Clarke’s Collateral Damage

There is probably no single person in the decade before the September 11, 2001 attacks who labored more passionately than Richard Clarke to convince US political leadership of the dangers posed by bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Clarke began his career in the Federal Government’s Senior Executive Service in 1973 under Richard Nixon and has served the presidents in between in various capacities. During the Clinton Administration, Clarke served as chairman of the National Security Group, which coordinates the anti-terrorist activities of the Departments of State, Defense, and Justice. Ironically, Clarke was so persistently focused on Al Qaeda that he may have undercut his own credibility. Government officials familiar with Clarke were not sure whether he possessed the single mindedness of a genius or a nut.

It is easy to appreciate the reluctance of political leaders to act on Clarke’s recommendations. Undercutting Al Qaeda would require military action in Afghanistan, literally American boots on the ground. Until September 11, it was much easier, and perhaps more prudent, to believe that the terrorist threat from Al Qaeda could be managed by more aggressive intelligence gathering and law enforcement. It is hard to imagine any president would be so concerned about Al Qaeda prior to September 11 that he would have led the country into a difficult foreign war probably without allies.

By the mid-1990s, Clarke believed the Al Qaeda threat was sufficiently grave to justify the capture or killing of bin Laden. A similar consensus did not exist in the Clinton Administration. For example, despite zealous arguments from Clarke, the US did not accept Sudan’s offers to turn over bin Laden. The Justice Department was not convinced there was sufficient legal evidence to convict bin Laden. With the perfect clarity and wisdom of retrospection, this and other opportunities were lost.

With this prescient history, Clarke could legitimately assume the mantle of a prophet in the wilderness. The experience, judgments, and credibility he could have brought to the 9/11 Commission have now been squandered with his book Against All Enemies. There are real systemic issues about intelligence gathering and fighting terrorism that will now be lost in partisan battling. Before Clarke’s book and excluding some silly speculation by presidential candidate Howard Dean, there was little partisan effort to blame any particular Administration for September 11, 2001.

The few critiques of the Clinton Administration are at best second guessing, while the Bush Administration simply had too little time to come to grips with the situation. In his testimony before 9/11, Clarke even conceded as much. Clarke was specifically asked, “Assuming that the recommendations that you made on January 25th of 2001 which had been an agenda item at this point for two and a half years without any action, assuming that there had been more Predator reconnaissance missions, assuming that that had all been adopted say on January 26th, year 2001, is there the remotest chance that it would have prevented 9/11?” Clarke answered “No.”

It is now clear that the best way to stop Al Qaeda would have been to launch a pre-emptive strike against Al Qaeda and the Taliban years before September 11, 2001. It is more than ironic that many who now criticize Bush’s action in Iraq and the pre-emption doctrine in general seem to be suggesting that the US should have launched a pre-emptive strike. If Bush had launched such an attack against Al Qaeda and 9/11 had still happened (which is likely given that the attack had been two years in planning), the second-guessers who infest Washington like locusts would have blamed 9/11 on the pre-emptive action.

It is unprecedented for a national security official to write a critical book about an Administration that he served in while that Administration is still in office. National security is not supposed to be a partisan issue. Indeed, although Clarke had a high level position in the Clinton Administration, he was retained by the Bush Administration in the hopes of maintaining national security continuity. After the new precedent of Clarke’s book, if there is a Kerry Administration, it will likely sweep all former national security personnel away, sacrificing continuity for fear that a Bush partisan may use his or her access to later undercut Kerry Administration foreign policy. After Clarke’s book, we are now arguing about who to blame for September 11, when we should reserve anger for Al Qaeda. Too much energy is being wasted pointing fingers at each other.

The two most contentious arguments by Clarke are: (1) The Clinton Administration had no higher priority than anti-terrorism, while the Bush Administration did not appreciate the urgency of the threat. (2) The Bush Administration was too preoccupied with Iraq to the detriment of the fight against Al Qaeda. Clarke argues there was no relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

The first argument is so obviously untrue to even the most casual political observer that it must be disingenuous. Depending on your view of the Clinton Administration, the last months were preoccupied with either mediating negotiation between the Israelis and the Palestinians or arranging for pardons of political contributors. Anti-terrorism may have been important, even very important, but it certainly was not the highest priority of the Clinton Administration. Indeed, Clarke himself, in an incredible intellectual somersault illustrated that higher priorities did exist for the Clinton Administration. He explained in a Frontline interview that a specific response to the attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors was withheld for fear of derailing the Middle East peace process. Perhaps that was a wise decision at the time, but the fight against Al Qaeda was clearly not the highest priority as Clarke recently claimed.

In a 2002 press briefing, Clarke outlined how the Bush Administration was not content just to maintain the Clinton Administration policy of merely keeping Al Qaeda at bay, but it was willing to go aggressively after Al Qaeda. This implies that anti-terrorism was a higher priority in the Bush Administration. If Clarke’s previous testimony to Congress is declassified, we may learn for certain, that apparently, Clarke made similar positive representations about the Bush Administration under oath.

When questioned about the apparent contradictions by the 9/11 Commission, Clarke, in essence, said he was spinning to give a positive impression of Bush Administration policies in 2002. Clarke hints that to do otherwise would have jeopardized his position. What a self-damning statement. If one is willing to mislead to preserve one’s job, is the one also willing to publicly mislead to sell a book? Once Clarke admits to selling out the truth for personal aggrandizement, he devastates his own credibility.

In his 60 Minutes interview Clarke claimed there was never any connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq and criticized Bush for inquiring about such a relationship. Despite Clarke’s claim, and he should know better, there have been a number of connections, including a visit between bin Laden’s chief deputy in the Sudan to Iraq in1998. A chief suspect, Abdul Rahman Yasin in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings fled to Iraq. According to the Washington Post, Clarke himself made the association between Iraq and Al Qaeda as partial justification for the attacks on the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in August 1998. The attack was a response to the bombings of US embassys in Africa by Al Qaeda.

It is not possible to look into another person’s soul, but Clarke’s own words are now at odds with the recent assertions in his book. Even when they are not contradictory they seem rancorous, bitter, and petty. Why else would Clarke suggest that someone as smart and experienced as National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice did not know about Al Qaeda until he told her? This latter assertion has since been disproved by pre-Bush Administration interviews with Rice.

Is Clarke just pushing a book to make money? Does he have partisan aspirations? Is he just angry at not having received a higher level position in the Bush Administration? Does he believe that Rice did not accord him sufficient respect? Did he take offense that CIA Director George Tenet rather than he provided the President Bush’s daily threat briefing. Perhaps Clarke is just a powerful mind that has gotten confused like a ship with billowing sails and no rudder. Whatever his current motivations, the public record of pre-2003 Clarke is irrefutably at war with the current Clarke. The collateral damage of this war has been to politicize the 9/11 Commission, to introduce unnecessary partisan rancor over a national security issue, and to insure there will be less national security continuity between Administrations of different political parties. Shame on Clarke.

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