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…

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