Bush Says U.S. Safer But Far From Secure

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 16, 2006

President Bush said yesterday he has made the nation safer but warned that it remains threatened by terrorists, accelerating an election-year debate over his leadership in the global fight against Islamic extremists five years after the attacks of Sept. 11.

Bush touted his accomplishments in a visit to the National Counterterrorism Center a week after British authorities broke up what they called a major plot to blow up airliners bound for the United States. But former president Bill Clinton accused Republicans of using the reported plot for political purposes and questioned Bush's national security priorities.

The back and forth illustrated the emotional punch of the terrorism issue as both parties head into fall campaigns with Bush's popular standing lagging and GOP control of Congress at stake. Republicans have argued successfully to voters in the last two election cycles that they do a better job fighting terrorists, but polls have shown a sharp drop in faith in their handling of the issue. The White House believes the reported London plot offers an opportunity to remind voters that the danger from terrorism remains stark, while Democrats see an opportunity to argue that the Iraq war has distracted from the hunt for al-Qaeda.

"America is safer than it has been. But it's not yet safe," Bush said during a break in five hours of briefings at the center. "The enemy has got an advantage when it comes to attacking our homeland. They've got to be right one time, and we've got to be right a hundred percent of the time to protect the American people."

Clinton, who generally refrains from criticizing Bush by name, said Republicans have been "trying to play politics" with the London arrests. "They seem to be anxious to tie it to al-Qaeda," he told ABC News. "If that's true, how come we've got seven times as many troops in Iraq as in Afghanistan? Why has the administration and congressional leadership consistently opposed adequate checks on cargo containers at ports and airports?"

Senate Democratic leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said Bush has not done enough to keep the United States safe. "Five years after 9/11, al-Qaeda has morphed into a global franchise operation, terror attacks have increased sharply across the world, and the president has shut down the program designed to catch Osama bin Laden," Reid said.

The White House took issue. "President Clinton, I know, is sort of committing some politics here and accusing Republicans in so doing," spokesman Tony Snow said. "But I'll tell you what -- I think in the same position he'd be looking at the same options." Asked about Clinton's contention that the administration is not doing enough to go after al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Snow said: "He doesn't know what we're doing to go after al-Qaeda. Period. He doesn't know."

Vice President Cheney accused Democrats of "defeatism," citing the victory of antiwar candidate Ned Lamont over Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary last week. "What these Democrats are pushing now is the very kind of retreat that has been tried in the past," Cheney said at a Phoenix fundraiser. "It is contrary to our values, it would betray our friends, and it would only heighten the danger to the United States."

While the president asserted that the nation is safer, the public remains split. A Newsweek poll found that 50 percent think Americans are safer from terrorism today than before Sept. 11, 2001, while 47 percent said they are not safer. The same poll found that 55 percent approve of Bush's handling of terrorism and that Republicans have a five-percentage-point edge over Democrats on the issue.

Bush's visit to the National Counterterrorism Center, which aides said was scheduled long before the London arrests, took him to the heart of his government's interagency attack on radicals. The president attended sessions in the operations center conference room at a huge wooden table with pop-up computer terminals and drop-down video screens, where he was briefed by officials such as Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Bush toured the operations center and made a point of walking into side alcoves where the FBI and CIA have staffs apart from the melded threat analysts on the main floor. Then, appearing before cameras, Bush thanked them for helping to break up the reported plot in Britain.

That, he said, "really is indicative of the challenge we face, not only this week but this year and the years to come, because the United States of America is engaged in a war against an extremist group of folks bound together by an ideology, willing to use terror to achieve their objectives."

Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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