WASHINGTON — Key congressional Republicans on Friday called for declassifying the testimony that former White House anti-terrorism chief Richard Clarke delivered behind closed doors to a congressional panel two years ago.
GOP leaders contended it would show whether Clarke's testimony in 2002 contradicted his recent public criticism of how the Bush administration dealt with terrorism before Sept. 11.
Clarke this week suggested the administration was not aggressive enough in addressing the threat posed by Al Qaeda before the Sept. 11 attacks. The former White House official's criticism, contained in testimony before an independent commission investigating the attacks, as well as in a new book, brought forth a torrent of attacks from administration defenders.
But congressional aides from both parties who were familiar with Clarke's nearly six hours of closed-door testimony on June 11, 2002, before a House-Senate panel said they did not believe his statements then were significantly inconsistent with his recent public statements.
The call for declassifying Clarke's old testimony, coupled with a harsh personal denunciation, came from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on the Senate floor. It escalated a political "he-said, he-said" that has inflamed debate from Capitol Hill to the presidential campaign trail about the Bush administration's actions before Sept. 11.
Bush has made his national security credentials a major theme of his campaign.
A White House spokesman said the administration was "working to accommodate" a request originally made by Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and endorsed by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on Friday to examine whether Clarke's testimony could be made public without compromising national security.
Goss' panel would probably need a vote of its members to approve declassification of the Clarke testimony, whether in whole or in part.
One congressional aide familiar with Clarke's testimony said: "They're grabbing at straws and throwing up a lot of chaff and hope they score."
Clarke spent many hours before the committee and provided a thick volume of testimony, the aide said. "But I think on the major issues, he's consistent. I don't think they'll find anything."
Bush allies charged during commission hearings this week that a 2002 news briefing by Clarke in which he defended the administration's pre-Sept. 11 actions detracted from the credibility of his criticism of Bush policies now.
"What it suggests to me is that there is one standard of candor and morality for White House special assistants and another standard of candor and morality for the rest of America," said former Illinois Gov. James Thompson, a Republican commission member.
However, Clarke retorted: "I don't think it's a question of morality at all. I think it's a question of politics."
Clarke parried questions about whether he had deliberately offered two versions of events by sketching out what he said were the realities of life in official Washington. As a member of the Bush administration, he had opted, he said, "to put the best face you can for the administration on the facts as they were, and that is what I did. And I think that is what most people in the White House in any administration do when they're asked to explain something that is embarrassing to the administration."
Roger Cressey, who works with Clarke at Good Harbor Consulting LLC, said Clarke's closed-door testimony would not contradict the book or his public comments.
"It doesn't contradict at all what he was saying," Cressey said. "You don't lie in a book. It's a red herring. What else are they going to do? It's the only way the Republicans can go on the attack and divert people away from the substance of the book" and Clarke's public statements.
Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he could recall "nothing inconsistent or contradictory" from what Clarke told the congressional panel privately and what he said publicly this week to the independent commission.
In his appearance Wednesday before the Sept. 11 commission, Clarke testified that while the Clinton administration treated Al Qaeda as an urgent threat, the Bush administration did not, preferring to focus on going to war in Iraq.
Delivering the latest and perhaps harshest attack on Clarke by the president's allies, Frist said: "Mr. Clarke has told two entirely different stories under oath." Frist contended that Clarke, in his 2002 appearance before the congressional panel, "testified under oath that the administration actively sought to address the threat posed by Al Qaeda during its first seven months in office."