War Stories

Dick Clarke Is Telling the Truth

Why he’s right about Bush’s negligence on terrorism.

Clarke: a credible critic

I have no doubt that Richard Clarke, the former National Security Council official who has launched a broadside against President Bush’s counterterrorism policies, is telling the truth about every single charge. There are three reasons for this confidence.

First, his basic accusations are consistent with tales told by other officials, including some who had no significant dealings with Clarke.

Second, the White House’s attempts at rebuttal have been extremely weak and contradictory. If Clarke were wrong, one would expect the comebacks—especially from Bush’s aides, who excel at the counterstrike—to be stronger and more substantive.

Third, I went to graduate school with Clarke in the late 1970s, at MIT’s political science department, and called him as an occasional source in the mid-’80s when he was in the State Department and I was a newspaper reporter. There were good things and dubious things about Clarke, traits that inspired both admiration and leeriness. The former: He was very smart, a highly skilled (and utterly nonpartisan) analyst, and he knew how to get things done in a calcified bureaucracy. The latter: He was arrogant, made no effort to disguise his contempt for those who disagreed with him, and blatantly maneuvered around all obstacles to make sure his views got through.

The key thing, though, is this: Both sets of traits tell me he’s too shrewd to write or say anything in public that might be decisively refuted. As Daniel Benjamin, another terrorism specialist who worked alongside Clarke in the Clinton White House, put it in a phone conversation today, “Dick did not survive and flourish in the bureaucracy all those years by leaving himself open to attack.”

Clarke did suffer one setback in his 30-year career in high office, though he doesn’t mention it in his book. James Baker, the first President Bush’s secretary of state, fired Clarke from his position as director of the department’s politico-military bureau. (Bush’s NSC director, Brent Scowcroft, hired him almost instantly.) I doubt we’ll be hearing from Baker on this episode: He fired Clarke for being too close to Israel—not a point the Bush family’s political savior is likely to make in an election season. (For details on this unwritten chapter and on why Clarke hasn’t talked to me for over 15 years, click here.)

But on to the substance. Clarke’s main argument—made in his new book, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, in lengthy interviews on CBS’s 60 Minutes and PBS’s Charlie Rose Show, and presumably in his testimony scheduled for tomorrow before the 9/11 Commission—is that Bush has done (as Clarke put it on CBS) “a terrible job” at fighting terrorism. Specifically: In the summer of 2001, Bush did almost nothing to deal with mounting evidence of an impending al-Qaida attack. Then, after 9/11, his main response was to attack Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11. This move not only distracted us from the real war on terrorism, it fed into Osama Bin Laden’s propaganda—that the United States would invade and occupy an oil-rich Arab country—and thus served as the rallying cry for new terrorist recruits.

Clarke’s charges have raised a furor because of who he is. In every administration starting with Ronald Reagan’s, Clarke was a high-ranking official in the State Department or the NSC, dealing mainly with countering weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. Under Clinton and the first year of George W. Bush, he worked in the White House as the national coordinator for terrorism, a Cabinet-level post created specifically for his talents. When the terrorists struck on Sept. 11, Condi Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, designated Clarke as the “crisis manager;” he ran the interagency meetings from the Situation Room, coordinating—in some cases, directing—the response.

Clarke backs up his chronicle with meticulous detail, but the basic charges themselves should not be so controversial; certainly, they’re nothing new. According to former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s account in Ron Suskind’s *  The Price of Loyalty, Bush’s top officials talked about invading Iraq from the very start of the administration. Jim Mann’s new book about Bush’s war Cabinet, Rise of the Vulcans, reveals the historic depths of this obsession.

Most pertinent, Rand Beers, the official who succeeded Clarke after he left the White House in February 2003, resigned in protest just one month later—five days before the Iraqi war started—for precisely the same reason that Clarke quit. In June, he told the Washington Post, “The administration wasn’t matching its deeds to its words in the war on terror. They’re making us less secure, not more.” And: “The difficult, long-term issues both at home and abroad have been avoided, neglected or shortchanged, and generally underfunded.” (For more about Beers, including his association with Clarke and whether there’s anything pertinent about his current position as a volunteer national security adviser to John Kerry’s presidential campaign, click here.)

Clarke’s distinction, of course, is that he was the ultimate insider—as highly and deeply inside, on this issue, as anyone could imagine. And so his charges are more credible, potent, and dangerous. So, how has Team Bush gone after Clarke? Badly.

