March 29, 2004
Thompson gets mixed reviews for work on 9/11 panel
By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON - When Richard Clarke appeared this week before the independent commission examining the government's actions before and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, former Illinois Gov. James Thompson took on the role of White House attack dog.
For a man who has stayed pretty much out of the partisan wars after his stint as Illinois' longest-serving governor, it was an unaccustomed role, one that delighted Republicans and annoyed Democrats.
And the initial reviews were not all kind to Thompson, 67, who left state office in 1991 and now chairs the Winston & Strawn law firm of Chicago.
Family members of those who lost their lives Sept. 11, 2001, pointedly applauded Clarke after he clashed with Thompson.
Steve Push, whose wife, Lisa Raines, was killed on American Airlines Flight 77, said, "I don't think Governor Thompson was successful" in discrediting Clarke.
But Tripp Baird, director of Senate relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation, praised Thompson's aggressive questioning.
"I don't think Thompson was out of line when he nailed (Clarke)" on the contradictions in his testimony, said Baird, who predicted that Clarke's testimony would do little to sway the panel.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Thompson was doing the bidding of "his client at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."
The controversy over Thompson's behavior is just a small part of the furor triggered by Clarke's just-released book examining the anti-terrorist actions of both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Thompson didn't return a call seeking comment for this story.
Thompson, one of five Republicans on the 10-member commission, repeatedly tried to point out contradictions in the statements by Clarke, formerly the Bush administration's highest-ranking counterterrorism official.
At one point, Thompson held up Clarke's book, which alleges President Bush didn't do enough to protect the country from terrorism, and a transcript of a 2002 press briefing in which Clarke gave a positive view of the Bush administration's efforts.
"Which is true?" Thompson asked Clarke, who also worked for the Clinton, Reagan and first Bush administrations. Thompson implied Clarke had changed his tune to sell his book or score political points.
"I was asked to highlight the positive aspects of what the administration had done and to minimize the negative aspects of what the administration had done," Clarke responded. "And as a special assistant to the president, one is frequently asked to do that kind of thing. I've done it for several presidents."
The audience laughed.
When Clarke said he thought it was unrealistic to expect an assistant to the president to criticize the administration publicly, Thompson said, "What it suggests to me is that there is one standard - one standard of candor and morality for White House special assistants and another standard of candor and morality for the rest of America."
Clarke replied: "I don't think it's a question of morality at all. I think it's a question of politics."
The room erupted in applause from the families of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and, as was noted sharply in the next day's Washington Post, Thompson left the room soon after.
Several relatives of the victims said they thought Clarke had held his own in the exchange.
Colleen Kelly, who lost her brother, Bill Kelly Jr., in the World Trade Center attack, said Clarke answered Thompson's questions "pretty well." But she said the most compelling part of Clarke's testimony on Wednesday was his moving apology to the family members.
Neither Kelly nor Push was surprised by the partisan nature of the commission members' questioning.
"How could it be otherwise in an election year?" asked Gordon Adams, who teaches international affairs and national security at George Washington University and who worked with Clarke in the Clinton administration.
"You're asking 10 people, all of whom have known party affiliations, to hold their party loyalties in check for an investigation of an issue that is smack dab in the middle of a presidential campaign. It's almost too much to ask for them not to be partisan in some way."
While other Republicans also took shots at Clarke, and several Democrats praised him, Thompson's line of questioning appeared to be "the most egregiously partisan," Adams said.
But, he added, "I don't think Thompson laid a glove on him."
The sharp partisan tone of the hearings left Adams and others wondering whether the commission can reach any meaningful conclusions.
Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, a member of the House Intelligence Committee who opposed creation of the independent commission, said: "I don't think there will be any new revelations."
Clarke's "kiss-and-tell" book, as LaHood described it, "really poisons the opportunity to keep politics out" of the commission's report. LaHood said Thompson's questioning was no more partisan than that of the Democrats on the commission.
Noting the audience reaction to Thompson's questions, Georgetown University government affairs professor Stephen Wayne said the former governor "seemed to get the short end of the stick. ... He upped and left after that. I guess he was unhappy or mad or angry."
Durbin said he still hopes the commission will produce a fair report. He said he has confidence in both the Republican chairman, Thomas Kean, former governor of New Jersey, and Democratic vice chair Lee Hamilton, a former U.S. House member from Indiana.
Adams said the Republican attacks on Clarke could backfire if the American public perceives them as attacks on his character rather than the merits of his allegations.
"I don't believe for a minute that Clarke is partisan," Adams said. "He's not the easiest person in the world to work with, but he's not someone who is going to lie for partisan advantage."
A poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, conducted March 22-24, showed significant interest in Clarke's allegations. About 89 percent had heard of his criticism. Of the 1,065 Americans polled, 42 percent said they had heard "a lot" about the criticism, while 42 percent said they had heard "a little."