It’s usually when Richard Clarke C’72 starts talking about terrorism, and his government’s botched response to it, that the unnerving smile appears.
A couple of hours before, sitting outside Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on a sun-kissed September afternoon, he spoke openly and thoughtfully about all manner of subjects: his student-government days at Penn, his hard-charging years at the Pentagon and the State Department and the National Security Council (NSC), his riveting testimony before the 9/11 Commission, the blockbuster books he has written, his security risk-management firm, the urgent need to bring more talented, analytic people into government … And while he did flash the occasional burst of intense, controlled passion every now and then, the enigmatic smile stayed hidden.
But now, inside a lecture hall, Clarke is quizzing the students in his Terrorism and the American Response class about the day’s main event: the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, which has al Qaeda written all over it. The attack comes 10 years after the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, eight years after the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, and seven years after 9/11, he points out. And the United States is no closer to catching Osama bin Laden or shutting down the new, decentralized al Qaeda than it was then.
At this point, the smile starts blinking red. As I read it, it’s the smile of a man who knows something very unpleasant—lots of somethings, in fact—and while he doesn’t necessarily want to tell you, he has no choice.
A day or two later, I talk with one of Clarke’s students, a thoughtful young Army captain named Kent Park. At first, he says he’s not sure how to read that smile, either, but it’s clear he knows what I’m talking about.
“It comes out in his facial expression, and also in his response to comments that students make,” says Park. “If you don’t know him, you might think he’s a jerk, because it’s almost sarcastic—very dry. But now that I know him, I don’t think that.
“I think he has a love/hate relationship with the U.S. government,” Park adds. “It’s obvious that he loves this country. He served his country all his life. At the same time, he’s been very, very disappointed and hurt by some of the things that he’s experienced and seen.”
It’s the old story: betrayed by love. If that won’t curdle your smile, nothing will.
Until 9/11, few Americans had even heard of Richard Clarke. By then he was at the pinnacle of a brilliant career in the U.S. government that began at the Pentagon in 1973, moved up through the State Department and the NSC, and peaked when President Clinton named him the first-ever national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection, and counter-terrorism. It was a cabinet-level position, one in which he had a seat at the Principals meetings (attended by the Secretaries of State and Defense, the director of the CIA, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), though in a sense it just put a fancier title on the job he had been doing for several years.
True, that position had been downgraded by incoming National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and Clarke’s urgent request in January 2001 to brief President Bush on the al Qaeda threat was, famously, put off. By June of that year, concluding that the administration had little interest in terrorism, Clarke requested that he be allowed to focus on cyber-security threats instead, effective that October.
“Perhaps I have become too close to the terrorism issue,” he told Rice and her deputy, Steve Hadley. “I have worked it for 10 years and to me it seems like a very important issue, but maybe I’m becoming like Captain Ahab with bin Laden as the White Whale. Maybe you need someone less obsessive with it.”
Rice agreed to his request. But when the planes knifed into the twin towers that fateful day in September, Clarke—who had chaired the interdepartmental Counterterrorism Security Group (CSG) since 1992—suddenly became the most indispensable man in the U.S. government: organizing a secure teleconference of top-ranking officials from each department, running the CSG meeting, implementing the Continuity of Government (COG) plan, ordering the evacuation of the White House—and staying there himself, virtually alone, to manage the crisis, with the very real possibility that a hijacked plane was going to crash into it.
“Dick was the nation’s crisis manager that day,” says Roger Cressey, who on 9/11 was working alongside Clarke as the NSC’s director for transnational threats. “In some respects, he had worked and trained his whole career for that kind of moment. He brought his experience and his knowledge and his skills together to get us through that incredibly rough period that day.”
National Insecurity By Samuel Hughes
Photograph by Jim Graham
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©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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