Thursday's must-reads

By Geraldine Sealey
Published March 25, 2004 2:35PM (EST)

Clarke's contribution
Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball weigh in with an online-only analysis of the 9/11 public hearings with this conclusion: "In deft and sometimes dramatic testimony, former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke did new political damage to the Bush White House by laying out a bold scenario by which the September 11 plot might have been unraveled."

"The Clarke scenario builds on prior disclosures that the U.S. agencies had known that two of the hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, had attended a suspected Al Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000 and then flown to the United States. The CIA has acknowledged that this information was in its files shortly after the meeting, but there was no alert to the FBI to track them down until the agency sent out a secret all-points bulletin in the third week of August 2001."

"But this information was never passed along to Clarke and his counterterrorism team at the National Security Council before September 11 -- in large part, Clarke suggested, because the Bush White House had never emphasized the urgency of the Al Qaeda threat throughout the government nor demanded that agencies comb their files for information about Al Qaeda operatives in the United States."

"'I would like to think that had I been informed by the FBI that two senior Al Qaeda operatives who had been in a planning meeting earlier in Kuala Lumpur were now in the United States, and we knew that, and we knew their names -- and I think we even had their pictures -- I would like to think I would have released or had the FBI release a press release, with their names, with their descriptions, held a press conference, tried to get their names and pictures on the front page of every paper -- 'America's Most Wanted,' the evening news -- and caused a successful nationwide manhunt for those two, two of the 19 hijackers,' he said."

On Wednesday, the White House took the unusual step of identifying Clarke as the background press briefer, usually referred to as something like "administration official" in press accounts, on a day in August 2002 when Clarke still worked for Bush. In the briefing, Clarke said generally positive things about Bush's anti-terror strategy before 9/11. The request to out Clarke as the briefer came from Fox News, and the transcript of his remarks was well-circulated yesterday as the central White House attack against Clarke. The briefing also came up in the 9/11 commission hearing, Newsweek reports.

"'Mr. Clarke, as we sit here this afternoon, we have your book and we have your press briefing of August 2002,' said former Illinois governor Jim Thompson. 'Which is true?' Clarke testily noted that he was still employed at the White House at the time and was asked to help deflect a 'somewhat sensational' Time magazine story that implied the Bush administration hadn't acted on a 'plan' to thwart Al Qaeda. 'I was asked to highlight the positive aspects of what the administration had done, and to minimize the negative aspects of what the administration had done,' Clarke said. 'And, as a special assistant to the president, one is frequently asked to do that kind of thing. I've done it for several presidents  When you're on the staff of the president of the United States, you try to make his policies look as good as possible.'"

Newsweek continued: "In fact, the commission staff released a wealth of new details over the past two days that tend to corroborate Clarke's basic story: that the Bush White House did not treat Al Qaeda as an 'urgent' priority in the months before September 11.

Standing O for Clarke
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Richard Clarke got a standing ovation from many in the audience at the 9/11 commission public hearing -- including the families of many 9/11 victims who have embraced Clarke and condemned national security adviser Condoleezza Rice for refusing to testify before the panel in public and under oath.

"The events surrounding Clarke, whose testimony was the highpoint of two days of hearings that featured top Cabinet officials of the Bush and Clinton administrations, showed how the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001, had been transformed into a major campaign issue in Bush's re-election effort against the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. The report from the 10-member commission, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, is due July 26, just as the Democratic convention opens in Boston, so the pressure of politics in its deliberations is only just beginning."

Part of the appreciation some 9/11 families have for Clarke likely comes from the fact that he has done what the White House won't: Apologize. "This is finally a forum where I can apologize to the families of the victims of 9/11," he began his tesimonty on Wednesday. "... Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you," he said. "For that failure, I ask for your understanding and your forgiveness."

"Outside the hearing room, Sept. 11 family members fumed about the questioning of Clarke. 'I find it offensive that the Republicans used their time with him (Clarke) for a political agenda,' said Mindy Kleinberg of East Brunswick, N.J., whose husband, Alan, was killed in the World Trade Center."

9/11 hearing challenges Bush "strength"
President Bush and his advisers have said 9/11 and his handling of the terror attacks should be fair game as a campaign issue. Bush should be careful of what he wishes for. As the Los Angeles Times' Ron Brownstein's analysis points out, the two days of public testimony before the 9/11 commission poke holes in Bush's supposed main electoral strength -- his national security credentials. "The allegations from former advisor Richard Clarke -- that Bush slighted the war against terrorism to focus on Iraq -- dovetail so closely with so many Democratic criticisms of the president that some party strategists believe this week's events could mark a turning point in public attitudes about the administration's national security record."

"'Their entire presidency is based on whatever leadership they can point to as a result of Sept. 11,' said one senior Democratic strategist familiar with the thinking inside the campaign of Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, that party's presumptive nominee. 'If the credibility of that leadership is questioned, his entire presidency hangs in the balance.'"

Sick soldiers sent to war
A Knight-Ridder investigation shows that "to meet the demand for troops in Iraq, the military has been deploying some National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers who aren't fit for combat. More than a dozen members of the Guard and reserves told Knight Ridder they were shipped off to battle with little attention paid to their medical histories. Those histories included ailments such as asthma, diabetes, recent surgery and hearing loss. Once in Iraq, the soldiers faced severe conditions that aggravated their medical problems, and the medical care available to them was limited."

"David Lloyd, a 44-year-old mechanic with the Tennessee National Guard, died of a heart attack in Iraq last August. His wife, Pamela Lloyd, said her husband didn't know he'd had a problem, but his autopsy showed three blockages in his coronary arteries. 'He should have never been deployed,' she said. 'He was supposed to have been given a thorough physical. He had none. The only thing he had was the shots.'"

"A memo from the European Regional Medical Command in Germany, where many injured soldiers were sent, criticized the pre-deployment medical screening and said soldiers who were unfit for Iraq were having to be sent home. Deploying them was a risk to their health and an added cost for the military, it said.  How many soldiers are unfit is unclear. Each soldier who spoke with Knight Ridder said he or she knew of others who -- like themselves -- were sent to Iraq despite health problems ranging from allergies requiring refrigerated medications to heart disease."

"Loose tongue"
Howard Dean is set to endorse his former rival John Kerry today. Meanwhile, the Washington Post has a piece by Howard Kurtz featuring an interview with Howard Dean's former pollster who says Dean "didn't like Kerry" during the campaign and the two New Englanders were "like oil and water."

Paul Maslin also has some not-so-nice things to say about his former boss. Among them: "Dean was so adamant about keeping his Vermont gubernatorial records sealed that he told his staff in December: 'I'd rather end the campaign than have the world see everything.' Although Dean maintained he was acting to preserve the principle of confidentiality, the real reason, Maslin says, is that the candidate was sure he had insulted important Democrats and liberal interest groups in the documents  Dean's 'erratic judgment, loose tongue and overall stubbornness wore our spirits down,' Maslin writes. 'He refused to be scripted, to be disciplined or to discipline himself.'"

All of this is a preview of an upcoming Atlantic Monthly piece, some of which can be read here.

Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at

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