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  The morning after the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history, Clarke went back to the White House, expecting a “round of meetings examining what the next attacks could be, what our vulnerabilities were, what we could do about them in the short term,” he writes in Against All Enemies. “Instead, I walked into a series of discussions about Iraq.” At first, he was “incredulous that we were talking about something other than getting al Qaeda. Then I realized with almost a sharp physical pain that [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq.”

Clarke told General Colin Powell: “Having been attacked by al Qaeda, for us now to go bombing Iraq in response would be like our invading Mexico after the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor.”

Over the next 15 months his anger simmered, and in January 2003, after 30 years in government, he resigned to write his first book. Two months later, Operation Iraqi Freedom began. Afghanistan, al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden were back-burnered.

For Clarke, it was Vietnam all over again. “Like the Vietnam War, the Iraq War caused me to choose political sides,” he says. “It was more appalling than anything I’d ever seen the government do, and I’d seen some pretty appalling things. It was even more appalling than Vietnam, because you could sort of understand how Vietnam wasn’t a single decision but an accretion of decisions over three administrations. Iraq was just a single sort of plot—a plot by a handful of people to get us to do something that on no level made any sense—and on lots of levels caused enormous consequences, hardships, agony, suffering, financial cost.”

He pauses for a moment, then adds: “It’s almost criminal.”

Asked if he regrets not having left government sooner to blow the whistle, Clarke points out that few people outside the small national-security circle in Washington even knew who he was, and even fewer cared about his opinions.

“My criticism wouldn’t have mattered as much as Brent Scowcroft’s,” he says, referring to the National Security Advisor under presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush. “He had publicly dissented from the war, but no one seemed to notice or care at that point. I did tell anyone who would listen that it would be a disaster, but no one paid much attention until my book came out.”

By nearly all accounts, Clarke was the 9/11 Commission’s star witness.

“He was perhaps the most impressive witness that we had in the closed meetings,” says John Lehman, a Republican member of the commission. “We spent two full days with him, with the commissioners and staff, and he was very forthright—very critical of the Clinton administration, very critical of the Bush administration, of the decisions that were made and not made in both administrations. He put us on to a lot of things, and virtually all of it was corroborated” by other sources.

Lehman was less thrilled by Clarke’s public testimony, which in his view left out the private-testimony criticism of the Clinton administration.

“He didn’t say anything different in public than he did in private; he just didn’t include any criticism of the Clinton administration in his public testimony. He clearly seemed to have chosen sides by then. The record shows that both administrations made huge mistakes.”

Clarke sees it a bit differently.

“Partially what you say in a hearing is a product of the questions you’re asked,” he says. “John was the only one, at least the first one, in the public hearing that asked me about Iraq. If nobody had asked me about Iraq, I probably wouldn’t have had the chance to talk about it.

“In those days, being critical of the decision to go into Iraq when we had just done it was extremely unpopular,” he adds. “I got a lot of negative feedback for being critical in that hearing of the war in Iraq.”

More to the point, the Clinton administration “did a much better job on terrorism—and gets insufficient credit for it,” he says. “To some people at the time, including the incoming Bush administration, the Clinton administration’s response to terrorism seemed like an unnatural fixation, an unjustified obsession. They’ll never admit that, but when they came into office in January of 2001, that’s what they were saying: ‘Why did you guys create this big counterterrorism bureaucracy? Why did you guys raise the budget to deal with counterterrorism so much? Why were so many of your high-level meetings on counterterrorism? Why weren’t you talking about Iraq or China or Russia?’

“Did the Clinton administration do everything I wanted them to?” he asks rhetorically. “No. It didn’t bomb—repeatedly bomb, to the point of complete destruction—the al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. When it did do it once, it got criticized.” But while the Bush administration “got off to a good start” after 9/11, it “lost its way” after that—“which is why we’re still fighting al Qaeda, and why, seven years later, they’re still around.”

On the eve of the hearings, the publication of Against All Enemies hit Washington like a tsunami.

“The timing is classic Clarke,” wrote Pincus and Eggen in The Washington Post. “Former colleagues say Clarke is a wily tactician in the political world of Washington and would be well aware of the firestorm he would cause by the release of his book during a presidential campaign.”

He was certainly ready for the “buzz-saw” that awaited him. “This is Dick Clarke’s ‘American Grandstand’—he just keeps changing the tune,” said then-White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “Clearly this is more about politics and a book promotion than it is about policy.” McClellan, who has since resigned and written a critical memoir of his own, recently apologized to Clarke for the smear and asked for his forgiveness.

“I know this administration and the way they act, and I expected them to do what they did,” Clarke told the Gazette four years ago. “Which, by the way, I think was counterproductive from their perspective.”

When Vice President Dick Cheney suggested that Clarke had been “out of the loop” on 9/11, the comment was greeted with howls of derision: Clarke wasn’t just in the loop; he was the loop. Even Condoleezza Rice publicly acknowledged Clarke’s pivotal role that day.

“It’s about as ridiculous a comment as saying Eli Manning was ‘out of the loop’ for the Giants’ Super Bowl victory,” says R. P. Eddy. But, he adds, Clarke came out of the whole ordeal “smelling like a rose—as he should have.”

National Insecurity By Samuel Hughes

Your Government Needs
to Get Its Act Together

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  ©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/04/08