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It is perhaps a measure of the force of the assault on the Administration record that, in an exclusive interview with TIME last week, Vice President Dick Cheney came close to acknowledging that his team might have been more attentive to the terrorist threat before 9/11. "There are clearly some things that could have been done to be more effective," he allowed.
That uncharacteristically humble statement, however, came only after Cheney had used the opportunity to blast Clarke. "He's taken advantage of the circumstances this week to promote himself and his book." Cheney added, "I don't know the guy that well ... but judging based on what I've seen, I don't hold him in high regard." Other Bush figures accused Clarke, who is a friend of Kerry's chief foreign policy adviser, Rand Beers, of being partisan. Describing Clarke's apology for 9/11, a Bush adviser remarked, "It's political bulls___. It's great political bulls___, but it's political." The lead charge against Clarke was that he had changed his story over time (see box). Clarke had anticipated the assault, telling 60 Minutes, "They'll launch their dogs on me."
In the end, it was quite a pack. Even before 60 Minutes aired, White House communications director Dan Bartlett was countering Clarke's charges in interviews with the networks and cable news channels. Reporters also received a four-page rebuttal of Clarke's book by email from the White House. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who racked up the most Nielsen points, declined to speak publicly before the 9/11 commission, citing Executive privilege, but swung at Clarke for any reporter willing to listen. She even took the rare step of inviting unwieldy clutches of journalists into her vast but tidy West Wing office. "What's the Texas expression?" asks a Bush adviser, assessing the pell-mell response of the various Administration officials. "A hit dog yelps."
Republicans in Congress then took the highly unusual step of seeking to declassify closed-door testimony Clarke gave in 2002 before a congressional committee to determine whether his remarks back then contradicted what he told the 9/11 commission or wrote in his book. "It is one thing for Mr. Clarke to dissemble in front of the media," said Senate majority leader Bill Frist, "but if he lied under oath to the United States Congress, it is a far, far more serious matter." A number of Democrats who had heard Clarke's 2002 testimony came to his defense, saying they heard nothing then that was at odds with what he is saying now.
With all the dust flying around Clarke last week, the question of whether Washington appropriately handled the terrorist threat tended to get lost. That question is of course the one of greatest interest to the public in the wake of 9/11. TIME's guide to the main charges:
--Terrorism was not a top priority of the Bush team before 9/11