Richard Clarke, at War With Himself

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Since his appearance on 60 Minutes last Sunday, Richard Clarke has faced a barrage of attacks from Bush Administration officials over his claims that the White House ignored the threat posed by al-Qaeda before Sept. 11 because of its obsession with Iraq. Dick Cheney told Rush Limbaugh that Clarke “wasn't in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff”; Condoleezza Rice said Monday that "Dick Clarke just does not know what he's talking about"; and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, in that same 60 Minutes broadcast said that the White House has found "no evidence" that conversations Clarke claims to have had with President Bush even occurred. Clarke has responded to his critics with a dollop of wistful regret, followed by an adamant refusal to back down. "It pains me to have Condoleezza Rice and the others mad at me," he told Good Morning America. "But I think the American people needed to know the facts, and they weren't out. And now they are."

Are they? The accounts of high-level conversations and meetings given by Clarke in various television appearances, beginning with the 60 Minutes interview, differ in significant respects from the recollections of a former top counterterrorism official who participated in the same conversations and meetings: Richard Clarke. In several cases, the version of events provided by Clarke this week include details and embellishments that do not appear in his new book, Against All Enemies. While the discrepancies do not, on their own, discredit Clarke's larger arguments, they do raise questions about whether Clarke's eagerness to publicize his story and rip the Bush Administration have clouded his memory of the facts.

Perhaps Clarke's most explosive charge is that on Sept. 12, President Bush instructed him to look into the possibility that Iraq had a hand in the hijackings. Here's how Clarke recounted the meeting on 60 Minutes: "The President dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door and said, 'I want you to find whether Iraq did this'.....the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said, 'Iraq did this.'" After Clarke protested that "there's no connection," Bush came back to him and said "Iraq, Saddam — find out if there's a connection." Clarke says Bush made the point "in a very intimidating way." The next day, interviewed on PBS' The NewsHour, Clarke sexed up the story even more. "What happened was the President, with his finger in my face, saying, 'Iraq, a memo on Iraq and al-Qaeda, a memo on Iraq and the attacks.' Very vigorous, very intimidating." Several interviewers pushed Clarke on this point, asking whether it was all that surprising that the President would want him to investigate all possible perpetrators of the attacks. Clarke responded, "It would have been irresponsible for the president not to come to me and say, Dick, I don't want you to assume it was al-Qaeda. I'd like you to look at every possibility to see if maybe it was al-Qaeda with somebody else, in a very calm way, with all possibilities open. That's not what happened."

How does this square with the account of the same meeting provided in Clarke's book? In that version, Clarke finds the President wandering alone in the Situation Room on Sept. 12, "looking like he wanted something to do." Clarke writes that Bush "grabbed a few of us and closed the door to the conference room" — an impetuous move, perhaps, but hardly the image that Clarke depicted on television, of the President dragging in unwitting staffers by their shirt-collars. The Bush in these pages sounds more ruminative than intimidating: "I know you have a lot to do and all, but I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this. See if he's linked in any way." When Clarke responds by saying that "al-Qaeda did this," Bush says, "I know, I know, but see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred....." Again Clarke protests, after which Bush says "testily," "Look into Iraq, Saddam."

Nowhere do we see the President pointing fingers at or even sounding particularly "vigorous" toward Clarke and his deputies. Despite Clarke's contention that Bush wanted proof of Iraqi involvement at any cost, it's just as possible that Bush wanted Clark to find disculpatory evidence in order to discredit the idea peddled by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that Baghdad had a hand in 9/11. In the aftermath of 9/11, Bush rejected Wolfowitz's attempts to make Iraq the first front in the war on terror. And if the President of the United States spoke "testily " 24 hours after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, well, can you blame him?

Clarke's liberties with the text don't stop there. On 60 Minutes he said that after submitting to the White House a joint-agency report discounting the possibility of Iraqi complicity in 9/11, the memo "got bounced and sent back saying, 'Wrong answer.'" The actual response from Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, shown later in the program, read "Please update and resubmit." On 60 Minutes, Clarke went further, saying that Bush's deputies never showed the President the joint-agency review, because "I don't think he sees memos that he wouldn't like the answer." This is pure, reckless speculation. Contrast that with the more straightforward account in Against All Enemies: after his team found no evidence of Iraqi involvement, Clarke writes that "a memorandum to that effect was sent up to the President, and there was never any indication that it reached him."

In a few other instances, Clarke's televised comments seem designed to disparage the President and his aides at all cost, omitting any of the inconvenient details — some of which appear in the pages of his book — that might suggest the White House took al-Qaeda seriously before Sept. 11. Bush, Clarke says, "never thought [al-Qaeda] was important enough for him to hold a meeting on the subject, or for him to order his national security advisor to hold a cabinet-level meeting on the subject." This has been a constant refrain in Clarke's public statements — that Bush's failure to call a "Principal's Meeting" of his cabinet to discuss terrorism until the week before Sept. 11 showed a lack of interest in al-Qaeda. While it is technically true that the White House did not hold a Cabinet-level meeting on al-Qaeda until Sept. 4, the charge is still misleading, since Bush, as early as April 2001, had instructed Rice to draft a strategy for rolling back al-Qaeda and killing bin Laden, saying he was tired of "swatting flies" —, a line Clarke does include in his book. Rice's response was to task a committee of deputies to study the U.S.'s options for rolling back the Taliban; the group ultimately concluded that the U.S. should increase its support to the Northern Alliance and pressure on Pakistan to cooperate in a campaign to remove the Taliban. It was essentially the same plan Clarke had drafted during the Clinton Administration. As his book details, the plan was scuttled by intransigence at the CIA and the Pentagon, neither of which Clinton wanted to confront head-on.

While Clarke claims that he is "an independent" not driven by partisan motives, it's hard not to read some passages in his book as anything but shrill broadsides. In his descriptions of Bush aides, he discerns their true ideological beliefs not in their words but in their body language: "As I briefed Rice on al-Qaeda, her facial expression gave me the impression she had never heard the term before." When the cabinet met to discuss al-Qaeda on Sept. 4, Rumsfeld "looked distracted throughout the session." As for the President, Clarke doesn't even try to read Bush's body language; he just makes the encounters up. "I have a disturbing image of him sitting by a warm White House fireplace drawing a dozen red Xs on the faces of the former al-Qaeda corporate board.....while the new clones of al-Qaeda....are recruiting thousands whose names we will never know, whose faces will never be on President Bush's little charts, not until it is again too late." Clarke conjured up this chilling scene again on 60 Minutes. Only in this version he also manages to read Bush's mind, and "he's thinking that he's got most of them and therefore he's taken care of the problem." The only things missing are the black winged chair and white cat.

Leaving aside the fact that Bush never fails to insist that the terror threat is as great today as it was on 9/11, these passages reveal the polemical, partisan mean-spiritedness that lies at the heart of Clarke's book, and to an even greater degree, his television appearances flacking it. That's a shame, since many of his contentions — about the years of political and intelligence missteps that led to 9/11, the failure of two Administrations to destroy al-Qaeda and the potentially disastrous consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq — deserve a wide and serious airing. From now on, the country would be best served if Clarke lets the facts speak for themselves.