March 26, 2004
In hawking his book and testifying before the commission investigating the September 11 attacks, former counterterrorism boss Richard Clarke testified that the Bush administration largely ignored the threat from al Qaeda prior to the attacks. Under softball questioning from a Democratic member of the September 11 panel, former Rep. Tim Roemer, Mr. Clarke asserted that there was "no higher" priority than fighting terrorism under former President Clinton, but that the Bush administration "either didn't believe me that there was an urgent problem or was unprepared to act as though there were an urgent problem." << 96 months/Clinton vs 8 months/Bush >>
But Mr. Clarke's assertions are contradicted by his own words. National Review editor Rich Lowry, for example, points out that, in his book, Mr. Clarke writes that forcing through a Middle East peace agreement was a higher priority for Mr. Clinton than retaliating for al Qaeda's attack on the USS Cole.
Moreover, in a Sept. 15, 2001, e-mail to National SecurityAdvisorCondoleezza Rice, Mr. Clarke outlined some of the major steps taken by the Bush administration in the summer of 2001 to put the nation on a higher alert footing in an effort to prevent a possible attack.
Mr. Clarke noted, for example, that on July 5, 2001, representatives of federal law enforcement agencies -- including the FBI, the Secret Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Customs Service, the Coast Guard and the Immigration and Naturalization Service -- were summoned to a meeting at which they were warned of a possible al Qaeda attack. "Thus, the White House did ensure that domestic law enforcement (including FAA) knew" of the possibility "that a major al Qaeda attack was coming and it could be in the U.S. ... and did ask that special measures be taken," Mr. Clarke observed in his e-mail to Miss Rice.
More damning to Mr. Clarke's credibility, in an August 2002 background briefing for journalists, reported Wednesday by Fox News, he explained in greater detail all the steps that the Bush administration took prior to September 11 to deal with the growing threat from al Qaeda (see below).
Just days after coming into office on Jan. 20, 2001, the Bush administration decided to "vigorously pursue" the Clinton policy of taking covert action, which could include killing Osama bin Laden. In the spring of 2001, Mr. Clarke noted in that background briefing, the new administration decided "to add to the existing Clinton strategy" by increasing five-fold CIA resources for covert action against al Qaeda. At that same briefing, Mr. Clarke also forcefully rebutted the assertion that the Bush administration's approach to the problem was motivated by a general animus toward the Clinton administration. "This is the one issue where the National Security Council leadership decided continuity was important and kept the same guy around, the same team in place," Mr. Clarke said. "That doesn't sound like animus against the previous team to me."
Mr. Clarke said that from Oct. 1998 until Dec. 2000, the National Security Council in the Clinton administration failed to make any new recommendations on how to deal with the burgeoning al Qaeda threat. By contrast, in the summer of 2001, Mr. Clarke said, the Bush administration changed U.S. policy from the "rollback of al Qaeda over the course of five years" to its elimination. All of these points, however, are ignored or glossed over in his new book -- which depicts the administration as laggards in dealing with the al Qaeda terrorist threat.
The emerging picture of Dick Clarke is one of a political chameleon and an impetuous man who is starved for attention after years of toiling anonymously in government bureaucracies. He points to his service in Republican administrations, and says he was a registered Republican in 2000 (credentials that make it easier to peddle a book bashing a Republican president). But a survey by Insight magazine, a sister publication of the Washington Times, found that his only political contributions in the last decade went to Democrats. T. Irene Sanders, executive director of a research group called the Washington Center for Complexity and Public Policy, described an odd encounter with Mr. Clarke several months ago, after he spoke at a luncheon on cyberspace security (see adjacent letter to the editor,). When she asked him a technical question he could not answer, he responded that they should write a book together, boasting that his publisher, Free Press, does a good job of obtaining publicity for authors.
But Mr. Clarke's enormous capacity for self-promotion and taking liberties with the facts may be catching up with him. Time magazine's online edition yesterday published a blistering review of his book and his endless television appearances. Mr. Clarke, the magazine concluded, has become so shrill in disparaging President Bush that he "undermines a serious conversation about 9/11." Time also criticized "the polemical, partisan mean-spiritedness that lies at the heart of Clarke's book, and to an even greater degree, his television appearances flacking it." We wholeheartedly agree.
|Clarke then . . .
