Howard Dean, whose penchant for off-the-cuff comments has proved both a strength and political liability, is facing a new flap over suggestions that President Bush had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Dean broached the possibility during a radio interview last week, but dismissed the notion in the same breath. A spokeswoman said Monday the former Vermont governor “obviously doesn’t believe it’s true.”
But the fact Dean alluded to a “theory” that Bush had received prior intelligence from Saudi Arabian sources -- which Dean called “most interesting” -- was enough to incite Republicans. The national party chairman, Ed Gillespie, issued a blistering attack on Dean over the weekend, calling his comments “reckless and irresponsible.”
During a Dec. 1 appearance on National Public Radio’s “Diane Rehm Show,” a nationally syndicated program, Dean was asked about a bipartisan federal commission that is investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. A caller urged Dean as president to “make sure there is a thorough investigation of 9/11.”
After saying he would do so, Dean suggested Bush “is suppressing evidence” that could aid the Kean Commission in its reconstruction of events leading to the terrorist attacks.
Leaders of the commission -- which is headed by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean -- have complained that the Bush administration has been too slow to provide access to key documents, and has intimidated witnesses by insisting that CIA and FBI observers attend sensitive interviews. The president has declined to turn over highly classified intelligence reports to the panel, despite threats of a subpoena.
“The most interesting theory that I’ve heard so far, which is nothing more than a theory ... it can’t be proved, is that [Bush] was warned ahead of time by the Saudis,” Dean said in the interview. He did not elaborate.
He defended the comment Sunday when asked by Fox News about his remarks. “We don’t know what happened,” Dean said. " ... I can’t imagine the president of the United States doing that. But we don’t know and it’d be a nice thing to know.”
Dean continued: “What we do believe is that there was a lot of chatter that somehow was missed by the CIA and the FBI about this, and that for some reason we were unable to decide and get clear indications of what the attacks were going to be. Because the president won’t give the information to the Kean Commission, we really don’t know what the explanation is.”
Republicans were quick to pounce on the Democrat.
“It’s unbelievable that he’s saying these things he himself says he doesn’t believe,” said Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “These comments are simply unbecoming from someone who seeks the highest office in the land.”
A group representing families of Sept. 11 victims condemned both sides Monday for politicizing the tragedy.
“It’s tasteless, absolutely tasteless,” said Lee Ielpi, a retired New York City firefighter and spokesman for the Coalition of 9/11 Families.
Ielpi, whose firefighter son died in the attack on the World Trade Center, noted that next summer’s Republican National Convention in New York will occur near the third anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.
Others said Dean’s comment fit a pattern of ill-considered statements that could damage the Democratic front-runner’s chances of winning the White House.
“It’s not because of the issues he chooses to address, but the way he sometimes phrases his standing on those issues,” Michael Sherry, a history professor at Northwestern University and expert on national security and public opinion, said Monday.
Sherry cited the controversy over Dean’s earlier comment on appealing to white Southerners who fly the Confederate flag. After balking, Dean apologized for that remark, saying he regretted the pain he “may have caused either to African American or Southern white voters.”
But Dean’s verbal missteps have done little to slow his momentum. In fact, his support seems to grow more fervent whenever Dean faces criticism -- from Republicans, Democrats or political pundits. Former Vice President Al Gore was expected to endorse Dean today.