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A Matter of Truth

National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States Staff Statements Nos. 1-8



During an election year in Washington, there is no such thing as an election-free statement. This phenomenon has reached a climax of sorts with the publication of Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke’s account of his ten years as the country’s leading counterterrorism coordinator. The hostile reaction of the administration has boosted his book to the top of the national best-seller list and made it a leading news story. The coincidence of its publication with the public testimony of Clarke and others before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States has been denounced as a shameless act of commercial and personal self-promotion. (Clarke maintains that his hope that the book would be published before Christmas 2003 was dashed by the White House taking so long to clear it for security.) There have been welcome moments of farce during this furor, as when the vice-president kicked the ball into his own team’s goal by stating that Clarke, the administration’s ranking expert on counter-terrorism, “wasn’t in the loop” much of the time. This assertion had to be hurriedly corrected by the national security adviser.

Most of the reaction was, and is, directed at Clarke’s allegations of the Bush administration’s inattention to the al-Qaeda threat in the months before September 11. The task of rebutting this story has been made more difficult by President Bush’s own frank comment about the al-Qaeda threat, quoted in Bob Woodward’s Bush at War(2002), that “I was not on point… I didn’t feel that sense of urgency. My blood was not nearly as boiling.”1 Accounts of the Bush administration’s early indifference to the imminent threat of al-Qaeda have already been published in a number of books and in the press.2 What is different about Clarke is that, in the fight against terrorism, he was the ultimate insider with a formidable reputation for dedication, drive, and effectiveness. Clarke’s other stinging criticism of the Bush administration, his denunciation of the Iraq war as a gross and extremely costly strategic error, must have hit an even more sensitive nerve in a White House that cannot admit either question or error. It is a criticism that gets more difficult to answer every day.

It would be a pity if this Washington firestorm were to lead people to conclude that Clarke’s book is simply another Bush-bashing exercise and that there is therefore no need to read it. (The Bush administration makes its full appearance only on page 227 of a three-hundred-page book.) Against All Enemies is a highly readable, often exciting, and authoritative account of America’s most dangerous immediate problem, how to deal with terrorism and al-Qaeda. It is also the story of one man’s effort to make the complex bureaucracy of the federal government respond to undefined but devastating threats as well as to unforeseen emergencies. It is an important book.


Richard Clarke made his way from a working-class family in Boston, through the University of Pennsylvania and MIT, to government service, in which he rose to the highest ranks of the policymaking world in Washington. Starting as an intelligence analyst in the Pentagon, he became, at the age of thirty-four, the deputy chief of intelligence and research at the State Department. In 1992, after an argument with Secretary of State James Baker, he was assigned to the National Security Council staff, where he became the acknowledged national expert and leader on terrorism and counterterrorism. In 1998, Clinton appointed him as coordinator of counterterrorism with a seat at the cabinet table. Considering that he is currently being accused of grandstanding, self-aggrandizement, and self-importance, it is striking that Clarke’s name was virtually unknown to the public until very recently.

In Washington Clarke assumed none of the easygoing and affable airs and graces of a grandee in the capital. He was tough, outspoken, arrogant, and abrasive and had no desire to be liked. Indeed without these qualities it is difficult to see how he could again and again have cut through the jungle of the federal bureaucracy to achieve effective responses to the new and appalling threat of global, ideological, suicide terrorism.

Even the authors of the excellent Staff Statements of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks feel the need to devote a paragraph to Clarke’s unusual personality, tactics, and skill:

Clarke was a controversial figure. A career civil servant, he drew wide praise as someone who called early and consistent attention to the seriousness of the terrorism danger. A skilled operator of the levers of government, he energetically worked the system to address vulnerabilities and combat terrorists…. Some officials told us that Clarke had sometimes misled them about presidential decisions or interfered in their chain of command. National Security Adviser Berger told us that several of his colleagues had wanted Clarke fired. But Berger’s net assessment was that Clarke fulfilled an important role in pushing the interagency process to fight Bin Laden. As Berger put it, “I wanted a pile driver.”3

According to Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon in The Age of Sacred Terror, “This time Dick has gone too far,” was a frequent refrain in the offices of the Clinton National Security Council.

Benjamin and Simon ascribe Clarke’s effectiveness to three principal characteristics. He had a deep understanding of “all the levers and pulleys of foreign policy,” of what could be done and how to do it. He was relentless, and many of his senior colleagues

shook their heads as he overplayed his hand in bureaucratic battles and needlessly alienated people who might have helped him. But…he delivered considerably more than most. Third, Clarke had a preternatural gift for spotting emerging issues.4

During the Clinton administration the new shape and nature of international terrorism began to emerge. Clinton reacted to government-sponsored terrorism in a way that effectively discouraged further terrorist acts. In response to Iraq’s attempt to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush during a 1993 visit to Kuwait, Saddam’s intelligence headquarters in Baghdad was destroyed by cruise missiles. During the same year, however, the bombing of the World Trade Center was not immediately linked to a Saudi veteran of anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan called Osama bin Laden. Nor was bin Laden linked with the unwelcome presence during the war in Bosnia of a force of foreign Islamic militants, or with some terrorist operations that were thwarted, like the plan to bomb US airliners in the Pacific or to attack New York landmarks, including the UN. The movement called al-Qaeda was not recognized until later.

