WASHINGTON – From the moment Richard Clarke (search) slipped into the witness chair, his credibility was on trial — and the verdict could weigh heavily on President Bush's re-election prospects.
"To those who are here in the room, to those who are watching on television, your government failed you," the top counterterrorism official for Presidents Clinton and Bush told families of the Sept. 11 victims. "Those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you."
But the flash of humility swiftly gave way to damning testimony that cut to the heart of Bush's re-election strategy. Addressing a bipartisan panel, Clarke said the Bush administration failed to show proper urgency toward terrorism before Sept. 11 and softened the nation's approach to al-Qaida.
It didn't take long for the White House and its allies to realize they had a problem on their hands.
"It stunts the momentum Bush was picking up," said Republican consultant Keith Appell of Washington. "Any president or candidate for president has to maintain their credibility."
Especially on a signature issue. And the war on terrorism is Bush's political bread and butter.
Public trust in the president's judgment was relatively high after the terrorist attacks and spiked up again during the Iraq war. But the percentage of people who trust Bush has fallen below 50 percent in some polls since the war with Iraq. The president's job approval rating dipped sharply after weapons inspector David Kay (search) said in January that he did not believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
With his credibility under further assault by Clarke, Bush and his allies tried to turn the tables. They accused Clarke of rewriting history to sell copies of his tell-all book.
"I hope you resolve that credibility problem, because I hate to see you shoved aside in the presidential campaign as an active partisan trying to shove out a book," said panel member John Lehman, a Republican.
Even before Clarke spoke, there was an attempt to pre-empt his testimony.
Republican former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson (search) asked CIA director George Tenet (search) whether he had ever been dissatisfied with the pace of preparation of an anti-terrorism plan by the new Bush administration in 2001.
"No," Tenet said.
And in an extraordinary move, the White House outed Clarke as the anonymous official who had defended Bush's anti-terrorism strategy to reporters in 2002. In that session, arranged by the White House, Clark was asked whether the Bush administration had been unwilling to accept Clinton White House suggestions on terrorism because of animus against its Democratic predecessor's foreign policies.
"I think if there was a general animus that clouded their vision, they might not have kept the same guy dealing with (the) terrorism issue," Clarke said, according to the White House transcript.
Yet in his testimony Wednesday, Clark accused the Bush administration of spurning suggestions that it retaliate for the bombing of a U.S. warship "because it happened on the Clinton administration's watch."
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (search), who has refused to testify in public before the panel, summoned reporters to her office to accuse Clarke of changing his tune on anti-terrorism planning.
"Either he gave us a plan or he didn't," she said. "He can't have it both ways."
The Bush White House has a history of attacking those who attack the president. The list includes Gen. Eric Shinseki (search), who told Congress that postwar Iraq would require a massive presence of U.S. troops; former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who questioned Bush's use of U.S. intelligence; and Richard Foster, who differed with the White House on the cost of Bush's prescription drug plan.
Bush's allies say Clarke gave the White House no choice.
"They can't just sit there and take a beating," said Glen Bolger, a GOP pollster in Alexandria, Va. "They've got to come out and respond to this guy. In a case like Clarke, it's easier when history is on your side."
Appell, the GOP consultant who said Clarke's testimony hurt Bush in the short run, said he believes Democrat John Kerry's problems with credibility eventually will overcome any damage done to Bush. Leading with a multimillion TV ad campaign, Bush is trying to cast his Democratic rival as a flip-flopping opportunist.
"I still think people will look to Bush as the one who best protects us in a time of war and leads that war against terrorists," Appell said.
With the economy ailing, Bush wants to keep voters focused on the threat of terrorism. Polls consistently show that while a majority of voters think Kerry is best suited to create jobs, most trust Bush to protect the country.
Clarke told the panel he was not working for Kerry and had no political motivations. He said he had voted Republican in the 2000 election and had worked for Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush.
"I will not accept any position in the Kerry administration should there be one," he said.
Whether there will be one may hinge on the questions Clarke raised.