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Clarke soon realized, to his horror, that the administration was going to put al Qaeda on the back burner and invade Iraq; in January 2003 he resigned. He then became, in a very different way, even more indispensable to the country—first by providing powerful, meaty testimony to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (better known as the 9/11 Commission), then by publishing his extraordinary memoir, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, which catapulted him into the limelight and blew the lid off the Bush administration’s version of the events leading up to the attacks and to the invasion of Iraq. Speaking out on 60 Minutes and in subsequent interviews, he became, in the memorable words of The Washington Post, The Wonk That Roared.

Now, after churning out two novels about terrorism—The Scorpion’s Gate (2005) and last year’s Breakpoint, both thrillers that pack massive doses of inside information (the former set in the Persian Gulf in 2010, the latter about cyber-terroristic attacks in 2012)—he has written an important and compelling “wonk book” (his phrase) about government. Your Government Failed You: Breaking the Cycle of National Security Disasters, published this past May by HarperCollins, examines the promise, betrayals, failures, and blind spots of that government, and offers inside stories about some of the individuals who run it. It makes more than 200 specific critiques and recommendations for the military and intelligence communities and other national-security departments, all of which he knows intimately.

The book gets its name from Clarke’s now-famous apology to the families of the 9/11 victims—which he alone made, despite the fact that by virtually all accounts he had tried harder than anybody in government to prevent the al Qaeda attack.

“Your government failed you,” he said in his opening statement to the 9/11 Commission, looking right at the families. “Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn’t matter because we failed. And for that failure I would ask, once all the facts are out, for your understanding and for your forgiveness.”

In the opening pages of Your Government Failed You, he writes:

On that horrific day in September, while trying to make the machinery of government work in the minutes and hours after the attack, I suppressed my anger at al Qaeda, at the U.S. government, at myself. There was an urgent job to be done that day. But in one brief moment of catching my breath, I was consoled by my colleague Roger Cressey, who noted that now, finally, all of our plans to destroy al Qaeda and its network of organizations would be implemented. The nation would deal seriously and competently with the problem. I assumed he was right and got back to work. It turned out he was wrong. Incredibly, after 9/11 our government failed us even more, much more.

The call for public service first came at Boston Latin. There, in the mid-1960s, his headmaster pointed to alumni like John Hancock, Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, and Joseph Kennedy (father of the president), and told the students that they followed in a tradition of service to country.

“For six formative years in that school,” Clarke recalls in his new book, “the lesson was repeated that public service was both demanding and a duty.” It made a deep impression on the precocious factory-worker’s kid, whose grandfather and father both served in the U.S. military and whose family would often attend open houses at the nearby military base.

As a 14-year-old in the 1964 presidential election, Clarke says, he supported Barry Goldwater. According to an article in The Boston Globe, classmates from those days also recalled that his politics leaned “to the conservative side.”

“He was fiercely conservative at a time when just about everyone in Boston was a Democrat,” said Larry DiCara, who graduated from Boston Latin a year before Clarke. “In a city and at a school where most everyone thought of themselves as a Democrat, he didn’t.”

But Clarke was a wonkish conservative even then.

“He was the only kid on the MBTA reading Foreign Affairs and the Congressional Record,” Peter Kadzis, editor of the Boston Phoenix, told the Globe. “He was obsessed with politics, fascinated with foreign affairs, and deeply interested in history. But he struck me as more interested in policy specifics than ideology.”

And though Clarke identified himself as a Republican, he also, in the Boston Latin yearbook, used a (loosely translated) line from Dante that President John F. Kennedy had spoken not long before his death: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in great moral crises maintain their neutrality.”


National Insecurity By Samuel Hughes

Your Government Needs
to Get Its Act Together

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Last modified 11/04/08