War Stories

The Dogs That Didn’t Bark

Why Colin Powell and George Tenet aren’t bashing Richard Clarke.

Tenet: Speaking no evil

In the short story “Silver Blaze,” Sherlock Holmes solves the mystery of a stolen racehorse by observing that the stable’s guard dog didn’t bark—hence, the intruder was not a stranger.

The mystery of whether Richard Clarke is telling the truth about President Bush’s counterterrorism policies might be solved the same way: Which dogs aren’t barking? Amid all the administration officials bombarding the airwaves with denunciations, who has stayed mum?

The answer: Secretary of State Colin Powell and CIA Director George Tenet, and their silence speaks loudly.

Tenet is central to Clarke’s case that Bush was negligent on terrorism. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and others have said many times—in what they present as a defense against Clarke’s charges—that Bush received an intelligence briefing from Tenet every morning and was therefore well aware of the threat from al-Qaida. But Clarke’s point is that Bush didn’t take Tenet’s warnings seriously. Here’s a key passage from Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies (Page 235):

[Tenet] and I regularly commiserated that al Qaeda was not being addressed more seriously by the new administration. Sometimes I would walk into my office and find the Director of Central Intelligence sitting at my desk or the desk of my assistant, Beverly Roundtree, waiting to vent his frustration. We agreed that Tenet would ensure that the president’s daily briefings would continue to be replete with threat information on al Qaeda.

This is where the famous “swatting flies” story appears.

President Bush, reading the intelligence every day and noticing that there was a lot about al Qaeda, asked Condi Rice why it was that we couldn’t stop “swatting flies” and eliminate al Qaeda. Rice told me about the conversation and asked how the plan to get al Qaeda was coming in the Deputies Committee. “It can be presented to the Principals [the Cabinet secretaries] in two days, whenever we can get a meeting,” I pressed. Rice promised to get to it soon. Time passed.

If Clarke is spewing nonsense—if the president and his national security adviser really did consider al-Qaida an urgent matter—Tenet is the man to say so. It’s hard to imagine that the White House hasn’t tried to recruit him to do so. Yet so far he hasn’t.

Tenet is not the only quiet dog. One of the hounds that the White House did unleash—Secretary of State Powell—not only declined to growl, but practically purred like a kitten. Interviewed on Jim Lehrer’s NewsHour, Powell said: “I know Mr. Clarke. I have known him for many, many years. He’s a very smart guy. He served his nation very, very well. He’s an expert in these matters.” His book “is not the complete story,” but, Powell added, “I’m not attributing any bad motives to it.”

Asked if he had been recruited to join the campaign against Clarke, Powell replied, “I’m not aware of any campaign against Mr. Clarke, and I am not a member.”

His choice of words here is fascinating. Note: He did not say “There is no campaign,” but rather “I’m not aware of any campaign.” As has been widely observed, Powell truly is out of the loop in this administration; it’s conceivable he is unaware. He then went on to say, “[A]nd I am not a member”—suggesting there might be a campaign, but he’s not part of it.

It may be a stretch to parse these words so closely. This was an interview, after all, not a written statement. Then again, Powell must have given some careful thought to what he would say. In any case, his answer doesn’t exactly amount to a denial of an anti-Clarke campaign. In fact, it’s a textbook case of the “non-denial denial.”

Powell also circled around an answer when Lehrer asked if Clarke was right in saying the Bush administration did not give “urgent priority” to fighting al-Qaida. He replied:

We knew that al-Qaeda was a threat to our country. We knew that the Clinton Administration understood this and was working against al-Qaeda. We did not ignore al-Qaeda. We spent a lot of time thinking about terrorism, what should we do about it. … We were working on terrorism and trying to understand it.

You don’t need to be a literary critic to realize that this is an amazing statement. In a few  sentences, Powell tells us that Clinton “understood” and “was working against” al-Qaida—while the Bush administration “did not ignore” al-Qaida (not quite the same thing) and “spent a lot of time thinking” about it and “trying to understand it.”

In the middle of all this, Powell managed to throw in the following: “I met with Mr. Clarke four days after I was named to be the Secretary of State.” Clarke has said, in his book and in many interviews, that he didn’t get a chance to brief Bush’s Cabinet secretaries on al-Qaida until one week before 9/11. In this context, Powell is telling Jim Lehrer that he met with Clarke even before the administration got underway.

Powell’s implicit support of Clarke is significant. In his book, Clarke portrays Powell as his ally in the administration’s internecine disputes over terrorism. He writes that when he briefed Bush’s transition team in January 2001, “Colin Powell took the unusual step … of asking to meet with … the senior counterterrorism officers from NSC, State, Defense, CIA, FBI, and the military. … When we all agreed at the importance of the al Qaeda threat, Powell was obviously surprised at the unanimity” (Page 228).

Three months later, at the first deputies meeting on terrorism, when Paul Wolfowitz challenged this view and insisted that Iraq posed the greater threat, Clarke writes, “Deputy Secretary of State Rich Armitage came to my rescue. ‘We agree with Dick. We see al Qaeda as a major threat and countering it as an urgent priority.’ The briefings of Colin Powell had worked” (Page 232).

Finally, the day after 9/11, when Donald Rumsfeld advocated “broadening the objectives of our response and ‘getting Iraq,’ ” it was Powell who “pushed back, urging a focus on al Qaeda.” Clarke writes, “Relieved to have some support, I thanked [Powell and Armitage]. ‘I thought I was missing something here,’ I vented. ‘Having been attacked by al Qaeda, for us now to go bombing Iraq in response would be like our invading Mexico after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.’ Powell shook his head. ‘It’s not over yet’ “(Pages 30-31).

If Powell has any disputes with this account—of his role, his position, the positions of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, or the conversations he and Armitage had with Clarke in January, April, or September 2001—he could have noted them in response to several of Lehrer’s questions during the NewsHour interview. Powell, too, didn’t bark.