The War on Clarke

Richard Clarke must be wondering if explaining what the United States did not do in the war on terrorism is more dangerous than actually fighting the terrorists. Clarke, the former terrorism czar for both Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, is now being vilified by a host of Bush officials, including Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, as a liar.

The attack on Clarke, which consists of leaks, threats and intimidation tactics, has become the genuine hallmark of the Bush presidency. Previous victims of the Bush smear machine include:

  • Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who challenged the fantasy spun by Don Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and correctly insisted that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to pacify Iraq.

  • Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had provided the Bush administration with a report that Niger had not supplied Iraq with uranium yellowcake essential for building a nuclear device. Not only were his character and competence called into question, but his family's security was jeopardized by a White House leak that his wife, Valerie Plame, was a covert CIA operative.

  • Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill, who reported on the Bush administration obsession with Iraq and talk early on of removing Saddam Hussein. These smear campaigns were mild compared to the vicious assault now underway against Richard Clarke. What is the truth about Richard Clarke?

I was neither a personal friend nor fan of Richard Clarke when I was in government. Richard Clarke, in my experience, was arrogant and intense. He probably still is. (People who know me would suggest that I am the pot calling the kettle black.) However, Richard Clarke also is a competent professional who has served faithfully with Democratic and Republican administrations since the 1970s.

My first contact with Mr. Clarke came during January of 1991 in the operations center at State Department. Clarke, who was the assistant secretary of state for political military affairs, had been denied space in the task force area, and my boss, State Counterterrorism Chief Morris Busby, interceded for Clarke and carved out space for his PM unit. Our two groups shared space in the back rooms of the task force area.

In 1992, Clarke was exiled to the National Security Council over a flap involving Israel. I was told at the time that this move was intended to get rid of him. Those who hoped that banishing Clarke to the National Security Council would lead to his dismissal from government did not understand what a formidable professional he was.

I left government service in 1993 but continued to monitor Clarke's counterterrorism activities through friends and former colleagues in the various policy and intelligence bureaucracies. Some close friends complained (and still do) that Richard was too alarmist and too pushy on some issues. While some can quibble about his personality, there should be no dispute that Richard Clarke was an aggressive advocate for a tough response to terrorism.

Unfortunately, politicians in both parties chose to ignore him on key issues. President Clinton, for example, sat on the Presidential Decision Directive 39, which laid out his administration's plan for fighting terrorism, for 28 months after taking office in January of 1993. Clinton finally signed the document after the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995. Clarke pushed to get it done sooner but ran up against political apathy in the early days of the Clinton administration.

Clarke was just as pushy with the Bush administration. In the first months of the Bush presidency a terrorism issue unrelated to Al Qaeda, which first surfaced during the Clinton administration, came to the front burner. Four U.S. oil workers were being held by individuals tied to Colombian terrorists in the jungles of Ecuador. The U.S. Embassy requested the deployment of U.S. counterterrorism forces (civilian and military) to Ecuador to help find and rescue the workers.

Clarke chaired a meeting of the Counter Terrorism Support Group (CSG) at the Old Executive Office Building to consider the matter. He wanted to grant the request and was backed by the Department of State, the CIA and the FBI. The Department of Defense, however, balked. At the end of the day, the Bush administration, against Clarke's recommendation, chose to treat terrorism in Ecuador as criminal matter rather than a military issue. U.S. military forces stayed at home.

Clarke has told the uncomfortable truth in his book, and now finds himself the target of the full fury of angry Bush partisans, who insist that fighting terrorism was Bush's highest priority. The evidence shows otherwise.

For starters, Clarke presented a memo to Condi Rice outlining the URGENT (this tag is on the document) threat presented by Al Qaeda in January 2001. While Dr. Rice insists she made terrorism a top priority, one of her first decisions in the early days of 2001 was to downgrade Clarke's position as the National Coordinator for Counter Terrorism. How is that making terrorism an elevated priority? It is not. Clarke also requested in January 2001 that President Bush convene a meeting of principal Bush officials (e.g., the secretary of state, secretary of defense and the attorney general) but this meeting was postponed by Dr. Rice until Sept. 4, 2001. That seven-month gap represents time that, in retrospect, could have been used to prevent the 9/11 attacks.

The Clarke bashers also insist that that no more could have been done before 9/11 than what was done during the first eight months of the Bush presidency. Oh? If that was the case, then why did Bush direct the airlines to lock cockpit doors after 9/11? Why did the Bush administration decide to arm pilots, put more air marshals on planes and federalize the security force doing screening at airports? Why did the Bush administration order attacks on Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan if, in the words of the Bush spinners, "we did all that we could do prior to 9/11"? Why did Bush officials establish emergency financial task forces composed of intelligence and law enforcement officials to hunt down the trails of terrorist financing if all had been done prior to 9/11?

The uncomfortable facts show that Richard Clarke proposed many of these measures in the early days of the Bush presidency. Action was taken only in the aftermath of 9/11.

Here is the bottom line: Richard Clarke was right, and the Bush administration and the people of the United States would have been better off if his warnings in the early days of 2001 had been heeded.

Rather than attack Richard Clarke's character, Republican operatives should focus their venom on the terrorists who killed Americans in the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon. George W. Bush should set the tone and thank his former terrorism chief, apologize for this week's ugliness, and focus on getting Osama Bin Laden. As one American, I say: Thank you, Richard Clarke.

Larry C. Johnson is a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. He served with the CIA from 1985 through 1989 and worked in the State Department's office of Counter Terrorism from 1989 through 1993. He also is a registered Republican who contributed financially to the Bush Campaign in 2000.

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