It cannot have escaped anyone's attention that the Bush administration has spent the better part of the week in full counterattack mode against Richard Clarke, the former White House antiterrorism czar who says the president and his senior officials greatly underrated the threat from Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in the months leading up to 9/11. Nearly everyone of consequence in President Bush's inner circle appears to have been requisitioned to challenge Mr. Clarke's integrity and motives, accusing him of everything from trying to drum up sales for his new book to auditioning for a job in a John Kerry administration. The field of critics is so crowded that they're tripping over each other, as when Condoleezza Rice felt obliged to correct Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion that Mr. Clarke had never been "in the loop."
Though this is not a terribly productive strategy - indeed, it makes the administration look worse, not better - it is perfectly O.K. for the White House to keep an instant-response team at the ready. It has a right to respond quickly and forcefully to accusations it regards as unfair. Some of Mr. Bush's predecessors were certainly no slouches in that regard. When cornered, the Clintons and their spinners could retaliate with the best of them.
The problem here, though, is that Mr. Bush's team is so preoccupied with defending his image as a can-do commander in chief that it has no energy left to engage the legitimate questions that have been raised by Mr. Clarke and by others who have appeared before the independent 9/11 commission. These questions are not, as the Bush people seem to assume, aimed solely at the current administration. As an analysis yesterday in The Times pointed out, two presidents in a row were unable to stop Al Qaeda and capture its leader. The trail of fumbles and stumbles - the intelligence lapses, bureaucratic foul-ups, policy miscalculations and all the rest - began well before Mr. Bush's inauguration.
The White House is so thin-skinned and defensive, however, that it simply cannot bring itself to join what ought to be a grown-up national conversation of how best to deal with terrorism. Its schoolyard name-calling does no one any good, least of all Mr. Bush, who is made to appear far more interested in undermining Mr. Clarke's credibility than in addressing the heart of his critique.