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  While his 15 minutes of mega-fame may have passed, Your Government Failed You brought him back into the spotlight this year. In the book, Clarke examines our past national-security disasters and argues that we need to make major, systemic changes in our government institutions to prevent future catastrophes.

“When I said ‘Your government failed you,’ I was talking about 9/11 and the al Qaeda crisis,” Clarke said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “If you look at not only what’s gone on in the last eight years, but earlier as well, there’s a pattern of the U.S. government not being successful on national-security crises and long-term issues. So whether it’s Iraq or global warming, there’s a whole series of issues where the U.S. government doesn’t do well—despite the fact that we spend a trillion dollars on national security.

“You’ve got to do things like raise the level of professionalization in national security,” he added. The Department of Homeland Security “gets more political appointees as a percentage than any other department. That’s incredible. Maybe you should have said, ‘Hey, this is an important issue—we’ve just been attacked; we’re establishing a security department; let’s get professionals; let’s get experts.’ Instead they filled it with political hacks, and then they started doing pork-barrel grants.”

“I’m trying to think of something I disagree with in the book,” says R. P. Eddy. (He can’t.) “It’s insights from a guy who knows. He has a fluency and a kind of a preternatural awareness of how government and the national-security apparatus works in a way that I don’t think anyone else does. And it comes from being around at very high levels for a very long time, being very smart, and being very passionate about it.”

“Whether you agree or disagree with him, you would be foolish to ignore him,” says Roger Cressey. “He brings a very unique skill-set to these issues. He served Republicans and Democrats, and he knows these issues in the government better than just about anybody else.”

“Clarke reinforces the big lesson of September 11: the need to connect the dots,” says Donald Kettl, the Fox Leadership Professor, professor of political science, and former director of the Fels School of Government. “Coordination is key, and coordination requires a coordinator. The idea of having a coordination czar often gets hooted down, and the lives of White House czars have often not been happy ones. But having someone close to the president who can pull disparate ideas together, and who can make sure the president hears what the president must hear, is critical.”

Clarke has been advising Barack Obama since the summer of 2007. But he has no interest in taking a job in anybody’s administration.

“I did that for 30 years,” he says. “I think that’s enough. You probably shouldn’t do something for as long as 30 years, but definitely not more than that.”

And yet, his interviewer notes, if he hadn’t been doing that job for nearly 30 years on September 11 … Clarke nods. “That day I probably made a difference.”

He makes a difference in other ways now. Adamant about the need to bring talented young people into government, he gets high marks from students and colleagues for his work at the Kennedy School of Government.

Eric Rosenbach, a former military-intelligence officer who now serves as executive director for research at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, describes Clarke as someone who “makes a very conscious effort to try to build young leaders for the next generation.”

“He’s really passionate about this,” says Kent Park, who’s working on his master’s of public policy degree. “That comes out in terms of his teaching style and how he interacts with students. He’s doing this because he really wants to, and because he’s really passionate about the national security of the United States. For a lot of other classes, it feels like the professors are doing it because it’s their job. That’s not the case with Professor Clarke.”

Most of Clarke’s time is taken up with his duties as chairman of a security risk-management firm in Arlington, Virginia: Good Harbor Consulting. Founded by his old NSC colleague Roger Cressey, Good Harbor provides strategic advice and counsel to a broad range of clients—from the government of a “major U.S. ally in the Middle East,” to energy companies and pharmaceutical firms, to the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi—on matters of homeland security, cyber security, infrastructure protection, and counter-terrorism.

Clarke carries in his head a staggering amount of information about all manner of deadly threats, some of which are only just being imagined. (He has personally received some very credible death threats over the years, though for obvious reasons declines to talk about them.) To get a sense of the high-tech horrors out there, check out Breakpoint, his cyber-thriller, which depicts the U.S. as under attack by shadowy terrorists employing real emerging technologies. It’s Clarke’s way of reaching people who might not want to wade through his “wonk books.” But a sunny beach reading it isn’t.

Which brings me back to that sardonic smile. When I mention it to R.P. Eddy, he thinks for a moment, then says: “You know in Clear and Present Danger, when Jack Ryan—Harrison Ford’s character—walks into the Oval Office at the end of the movie? He yells at the president, and the president says, ‘Don’t you come barking at me like a junkyard dog!’ And Harrison Ford stops, straightens his jacket, and says: ‘It gives me no pleasure.’

“I think of Dick in that way. It pains him that this is the case. He certainly didn’t get any pleasure out of 9/11. He didn’t take any pleasure in saying that the team he had served with—and it’s not just the Bush administration—had failed. It gives him no pleasure, and when he talks about these things … God, the stuff that this guy had his finger on.”

National Insecurity By Samuel Hughes

Your Government Needs
to Get Its Act Together

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Last modified 11/04/08