March 26, 2004

TNR Floods the Zone

It's the Richard Clarke issue over at TNR.

And, with the exception of a Larry Kaplan piece (subscription required for all articles linked throughout save &C's), it's pretty bad reading for those of us who believe that Richard Clarke has materially changed both the style and substance of his analysis of the Bush Administration's handling of al-Qaeda.

Before we turn to the depressing stuff, however, here are a few key grafs from Kaplan's piece:

"There is, to begin with, the small matter of the Clinton administration's pitiful record on the issue, about which the Clarke book and the hearings have already offered an opportunity for Republicans to remind the public. Dick Cheney, for one, promptly raised the question of what the Clinton team was doing during the "years going back to 1993, and the first attack on the World Trade Center, in '98 when the embassies were hit in East Africa, in 2000 when the USS Cole was hit." The short answer is nothing. Despite a clear evidence trail leading back to Al Qaeda, the administration failed to respond to the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, and vetoed proposals to dispatch Special Forces in the hunt for bin Laden. It never responded to the 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia, despite (or because of) evidence of involvement by Iran, which the Clintonites were then attempting to "engage." The administration's response to the bombing of two American embassies in East Africa in 1998 was to fling a few missiles at a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan on the eve of Clinton's impeachment. The Clinton team even gave state sponsors of terrorism a linguistic cleansing, changing their official title from "rogue state" to "state of concern."

True, the Clinton administration was not imprisoned in the "cold war" mindset in which Clarke accuses the Bush team of being entrapped. Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbot, for instance, located national security challenges "from the floor of the stock exchange in Singapore to the roof of the world over Patagonia where there is a hole in the ozone layer." Terrorism, alas, was not at the top of the list. Indeed, during the Clinton years, there was a visible shift away from the Reagan-era practice of holding states accountable for the deeds of their agents to a policy that viewed terrorists as criminals. "We are not a nation that retaliates just in order to get vengeance," Madeline Albright proclaimed in 1998, "nor do we forget our own legal system while searching for those who harmed us." Her successors may prefer to respond to terror with the long reach of American military power, but Albright mostly deemed it a matter for the "long reach of our nation's law enforcement."

Not surprisingly, this understanding of Clinton-era counterterrorism policy has undergone a profound revision at this week's hearings, with Albright now claiming, "We need to remember that Al Qaeda is not a criminal gang," and her colleagues faulting Bush for having paid insufficient attention to the terror threat. But to imagine charges that Bush has bungled the issue will somehow create the impression that his opponents did, or will do, otherwise is to subordinate fact to wish."

Indeed.

Spence Ackerman has two pieces up too.

One takes Colin Powell to task for, per Ackerman, contradictory testimony borne of carrying so much water for the Bushies that he is soaking wet and, the next time he trots over to the Hill, Ackerman avers, he should bring his swimming trunks.

But the more important (and potentially damning, at least for us Administration supporters) Ackerman piece focuses on showcasing how Condi Rice's credibility is in tatters while Richard Clarke's, meanwhile, is pretty impeccable.

It's worth a closer look--because, imho, there are a lot of problems with Ackerman's arguments.

Recall that Richard Clarke explained the reason for the differences as between his book and pre-book descriptions of Bush's policy (particularly per the Fox-leaked background briefing) as stemming from requests from the Bushies to "highlight the positive aspects of what the administration had done and to minimize the negative aspects of what the administration had done."

From this, Ackerman's gallops ahead to describe the Clarke testimony thus:

"In one fell swoop, Clarke had turned an attack on his credibility into an attack on the Bush administration's credibility. Then Clarke twisted the knife. In the 2002 backgrounder, he had said that before 9/11, the Bush administration "changed the strategy from one of rollback with Al Qaeda over the course of five years, which it had been, to a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination of Al Qaeda." Now Clarke explained that in fact, the "change" he was referring to was his victory in inserting the word "elimination" into a draft of the National Security Presidential Directive on terrorism that President Bush signed just before September 11. Why was the semantic shift to "elimination" a victory for Clarke? Because the Bush administration was initially uncomfortable with the harsh language of "elimination" and had sought to keep it out. "I tried to insert the phrase early in the Bush administration in the draft NSPD that our goal should be to 'eliminate' Al Qaeda," he said. "And I was told by various members of the deputies committee that that was overly ambitious and that we should take the word 'eliminate' out and say 'significantly erode.'" Beyond debates over word choice, the substance of the actual policy adopted by Bush in September 2001, Clarke explained yesterday, was "to roll back Al Qaeda over the course of three to five years so that it was just a nub of an organization like Abu Nidal that didn't threaten the United States." That policy was initially worked out by Clarke and his Counterterrorism Security Group beginning in 1998 and updated after the October 2000 Al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole--that is, during the Clinton administration." [my emphasis added throughout]

So let me understand.

