Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- A week after Bill Clinton lashed out at anchor Chris Wallace's questioning on "Fox News Sunday," prominent Democrats were still debating among themselves whether the former president's performance was good or bad for their party. However, they all disregarded a harsh but widely overlooked rebuke of Clinton the next morning.

On Sunday, Clinton assailed Wallace for "your nice little conservative hit job on me" in questioning his determination as president to get Osama bin Laden. On CBS's "Early Show" Monday, the head of the CIA's bin Laden unit during the Clinton administration, Michael Scheuer, said the al Qaeda leader "is alive today" because Clinton and his top lieutenants refused to kill him. "It's just an incredible kind of situation," said Scheuer, "for the American people over the weekend to hear their former president mislead them."

Scheuer's blunt remonstrance goes to the heart of what probably impelled Clinton's finger-pointing on national television. Rather than attempting to shape the midterm campaign, as Republicans believe, he was interested in protecting his legacy. No former president in the last half-century has seemed so sensitive to critical assessments of his tenure.

That was demonstrated in the recent New Yorker article about Clinton by the magazine's editor, David Remnick. He reported a 20-minute Clinton tirade, at a dinner with virtual strangers in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, about the Whitewater investigation that led to his impeachment. Earlier, Remnick described Clinton as "infuriated by the way the [Bush] administration's rhetoric painted anyone who criticized any aspect of its policy in Iraq as weak on national security."

Clinton grows doubly infuriated by implication of such weakness by him during his presidency. Although the intensity of his outburst against Wallace was unplanned, Clinton was ready to upbraid anybody who questioned his performance. Unexpected by the former president was a rebuttal, not by a Republican partisan, but a CIA professional never confused with being a Bush acolyte.

Scheuer resigned from the CIA in 2004 after 22 years' service to publish, at first anonymously, "Imperial Hubris" -- a withering assault on performances by both Clinton and Bush. As a critic of Israel and Saudi Arabia alike, Scheuer fits no conventional ideological mold.

In his role of CBS News terrorism analyst, Scheuer was asked Monday to comment on Clinton's Sunday performance and provided more than his questioner apparently bargained for. To claim that the CIA could not verify that bin Laden was responsible for the attack on the USS Cole, said Scheuer, "the former president seems able to deny facts with impunity."

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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