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A Matter of Truth

3.

In general,” Clarke comments, “the Bush appointees distrusted anything invented by the Clinton administration and anything of a multilateral nature….” The incoming administration was focused on confronting China, going ahead with a missile defense system (“Star Wars”), developing its relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and withdrawing from various multilateral obligations. As General Don Kerrick, Clinton’s deputy national security adviser, put it, the new crew had the “same strategic perspective as the folks in the eighties.”5 The new national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, knew Clarke and kept him on, but she disliked, as inappropriate for the National Security Council, the many different operational functions and the large office that had grown up around him. She therefore downgraded the office of National Coordinator for Counterterrorism so that Clarke was at the deputy level and no longer made reports to the top-level meetings of “Principals”—among them the heads of the State and Defense Departments and the FBI and CIA.

On January 25, 2001, in the first week of the new administration, Clarke asked for a cabinet-level meeting to review the al-Qaeda threat. Rice told him that he and the other deputies should “frame” the issue first. He also submitted an updated version of the proposals for action he had made in the late Clinton period. The deputies only managed to meet on this subject in April. It was at this meeting that Clarke heard a warning of future strategic trends. After Clarke outlined to the meeting his ideas for dealing with the threat of al-Qaeda,

Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy at Defense, fidgeted and scowled. Hadley [Rice’s deputy] asked him if he was all right. “Well, I just don’t understand why we are beginning by talking about this one man bin Laden,” Wolfowitz responded.

I [Clarke] answered as clearly and forcefully as I could: “We are talking about a network of terrorist organizations called al-Qaeda, that happens to be led by bin Laden, and we are talking about that network because it and it alone poses an immediate and serious threat to the United States.”

Well, there are others that do as well, at least as much. Iraqi terrorism for example,” Wolfowitz replied.

Clarke and the CIA deputy director, John McLaughlin, pointed out that there had been no Iraqi-sponsored terrorism since 1993, when cruise missiles had destroyed Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters. Wolfowitz replied that bin Laden was being given too much credit and couldn’t possibly do all these operations without a state sponsor, i.e., Iraq.

As things turned out, although there had been many Principals meetings on other subjects since Bush’s inauguration, the cabinet-level meeting on al-Qaeda that Clarke had requested in January only took place on September 4, a week before the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

During the summer of 2001 Clarke had become more and more frustrated with the new administration’s low priority for working on the threat of al-Qaeda and his own inability to do anything about it. George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, shared this frustration. Telling Rice and Hadley that “maybe I’m becoming like Captain Ahab with bin Laden as the White Whale,” Clarke asked to be reassigned to a post dealing with critical infrastructure protection and cyber security, a relatively new source of concern that Clarke felt strongly might be the next threat and the next point of vulnerability for the United States. It was agreed that he should take up this position on October 1.

The summer of 2001 brought a crescendo of intelligence reports of an impending, though unspecified, major attack by al-Qaeda, and Clarke asked that the relevant government agencies and the airlines be put on full alert. He deeply regretted that the almost-daily cabinet-level meetings of the agencies concerned with intelligence and security that had been held during emergency periods in the Clinton administration no longer took place.6 Such meetings were designed to “shake the tree,” to make sure that vital information in one agency would be shared with all the others. “Somewhere in CIA,” Clarke writes,

there was information that two known al Qaeda terrorists had come into the United States. Somewhere in FBI there was information that strange things had been going on at flight schools in the United States. I had asked to know if a sparrow fell from a tree that summer. What was buried in CIA and FBI was not a matter of one sparrow falling from a tree, red lights and bells should have been going off…. None of that information got to me at the White House…. I certainly know what I would have done, for we had done it at the Millennium: a nationwide manhunt, rousting anyone suspected of, maybe, possibly, having the slightest connection.

Condoleezza Rice, in her testimony on April 8, characterized the just declassified “President’s Daily Brief” for August 6, 2001, as “not a particular threat report,” and as “historical information based on old reporting.” Maybe, but some might consider alarming phrases like “Bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington” [for the 1998 missile strike on his Afghan base]; or that “Al-Qaeda members…have resided in or traveled to the United States for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks”; or that the FBI’s information “indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks….” The red lights and bells evidently failed to go off in Crawford, Texas.