To an unusual degree, the Bush people can’t get their story straight. On the one hand, Condi Rice has said that Bush did almost everything that Clarke recommended he do. On the other hand, Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing on Rush Limbaugh’s show, acted as if Clarke were a lowly, eccentric clerk: “He wasn’t in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff.” This is laughably absurd. Clarke wasn’t just in the loop, he was the loop.

Cheney’s elaboration of his dismissal is blatantly misleading. “He was moved out of the counterterrorism business over to the cybersecurity side of things … attacks on computer systems and, you know, sophisticated information technology,” Cheney scoffed. Limbaugh replied, “Well, now, that explains a lot, that answer right there.”

It explains nothing. First, he wasn’t “moved out”; he transferred, at his own request, out of frustration with being cut out of the action on broad terrorism policy, to a new NSC office dealing with cyberterrorism. Second, he did so after 9/11. (He left government altogether in February 2003.)

In a further effort to minimize Clarke’s importance, a talking-points paper put out by the White House press office states that, contrary to his claims, “Dick Clarke never had Cabinet rank.” At the same time, the paper denies—again, contrary to the book—that he was demoted: He “continued to be the National Coordinator on Counter-terrorism.”

Both arguments are deceptive. Clarke wasn’t a Cabinet secretary, but as Clinton’s NCC, he ran the “Principals Committee” meetings on counterterrorism, which were attended by Cabinet secretaries. Two NSC senior directors reported to Clarke directly, and he had reviewing power over relevant sections of the federal budget.

Clarke writes (and nobody has disputed) that when Condi Rice took over the NSC, she kept him onboard and preserved his title but demoted the position. He would no longer participate in, much less run, Principals’ meetings. He would report to deputy secretaries. He would have no staff and would attend no more meetings with budget officials.

Clarke probably resented the slight, took it personally. But he also saw it as a downgrading of the issue, a sign that al-Qaida was no longer taken as the urgent threat that the Clinton White House had come to interpret it. (One less-noted aspect of Clarke’s book is its detailed description of the major steps that Clinton took to combat terrorism.)

The White House talking-points paper is filled with these sorts of distortions. For instance, it notes that Bush didn’t need to meet with Clarke because, unlike Clinton, he met every day with CIA Director George Tenet, who talked frequently about al-Qaida.

But here’s how Clarke describes those meetings:

[Tenet] and I regularly commiserated that al Qaeda was not being addressed more seriously by the new administration. … We agreed that Tenet would ensure that the president’s daily briefings would continue to be replete with threat information on al Qaeda.

The problem is: Nothing happened. (It is significant, by the way, that Tenet has not been recruited—not successfully, anyway—to rebut Clarke’s charges. Clarke told Charlie Rose that he was “very close” to Tenet. The two come off as frustrated allies in Clarke’s book.)

The White House document insists Bush did take the threat seriously, telling Rice at one point “that he was ‘tired of swatting flies’ and wanted to go on the offense against al-Qaeda.”

Here’s how Clarke describes that exchange:

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 in two days, whenever we can get a meeting,” I pressed. Rice promised to get to it soon. Time passed.

The Principals meeting, which Clarke urgently requested during Bush’s first week in office, did not take place until one week before 9/11. In his 60 Minutes interview, Clarke spelled out the significance of this delay. He contrasted July 2001 with December 1999, when the Clinton White House got word of an impending al-Qaida attack on Los Angeles International Airport and Principals meetings were called instantly and repeatedly:

In December ‘99, every day or every other day, the head of the FBI, the head of the CIA, the Attorney General had to go to the White House and sit in a meeting and report on all the things that they personally had done to stop the al Qaeda attack, so they were going back every night to their departments and shaking the trees personally and finding out all the information. If that had happened in July of 2001, we might have found out in the White House, the Attorney General might have found out that there were al Qaeda operatives in the United States. FBI, at lower levels, knew [but] never told me, never told the highest levels in the FBI. … We could have caught those guys and then we might have been able to pull that thread and get more of the conspiracy. I’m not saying we could have stopped 9/11, but we could have at least had a chance.

That’s what Clarke says is the tragedy of Bush’s inaction, and nobody in the White House has dealt with the charge at all.

Correction, March 24, 2004: This article originally identified former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill as the author of The Price of Loyalty. In fact, Ron Suskind wrote the book; O’Neill was his chief source. ( Return to corrected sentence.)