The nasty fight between Richard Clarke and manifold Bush officials quickly took on a “he said/she said” quality as greater violence enveloped Iraq.  National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice gave a strong performance before the September 11 Commission, but the celebrated August 2001 briefing memo warning of an Al Qaeda attack weakened her case.

Neither side likely possesses a monopoly on the truth.  Both seem to possess selective memories.  The Bush administration, however, starts with a self-inflicted disadvantage, which even its supporters overlook at their peril: The President has routinely undercut his own credibility.

For instance, while Mr. Clarke was making his case before the September 11 Commission, Medicare’s chief actuary, Richard Foster, was telling the House Ways and Means Committee that he shared estimates of the burgeoning cost of the proposed Medicare drug bill with administration officials last summer.  Yet former Medicare administrator Thomas Scully threatened to fire Foster if the latter released the estimates to Congress.  “We can’t let that get out,” Foster says Scully told him.  Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has  reluctantly ordered an investigation, but that is not nearly enough.

Scully has denied the charge, claiming that his threat to fire Foster was made in jest, but he does admit that he ordered  Foster to stonewall Congress at one point because, Scully believed, Democrats would use the estimates to political advantage.

Foster warned that the legislation would cost an extra $100 billion to $200 billion over its first ten years, an increase of between 25 and 50 percent.  Had Congress learned the truth, legislators would likely have killed the proposal, which passed by just five votes.

Indeed, conservative Republicans, many of whom voted in favor of the bill only under enormous pressure from the Bush administration, were particularly insistent on limiting costs.  “I think a lot of people probably would have reconsidered because we said the $400 billion was our top of the line,” explains Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC).

Even so, only blatant intimidation allowed the GOP leadership to eke out a narrow victory.  Then came the Bush administration’s January admission, just weeks after the bill’s passage, that the legislation would cost at least one-third more  than expected—$534 billion instead of $395 billion.

Although the GOP Congress voted in 1997 to prevent the Clinton administration from hindering legislators’ access to the Medicare actuary, Bush-administration officials disclaimed any responsibility for alerting Congress to changing cost figures.  Last year, Scully said that the Medicare actuary worked for the executive branch and that he would release cost estimates “if I feel like it.”  He obviously did not.

Once the revised number emerged, Secretary Thompson said nothing: “I did not tell them because it was not my responsibility.”  Apparently, his only responsibility was winning votes by hoodwinking the people’s elected representatives.

The undisputed facts are bad enough, but the apparent threat to fire a federal employee for telling the truth to Congress is outrageous.  So far, however, President Bush has said nothing about the matter.

Equally serious is the WMD fiasco.  The President, Vice President, secretary of state, and secretary of defense painted a veritable arsenal of horrors: nuclear-weapons programs, anthrax, biotoxins, chemical weapons, nerve agents, smallpox, biological-weapons trailers, unmanned aerial vehicles, long-range ballistic missiles, and more were being developed in Iraq for use against America.

Said President Bush: “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.”  And this threat was direct, imminent, significant, urgent, gathering, and mounting.  Indeed, said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “No terrorist state poses a greater or more immediate threat to the security of our people and the stability of the world.”

None of these claims were true.  Moreover, administration officials had reason to know, or at least to suspect, that many of them were false.  The CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, Air Force, State Department’s intelligence bureau, Department of Energy, and International Atomic Energy Agency all criticized various administration claims.  The top-secret “National Intelligence Estimate” on Iraq included some 40 caveats that were left out of the public version.  Moreover, the U.N. inspectors who were actively traversing Iraq found nothing.

The fact that the Bush administration and its supporters believe that other justifications for war were equally persuasive is irrelevant.  The President sold the war based on Iraq’s alleged possession of WMD’s.  As Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has acknowledged, the administration was split on Iraq’s connection to terrorism and believed humanitarianism did not warrant risking U.S. lives.  Eliminating WMD’s was the one cause in which they, and the American public, all believed.

Yet the President and his advisors have not accepted responsibility.  Rather, they have attempted to avoid the issue or pointed to WMD “program-related activities” as the equivalent of the massive stockpiles sufficient to kill millions of people that the President warned of in his State of the Union Address last year.  As a result, administration officials appear, at worst, to be conscious liars.  At best, they seem deceitful and manipulative.

That does not mean that Richard Clarke is right and the Bush administration is wrong.  It does mean, however, that many people are understandably suspicious of administration excuses.

Instead of attempting to trash Clarke’s reputation, the President should rehabilitate his own.  A verbal acknowledgement of responsibility for past misstatements would be nice.  Firing someone would be even better.  Coming up with a serious plan for disengagement from Iraq would be best.

Trust, once squandered, is hard to regain, which is why the President’s reelection is at risk.  Even if his supporters care about nothing other than winning in November, they should demand that administration officials begin accepting responsibility for their actions.