The Magazine

Wesley Clark and Terry McAuliffe

From the August 25, 2003 issue: The Scrapbook on the general's imaginary friend and the DNC chairman's success.

Aug 25, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 47
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Wesley Clark's Imaginary Friend

Does Wesley Clark have an imaginary friend? The retired NATO commander and possible Democratic presidential candidate has been muttering darkly for several months that opportunists in the White House seized September 11 as a pretext to take out Saddam Hussein. Clark maintains that he received a call at home the afternoon of September 11, 2001, urging him to say on CNN that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were connected to Iraq. But Clark has now provided three versions of this story, and they don't add up.

Version One: On "Meet the Press" on June 15 of this year, Clark asserted that intelligence about the Iraqi threat had been hyped. "Hyped by whom?" asked moderator Tim Russert.

CLARK: "I think it was an effort to convince the American people to do something, and I think there was an immediate determination right after 9/11 that Saddam Hussein was one of the keys to winning the war on terror. Whether it was the need just to strike out or whether he was a linchpin in this, there was a concerted effort during the fall of 2001 starting immediately after 9/11 to pin 9/11 and the terrorism problem on Saddam Hussein."

RUSSERT: "By who? Who did that?"

CLARK: "Well, it came from the White House, it came from people around the White House. It came from all over. I got a call on 9/11. I was on CNN, and I got a call at my home saying, 'You've got to say this is connected. This is state-sponsored terrorism. This has to be connected to Saddam Hussein.' I said, 'But--I'm willing to say it, but what's your evidence?' And I never got any evidence. And these were people who had--Middle East think tanks and people like this, and it was a lot of pressure to connect this and there were a lot of assumptions made. But I never personally saw the evidence and didn't talk to anybody who had the evidence to make that connection."

That was an astonishing accusation of corruption in the White House, and unsurprisingly it caught the eye of several astute observers. Sean Hannity followed up two weeks later on Fox's "Hannity and Colmes": Referring to the Russert transcript above, Hannity said of the call, "I think you owe it to the American people to tell us who."

Version Two: Clark replied, "It came from many different sources, Sean."

HANNITY: "Who? Who?"

CLARK : "And I personally got a call from a fellow in Canada who is part of a Middle Eastern think tank who gets inside intelligence information. He called me on 9/11."

HANNITY: "That's not the answer. Who in the White House?"

CLARK: "I'm not going to go into those sources."

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman also understood that Clark was playing with live political ammunition, and he wrote a July 15 column attacking the White House and headlined, "Pattern of Corruption."

"Gen. Wesley Clark says that he received calls on Sept. 11 from 'people around the White House' urging him to link that assault to Saddam Hussein," wrote Krugman.

Last week, rather belatedly, the New York Times published a July 18 letter from Clark purporting to "correct" the record.

Version Three: "I would like to correct any possible misunderstanding of my remarks on 'Meet the Press' quoted in Paul Krugman's July 15 column, about 'people around the White House' seeking to link Sept. 11 to Saddam Hussein," Clark wrote to the Times.

"I received a call from a Middle East think tank outside the country, asking me to link 9/11 to Saddam Hussein. No one from the White House asked me to link Saddam Hussein to Sept. 11. Subsequently, I learned that there was much discussion inside the administration in the days immediately after Sept. 11 trying to use 9/11 to go after Saddam Hussein.

"In other words, there were many people, inside and outside the government, who tried to link Saddam Hussein to Sept. 11."

In other words, and let's have a show of hands here: How many of you believe Gen. Clark really got that call?

If you read version three carefully, you will see that Clark has now exonerated the White House of his most serious accusation. Much as he wants to put a sinister spin on the matter, all Clark is saying is that the White House was more sensitive to the Iraqi threat after 9/11.

That leaves the question of the call. It's true that journalists protect sources all the time. But there are also times when a source deserves to be burned, and this is one of them. We're not talking about a normal journalist-source relationship here. We're talking about someone who urged the former supreme allied commander of NATO to go on national TV on 9/11 and assert a provocative untruth.