The House and Senate leadership doesn't have enough time to take up the 9/11 commission's recommendations about overhauling the nation's terror fighting network until next year, but the House Government Reform Committee can find the time to squeeze in an investigation of Sandy Berger before the election.
Republicans are acting like Berger is the worst threat to national security since Julius Rosenberg. You'd think Berger was charged with passing nuclear secrets to Iran. He is guilty of removing copies of classified documents from the National Archives--and of serving in the Clinton White House as national-security adviser, which is enough to re-activate the right-wing scandal machine.
This is much ado about very little. "Between jaywalking and Julius Rosenberg, this is closer to jaywalking," says a Senate aide on the Republican side.
This is not to apologize for what Berger did. He showed incredibly poor judgment in his handling of sensitive material, even if it was inadvertent, as he claims. He magnified his misjudgment by continuing to advise the Kerry campaign on foreign policy while he was under investigation by the Justice Department for a security breach. Did he really think that in today's partisan climate, with the two parties gearing up for the nastiest battle ever, his little imbroglio could be kept secret?
In the White House, Berger was known as a worrier with his antennae tuned to potential political problems. As far back as January, Berger alerted former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart that his damage-control services might be needed. By keeping the Kerry campaign in the dark, Berger wasn't thinking about the candidate. In a classic Washington case of hubris overcoming judgment, he was looking to protect his berth in a Kerry administration.
Still, Republicans should beware of overreaching. Berger didn't remove any original documents or do anything to imperil national security. The originals of everything he examined are safely stored at the archives. "This is the national-security equivalent of the Gary Condit story," says a Senate staffer, recalling the media frenzy over the California congressman's relationship with a missing intern in the months before 9/11. While the press chased Condit, implying he was a murderer, Osama bin Laden put the finishing touches on his audacious plan to attack America.
The timing of the Berger leak blunted the impact of the 9/11 commission report. "Instead of getting a straight right hand to Bush, it's a glancing blow," says Lockhart. The commission found no collaborative relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda. It was Iran--not Iraq--that gave aid and comfort to Al Qaeda. Iran allowed some of the 9/11 hijackers to pass through their territory on their way from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia without having their passports stamped, smoothing their entry into the United States without arousing suspicion.
The commission's findings could be devastating for Bush's re-election campaign. Bush embraced the findings about Iran as vindication for citing Iran as part of the axis of evil. But Bush's credibility is damaged. The 9/11 commission report raises the question: did we invade the wrong country? The late-night talk shows are in synch with the zeitgeist of the country, and they went to the heart of the matter with a joke. Did we go to war over a typo?
With American deaths in Iraq reaching 900, more people are questioning the justification for the war. Did invading Iraq make us safer? The November election will turn on the answer to that question. Bush says he took the fight to Iraq so we could fight terrorists over there and not here at home, yet he warns us that a catastrophic attack on the homeland is likely between now and November. Which is it?
Kerry goes to Boston next week in a stronger position than any recent Democratic challenger. The party is united in its determination to beat Bush, and liberals and New Democrats alike are delighted that John Edwards is on the ticket. Yet Kerry might as well be emerging from a cocoon when he takes the stage to accept the nomination on Thursday night. For all the millions he's raised and the countless campaign trips, he hasn't said anything memorable enough or significant enough to enter the public consciousness.
If the American people decide to fire Bush, will they hire Kerry? He's got to show he's strong enough, that he can connect enough to the American people, and that he has a real plan--a vision--for where he would take the country. "He has to nail the speech, and that's it," says Lockhart.
Bush's job is far more difficult than Kerry's. People already know Bush, and at this late stage, he has yet to lay out an agenda for another four years. It is reminiscent of his father who, after his war victory declined in significance, had no vision to offer the country. Bush goes into the fall with the centerpiece of his campaign in disarray. Where he once exulted in being the "war president," Bush now says he wants to be the "peace president."
Bush caught a break this week with the Berger revelations, but Democrats are on the march. As a Senate Democrat put it, "If we can't beat Bush and Cheney after all this, we don't deserve to exist as a party."