The Partisan Peril explained

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 12, 2004

Commentary by Dick Morris

It is hard to believe, but recent polling by the Fox News Channel suggests that more than a third of American voters believe that the Bush administration is manipulating the terror warnings for political advantage. This ridiculous suspicion is the Democratic equivalent of those Republicans who labeled Bill Clinton’s rocket attacks in Afghanistan in the hopes of killing Osama bin Laden a wagging of the dog.

America is not helped, and is badly hurt, when our partisans do not observe common sense and the paramount necessity of defending the national interest in their political rhetoric. Words have consequences, and the excessive Democratic partisanship now – like the vitriolic Republican partisanship in the Clinton years – harms the national interest in clear and apparent ways.

Email newsletter signup

Besieged by critics who claimed that it was raising the terror threat to staunch Kerry’s momentum as he emerged from his convention, the Bush people felt obliged to release the fact that the British and Pakistanis had arrested al Qaeda computer guru Mohammed Nasin Noor Khan in Pakistan on July 13.

This unfortunate release of information reportedly crippled ongoing British efforts to use Khan – or at least his computer and e-mail – to communicate with, and therefore identify, his al Qaeda colleagues.

Once the terrorists read in the newspaper or saw on CNN that Khan was in Western custody, his usefulness to our intelligence services was fatally compromised. One British intelligence figure explained, in classic understatement, “It made our task more difficult.”

Why did the Bush administration feel obliged to reveal the source of the intelligence that impelled it to ratchet up the terror alert? Because the Michael Moores of the world would not respect the terror warning without proof – even if this evidence compromised efforts to get more intelligence.

Faced with the necessity of curtailing access to several key buildings in American and British cities, the administration could not just act, it had to explain why it was acting and reveal the secret of how it found out the terror plans.

This tragedy has its precedent in the loud cries of the Republican partisans that Clinton was manipulating foreign policy to distract attention from his impending grand jury testimony by launching missile strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan.

We now understand how important it was to try to kill bin Laden. Ever so politely, the 9/11 commission has bemoaned Clinton’s failure to approve other military operations that had a chance to kill the terrorist leader.

But could Clinton have done so? Could he have sent U.S. troops to Afghanistan to find bin Laden while he was on the impeachment griddle? As a practical matter, he could not. The Republicans were so suspicious of even the limited steps he did take that they persuaded many Americans that he was intervening to save his skin from the accusations related to impeachment.

Both then and now, partisans do a disservice to the American people.

Having worked at the White House, I know the obvious: That it is totally impossible to do something as public as raise a terror alert just for political purposes. Too many people are involved, and the circle of information is held too widely to get the kind of complicity necessary for so partisan a step. The newspapers would soon find out that the alert had no basis in intelligence and the resulting outcry would dwarf any which we have heard thus far.

If raising the terror alert helped Bush’s chances in November, it is because we do, in fact, live in a dangerous world and that if people trust Bush better to handle it, then they should vote for him. This political reality, not any artifice on the part of the administration, is what is at work in the days after the Democratic convention.

Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years.