The White House's swift and sustained reaction last week to the preliminary findings of the Sept. 11, 2001, commission showed the potential threat the 10-member panel poses to President Bush's reelection prospects.
After the commission staff released its findings Wednesday that there was no "collaborative relationship" between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda -- challenging an assertion Bush and Vice President Cheney have made for the past two years -- Bush declared again that there was, in fact, a relationship.
Democratic and Republican strategists agree that many details of the controversy do not pose a grave threat to Bush's reelection chances.
The significance, rather, is whether Bush's Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), can use the commission's findings to split the Iraq war from the war on terrorism in the public's mind, and, more broadly, raise doubts about Bush's credibility and competence by building on the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the miscalculations about the Iraqi resistance.
Bush has long sought to link the Iraq invasion to his popular war on terrorism after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. With the commission's final report due on July 26 -- as the Democratic convention begins -- Kerry is already trying to use the panel's findings to his advantage to decouple the Iraq war from the post-9/11 U.S. retaliation in Afghanistan.
"The 9/11 report is just one more issue that casts doubt on the truthfulness of this White House," said Stephanie Cutter, Kerry's campaign spokeswoman. "This White House is operating under a cloud of secrecy, and the American people have lost the ability to trust them."
Late last week, commission leaders invited Cheney to provide intelligence reports that would buttress the White House's insistence that there were close ties between Hussein and al Qaeda, a commission member said. Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean and Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton told the New York Times they wanted to see any additional information in the administration's possession after Cheney said Thursday in a television interview that he "probably" knew things about Iraq's ties to terrorists that the commission did not.
The panel also wants to follow up its questioning of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and outgoing CIA Director George J. Tenet. The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that Tenet, who leaves office in July, had agreed to be re-interviewed, and the commission might submit written questions to Rice.
Many Republicans are furious about the commission -- though its members are evenly split between the two parties and it is chaired by a Republican appointed by Bush. They say that Bush was right to oppose the commission in the first place, and that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was right this year when he unsuccessfully fought an extension of the commission's deadline.
The panel has become "a tool for partisan politics," Rep. Eric I. Cantor (Va.), a member of the House Republican leadership, charged in an interview last week. "With the latest commission finding coming out that there were allegedly no ties between Hussein and al Qaeda, I think they are totally off their mission, and I think that's indicative of the political partisanship."
Bush so far has survived challenges to his war rationale, and most Americans believe the war in Iraq was worth fighting. Still, the debate over the war, and the credibility of Bush's justifications, has kept the president's reelection campaign on the defensive and limited coverage of favorable news domestically such as a steady improvement in the economy and jobs growth. "We're challenged by the fact that there's been so much in terms of world events that we haven't gotten much out" on the economy, a senior Bush campaign aide said. "How do we fight this wave of events in a very crowded news climate?"
Indeed, the past four announcements of expanding payrolls have been overshadowed. The commission and its related disputes, said Republican pollster David Winston, are "complicating things, because this administration wants to get out information about how the economy is doing."
Bush aides have sought to blunt the Democratic offensive not by challenging the commission's findings but by arguing that Kerry and the media have mischaracterized the findings. The White House issued a 1,000-word document titled "TALKING POINTS: 9-11 Commission Staff Report Confirms Administration's Views of al-Qaeda/Iraq Ties."
"The 9/11 commission came to the same conclusion as the administration regarding ties between Iraq and al Qaeda," campaign communications director Nicolle Devenish said. She said this is Kerry's "desperate attempt to put a negative spin on what was broad consensus between the administration and the commission."
Similarly, Cheney, on CNBC, said the media had been irresponsible in reporting the commission's findings. "What they [the commission] were addressing was whether or not they [Iraq] were involved in 9/11," he said. "They did not address the broader question of a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda in other areas, in other ways."
In fact, commission spokesman Al Felzenberg on Friday confirmed that the commission was addressing the broader relationship. "We found no evidence of joint operations or joint work or common operations between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's government, and that's beyond 9/11," he said.
One reason for this sensitivity can be found in a poll last week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. The poll found improved support for Bush and for the Iraq war -- in large part because Americans have been paying less attention to the war and more to other issues, such as the death of Ronald Reagan. The commission, however, has helped to return national attention to the disputed justifications for the Iraq war.
In particular, the poll showed that Americans are beginning to decouple the war in Iraq from the war on terrorism -- a belief that could be aided by the commission's dismissal of cooperation between Iraq and al Qaeda. Still, Andrew Kohut, who directs the poll, predicts Bush will be able to keep al Qaeda and Iraq tied in the public's mind; about half believe such a connection has been proved, various polls indicate. "So many people believe it because he's saying it," Kohut said. "Bush's hanging tough on this gives him the credibility he has."
Democrats, however, hope to gain critical mass in their effort to convince the public that Bush is untrustworthy by extending the charge that Bush has misled the country not just about al Qaeda but about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the torture of prisoners in Iraq, and even the U.S. economy. In one sign of the assault, 27 former diplomats and military commanders -- some Republicans -- issued a statement last week condemning Bush's foreign policy as "overbearing," "insensitive" and "disdainful," and urging Bush's defeat.
Jim Jordan, Kerry's former campaign manager and now coordinator of an anti-Bush advertising effort, said the commission painted "a pretty startling portrait of administration fecklessness" -- and one that Democrats think they can turn into a major campaign theme.
"The issue," Jordan said, "is trust and [Bush's] competence."