Excerpts from the August 2002 press briefing by Richard A. Clarke:
RICHARD CLARKE: There was no plan on al Qaeda that was passed from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration ... In January 2001, the incoming Bush administration was briefed on the existing strategy. [They] decided to ... vigorously pursue the existing policy [and] ... initiate a process to look at those issues which had been on the table for a couple of years.
In their first meeting [the principles] changed the strategy by authorizing the increase in funding [for covert action against al Qaeda] five-fold, changing the policy on Pakistan, changing the policy on Uzbekistan, changing the policy on the Northern Alliance assistance. [They] then changed the strategy from one of rollback with al Qaeda ... to a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination of al Qaeda.
QUESTION: What is your response to the suggestion in the [Aug. 12, 2002] Time [magazine] article that the Bush administration was unwilling to take on board the suggestions made in the Clinton administration because of animus against ... the foreign policy?
CLARKE: I think if there was a general animus that clouded their vision, they might not have kept the same guy dealing with [the] terrorism issue ... There was never a plan [in the Clinton administration].
QUESTION: What was the problem? Why was it so difficult for the Clinton administration to make decisions on those issues?
CLARKE: Because they were tough issues. One of the big problems was that Pakistan at the time was aiding the other side, was aiding the Taliban. In the spring [of 2001], the Bush administration ... began to change Pakistani policy. We began to offer carrots, which made it possible for the Pakistanis ... [to] join us and to break away from the Taliban. So that's really how it started.
QUESTION: Had the Clinton administration ... prepared for a call for the use of ground forces, special operations forces in any way?
CLARKE: There was never a plan in the Clinton administration to use ground forces. The military was asked at a couple of points ... to think about it. And they always came back and said it was not a good idea. There was never a plan to do that.
QUESTION: You're saying ... there was no plan; two, there was no delay; and that actually the first changes since October of '98 were made in the spring months just after the administration came into office?
CLARKE: You got it ...The other thing to bear in mind is the shift from the rollback strategy to the elimination strategy. When President Bush told us in March to stop swatting at flies and just solve this problem, then that was the strategic direction that changed the [policy] from one of rollback to one of elimination.
|. . . and Clarke now
Excerpts from Mr. Clarke's testimony on Wednesday:
RICHARD CLARKE: My view was that this administration, while it listened to me, either didn't believe me that there was an urgent problem or was unprepared to act as though there were an urgent problem.
SLADE GORTON: In August of 1998, did you recommend a longer-lasting military response, or just precisely the one that, in fact, took place?
MR. CLARKE: I recommended a series of rolling attacks against the infrastructure in Afghanistan. Every time they would rebuild it, I would propose that we blow it up again.
MR. GORTON: And the goal of that plan was to roll back al Qaeda over a period of three to five years, reducing it eventually to a rump group, like other terrorist organizations around the world?
MR. CLARKE: Our goal was to do that to eliminate it as a threat to the United States ... The CIA said if they got all the resources they needed, that might be possible over the course of three years at the earliest.
MR. CLARKE Had we a more robust intelligence capability in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we might have recognized the existence of al Qaeda relatively soon after it came into existence. And if we had a proactive intelligence covert action program ... then we might have been able to nip it in the bud.
JAMES R. THOMPSON: Mr. Clarke, as we sit here this afternoon, we have your book and we have your press briefing of August 2002. Which is true?
MR. CLARKE: Time magazine ... implied that the Bush administration hadn't worked on that plan ... I was asked by several people in senior levels of the Bush White House to do a press backgrounder to try to explain that set of facts in a way that minimized criticism of the administration.
MR. THOMPSON: Well, let's take a look, then, at your press briefing, because I don't want to engage in semantic games ... Are you saying to me that you were asked to make an untrue case to the press and the public and that you went ahead and did it?
MR. CLARKE: No, sir.
MR. THOMPSON: Mr. Clarke, in this background briefing ... for the press in August of 2002, you intended to mislead the press, did you not?
MR. CLARKE: No ... No one in the Bush White House asked me to say things that were untruthful, and I would not have said them.
MR. THOMPSON: But what it suggests to me is that there is one standard — one standard of candor and morality for White House special assistants and another standard of candor and morality for the rest of America. I don't get that.
MR. CLARKE: I don't think it's a question of morality at all. I think it's a question of politics.