WASHINGTON — President Bush on Tuesday accused unnamed people of leaking part of a classified intelligence report on Iraq as an act of political sabotage, intended to "create confusion in the minds of the American people" in advance of the November elections.
Bush's assertion, along with his decision to release portions of the same report in response to the leaks, were the clearest signs yet that the ongoing debate over the Iraq war and its effect on U.S. security has grown to a fever pitch as Republicans and Democrats struggle to shape public opinion before election day.
"Here we are, coming down the stretch of an election campaign, and it's on the front page of your newspaper," Bush said, referring to news stories Sunday on the intelligence report, which said the Iraq war, among other factors, was fueling an expansion of Islamic terrorism. "Isn't that interesting? Somebody's taken it upon themselves to leak classified information for political purposes."
Bush's comments were the latest episode in a string of highly public and politically charged clashes over national security that both major parties believe have implications for the elections. They have included a fight over whether President Clinton took sufficient anti-terrorism steps during his time in office, disputes on Capitol Hill over interrogation and domestic wiretapping laws, and differing interpretations of the classified intelligence report.
With Congress entering its final days before adjourning for the fall election campaign, the two parties are fighting over which image will be uppermost in voters' minds on Nov. 7: that the U.S. has taken the terrorism challenge head-on by invading Iraq, or that the invasion and its bloody aftermath have left the United States less safe.
Clinton has become embroiled in the debate, marking a rare foray by a former president into a current political fight. In an interview that aired Sunday on Fox News Channel, Clinton fiercely defended his efforts while in office to stop terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and, in an unusually sharp rebuke of Bush's policies, argued that the administration that followed his had ignored Bin Laden until the Sept. 11 attacks.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accused Clinton of making "flatly false" claims about the Bush administration's efforts against Bin Laden when she was asked about the former president's remarks Monday by the New York Post.
Democrats in past years have been reluctant to challenge the GOP on national security matters, because the issue has benefited Republicans in recent cycles and Democrats have been divided on Iraq. On Tuesday, they made it clear that they intended to fully engage their rivals on the security front this time.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco argued, albeit unsuccessfully, for the House to go into private session to discuss the intelligence report on terrorism and call for a full declassification. And Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the former first lady and a possible candidate for president in 2008, not only defended her husband's handling of terrorism but went on to suggest that, had he still been in office, he would have heeded warning signs that she said were ignored by the Bush White House.
"I'm certain that if my husband and his national security team had been shown a classified report entitled, 'Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States,' he would have taken it more seriously than history suggests it was taken by our current president and his national security team," Sen. Clinton said. She was referring to a now-famous intelligence report delivered to Bush in the weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks.
The escalating debate over national security reflects the belief among strategists in both parties that the terrorism issue works to their benefit. The question is how voters will interpret each side's arguments.
Republicans have sought to portray Democrats as inadequate to the job of protecting the nation, pursuing an election-year strategy of trying to mobilize conservative voters in key districts by arguing that Democrats would "cut and run" from Iraq and thus embolden terrorists. Democrats, citing shrinking public support for Bush and the Iraq war in some recent polls, have tried to portray the administration as incompetent.
Even while clashing over the intelligence report and the leadership of former President Clinton, the two parties are jockeying for position on legislation this week in Congress that may give them strong arguments to take to voters. Pending votes on Bush's program of warrantless phone and e-mail surveillance, and even on building a security fence at the U.S.-Mexico border, will help shape what candidates in competitive House and Senate races will be telling voters about national security in the coming weeks.
But Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who leads Democratic strategy for House campaigns, said few developments would shape the debate like the newly revealed intelligence report.