"FRANKLY, I FIND IT OUTRAGEOUS that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11. Maybe. We'll never know."
Those are the words of Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism official in the Bush and Clinton administrations. Clarke appeared on CBS 60 Minutes last night to trash the Bush administration and its handling of the war on terror. The timing was propitious. Clarke has a book out today and he is testifying before the September 11 Commission later this week. Expect to hear a lot more about Richard Clarke and from Richard Clarke in the coming months, especially as the presidential campaign intensifies.
Clarke's testimonials are, in a word, bizarre. In his own world, Clarke was the hero who warned Bush administration officials about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda ad nauseam. The Bush administration, in Clarke's world, just didn't care. In Clarke's world, eight months of Bush administration counterterrorism policy is more important than eight years of Clinton administration counterterrorism policy.
"He's creating this new reality to cover his own legacy of failure," says one senior Bush administration official.
In fact, Bush administration officials who worked with Clarke say his warnings about bin Laden were maddeningly vague. Everyone knew bin Laden was a serious threat. Clarke's job, before he was demoted to his position as cyberterrorism czar, was to propose policies to address that threat. But his chief policy recommendation--arming the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan--was already under consideration and in any case would have done little to prevent a September 11 attack already in its final planning stages. After his demotion, Clarke constantly badgered Bush officials in order to get an audience with President Bush to discuss cyberterrorism.
CLARKE HAD FEW WORDS OF CRITICISM for President Clinton on 60 Minutes, despite having worked at the senior levels of his administration. At least he's consistent. Consider an interview with Clarke from PBS's Frontline: Clarke initially defends President Clinton, but an astute interviewer from Frontline with obvious knowledge of the chronology following the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000, presses him:
FRONTLINE: Some also say that due to the Lewinsky scandal, more action perhaps was never undertaken. In your eyes?
CLARKE: The interagency group on which I sat and John O'Neill sat--we never asked for a particular action to be authorized and were refused. We were never refused. Any time we took a proposal to higher authority, with one or two exceptions, it was approved . . .
FRONTLINE: But didn't you push for military action after the [al Qaeda bombing of the USS] Cole?
CLARKE: Yes, that's one of the exceptions..
FRONTLINE: How important is that exception?
CLARKE: I believe that, had we destroyed the terrorist camps in Afghanistan earlier, that the conveyor belt that was producing terrorists sending them out around the world would have been destroyed. So many, many trained and indoctrinated al Qaeda terrorists, which now we have to hunt down country by country, many of them would not be trained and would not be indoctrinated, because there wouldn't have been a safe place to do it if we had destroyed the camps earlier.
FRONTLINE: Without intelligence operatives on the ground in these organizations, how in the end does one stop something like this? If you look back on it now and you had one wish, you could have had one thing done, what would it have been?
CLARKE: Blow up the camps and take out their sanctuary. Eliminate their safe haven, eliminate their infrastructure. They would have been a hell of a lot less capable of recruiting people. Their whole "Come to Afghanistan where you'll be safe and you'll be trained"--well, that wouldn't have worked if every time they got a camp together, it was blown up by the United States. That's the one thing that we recommended that didn't happen--the one thing in retrospect I wish had happened.
FRONTLINE: So that's a pretty basic mistake that we made?
CLARKE: Well, I'm not prepared to call it a mistake. It was a judgment made by people who had to take into account a lot of other issues. None of these decisions took place in isolation. There was the Middle East peace process going on. There was the war in Yugoslavia going on. People above my rank had to judge what could be done in the counterterrorism world at a time when they were also pursuing other national goals.
The "conveyor belt" was, of course, never destroyed. But that fact seems not to matter to Clarke, who nonetheless suggests that the Bush administration bears most of the responsibility for September 11.
THERE ISN'T MUCH THAT'S FUNNY in discussions of war and terrorism. But Clarke's back-and-forth with 60 Minutes reporter Lesley Stahl on the Clinton administration's response to Iraq's 1993 assassination attempt on President George H.W. Bush offers a brief moment of levity.
The assassination attempt came just three months after President Clinton told the New York Times's Tom Friedman that being a Baptist and a believer in "deathbed conversions" he was willing to give Saddam a fresh start.
Saddam dispatched a rag-tag group of intelligence operatives to assassinate his nemesis. They failed. And when the FBI determined that Saddam's intelligence service was behind the plot, President Clinton ordered a handful of Tomahawk missiles to destroy the Iraqi Intelligence headquarters in Baghdad.
It was a flaccid response to the attempted assassination of a former head of state. But Clarke doesn't see it that way. Along with the strikes, Clarke says, the Clinton administration sent "a very clear message through diplomatic channels" that further Iraqi terrorism would be dealt with more severely. Clarke calls this "a very chilling message."
IN HIS INTERVIEW with Stahl, Clarke goes to great lengths to suggest that there was no connection between Iraq and al Qaeda. At one point in the interview, Clarke makes a stunning declaration. "There's absolutely no evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda, ever."
Leave aside the fact that Clarke was a key player in the decision to strike the al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in 1998. That strike came twenty days after al Qaeda bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. Clinton administration officials repeatedly cited Iraqi support for Sudan's Military Industrial Corporation and al Shifa in their defense of the targeting.
Disregard, too, the fact that when the Clinton Justice Department blamed bin Laden for those attacks, the indictment specifically cited an "understanding" between Iraq and al Qaeda, under which the Iraqis would help al Qaeda with "weapons development" in exchange for a promise from bin Laden that he wouldn't work against the Iraqi regime.
More important, Clarke's assertion is directly contradicted by CIA director George Tenet. In a letter he wrote to the Senate Intelligence Committee on October 7, 2002, Tenet cited numerous examples of Iraqi support for al Qaeda. Tenet wrote: "We have credible reporting that al-Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire W.M.D. capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs."
Clarke should answer several questions when he appears before the September 11 Commission this week. Among them:
(1) Is George Tenet wrong about Iraqi support for al Qaeda?
(2) Why did the Clinton administration cite an "understanding" between bin Laden and Iraq in its indictment of bin Laden for the 1998 embassy bombings?
(3) Did Iraq support al Qaeda's efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction in Sudan?
(4) Clinton administration officials, including Clarke's former boss Sandy Berger, stand by their decision to target al Shifa. Does Clarke?
(5) What did the Clinton administration do to get the Iraqis to turn over Abdul Rahman Yasin, the Iraqi harbored by the regime after mixing the chemicals for the 1993 World Trade Center attacks?
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.