Clinton’s national security adviser, Tony Lake, began to pester the CIA for more information about bin Laden until his connection with particular acts of terrorism was established, and Clinton began to seek more legal authority and more money in order to go on the offensive against terrorism both at home and abroad. Between 1995 and 2000 the counterterrorism budget increased from $5.7 billion to $11.1 billion, and the authority of the FBI and other government agencies to take action against potential terrorists was steadily enhanced. There was considerable resistance to these measures. Republicans in Congress objected to expanding organized-crime wiretap provisions to terrorists, while Tom DeLay and others agreed with the National Rifle Association that the proposed restrictions on bomb-making infringed on the right to bear arms. The FBI opposed the Federal Air Marshals program.

Clarke describes the new concern for homeland security in the 1990s and Clinton’s enthusiastic involvement in the process of making terrorism and bin Laden a major national priority. There was also a growing awareness of al-Qaeda’s ultimate goal of a global Islamic caliphate, and of its plans to exploit the policies of Western countries. “The ingredients al Qaeda dreamed of for propagating its movement,” Clarke writes, “were a Christian government attacking a weaker Muslim region, allowing the new terrorist group to rally jihadists from many countries to come to the aid of the religious brethren.”

In August 1998, the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were simultaneously struck with powerful truck bombs. Clinton accepted the advice of Clarke and his other advisers to retaliate with cruise missiles on a supposed chemical plant in Sudan and on an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden was reported to be having a meeting. The Monica Lewinsky scandal was at its height, and Clinton told his advisers to propose action to him without regard to his messy personal problems. If they thought this was the best time to hit the Afghan camps, he would order it and take the heat for the “Wag the Dog” criticism that would inevitably follow.

Clarke comments with disgust that the public reaction to the nearly successful attempt to wipe out the al-Qaeda leadership in retaliation for two deadly terrorist attacks was just as perverse as the White House had foreseen, ascribing the retaliation exclusively to Clinton’s supposed desire to distract attention from the Lewinsky affair. This episode made Clarke’s attempts to get approval for follow-up attacks on al-Qaeda far more difficult.

At Clinton’s request, Clarke produced a combined political and military plan for the destruction of al-Qaeda, entitled—appropriately for an alumnus of the Boston Latin School—“Delenda” after Cato the Elder’s injunction “Carthago delenda est“—Carthage must be destroyed. The plan included aid to the Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, wholesale attacks on the al-Qaeda camps, the use of Predator drones for reconnaissance and later, so it was hoped, to fire missiles at al-Qaeda targets, and the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Clarke’s ideas were largely frustrated by the caution of the CIA, by a lack of reliable and timely “actionable” intelligence, by the fear of alienating Pakistan, and by the administration’s anxiety that Clinton might be labeled a mad bomber for relying too heavily on cruise missiles.

There were, however, other counter-terrorism successes, including the foiling of the so-called millennium plots to attack Los Angeles International Airport and American targets in Jordan. The first Predator flights were promising, one of them visually identifying Osama bin Laden walking with his bodyguards, but the flights were then suspended for the winter. When the USS Cole was attacked in Aden in October 2000, Clarke’s proposal to retaliate by attacking al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan was thwarted by the CIA’s reluctance to identify al-Qaeda as the Cole culprit and by the Pentagon’s refusal to contemplate military action by special forces or bombing.

The Clinton period was certainly the summit of Clarke’s government career, and he seems to have been involved, mostly covertly, in an extraordinary number of active foreign policy matters. Sometimes the obsession with covert action got out of hand. Clarke describes a “secret” plan, Operation Orient Express, “reflecting our hope that many nations would join us in doing in the UN head [Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali].” He describes “racing to the Oval Office” to prevent Clinton making any compromises on this matter. Clarke does not explain why “doing in,” i.e. ousting, Boutros-Ghali was such an urgent national objective. It was, of course, a rather shoddy election-year tactic to steal for the Clinton campaign, as early as possible, Bob Dole’s politically profitable verbal assaults on Boutros-Ghali. “Doing in” Boutros-Ghali was eventually easily achieved by the normal public method of using the US veto in the UN Security Council. Clarke comforts himself that “the entire operation had strengthened [UN Ambassador] Albright’s hand in the competition to be Secretary of State in the second Clinton administration.” This is not Clarke at his best.

  1. 1

    In her testimony to the Commission on Terrorist Attacks on April 8, Condoleezza Rice maintained that Bush said this in answer only to a question about the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

  2. 2

    For example, in The Age of Sacred Terror by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon (Random House, 2002), in Time magazine in August 2002, and more recently in Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars (Penguin, 2004).

  3. 3

    National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, Staff Statement No. 8, p. 3.

  4. 4

    Benjamin and Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror, pp. 232–233.

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