Is America at War? the Persistent Warnings of President George W. Bush That the United States Is in a Real War against Terrorism Have Lost Much of Their Impact as Both Well-Meaning Friends and His Political Adversaries Have Behaved as If the President's Top Priority Were Not to Win the War

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A subterranean river of leaks has undermined the war on terrorism and subverted contingency plans for replacing the brutal regime in Iraq, according to U.S. intelligence sources. They warn that this is just the beginning of ongoing efforts, some coordinated and some not, to subvert the administration of George W. Bush. And, say insiders, it is being made worse by White House political handlers who have been doing their best to distract public attention from the president's tough and repeated warnings that the country is at war. A deliberately cultivated atmosphere of normalcy has diluted the president's message, stripping his consistent pronouncements of their urgency.

The White House political and public-liaison staffs have failed to mobilize the president's grass-roots allies and constituent groups for the long, grueling fight ahead, say concerned friends of Bush. Poor White House relations with Congress meanwhile have allowed moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats to question the president's Iraq agenda, say House staffers, and failed to fortify conservatives who could act as surrogates for Bush on Capitol Hill and across the country. Fewer and fewer people can say with a straight face that the United States is at war.

The intelligence services may be working overtime, the armed forces stretched to their limits at levels of intensity sometimes not seen since World War II, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) and new homeland-security structures operating harder than ever to keep the public safe on the home front. But, despite all that Bush and his Pentagon team under Donald Rumsfeld can do, is the U.S. government really on a war footing?

"We're not appropriately at war by any historical standard," says foreign-policy historian John Tierney, a professor at the Institute of World Politics. In Tierney's view, it's a mistake for national leaders to pretend that all is normal despite the military operations against terrorists and what the president warns will be a "war" lasting years or even generations. "If you want to call today's situation normal, then you cannot be in a war. `Normal' at home by definition means that you're not at war. War is a profound interruption of daily life," Tierney says.

Meanwhile, White House insiders tell INSIGHT, political elements of the administration increasingly are perceived as catering to a carping, whining activist community that feels offended by what widely are regarded as legitimate security measures. Other senior administration officials confide that they are infuriated with the White House for ordering homeland-security chief Tom Ridge, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, FBI Director Robert Mueller and others to cater to the complaints of small but loud Muslim and Arab activist groups, which they say have invested their energy carping about how they have become "victims" of government abuse, racism and bigotry. "Who's making us do this?" demands an angry senior presidential national-security appointee.

Tierney says the very word "war" has become a cartoon. "Americans have cheapened the term," he says. "`War on drugs,' `war of the sexes,' `gang wars,' `war on poverty.' It's more than a semantic issue; it's a substantive one. Words that are used without any precise meaning lose their impact and power to compel. So polemicists say we're not at war since the president has not mobilized the people or even called for national sacrifice."

This isn't to say that the White House hasn't asked its natural constituencies for help. "President Bush put out a call some months ago for people and organizations nationwide to participate in the homeland-defense effort," says Jerry Newberry, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). "He's talked to various groups and people all around the country asking them to contribute in various ways. The VFW did meet with a member of the White House staff some months ago and, in fact, we volunteered our services in whatever way we could. …