Ackerman makes a big deal about the deputies committee parsing whether to use the word "elimination" or "significantly erode" in its description of al-Qaeda.

But the real news item here is that the Bush Administration actually adopted some of Clarke's more muscular policy proposals.

Ackerman dances around that by talking about how Clarke had "worked out" the policy in 1998 and that it was "updated" in 2000 "during the Clinton Administration"--but, of course, and most critically, it was never adopted during the Clinton years.

Don't believe me?

Here's Richard Clarke himself (from the background brief):

"QUESTION: Are you saying now that there was not only a plan per se, presented by the transition team, but that it was nothing proactive that they had suggested?

CLARKE: Well, what I'm saying is, there are two things presented. One, what the existing strategy had been. And two, a series of issues--like aiding the Northern Alliance, changing Pakistan policy, changing Uzbek policy--that they had been unable to come to um, any new conclusions, um, from '98 on.

QUESTION: Was all of that from '98 on or was some of it ...

CLARKE: All of those issues were on the table from '98 on.

ANGLE: When in '98 were those presented?

CLARKE: In October of '98.

QUESTION: In response to the Embassy bombing?

CLARKE: Right, which was in September.

QUESTION: Were all of those issues part of alleged plan that was late December and the Clinton team decided not to pursue because it was too close to ...

CLARKE: There was never a plan, Andrea. What there was was these two things: One, a description of the existing strategy, which included a description of the threat. And two, those things which had been looked at over the course of two years, and which were still on the table.

QUESTION: So there was nothing that developed, no documents or no new plan of any sort?

CLARKE: There was no new plan.

QUESTION: No new strategy--I mean, I don't want to get into a semantics ...

CLARKE: Plan, strategy--there was no, nothing new.

QUESTION: 'Til late December, developing ...

CLARKE: What happened at the end of December was that the Clinton administration NSC principals committee met and once again looked at the strategy, and once again looked at the issues that they had brought, decided in the past to add to the strategy. But they did not at that point make any recommendations.

QUESTIONS: Had those issues evolved at all from October of '98 'til December of 2000?

CLARKE: Had they evolved? Um, not appreciably.

ANGLE: What was the problem? Why was it so difficult for the Clinton administration to make decisions on those issues?

CLARKE: Because they were tough issues.

Pretty damning, isn't it?

Guess Clinton was busy, er, with other things.

Ackerman then writes thus:

"This was too much for Thompson. "It suggests to me that there is one standard of candor and morality for White House special assistants and another standard of candor and morality for the rest of America," he said. To which Clarke delivered his coup de grace, clearly directed as his former bosses in the administration: "I don't think it's a question of morality at all. I think it's a question of politics." As soon as the words left Clarke's lips, the first three rows of seats in Hart 216 exploded with applause. That's applause the White House has reason to fear: Those three rows were reserved for family members of the September 11 victims. By and large, they said yesterday that they hold Clarke in high esteem. "He kept his integrity. His story didn't change," noted Rosemarie Dillard, who lost her husband on Flight 77. "He's laying the facts on the table," said Mary Fetchet, who lost her son in Tower Two and is now a member of the informal 9/11 Commission watchdog group known as the Family Steering Committee."

Excuse my French, but what "coup de grace"?

As what I wrote above indicates, there is no way that Clarke's testimony can be reconciled with his previous statement in August of 2002.

To dismiss this as merely a "question of politics" is highly disingenous.

This essential weakness in Ackerman's argument is why (quite unfortunately in my view) his piece becomes based on something of a popularity contest.

Ackerman makes big hay that the 9/11 families burst into applause for Richard Clarke.

But we can't confuse sentiment and emotion (the 9/11 families in the audience were grateful for Clarke's apology) with the facts.

And, unfortunately for Spence Ackerman, the facts are contra his argument.

Once Ackerman is done deifying Clarke for his political "jujitsu" skills and popularity with the 9/11 families--he next tries to twist his rhetorical knife into Condi Rice:

"But someone to whom the charge of duplicity might very well stick is Condoleezza Rice. On Monday, The Washington Post published an op-ed from Rice attempting to rebut Clarke's accusations. She wrote first that "No Al Qaeda plan was turned over to the new administration" by Clarke's Counterterrorism Security Group at the end of the Clinton administration--only "several ideas, some of which had been around since 1998 but had not been adopted." While "several" of these ideas were subsequently adopted, she explained, "we quickly began crafting a comprehensive new strategy to 'eliminate' the Al Qaeda network." That strategy "marshaled all elements of national power to take down the network, not just respond to individual attacks with law enforcement measures. Our plan called for military options to attack Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership, ground forces and other targets--taking the fight to the enemy where he lived."

"According to information released at the 9/11 Commission hearings, this appears to be a very misleading description of Bush's strategy, known as National Security Presidential Directive-9 (NSPD-9) and completed days before the September 11 attacks."

Why does Ackerman describe Rice's oped as misleading?

