Right Hook

After the deluge of personal attacks against Richard Clarke, Brooks and Lowry admit the counter-terrorism expert has credibility. Plus: Are the Dems too down with gangsta rap?

By Mark Follman
Published March 31, 2004 9:03PM (EST)

There was nothing shocking last week about the barrage of personal attacks rained down on Richard Clarke, the former counter-terrorism chief who has openly criticized the Bush administration for failing to handle the terrorism threat prior to 9/11. Clarke himself predicted the attacks, knowing that his new book and testimony before the 9/11 Commission would shake the foundation of the Bush reelection campaign, which banks on the image of Bush as a rock-steady leader in the war against terrorism.

With the initial onslaught now receding a bit, some conservatives are starting to acknowledge that Clarke, an accomplished civil servant who worked under four U.S. presidents, is spotlighting several issues essential to national security. But that's not stopping them from continuing to rip into Clarke, or twisting his arguments in hopes of protecting the president.

Even if the Bush White House has repeatedly thwarted requests by the 9/11 Commission for information and testimony, New York Times columnist David Brooks is applauding the commission's "outstanding" interim reports released last week. Richard Clarke, he notes, had a key role in them.

"In clear, substantive and credible prose, these staff reports describe the errors successive administrations made leading up to the terror attacks. More than that, they describe the ambiguities and constraints policy makers wrestled with...

"It should be said that Clarke used to be capable of the sort of balanced analysis contained in these reports. Indeed, he was a major source for them."

But that was the "old Richard Clarke," insists Brooks, who suddenly sees a total disconnect between Clarke's new book and the commission's analysis of what went wrong inside the U.S. government before terrorists struck New York and Washington.

"Compared with the commission reports, Clarke's book, 'Against All Enemies,' is as subtle as an episode of the Power Rangers. See Dick Clarke courageously take control of the government in the middle of the terror attacks! See him heroically lead a teleconference! Behold his White House conversations! Everything he says is farsighted and brave! Everything the Bushies say is incorrect. And he remembers it all perfectly!"

In the end, though, Brooks seems to acknowledge that the future of U.S. national security is the vital issue -- and even now, he says, the Bush administration may be failing to handle it properly.

"So here we are in a familiar spot. Instead of talking about the bipartisan failures and systematic shortcomings of our terror policy, we're seething at one another about one man. It's the Clinton scandals and Bork hearings all over again -- except this time the pretext for our hatred just happens to be security policy. Conservatives, including myself, believe that Clarke has turned himself into a mendacious glory-hound whose claims are contradictory. Liberals see him as the Erin Brockovich of the Bush years.

"There's plenty of blame to go around. Clarke deserves blame for his shrill partisanship. The media deserve blame for neglecting the commission reports (The Times is an honorable exception). Most important, the administration deserves blame. Instead of focusing on the substantive commission reports and treating Clarke with the back of its hand, the Bush administration got right in the mud with him.

"Meanwhile, actual policy matters get tossed about in the roiling seas... This has not been a good week for American politics."

National Review editor Rich Lowry also seems somewhat leery of last week's fervent attacks against the former counter-terrorism chief. "Clarke is right," he declared on Monday, noting that "below the grandstanding is some solid expertise."

"It has been widely remarked by now that Richard Clarke was the most aggressive counterterrorism official in the Clinton administration, privately frustrated by his inability to get the Clinton team to take up his most important ideas. The fact that Clarke is quite sound on terrorism issues -- at least those not touching on the Iraq war -- has now been obscured by his star turn as an anti-Bush partisan. But if you focus on what Clarke said in his testimony before the 9/11 commission when he wasn't beating up on Condi Rice et al., you hear a quite reasonable analysis of the U.S. response to terrorism."

But Lowry skips over any discussion of the administration's handling of national security matters between January and September 2001, while doing his best to interpret Clarke's testimony in favor of Bush's post-9/11 policies:

"Clarke emphasizes the need for preemption. He explained, 'One of the things I would hope comes out of your commission report is a change -- a recommendation for a change in the attitude of government about threats; that we be able to act on threats that we foresee, even if acting requires boldness and requires money and requires changing the way we do business, that we act on threats in the future before they happen. The problem is that when you make that recommendation before they happen, when you recommend an air defense system for Washington before there's been a 9/11, people tend to think you're nuts.'"

Lowry makes no distinction between the Bush administration's preemptive invasion of Iraq and Clarke's recommendation of an air defense system for the U.S. capital. Likewise, he offers up Clarke's pointedly cautious recommendation for revamping the domestic intelligence system as an unequivocal endorsement of sweeping new powers for law enforcement.

"Clarke apparently sees the need for more domestic surveillance in the U.S., advocating doing the Patriot Act one better and creating a domestic intelligence agency. Just imagine the howls from the ACLU. Clarke acknowledged this, but said it was worth it, 'I am very fearful that such an agency would have potential to infringe on our civil liberties, and therefore I think we would have to take extraordinary steps to have active oversight of such an agency. And we'd have to explain to the American people in a very compelling way why they needed a domestic intelligence service, because I think most Americans would be fearful of a secret police in the United States. But frankly, the FBI culture, the FBI organization, the FBI personnel are not the best we could do in this country for a domestic intelligence service.'"