In a message to Rice before the September 4 Principals meeting on al-Qaeda urging her to consider whether or not al-Qaeda was “an existential threat to the American way of life,” he asked Rice to “put herself in her own shoes when in the very near future al Qaeda had killed hundreds of Americans: ‘What will you wish then that you had already done?’” Clarke does not record a reply to this message, but in her April 8 testimony Rice said that she took Clarke’s message as an encouragement to press the Principals hard and not be dragged down by the bureaucracy.

4.

Clarke’s account of the day of September 11 is his opening chapter—a breathless, tough-talking, take-charge narrative that is quite unlike the rest of the book. It is a crisis manager’s account of the White House on one of the most terrible and frightening days in American history. Clarke does not maintain that September 11 could definitely have been stopped if his ideas had been adopted; he claims only that there were serious failures of organization, that much more could have been done, and that in any case, if thwarted, al-Qaeda would certainly try again. In his comment on Condoleezza Rice’s April 8 testimony, he added that regular “shaking the tree” at cabinet level might have had some effect.7

Clarke believed that after September 11 the government would deal with the terrorist threat fully and systematically. Instead, after going into Afghanistan first with bombing and then with a relatively small force to remove the Taliban and, it was hoped, bin Laden, the old obsession with Iraq soon began to dominate the administration’s “war on terror.” Clarke, who was by then working on cyber-security, was appalled, not least because 70 percent of the American people had been persuaded that Saddam Hussein was responsible for September 11. As one of America’s most dedicated students of al-Qaeda, Clarke writes:

Nothing America could have done would have provided al Qaeda and its new generation of cloned groups a better recruitment device than our unprovoked invasion of an oil-rich Arab country. Nothing else could have so well negated all our other positive acts and so closed Muslim eyes and ears to our subsequent calls for reform in their region.

And later, he comments,

Rather than seeking to work with the majority in the Islamic world to mold Muslim opinion against the radicals’ values, we did exactly what al Qaeda said we would do. We invaded and occupied an oil-rich Arab country that posed no threat to us, while paying scant time and attention to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. We delivered to al Qaeda the greatest recruitment propaganda imaginable and made it difficult for friendly Islamic governments to be seen working closely with us.

In the process, the operation in Afghanistan was shortchanged, and the military resources of the United States seriously overstretched. In the current state of affairs in Iraq and Afghanistan, Clarke’s words ring horribly true.

5.

The Staff Statements of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks are direct and unemotional documents that nonetheless contain large quantities of fascinating, and sometimes agonizing, information. From beginning to end they reveal systems, states of mind, and policies that were not attuned to the originality and monstrosity of September 11. None of the nineteen hijackers was on the FAA’s list of people posing a threat to commercial aviation. Any knife with a blade of less than four inches was permitted to pass through airport security. The priority in airline instructions for dealing with hijackers was to ensure that the hi-jacked aircraft landed safely, and there was therefore to be no physical opposition to the hijackers. This was the first recorded occasion on which the hijackers actually piloted a plane; no cockpits were “hardened” to prevent intruders from entering them. The reconstruction of what probably happened in the four hijacked aircraft on September 11 is heartbreaking. These and hundreds of other details of the process, from the entry of the hijackers into the United States until the catastrophe itself, will be of immense value in devising new systems and regulations. They make grim reading.

On the diplomatic, political, military, and intelligence front the papers are equally revealing without being judgmental. The same problem of a general inability to conceive of an attack like September 11 remained. Statement 8, on national policy coordination, relies heavily on Richard Clarke’s testimony, which follows the same lines as his book, but is summarized in the cool and unemotional style of the commission’s staff.

