Shooting the messenger

Conservatives should hail former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, but instead they're smearing him.

By James Pinkerton
Published March 30, 2004 4:18AM (EST)

Conservatives, ever suspicious of Big Government, should love a whistle-blower -- unless, of course, hes former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke. The Washington Times calls Clarke "a political chameleon who is starved for attention after years of toiling anonymously in government bureaucracies." For neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, Clarke is "a liar" and "not just a perjurer but a partisan perjurer." According to Ann Coulter, Clarke is a racist. Exiting the known world and entering into her own fantasyland, Coulter depicts Clarke musing about Condoleezza Rice: "the black chick is a dummy," whom Bush promoted from "cleaning the Old Executive Office Building at night."

This ad hominem defamation is obviously intended to discredit the man in order to discredit his argument. But such low tactics arent usually attempted against a man whose allegations are corroborated by others, including the implicated parties -- and, most palpably, by events themselves.

Clarke testified that George W. Bushs national security team underestimated the terrorist threat prior to 9/11 -- an assertion that has been vouchsafed by the administration itself. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the 9/11 commission that "even though you're on the right track, you can get run over if you're not going fast enough." With the benefit of "hindsight," he continued, it was plain that "we weren't going fast enough." Even Krauthammer was forced to concede after the hearings that the Bush "did not distinguish himself on terrorism in the first eight months of his presidency."

In other words, the Bushies themselves have pled no contest to this particular Clarke charge. But of course, the boss had long ago offered a nolo contendere plea. In Bob Woodwards 2002 book, "Bush at War," the 43rd president confessed that he was not "on point" prior to 9/11. Indeed, Clarke has taken to reciting Bushs own words. On Sundays "Meet the Press," Clarke quoted him saying that anti-terror "was not an urgent issue for me. I didn't feel a sense of urgency."

Still, Vice President Dick Cheney sneered that Clarke "clearly missed a lot of what was going on."And yet all of us, of course, were witness to counterterrorism malpractice on a bewildering scale. We all saw Americas national defenses fail on 9/11. We all saw, too, that Bush then switched enemies, moving away from al-Qaida to invade a locked-down, secular Arab police state. We listened to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz declare Iraq to be the "central front" in the war on terror. Now we are seeing al-Qaida attacks all over the world -- without any help from the imprisoned Saddam Hussein. Indeed, last week the Pentagon announced that 2000 Marines will be moved from Iraq to Afghanistan to nab bin Laden, two years too late -- but maybe just in time for November.

Meanwhile, inconsistency is another fault being pinned on Clarke. Richard Lowry, editor of National Review, and Romesh Ratnesar of Time claim that Clarke has contradicted himself. Articles headlined "Clarke's Self-Immolation: Auditioning for the Dishonesty Czar" and "Richard Clarke, at War with Himself" are based on the premises that a) one always says the same thing in public as in private e-mails; b) one gives ones own personal observations in the workplace, especially when working for the executive branch of the federal government; and c) one always tells the same anecdote using precisely the same words. If any American has ever committed any of these three truth-demeanors, please step forward now.

Others, despairing of nailing Clarke, wish to dismiss the hearings themselves. Ralph Peters, writing in the New York Post, fumes that the 9/11 hearings were "poorly timed," adding, "The worst election-year sin is the focus on past errors, real or purported, and the lust to assign blame. Whats done is done." Such magnanimous logic, of course, explains why the Republicans never, never pursued the cases of Whitewater and Paula Jones in the run-up to the 1994 elections, and never pushed the Monica Lewinsky allegations in time for the 1998 midterms. Of course: "Whats done is done." Peters concludes that "the message our bickering sends to al Qaida and its sympathizers is that Americans are divided and can be defeated." For openers, that overlooks the context of the 9/11 attacks, when America was relatively united politically, but blissfully unprepared homeland-security-wise. Peters simply presumes that Bushs political well-being matters most now.

As he said on Sunday, Clarke knows he is up against the full might of the Bush administration and its political allies, some doing their work on government time, some not. But he has the armor of his own career achievements. On "Meet the Press," he read aloud to Tim Russert the handwritten note that Bush gave him as he resigned barely more than a year ago: "You will be missed. You served our nation with distinction and honor." Indeed, his secret weapon seems to be his willingness to be open. Upping the stakes in his White House war, the veteran bureaucrat now wants his total paper trail declassified and released -- while his White House antagonists want to leak only unflattering and distorted snippets.

In a battle between Clarkes full disclosure and the administrations parsed and edited truth, its hard to see Clarke losing -- although, of course, the Rove-Neocon Polemical Complex will pummel him forever.

James Pinkerton

James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday. From 1979 to 1984, he worked in the election and reelection campaigns of Ronald Reagan and in the Reagan White House.

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