War Stories

Richard Clarke KOs the Bushies

The ex-terrorism official dazzles at the 9/11 commission hearings.

“You’re fired”

Richard Clarke made his much-anticipated appearance before the 9/11 commission this afternoon and, right out of the box, delivered a stunning blow to the Bush administration—the political equivalent of a first-round knockout.

The blow was so stunning, it took a while to realize that it was a blow. Clarke thanked the members for holding the hearings, saying they finally provided him “a forum where I can apologize” to the victims of 9/11 and their loved ones. He continued, addressing those relatives, many of whom were sitting in the hearing room:

Your government failed you … and I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn’t matter because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask … for your understanding and for your forgiveness.

End of statement. Applause. KO.

Among the many feckless or snarky statements that Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and White House spokesman Scott McClellan have issued about Clarke the past few days, the observation they’ve recited with particular gusto is that this disgruntled ex-official was in charge of counterterrorism policy during the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the attacks on the U.S.S. Cole, and the bombing of our East African embassies. Their implication was: How can this guy, who allowed so much bloodshed on his watch, be blaming us?

And so now here’s Clarke, in an official, nationally broadcast forum, announcing: I failed, I’m sorry, please forgive me. Which, as one member of the panel noted, is more than any official in the Bush administration has said to any victims of the far more devastating 9/11 attacks.

I am not suggesting that Clarke’s apology was cynical or purely tactical. I’m sure it was sincere. This is a guy who was obsessive about terrorism when he was the national coordinator for counterterrorism during the Bush 41, Clinton, and—briefly—Bush 43 administrations. His obsessiveness—and his frustration over the fact that his bosses didn’t share his sense of urgency—made him genuinely passionate about the issue and genuinely distraught when inadequate policies led to tragedy.

But in his 30 years of service in the upper rungs of the national-security apparatus, Clarke was such a formidable player of bureaucratic politics precisely because he combined eloquent advocacy and shrewd tactics. So, there’s little doubt that Clarke truly meant his plea for forgiveness—but also that he knew he was twisting his dagger into Bush a little deeper.

Three of the panel’s Republicans tried to throw some punches Clarke’s way, but they didn’t land.

James Thompson entered the ring with a swagger, holding up a copy of Clarke’s new book in one hand and a thick document in the other. “We have your book and we have your press briefing of August 2002,” he bellowed. “Which is true?” He went on to observe that none of his book’s attacks on Bush can be found anywhere in that briefing.

Clarke calmly noted that, in August 2002, he was special assistant to President Bush. White House officials asked him to give a “background briefing” to the press, to minimize the political damage of a Time cover story on Bush’s failure to take certain measures before 9/11. “I was asked to highlight the positive aspects of what the administration had done and to play down the negative aspects,” Clarke said, adding, “When one is a special assistant to the president, one is asked to do that sort of thing. I’ve done it for several presidents.”

Nervous laughter came from the crowd—or was it from the panel? The implication was clear: This is what I used to do and—though he didn’t mention them explicitly—this is what Condi Rice and Stephen Hadley are doing now when they’re defending the president.

John Lehman, Navy secretary under Ronald Reagan and a former colleague of Clarke’s, came out not just swaggering but swinging. The 16 hours of classified testimony that Clarke gave to the commission—and the six hours he testified before the joint congressional inquiry on 9/11—were nothing like what’s in the book. There is, Lehman said, “a tremendous difference, and not just in nuance,” adding, “You’ve got a real credibility problem!” You look like “an active partisan selling a book.”

Clarke began with a playful shuffle. “Thank you, John,” he said, to laughter. First, he denied that he’s campaigning for John Kerry and swore, under oath, that he would not take a job in a Kerry administration if there is one. Then he admitted there was a difference between his earlier testimony and his book. “There’s a very good reason for that,” he went on. “In the 15 hours of testimony, nobody asked me what I thought of the president’s invasion of Iraq.” The heart of his book’s attacks surrounds the war. “By invading Iraq,” he said, taking full advantage of Lehman’s opening, “the president of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terror.” End of response. Lehman said nothing.

In the second round of questioning, Thompson returned to the August 2002 press briefing. “You intended to mislead the press?” he asked, perhaps hoping to pound a wedge between the media and their new superstar.

“There’s a very fine line that anyone who’s been in the White House, in any administration, can tell you about,” Clarke replied. Someone in his position had three choices. He could have resigned, but he had important work yet to do. He could have lied, but nobody told him to do that, and he wouldn’t have in any case. “The third choice,” he said, “is to put the best face you can for the administration on the facts. That’s what I did.”

Well, Thompson asked in a bruised tone, is there one set of moral rules for special assistants to the White House and another set for everybody else?

“It’s not a question of morality at all,” Clarke replied. “It’s a question of politics.” The crowd applauded fiercely. To invoke another sports metaphor: Game, set, and match.