The continental United States had not had a violent attack on its soil for nearly two hundred years, and the idea of domestic intelligence was a foreign and unwelcome one. In the April 8 commission hearings, Condoleezza Rice referred again and again to legal and structural problems that especially affected the cooperation of the CIA and the FBI and prevented them from sharing intelligence and information. “The country,” she told the commission, “was not properly structured to deal with the threats that had been gathering for a long period of time.” Rice also pointed out that the Bush administration, in its early months, was searching for a more strategic approach to al-Qaeda that would take into account relations with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries in the region. It would also include long-term plans for reform and democratization that would, among other things, change the nature of the Middle East. She did not refer to the Israel–Palestinian problem in this context—a striking omission.

6.

There is nothing in Clarke’s government career to substantiate his critics’ charges of a desire for personal publicity—if anything quite the contrary. He has also, predictably, been characterized as a disgruntled employee getting his own back on the Bush administration for his demotion from cabinet rank. He told Tim Russert that he felt he could not go on working on terrorism for an administration “that was treating it in such an unimportant way” and therefore asked for the cyberspace security job, which he did not consider a demotion, and he left government service when that ended.8

From his book, Clarke appears to be an apolitical but strong-minded public servant of a now rather old-fashioned kind, whose ultimate loyalty is to what he perceives to be the public good and the long-term interests of the people of the United States. He needed, he writes in the epilogue to his book, to tell the public “why I think we failed and why I think America is still failing to deal with the threat posed by terrorists distorting Islam.” These are certainly vitally important public issues. Robert McNamara has sometimes been criticized for continuing as secretary of defense out of loyalty to President Johnson long after he had personally concluded that the war in Vietnam could not be won. That is one form of loyalty. To Lesley Stahl, who commented that Against All Enemieswas not a loyal book, Clarke replied, “When the president starts doing things that risk American lives, then loyalty to him has to be put aside.”9 That sums up another kind of loyalty.

Clarke’s book suggests the most likely reason why this very private man finally went public. As a professional public servant Clarke had, for thirty years, devoted all his formidable ability and energy to the defense and security of his country. Even in the best of times, he was notoriously short of patience with anyone or anything that seemed to get in his way. During the Clinton years he had had considerable success in alerting the government at the very highest level to the growing threat of al-Qaeda. In the Bush administration he encountered a determined refusal to give al-Qaeda priority over other issues at the very moment when intelligence was indicating ever more ominous security threats to the United States.

Before September 11 Clarke had already had some inkling of the extent to which ideologues and fixed ideas would dictate policy in the new administration, and as a professional public servant this tendency shocked him. He assumed, however, that the catastrophe of September 11 would produce a strong and objective approach to the dangers of terrorism that undoubtedly lay ahead. He was aghast when the administration willfully galloped off in the wrong direction and began to prepare for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, a move that he considered an immensely self-destructive strategic error. He presumably felt that the public ought to hear the views of an authoritative source before another presidential election.

In what circumstances are highly placed public servants justified in abandoning their loyalty to a particular administration for what they see as a larger and more compelling loyalty to the truth and to the future? In today’s Washington, in full knowledge of the likely consequences, it takes courage and conviction to take this step. But the stakes for the United States are now very high. Disasters and ominous trends abroad and serious challenges at home demand more than vitriolic partisan politics, spin and secretiveness, dogmatic decisions and a total inability to admit, or learn from, mistakes, and contempt or worse for dissenters. The current situation and the future of the United States demand united policies based on recognition of past errors, on the truth however disagreeable, on a reasonably shared view of the future, and on serious discussion and debate. Clarke’s experience and his opinions on the United States’ greatest immediate danger are important to the future health and security of his country.

  1. 5

    See Benjamin and Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror, p. 336.

  2. 6

    In her April 8 testimony Condoleezza Rice pointed out that Clarke’s group of agency deputies was meeting several times a week. Clarke has replied that frequent cabinet-level meetings specifically on the al-Qaeda threat and subsequent orders by cabinet members to their various departments would have been far more effective in revealing vital information (ABC News, April 8, 2004).

  3. 7

    ABC News, April 8, 2004.

  4. 8

    Clarke’s interview with Tim Russert, NBC News, March 28, 2004.

  5. 9

    CBS, 60 Minutes, March 21, 2004.

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