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  Clarke’s growing obsession with terrorism in the last decade of the millennium has been well documented, including by Clarke himself in Against All Enemies. Though he already had a portfolio of incredibly complex projects since being appointed to the NSC in 1992 (ranging from creating a Presidential Decision Directive that laid out the guidelines for engaging in peacekeeping missions, to coordinating the invasion of Haiti), he became increasingly concerned about the threat posed by a broad range of terrorist groups, which soon included al Qaeda.

Unfortunately, the government agencies in charge of monitoring it were not as obsessed—or as informed—as they should have been. Though al Qaeda emerged from bin Laden’s Afghan Services Bureau network in 1988-89, Clarke notes, it wasn’t until 1996 that the U.S. government learned from a “walk-in” (an unannounced volunteer informant) that there was such a group and what its name was. (Far more shocking is the fact that some 60 CIA personnel knew that al Qaeda members Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar had been in the U.S. for months before 9/11 but didn’t bother to tell the FBI—or Clarke—until after the two had helped hijack the planes. The FBI, for its part, failed to inform Clarke and the CSG of its arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui on August 16, 2001.) No wonder that Clarke devotes some 60 pages of Your Government Failed You to the nation’s intelligence problems.

By 1993, the year of the first World Trade Center bombing, Clarke and National Security Advisor Anthony Lake had concluded that some new confederation of terrorists had taken shape—and that Osama bin Laden was a key player in it.

“At that point in U.S. foreign-policy/national-security fields, terrorism was not a sexy issue,” says R.P. Eddy. “In ’94, ’95, we have a bunch of other things going on. We’re finishing the Cold War; we’re trying to figure out what the U.S.’s place is going to be in the world going forward. And at this time Dick starts realizing that what most people consider to be a nuisance, a pebble in our shoe—terrorism—is actually going to be something that could be an existential threat to the country. He was the one guy saying, ‘Look, this really matters. We need budgets for this; we need real professionals working on this; we need to get beyond the ’70s view on terrorism.’”

In May 1998, at Berger’s insistence, President Clinton created a new position—national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection, and counter-terrorism—and named Clarke to fill it. The title was “largely to reassure the public that there was in fact somebody doing it,” Clarke says. “I had preferred to do the job in the quiet, anonymous secrecy of the bureaucracy.” Though he only had a staff of 12, it was a cabinet-level position, and the media quickly dubbed him the “counter-terrorism czar.” (Clarke wasn’t crazy about the title; the last czar and his family had been shot to death. But in principle he believes that cross-departmental czars are often the only ones who can get things done.) In February 1999, The New York Times reported that Clarke had created at least four classified Presidential Decision Directives on terrorism, which “expand the government’s counter-terrorism cadres into the $11 billion-a-year enterprise he now coordinates.”

As 2000 approached, Clarke drew up a “Pol-Mil Plan” for the Millennium Alert and helped coordinate the national-security response, which is probably worth a book in itself. “We had al Qaeda attempts to blow up things in the United States during the millennium period, attempts to blow up embassies around the world, attempts to take over Bosnia,” Clarke told Tim Russert. “And all of those attempts were thwarted.”

But al Qaeda was still slouching toward 9/11, and the fact that the government didn’t stop it still sticks in Clarke’s craw. Two U.S. embassies in East Africa were bombed in August 1998, prompting a cruise-missile strike on the al Qaeda facility in Afghanistan. (Bin Laden was tipped off, probably by Pakistani intelligence, and the missiles missed their human targets.) After the U.S.S. Cole was attacked by a suicide boat-bomber in October 2000, killing 17 American sailors, Clarke wanted to retaliate by bombing al Qaeda’s Afghanistan sanctuary. The request was turned down in the Principals meeting, largely because the CIA—gun-shy after being criticized for the bombing of a Sudanese chemical plant and the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade—refused to say that al Qaeda was behind the Cole attack, despite the fact that, in Clarke’s words, “the intelligence evidence was clear within 24 hours.”

By the time of the 2000 election, Clarke was still a registered Republican who had voted for John McCain in the primary.

“As a civil servant from 1973 to 2003, I remained nonpartisan,” he says. He could handle the downgrading of his position when the new administration came in, though he didn’t agree with it. Besides, he writes in Your Government Failed You: “I did not want to walk away from dealing with al Qaeda without having gotten the U.S. government to do more to stop it. So I agreed to stay on.”

In retrospect, “that too was a mistake,” he adds. Had the Bush administration appointed “one of their own” to coordinate counterterrorism, “it might have believed him” when he said in January 2001 that there was an urgent need for a cabinet-level meeting to approve an offensive strategy.

That meeting was put off until September 4, 2001. A few hours before the meeting, in an impassioned memo to Condoleezza Rice, Clarke criticized the Defense Department for its reluctance to use force against al Qaeda and the CIA for impeding the deployment of unmanned Predator drones to hunt for bin Laden. According to The Washington Post, he urged officials to “imagine a day when hundreds of Americans lay dead from a terrorist attack and ask themselves what more they could have done.”

National Insecurity By Samuel Hughes

Your Government Needs
to Get Its Act Together

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