When Bill Frist replaced the disgraced Trent Lott as the Senate majority leader last year, it seemed obvious that he possessed scant qualifications for the post. He had served only a single term in the Senate, without any great distinction. He had never even voted before he decided to run for the Senate, backed by his family wealth, in 1994. But the Tennessee doctor met the criteria cherished by Karl Rove: He is telegenic, articulate and utterly subservient to the White House. He displayed all those qualities, and more, when he rose on the Senate floor to denounce Richard Clarke on March 26.
In an ugly personal assault that must have thrilled the Fox News audience, Mr. Frist called Mr. Clarke’s critical new book, Against All Enemies , “an appalling act of profiteering.” He mocked Mr. Clarke’s “theatrical apology” before the 9/11 commission for failing to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. He distorted some of Mr. Clarke’s remarks and ignored the rest. He predictably echoed the White House sniping at Mr. Clarke’s credibility, and then he went still further.
The Senator strongly suggested that Mr. Clarke had committed perjury during his sharply critical testimony about anti-terror policy (or the lack thereof) in the Bush White House. “Mr. Clarke has told two entirely different stories under oath,” he charged.
That was a cowardly statement for which, as we now know, Mr. Frist can provide no factual justification. It was cowardly because the Senator’s accusation was plain, and he even seemed to threaten an inquest that might lead to criminal charges-while adding an “if” to cover himself. It was cowardly, too, because Mr. Frist’s utterances on the floor are privileged against the slander lawsuit that he might otherwise be forced to defend.
Within hours after the Frist speech, his spokesman was admitting to reporters that the majority leader possessed no actual evidence to support his accusations. Pressed for details, the spokesman said that some other legislators had called the majority leader after Mr. Clarke’s dramatic testimony before the 9/11 commission on March 24, complaining that his “tone” differed from what he had said before a joint Congressional investigation two years ago. He had no direct evidence, in other words, just hearsay.
Unsurprisingly, a number of Democratic legislators immediately leaped to Mr. Clarke’s defense, including Florida Senator Bob Graham and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Both had participated in the joint investigation and heard Mr. Clarke’s testimony; both said that his March 24 testimony had in no way contradicted his earlier statements.
On April 4, The Washington Post published a front-page analysis by Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank that upheld Mr. Clarke’s truthfulness, despite a few minor alleged errors in his book. According to The Post , “a review of dozens of declassified citations from Clarke’s 2002 testimony provides no evidence of contradiction, and White House officials familiar with the testimony agree that any differences are matters of emphasis, not fact. Indeed, the declassified 838-page report of the 2002 congressional inquiry includes many passages that appear to bolster the arguments Clarke has made.”
The Post reporters asked Eleanor Hill, the former staff director of the House-Senate intelligence committee inquiry, about the Frist accusations. She told them that she had listened to Mr. Clarke’s March 24 testimony and remembered his 2002 testimony.
“I was there, and without a transcript I can’t have a final conclusion, but nothing jumped out at me, no contradiction,” she said.
If those rebukes aren’t plain enough, consider what Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told George Stephanopoulos last Sunday on the ABC News program This Week . Like Mr. Graham and Ms. Pelosi, Mr. Lugar also served on the joint Congressional committee. Mr. Lugar didn’t recall any “substantial contradictions” between what Mr. Clarke had told that panel and what he said later to the 9/11 commission.
Of Mr. Frist’s harsh attack on Mr. Clarke, Mr. Lugar said dryly: “I really wouldn’t go there.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Frist already went there. Even before this sorry episode, he lacked credibility. Coming from a politician who wrote a quickie book to profit from the anthrax scare, his whine about profiteering is ludicrous. (Perhaps the majority leader envies Mr. Clarke’s success. Apparently, his bioterror book didn’t sell quite as well as Against All Enemies. Neither did his vanity tome on Frist family genealogy, which bore the self-parodic title Good People Beget Good People .) Coming from a millionaire whose family company grew bloated through Medicare fraud, his insinuation of dishonesty is laughable.
Unless he suddenly can bring forth evidence to support his accusations, Mr. Frist should apologize to the man he slandered. Then he should apologize to his fellow Senators and resign his post. Conduct that would be unbecoming in an obscure backbencher should be unacceptable in a Senate leader.
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