President Bush is playing supercharged hardball in going after his own former anti-terrorism chief, Richard Clarke. It's a risky strategy that shows the single-mindedness of Bush and his re-election team in trying to deflect politically damaging criticism.
Loyalty is a hallmark of Bush's administration, with the president and his top lieutenants quick to turn on those who stray from the fold.
A week after a broadside that questioned Democratic rival John Kerry's commitment to U.S. troops and fitness to be president -- standard operating procedure for the general election campaign -- Bush's re-election machine unleashed a shock and awe campaign designed to discredit Clarke.
Bush's leadership after the Sept. 11 attacks is the guiding theme of his re-election campaign, intended to suggest the nation is safer with him as president. Clarke's claim that Bush ignored the threat from Osama bin Laden and waged a pointless war against Iraq's Saddam Hussein directly challenges that argument.
In his book "Against All Enemies," Clarke predicted retribution from a White House "adept at revenge."
But Bush and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, are essentially following the same game plan that the late Lee Atwater -- an early political mentor of Rove's -- used to get the first President Bush elected in 1988: define and undercut an opponent early with a fusillade of negative attacks.
"This team is tough. You cross them and they go after you and raise questions about you and your credibility rather than what you have to say," said Thomas Mann, a scholar with the Brookings Institution.
Others who have fallen out of favor over Iraq include former economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni and former Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki. All voiced concerns about either the expense or number of troops needed to occupy Iraq. All were treated dismissively by the White House. All are gone, but their estimates proved accurate.
Former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV drew the administration's wrath by suggesting Bush exaggerated Saddam's nuclear capabilities. A federal grand jury is investigating whether a White House official illegally disclosed that Wilson's wife was a CIA officer to get back at him.
On the domestic front, Paul O'Neill was fired as Treasury secretary in December 2002 after publicly questioning the need for additional Bush tax cuts -- another core campaign issue for Bush.
Administration officials now are waging a behind-the-scenes campaign to discredit Richard Foster, a Medicare accountant who publicly said he was forbidden by his superiors from sharing with Congress a higher -- and more accurate -- cost estimate for the administration's Medicare program.
John DiIulio quit as director of Bush's office of faith-based initiatives in 2002, telling Esquire magazine that "Mayberry Machiavellis" led by Rove were basing policy only on re-election concerns. He later apologized for making what he said were rude remarks.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., stood on the Senate floor last week to urge Bush to stop the "character attacks" on Clarke, saying they recalled scorched-earth tactics that Bush and his allies used to defeat Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the GOP presidential primary in 2000, and Democratic Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia in the 2002 midterm elections.
The risk for Bush in aggressively challenging a former member of his own administration is that it could backfire. Clarke's book instantly became a best seller, and the White House counterattack is helping to give the allegations even wider circulation.
But administration defenders said it was important to rebut the charges quickly to ensure that they wouldn't linger unanswered.
"I think the American people do not believe that the president of the United States is pursuing a folly in the war on terror," and it is important to drive that home, said Bush National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Not every White House attempt at damage-control works. Last summer, White House officials tried to pin the blame on CIA Director George Tenet for not waving Bush off his State of the Union claim that Saddam was seeking uranium in Africa for nuclear weapons.
Political analysts rushed to proclaim Tenet a goner, but those obituaries proved premature. CIA memos suddenly surfaced showing that Rice and her top advisers had, in fact, been given just such a warning by the CIA -- months before Bush's speech.
Tenet, a politically wily Clinton administration holdover, remains on the job.
Copyright © 2004, The Associated Press