The Blog

Scheuer v. Clarke

Why Michael Scheuer and Richard Clarke don't have nice things to say about one another.

7:30 AM, Nov 22, 2004 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

MICHAEL SCHEUER doesn't have many friends. Former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit and author, under the pseudonym Anonymous, of Through Our Enemies' Eyes and Imperial Hubris, Scheuer has clashed with the likes of the late John O'Neill (who was the FBI's point man on terrorism in the 1990s, and died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001), Sandy Berger (national security adviser under President Clinton), and former CIA Director George Tenet. Scheuer's conflicts with his employers grew so heated, in fact, that two weeks ago he left the agency forever. In Imperial Hubris, Scheuer criticizes the Bush administration, to be sure, but also senior intelligence officials, Clintonites, American "elites" in general, and much else. During his many public appearances throughout the last two weeks, Scheuer has leveled criticism at a new target: Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar whose book Against All Enemies, released last spring, said the Bush administration dropped the ball on terrorism in the run-up to September 11, and then again in the aftermath.

Clarke is "self-serving" and "risk averse," Scheuer told reporters at a breakfast last Friday. He was echoing comments he made to CBS News correspondent Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes:

KROFT: Richard Clarke has said that you're really sort of a--a hot-head, a middle manager who really didn't go to any of the cabinet meetings in which important things were discussed, and that--that basically you are just uninformed.

SCHEUER: I certainly agree with the fact that I didn't go to the cabinet meetings. But I'm certainly also aware that I'm much better informed than Mr. Clarke ever was about the nature of the intelligence that was available against Osama bin Laden, and which was consistently denigrated by himself and Mr. Tenet. I think Mr. Clarke had--had a tendency to interfere too much with the activities of--of the CIA, and our leadership at the senior level let him interfere too much. So criticism from him I kind of wear as a badge of honor.

The feud between Scheuer and Clarke first became public in a November Vanity Fair story on whether September 11 could have been averted. In the piece, Scheuer says Clarke "was an interferer of the first level, in terms of talking about thing that he knew nothing about and killing them." A 25-year veteran of the CIA, Scheuer was never a political appointee, and part of his disdain springs from what he views as Clarke's incessant politicking. "Mr. Clarke was an empire builder. He built the community, and it was his little toy." In Scheuer's view, Clarke's political aspirations interfered with important national security decision making. "He was always playing the FBI off against [the CIA] or [the CIA] against the NSA," Scheuer told Vanity Fair.

For the most part, Clarke has kept a low public profile since his incendiary testimony before the 9/11 Commission last spring. (There's a rumor that he's written a spy novel, part of which will be excerpted in an upcoming issue of the Atlantic Monthly.) Whatever the reason, he hasn't attacked Scheuer in public--at least not yet. But here's how he described Scheuer to Vanity Fair : "Throwing tantrums and everything doesn't help. Fine that you came to the same conclusion that we all came to, fine that you're all worked up about it, and you're having difficulty getting your agency, the rest of your agency, to fall in line, but not fine that you're so dysfunctional within your agency that you're making it harder to get something done."

One's first reaction upon hearing about the Scheuer-Clarke feud is to blame the narcissism of small differences. In other words, Scheuer and Clarke dislike each other because they have so much in common. Both were early advocates of forceful action against al Qaeda, both saw the enormity of the threat posed by Islamist terrorism, and both faced entrenched bureaucracies that were averse to change.

But there may be another explanation. Scheuer thinks Clarke is a risk-averse poseur who didn't do enough to fight bin Laden prior to September 11, 2001. At his breakfast with reporters, Scheuer said that on 10 separate occasions his unit, codename "Alec," provided key policymakers with information that could've lead to the killing or capture of Osama bin Laden. "In each of those 10 instances," Scheuer said, "the senior policymaker in charge, whether it was Sandy Berger, Richard Clarke, or George Tenet," resisted taking action, afraid it would result in collateral damage or a backlash on the Arab street. According to Scheuer, Clarke's story has changed in the time since. Clarke says the Clinton administration did all that it could to fight terrorism, while the Bush administration was derelict.

One of the reporters raised her hand.

"Just to clarify," she asked. "Did all these 10 instances take place prior to the Bush administration?"