's a serious question involving breaches of national security policy," says Blumenthal.

Those who perceive a scandal will argue that the stakes are high, even if the details are sometimes a bit dry. William Rivers Pitt, managing editor of the online journal Truthout, says: "This doesn't have sex, this doesn't have the definition of 'is,' it doesn't have stained dresses. What it's got is an increasing number of dead American soldiers."

The president's defenders say there's nothing here at all, except a desperate attempt to undermine the president and his war policy. One former Republican political appointee said yesterday, "It's a nothingburger."

Passions intensify as elections near.

"Some in the Democratic Party feel the need to discredit the president on the issue of the war in order to put him within reach politically in '04," says Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.).

Scott McClellan, Bush's new press secretary, charged last week that Democratic candidates are trying to exploit the situation, but added, "The bottom line is, America is safer, more secure and better prepared than we were on September 11, 2001."

There are growing calls among Democrats for a full-blown bipartisan investigation, but the Republicans control Congress and have so far refused to hold hearings. What happens next may well depend on events in Iraq. Military success could push the story to the back pages, and then eventually exile it to a few redoubts on the Internet.

For an administration that has seen public support for its Iraq policy eroding, the deaths of Saddam Hussein's sons this week offered an unexpected burst of good news. But the guerrilla war continues: Two more American soldiers died in separate attacks yesterday.

The worst-case scenario for the administration is that the story takes on a life of its own. Consider one scandal expert's description of how that process works:

"The wildest accusations have been given banner headlines and ready credence as well. Rumor, gossip, innuendo, accounts from unnamed sources of what a prospective witness might testify to, have filled the morning newspapers and then are repeated on the evening newscasts day after day.

"Time and again, a familiar pattern repeated itself. A charge would be reported the first day as what it was -- just an allegation. But it would then be referred back to the next day and thereafter as if it were true.

"The distinction between fact and speculation grew blurred. Eventually, all seeped into the public consciousness as a vague general impression of massive wrongdoing, implicating everybody, gaining credibility by its endless repetition."

The expert was, naturally, Richard Nixon, speaking to America, and ready to put Watergate behind him once and for all.

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