And Lowry enlists Clarke to absolve the White House of any intelligence abuses in its foreign policy -- but here again, he implies that there's no difference between destroying a suspected chemical weapons plant and invading and occupying a foreign country:

"Clarke defends the idea of acting even when the intelligence is uncertain, especially when WMDs are potentially involved. He defended the Clinton administration's controversial 1998 attack on a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant, which many observers think was based on flimsy intelligence at best. Clarke said, 'To this day, there are a lot of people who believe that it was not related to a terrorist group, not related to chemical weapons. They're wrong, by the way. But [Clinton] had decided [by presidential directive] that there should be a low threshold of evidence when it comes to the possibility of terrorists getting their access -- getting their hands on chemical weapons.'"

"America has a lot at stake"
As the difficult and dangerous reconstruction of Iraq enters a second year, the most urgent Islamist threat to U.S. interests may be gathering thousands of miles from Baghdad. Last week the Pentagon announced that 2,000 more Marines are headed for Pakistan to help capture or kill top al-Qaida leaders. While some argue that President Bush wants to nab bin Laden in time for the November election, Peter Brookes of the right-wing Heritage Foundation reminds New York Post readers that the stakes are much greater than partisan politics, with al-Qaida renewing its threat to assassinate Pakistani president and U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf:

"A new tape (supposedly) by al Qaeda's evil mastermind Ayman al Zawahiri last Thursday no doubt signaled Pakistani operatives to off Musharraf. The Egyptian physician-cum-terrorist called Musharraf a 'traitor' and urged the Pakistani people and army to overthrow his 'agent' government, which Zawahiri insists is doing the bidding of the 'devil' -- the United States ... A showdown is brewing...

"The demise of Musharraf -- a standup guy on terrorism of late -- would be a significant blow to the global War on Terror. Pakistan is awash in radicals, terrorists and Taliban. Bomb blasts last Friday in Karachi and Jacobabad show it's still a tough neighborhood. The Pakistani house is in dire need of cleaning, and right now Musharraf is the only man to do it...

"The United States is doing its part by providing Pakistan with a five-year package of $3 billion in aid and $1.5 billion in debt forgiveness. (Last week, President Bush extended a sanctions waiver against Pakistan that had been in place since Musharraf seized power in 1999.) This is fair as there is no doubt that Musharraf's closeness with the United States comes at some political cost -- and significant personal risk."

But while applauding U.S. diplomatic efforts, Brookes also seems to underscore the argument that the Bush administration, while bogged down in Iraq, hasn't focused enough resources on fighting al-Qaida where it is most concentrated.

"America has a lot a stake in the world's second largest Muslim nation. Failure to slay the terrorist beast could ultimately topple the Pakistani government and leave its nuclear arsenal in the hands of radicals. Instability in Pakistan would prevent the return of democracy to this secular Muslim nation and undoubtedly undermine Afghanistan's future as an open, free society."

Ousting the "judicial tyrants"
Back on the home front, the Christian Coalition is focused on keeping God in the Pledge of Allegiance -- by doing away with the "most liberal court in America."

"Christian Coalition of America supports a swift decision by the United States Supreme Court on the Pledge of Allegiance case being heard by the court: the 'Elk Grove Unified School District vs. Newdow' case. The left-wing 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on June 26, 2002, banned 'Under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance recited daily by school children saying that reciting the pledge was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. The infamous 9th Circuit Court is the most liberal court in America with more reversals on appeal than any other court in the land."

The best way to defend against this "assault" on freedom of speech, says Christian Coalition president Roberta Combs, is to get rid of the offending branch of the judiciary altogether:

"How hypocritical that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals imposed restrictions upon school children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in honor of our nation's flag, when this very day, the Supreme Court opened its session with a prayer as it always does. Both the United States Senate and House begin their sessions each day with prayer. What the 9th Circuit Court did is clearly one of the most outrageous assaults on the First Amendment right of free speech made by a court. Congress needs to provide oversight to these judicial tyrants, to include dissolving some of these courts, and the Supreme Court needs to promptly overturn this infamous decision."

Packin' a gat for the Dems' next fundraiser
Joseph Farah, editor of the right-wing Web tabloid World Net Daily, is doing his best to roll back any dangerous liberal advances in the culture wars. He's blowing the whistle on the Dems for inviting the rap group OutKast to a recent fundraiser and thereby supporting the corruption of America's youth.

"When two ex-presidents, a former vice president and a presidential candidate -- all of the Democratic Party -- got together last week for a unity pow-wow and fund-raiser, the entertainment included a gun-toting representative of the gangsta culture. Though the Democratic Party is known for its aversion to firearms -- especially handguns -- and has pushed legislation limiting gun rights, there in the midst of this high-level, supposedly distinguished affair was the rap group Outkast, which promotes itself with an image of one member of the duo brandishing a gat...

"Many parents across America are struggling to figure out ways to protect their children from the effects of a corrosive and pervasive pop culture that promotes death, drugs, violence and sex. Apparently the Democratic Party is not concerned with any of that. It is more concerned with courting the votes and support of mindless, programmed, amoral automatons who look up to performers like Outkast.

"For the Democrats, this was their idea of a 'family event.' This was their idea of 'relevance.' This was their idea of being hip and cool. If indeed America is engulfed in a Culture War, the Democrats have declared themselves openly to be on the side of the enemy, the barbarians."

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections Al-qaida David Brooks Pakistan Terrorism