March 23, 2004

Clarke Watch

"Richard Clarke, the country’s first counter-terrorism czar, told me in an interview at his home in Arlington, Virginia, that he wasn’t particularly surprised that the Bush Administration’s efforts to find bin Laden had been stymied by political problems. He had seen such efforts fail before. Clarke, who retired from public service in February and is now a private consultant on security matters, has served every President since Ronald Reagan. He has won a reputation as a tireless advocate for action against Al Qaeda. Clarke emphasized that the C.I.A. director, George Tenet, President Bush, and, before him, President Clinton were all deeply committed to stopping bin Laden; nonetheless, Clarke said, their best efforts had been doomed by bureaucratic clashes, caution, and incessant problems with Pakistan."

--Richard Clarke, per the August 4th 2003 issue of the New Yorker.

"Frankly," he said, "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."

--Richard Clarke, on 60 Minutes, March 21, 2004.

Hmm. What's changed I wonder? (Hat Tip: Reader DA)

Two caveats.

The first passage, that reader DA pointed out to me, is not a quote but rather a journalistic account of an interview of Clarke (Jane Mayer is an experienced journalist, however, and I doubt she would have gotten such an important part of her interview with Clarke wrong).

Second, anyone who describes Clinton's efforts to stop UBL as "deeply committed," well, I guess that casts some doubt on their similar judgement of Bush's performance too.

And yes, I mean that despite this part of the article:

"...C.I.A. officials went to the White House and said they had “specific, predictive, actionable” intelligence that bin Laden would soon be attending a particular meeting, in a particular place. “It was a rare occurrence,” Clarke said. Clinton authorized a lethal attack. The target date, however—August 20, 1998—nearly coincided with Clinton’s deposition about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Clarke said that he and other top national-security officials at the White House went to see Clinton to warn him that he would likely be accused of “wagging the dog” in order to distract the public from his political embarrassment. Clinton was enraged. “Don’t you fucking tell me about my political problems, or my personal problems,” Clinton said, according to Clarke. “You tell me about national security. Is it the right thing to do?” Clarke thought it was. “Then fucking do it,” Clinton told him."

They did "it" all right.

They hit a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, that is.

But, much more important than these tired stories, with regard to the current controversies swirling about Washington, note the below.

And as you read the passages I quote, note the issue described as having "reached a head" relates to the use of Predator weapons, which had provided a breakthrough, of sorts, by allowing the U.S. government to observe terrorist training camps at close hand (even the specific movements of a tall individual thought to perhaps be UBL).

These Predators, reportedly due to the fervent (and admirable) efforts of Clarke, had been rapidly rejiggered so that they could be armed--way ahead of schedule.

Now they could not only serve as a means to observe UBL's movements but also to perhaps kill him too.

The key parts:

"On September 4, 2001, all sides agree, the issue reached a head, at a meeting of the Principal’s Committee of Bush’s national-security advisers, a Cabinet-level group that includes the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the director of the C.I.A., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Attorney General, and the national-security adviser. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz also attended that day. As Clarke, who was there, recalled, “Tenet said he opposed using the armed Predator, because it wasn’t the C.I.A.’s job to fly airplanes that shot missiles. The Air Force said it wasn’t their job to fly planes to collect intelligence. No one around the table seemed to have a can-do attitude. Everyone seemed to have an excuse.”

“There was a discussion,” the senior intelligence official confirmed. “The C.I.A. said, ‘Who’s got more experience flying aircraft that shoot missiles?’ But the Air Force liked planes with pilots.”

A week later, in the worst terrorist attacks in history, which were carried out at bin Laden’s direction, nearly three thousand Americans were killed.."

Question for readers.

What seems to have caused this lack of a "can-do" attitude re: going after al-Qaeda?

George Bush's myopic obsession with Iraq?

Paul Wolfowitz's?

Or instead, per Clarke's retelling in the New Yorker interview, issues like the controversy between the Air Force and Langley as to who would actually operate the Predator?

I don't say that to place blame with George Tenet or the Air Force Chiefs.

And I'm certainly not saying this was the only issue.

But the policy debate Clarke relayed to the New Yorker interviewer, I'd wager, accurately evokes the kind of issues that were being batted around in policy pow-wows about how to combat al-Qaeda.

Put another way, a wild-eyed Paul Wolfowitz wasn't describing UBL as a peace-loving flower child that merited zero attention--with Saddam the end all and be all of his analysis of the strategic threats facing the U.S. in 2001.

Hindsight, as is so often said, is 20-20.

It's easy to beat up on policymakers about how 9/11 could have been prevented (nor would killing UBL on September 4th, 2001, even if it had been achievable, likely have meant 19 hijackers wouldn't have slammed planes into the WTC, Pentagon and Pennsylvania countryside a week later).

But I trust most Administration critics, when they are alone and taking a real, honest look at themselves in the mirror, would admit that we were all tragically caught off guard on 9/11.

From George Bush, George Tenet and Paul Wolfowitz; to Bill Clinton, Sandy Berger, and Al Gore; to a Cantor Fitz trader, a FDNY firefighter, or an illegal Honduran busboy working in Windows on the World.

Given this reality, it's hugely unfortunate that one of the biggest tragedies in American history is metamorphosizing into a political foodfight.

Why not call an end to all the partisan rancor and conclude, roughly, thus:

The Clinton Administration's approach to al-Qaeda was too timid, too legalistic, too episodic.

The Bush Administration's (pre-9/11) approach to al-Qaeda was likely overly influenced by traditional realist security hawks (with a dollop of neo-con thinking thrown in) overly emphasizing state actors as compared to stateless transnational terror groups.

Put differently, there's enough blame to go around.

But don't be surprised if we get attacked again, especially post-Madrid precedent, whilst we engage in all this cheap, partisan sniping.

Who will we blame then?

Posted by Gregory at March 23, 2004 10:11 PM
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