ROBERT McILVAINE CAME prepared for a long day. He stumbled in late for a second round of hearings before the bipartisan commission investigating the 9/11 attacks, sliding into one of the first 12 rows reserved for victims' families. Two-and-a-half years after his son Bobby perished in the collapse of the World Trade Center, he'd learned how to navigate the corridors of power in search of answers. Despite the warm spring weather, he wore a khaki jacket-there's no telling about the air conditioning on Capitol Hill-and he carried both a cup of coffee and a box of Nilla Wafers.
He carried something else, too: a copy of Against All Enemies, the explosive new book by Richard Clarke, formerly the anti-terrorism czar in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Mr. Clarke would be testifying in a few hours, and his provocative account of the days before and after 9/11 was just one more bit of data to be considered.
"Understanding whether or not they screwed up means a lot to lessening my grief," he whispered to a reporter as the hearings droned on. Who exactly screwed up, and how? "It's very complicated," he answered, his jaw quivering. "My anger is not at Bush, but I think that it [al-Qaeda] was not their priority. I don't have as much anger as I had, and that is important."
If Mr. McIlvaine's anger has subsided over the years, however, the political firestorm over 9/11 has only grown more intense. With Iraq still unsettled and international terrorism far from conquered, polls show increasing skepticism over the president's handling of foreign affairs. Democrats, once wary of attacking a popular wartime president, now question Mr. Bush's decisions-and even his motives-at every turn.
Given the mounting doubts, the hearings of March 23-24 couldn't have been good news for the Bush-Cheney reelection team. No matter what the witnesses actually said, the television pictures of top administration officials being hauled in to testify on Capitol Hill could only reinforce the notion that something had gone terribly awry.
It was Mr. Clarke who came right out and said so. Until he took the hot seat on Wednesday afternoon, earlier witnesses had been remarkably unanimous, despite their political differences, that the 9/11 attacks could not have been foreseen or prevented. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld-along with their counterparts in the Clinton administration-testified that no one could have comprehended al-Qaeda's sophistication or launched an effective preemptive strike against a loosely organized foe harbored by a rogue government in Afghanistan.
Mr. Clarke, however, took a different view. He insisted that the Bush administration downplayed the terrorist threat, delayed coming up with a policy for dealing with terrorism, and ignored his repeated warnings simply because he was a holdover from the previous Democratic administration.
He made the same charges-and then some-in his book, which hit store shelves just as the 9/11 commission sat down for its historic inquiry. The timing was not lost on the White House. "He is bringing this up in the heat of a presidential campaign," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan, noting that Mr. Clarke is a close friend of a top adviser to presumed Democratic nominee John Kerry. "If he had some grave concerns, why didn't he come out with them sooner?"
If the timing of Mr. Clarke's charges seemed suspect, their content was nothing short of spectacular. He said national security adviser Condoleezza Rice appeared never to have heard of al-Qaeda until a transition briefing in early 2001; that the president pressured him to link Saddam Hussein to 9/11 when all the evidence pointed to Osama bin Laden; and that the White House calibrated its response to the attacks with an eye toward political gain.
"The [Iraq] crisis was manufactured, and Bush political adviser Karl Rove was telling Republicans to 'run on the war,'" Mr. Clarke wrote.
"The tragedy here is that Americans went to their deaths in Iraq thinking that they were avenging September 11th, when Iraq had nothing to do with September 11th," Mr. Clarke told Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes as part of the inescapable promotion for his book. "I find it outrageous that the president is running for reelection on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11, maybe. We'll never know."
This directly conflicts with a 2002 background briefing that Mr. Clarke gave to reporters about the Bush approach to terrorism. The Bush "process which was initiated in the first week in February  decided in principle in the spring to add to the existing Clinton strategy and to increase CIA resources, for example, for covert action, five-fold, to go after al-Qaeda.... Over the course of the summer [Bush officials] developed implementation details ... and then changed the strategy from one of rollback with al-Qaeda over the course [of] five years, which it had been, to a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination of al-Qaeda."
The other senior policymaker who served in both administrations, CIA Director George Tenet, confirms the different approach to the al-Qaeda threat. Mr. Bush, he told the commission, wanted daily face-to-face briefings from the CIA director-something Mr. Tenet did not do under President Clinton. CIA contact with President Bush was "a marked change," Mr. Tenet told the commission.
And strangely enough, Mr. Clarke himself didn't have doubts about other terrorist attacks that occurred on his long watch. In another 60 Minutes appearance in 2000, for instance, he defended the Clinton administration for failing to stop a terrorist attack on the USS Cole in which 17 sailors died. That attack, he insisted, showed "a great deal of sophistication" that made it impossible to predict or prevent. The "sophisticated" weapon in that instance was a single rubber raft laden with explosives, not four jetliners hijacked simultaneously to be flown into buildings.
Mr. Clarke's critique also showed other inconsistencies. He used to be much more hawkish in going after countries believed to have weapons of mass destruction-the Bush administration's top argument for invading Iraq. In 1998, for instance, he helped drive the decision to bomb a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant that the Clinton administration suspected of producing nerve gas. An investigation later revealed the plant was producing baby formula, and the United States quietly paid reparations to the owner of the plant, Saleh Idris.
Still, Mr. Clarke was unapologetic. "We should have a very low barrier in terms of acting when there is a threat of weapons of mass destruction being used against American citizens," he told The Washington Post in April of 2000, defending the Sudan bombing decision. "We should not have a barrier of evidence that can be used in a court of law."
Although he blasts the Bush administration for linking Iraq to the attacks of 9/11 despite the flimsiest of evidence, Mr. Clarke has been known to do the same thing himself. In 1996, after terrorists bombed a U.S. military-housing complex in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Clarke tried to pin the blame on Iran. Anthony Lake, then national security adviser to President Clinton, overruled Mr. Clarke's conspiracy theory, saying that the case against Iran was circumstantial at best.
Finally, Mr. Clarke in recent years seemed to raise his expectations of just how successful the fight against terrorism should be. He told the 9/11 panel that he wanted to make the elimination of al-Qaeda an official policy of the Bush administration, but was rebuffed by his superiors. "I was told ... that was overly ambitious and that we should take the word eliminate out and say 'significantly erode,'" he complained.
Under the Clinton administration, however, that same objective appeared to be good enough for Mr. Clarke. "Our goal should be to so erode [bin Laden's] network of organizations that they no longer pose a serious threat," he told The Washington Post four years ago, shortly after the Cole bombing. Elimination appeared to be out of the question.
What remains very much in question is how the Clarke book-coupled with the final report of the 9/11 commission, due out in July-will affect the presidential race. Some family members of 9/11 victims say they, like the average voter, are still making up their minds.
"I would never ever under any circumstances vote for Bush, but I'm not sure I'd vote for John Kerry," whispered Mr. McIlvaine, who has been active in September 11th Families for a Peaceful Tomorrow, a pacifist group. The old anger, evidently, has yet to completely disappear. The trick for the Bush campaign, as Election Day creeps closer, is to avoid any new anger among the broader public-and any new bombshells by disgruntled former employees.