One of the first official acts of the incoming Bush administration in January 2001 was to demote the office of national coordinator for counterterrorism on the National Security Council, a position held by Richard A. Clarke. Clarke had served in the Pentagon and State Department under Presidents Reagan and elder Bush, and was the first person to hold the counterterrorism job created by President Clinton. Under Clinton, signifying the importance the president attached to the issue, Clarke was elevated to Cabinet rank, which gave him a seat at the Principals Meeting, the decision-making group of the highest figures involved in national security. By demoting the office, Bush and his team sent a signal through the national security bureaucracy about the salience they assigned to terrorism -- below issues they regarded as truly serious, like Star Wars and the military threat of China. By removing Clarke from the table, the Bush administration put him in a box where he could only speak when spoken to. No longer would his memos go to the president; instead they had to pass though a chain of command of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and her deputy Stephen Hadley, who bounced every one of them back.
Terrorism was a Clinton issue, "soft" and obscure, having something to do with "globalization," and other "soft" issues like global warming and global diseases (openly ridiculed in the Republican Party platform). "In January 2001, the new administration really thought Clinton's recommendation that eliminating al-Qaida be one of their highest priorities, well, rather odd, like so many of the Clinton administration's actions, from their perspective," writes Clarke in his new book, "Against All Enemies." The Clinton team's repeated briefings on terrorism during the transition were like water off a duck's back. When Clarke first met with Rice and immediately raised the question of dealing with al-Qaida, she "gave me the impression she had never heard the term before."
The controversy raging around Clarke's book -- and his testimony before the 9/11 commission that Bush ignored warnings about terrorism that might have prevented the attacks -- revolves around his singularly unimpeachable credibility. In response, the Bush administration has launched a full-scale offensive against him: impugning his personal motives, claiming he is a disappointed job-hunter, that he is publicity mad, a political partisan (Clarke, in fact, voted for Republican Sen. John McCain for president in the Republican primaries in 2000) -- as well as ignorant, irrelevant and a liar.
Richard Clarke had a reputation in the Clinton White House of being brusque, driven, yet preternaturally calm, and single-minded. He was a consummate professional and expert who was a master of the bureaucracy. He didn't suffer fools gladly. He stood up to superiors and didn't care whom he alienated. His flaw was his indispensable virtue: He was always direct and candid in telling the unvarnished truth.
But his account need not stand on his reputation alone. Clarke was not the only national security professional who spanned both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Gen. Donald Kerrick served as deputy national security advisor under Clinton and remained on the NSC for several months into the new Bush administration. Kerrick wrote his replacement, Stephen Hadley, a two-page memo. "It was classified," Kerrick told me. "I said they needed to pay attention to al-Qaida and counterterrorism. I said we were going to be struck again. We didn't know where or when. They never once asked me a question nor did I see them having a serious discussion about it. They didn't feel it was an imminent threat the way the Clinton administration did. Hadley did not respond to my memo. I know he had it. I agree with Dick that they saw those problems through an Iraqi prism. But the evidence wasn't there."
At the April 2001 Deputies Committee meeting on al-Qaida forced by an insistent Clarke, the threat was "belittled" by the neoconservative Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who was "spouting" a "totally discredited" theory about Iraqi terrorism being behind the World Trade Center bombing of 1993. "Well, I just don't understand why we are beginning by talking about this one man bin Laden," said Wolfowitz. At the only Principals Meeting that took up terrorism as a result of Clarke's drumbeat, the use of the unmanned Predator drone over Afghanistan was shelved. Rice helped push terrorism off the agenda by sending it to the purgatory of re-study, a classic bureaucratic method of shunting a troublesome question aside.
Rice now claims that "we were at battle stations." But Bush is quoted by Bob Woodward in "Bush at War" saying that before 9/11, "I was not on point ... I didn't feel that sense of urgency." Cheney alleges that Clarke was "out of the loop." But if he was, then the administration was either running a rogue operation or doing nothing, as Clarke testifies. Was the Bush administration engaged in an undercover, off-the-boards operation apart from the president's designated special assistant? Cheney's charge leads to absurdity.
Bush himself plaintively protests now: "And had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on 9/11, we would have acted." But he had plenty of information. Former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, the only member of the 9/11 commission to read the President's Daily Brief, revealed in the hearings that the documents "would set your hair on fire" and that the intelligence warnings of al-Qaida attacks "plateaued at a spike level for months" before 9/11. Bush, meanwhile, is fighting public release of these PDBs, which would show whether he had marked them up and demanded action.
Bush's information was more than enough for him to have put the government on high alert, as was done around the planned al-Qaida millennium bombings, which were thwarted by the commitment of President Clinton and his team to giving terrorism the very highest priority through daily presidential meetings with the most senior national security officials. That process was dissolved by Bush and Rice and pointedly not reconstituted even during the rising level of chatter indicating an imminent attack in the weeks before 9/11.
The administration's furious response to Clarke only underscores his book. Rice is vague, forgetful and dissembling. Cheney is belligerent, certain and bluffing. In Clarke's book, as in the memoirs of other Bush administration officials, former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill and former domestic policy aide John DiIulio, Bush is disengaged, incurious, manipulated by those in the closed circle around him, and he adopts ill-conceived strategies that he has played little or no part in preparing. Bush is the Oz behind the curtain, but unlike the wizard the special effects are performed by others. Especially on terrorism and 9/11, his White House is at "battle stations" to prevent the curtain from being pulled open.