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September 11 Warnings: The Damage from Too Much Damage Control

It didn't take long for the White House to try blasting the big news about September 11 warning signs off the front page. Vice-President Dick Cheney cautioned on May 19 that another terrorist attack was a near certainty. Two days later, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said terrorists "inevitably" will acquire and use nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. And the FBI reported late-May threats against New York landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty.

While predictions of future mayhem may have defused the first political crisis of George W. Bush's Presidency, the impact of revelations that Bush was briefed last August about possible al Qaeda hijackings will be felt in the months ahead. Instead of deflecting calls for more congressional oversight of intelligence agencies and a Cabinet-level homeland security office accountable to the Hill, the Bushies may have increased support for both.

In the short term, the President's popularity remains high. But the increased attention on terrorism warnings, past and present, will distract Bush from politically sensitive domestic issues. And emboldened Dems will challenge him on defense and security matters. "The aura of invincibility has been punctured," says American University historian Allan J. Lichtman. "The core of this Administration has been the war on terrorism, so it goes to the heart of everything he does."

Caught in the crossfire is National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Her image as a tough, savvy counselor was nicked May 16 by her jittery defense of the Administration at a press briefing. While most foreign-policy vets believe she's a victim of Monday-morning quarterbacking, Dems seek payback after years of GOP charges that Bill Clinton neglected homeland protection. "It's sure looking like the Clinton `hollowed-out military' is doing better than the Bush A-team foreign-policy crowd," says ex-Clinton political guru James Carville.

More evidence of a new mood on the Hill: a growing movement to give Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge broad powers and budget authority. One convert, Senator Olympia J. Snowe (R-Me.), says Cabinet-level status is needed "to prevent the type of bureaucratic snafus and failed coordination that have hampered our efforts to protect the homeland."

While the White House hasn't ruled out statutory authority for Ridge, it sees Democratic mischief-making behind efforts to create a blue-ribbon panel to review pre-September 11 intelligence gathering. When House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) announced his support on May 21 for the proposal by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), GOP partisans responded harshly. "It is my hope that Dick Gephardt would choose the path of patriotism over politics," said Republican Governors Assn. Chairman John G. Rowland of Connecticut.

Indeed, despite talk of wartime unity, politics is never far from the surface. Republicans worry that their advantage on the terrorism issue might be weakened now that 68% of Americans say the Administration should have disclosed the hijacking warnings earlier, according to a May 16 Gallup Poll. And Dems are hoping that a distracted President won't be able to shape the domestic agenda for the 2002 elections, from prescription drugs to corporate crime.

If a new round of attacks comes and post-September 11 measures seem inadequate, Bush faces even bigger political risks. The blame game then will make the current uproar seem like a fender-bender flap in a strip mall parking lot. Democrats are hoping to turn the spate of corporate scandals into a winning issue in the 2002 elections. There are some early signs for optimism: 63% of Americans say the Administration "always seems to do what the big corporations want," according to a May 14-16 Democracy Corps poll. And 76% say Bush policies have led to business abuses. But the Dems aren't trusted much more: Voters give them just a one-point edge when it comes to standing up to the special interests. To counter the AFL-CIO's "No More Enrons" campaign, a union watchdog is targeting labor leaders who made millions in profits from ULLICO, a union-backed insurance company that invested heavily in now-bankrupt Global Crossing. The conservative National Legal & Policy Center wants two ULLICO directors, Presidents Morton Bahr of the Communications Workers and Douglas McCarron of the Carpenters, to testify before Congress. But the attack on McCarron is not endorsed by the White House, which is trying to woo the union chief. Businesses are investing in new technologies in the name of homeland security. But West Coast dock workers say the technology push by ship owners in the Pacific Maritime Assn. is a ruse. The carriers argue that technology to track cargo would speed processing of containers, reducing the opportunity to tamper with them. The longshoremen, whose contract expires July 1, say owners want to ax jobs.

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