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Richard Clarke, Folk Hero

John F. Lehman, the former secretary of the Navy, probably wishes he hadn't asked Richard Clarke about Iraq on Wednesday. By doing so, he helped Clarke emerge as a new folk hero. Lehman also increased the chances that historians will view Clarke's devastating critique of Bush's terrorism and Iraq agenda as the beginning of the end of the Bush administration.

The forum for all this was Richard Clarke's testimony in front of the bipartisan commission investigating terrorism and September 11. Clarke, of course, is the giant-killer and tell-all author whose recent release, Against All Enemies, blew the roof off of President Bush's claim to be a war president.

Until Lehman's question, Clarke hadn't mentioned Iraq, though he'd quietly and effectively ripped President Bush to shreds for his failure to take terrorism seriously. "The Bush administration considered terrorism an important issue but not an urgent issue," said Clarke. "George Tenet [the CIA director] and I tried very hard to create a sense of urgency. I don't think it was ever treated that way."

So Lehman, acting like a hatchet man for the White House, which has launched an all-out assault on Clarke, took him on--but on Iraq. In all your 15 hours of classified testimony to the commission before today, he asked, why didn't you say that you felt the president was so wrong about Iraq and the link to terrorism? Clarke was ready. "No one asked me what I thought about the president's invasion of Iraq," said Clarke, matter-of-factly. "By invading Iraq, the president has greatly undermined the war on terrorism."

Lehman, a right-wing Republican who worked for President Reagan, called Clarke an "active partisan trying to shove out a book," adding, "You've got a real credibility problem." If so, it wasn't evident to the audience, which included many friends and relatives of 9/11 victims, and which repeatedly erupted into spontaneous applause in Clarke's support.

Uncharacteristically quiet and soft-spoken, speaking in measured tones, the normally brusque Clarke issued a startling apology to those friends and relatives at the start of his testimony: "Your government failed you, and I failed you," Clarke said, "We tried hard, but that doesn't matter. We failed you."

Joining in the effort to discredit Clarke was Fox News. In a fair and balanced below-the-belt strike, Fox released the transcript of a 2002 background briefing Clarke gave to reporters about the war on terrorism. In that presentation, delivered at President Bush's request, Clarke notably didn't attack Bush. For some reason, that deference puzzled Republican members of the commission--including Lehman, Fred Fielding and former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson--who asked why Clarke didn't criticize the Bush administration in that briefing.

Asked by Fielding whether he lied during the briefing, Clarke seemed bemused. "I tried," he said, "to highlight the positive and downplay the negative." Asked whether that undermined his integrity, Clarke said: "I don't think of it as a question of integrity. I think it's a question of politics." As the spokesman for the White House, he said, he represented the administration's point of view, and ably so -- without lying.

Commissioner Robert Kerrey, the former senator from Nebraska, blasted Fox News for releasing the background transcript, noting that background briefings are supposed to remain confidential.

In terms of revelations, the most interesting part of Clarke's testimony concerned the early history of Al Qaeda. The organization itself, Clarke said, probably was formed as far back as 1988, but the CIA and the rest of the U.S. government didn't even know it existed until 1995. Perhaps two years earlier, in 1993, the U.S. intelligence community began to suspect that Al Qaeda had been established. But, said Clarke, intelligence was poor. "There was no such capability, even to know that Al Qaeda existed," he said.

Robert Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Virginia, who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is currently working on a book about America's policy toward political Islam over the past 30 years.

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