Because, per Ackerman, the NSPD-9 plan adopted by the Bush Administration before 9/11 (that the Clinton team, recall, never got around to adopting) is a far cry from Rice's description of a plan that "marshal[ed] all elements of national power," most significantly, "military options to attack Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership, ground forces and other targets--taking the fight to the enemy where he lived."

But, as Ackerman concedes, NSPD-9 is still classified.

We have to rely, therefore, on 9/11 Commission member Jamie Gorelick's description of the document:

"But as I understand it, it had three stages which were to take place over, according to Steve Hadley, the deputy national security adviser, over a period of three years. The first stage was, we would warn the Taliban. The second stage was we would pressure the Taliban. And the third stage was that we would look for ways to oust the Taliban based upon individuals on the ground other than ourselves, at the same time making military contingency plans."

Question for Spence Ackerman.

Given that none of us have read NSPD-9, and so can only rely on synopses like that of Gorelick's, what is fundamentally contradictory as between Rice's statement that the new Bush strategy would "marshall all elements of national power," including military options, and Gorelicks description of NSPD-9 that makes mention of "military contingency plans"?

Indeed, Gorelick's description of the document holding out the prospect of "military contingency plans" comes after discussion of ousting the Taliban, on the ground, by non-U.S. forces.

The inference, therefore, is pretty clear.

The "military contingency plans" might well involve United States forces.

Ackerman:

"Rice says NSPD-9 included "ground forces"--by not saying what kind, she implies that she is referring to American ground forces. Gorelick is talking about NSPD-9 using "individuals on the ground other than ourselves," which means, principally, the Northern Alliance. And what Gorelick describes as "military contingency plans" means, basically, that the military would consider future options as they developed--presumably, that's where Pakistan and Uzbekistan would kick in. So, Rice's references to "ground troops" who will "take the fight to the enemy where he lived," if they mean anything at all, really mean using forces other than our own That sounds pretty similar to the 1998 and 2000 plans--sorry, "ideas"--Clarke had developed, which were themselves improvements on Clinton administration policy."

But wait, how does Ackerman know that the "military contingency plans" are where "Pakistan and Uzbekistan would kick in"?

Answer: he doesn't.

And, let me stress again, at least the Bush Administration formally adopted the Clarke plan (or Clark "ideas", ruminations, whatever).

Ackerman's most powerful argument, in terms of Condi Rice's credibility, is this part of Deputy Secretary of State Armitage's testimony under questioning by 9/11 Commissioner Gorelick:

GORELICK: So I would ask you whether it is true, as Dr. Rice said in The Washington Post "Our plan called for military options to attack Al Qaida and Taliban leadership, ground forces and other targets, taking the fight to the enemy, where he lived"? Was that part of the plan as prior to 9/11?

ARMITAGE: No, I think that was amended after the horror of 9/11.

But let's take a look at the full context:

GORELICK: Now, you all, the deputies committee and ultimately the principals committee, worked for seven-plus months on NSPD-9, as we've been talking about. That's the policy that went to the principals on September 4th of '01.

And as we see it, it had three elements. The first stage was warning the Taliban in no uncertain terms. The second stage was pressuring the Taliban, diplomatic pressure, other pressures on the Taliban. And the third was trying to figure out a way to oust the Taliban, but not with our boots on the ground -- with somebody else's boots on the ground.

And then have some contingency planning, although, as Dick Clarke said, that was part of the usual process, to have contingency plans in the wings. You just said that you might have suggested, and I don't want to put words in your mouth, that the president could have, should have, advocated to Congress and to policymakers putting boots on the ground. I don't see any boots on the ground in NSPD-9.

GORELICK: Is that correct?

ARMITAGE: First, it's not necessarily correct that I would advocate putting boots on the ground.

GORELICK: I didn't mean to put words in your mouth.

ARMITAGE: No, but it's an important point. As far as this citizen is concerned the decision to commit men and women, who are also sons and daughters, to combat is an extraordinarily important one and not to be done to just feel good; to be done to absolutely accomplish a mission.

Now, sometimes I'm accused of being a foot-dragger, not wanting to go along with the force. But I'm sorry, that's my view.

Having said that, the Taliban, for a lot of reasons we were handling them somewhat gently. Some of our citizens were still there. Some of our NGOs were the only thing keeping some segments of the Afghan population alive and feed programs and things of that nature. So you don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water, generally.

And so the question of the Taliban is a tough one. There was no question about, I think, in anybody's mind about the desirability of putting soldiers on the ground if we could catch or capture or kill bin Laden. But as a discreet element.

GORELICK: I'm talking about an invasion of the sort that we did post-9/11. And there is nothing in the NSPD-9 that came out of September 4th that we could find that had an invasion plan, a military plan. And even that plan of Deputy National Security Adviser Hadley said was contemplated to take three years.

ARMITAGE: Right.

Armitage, albeit as a "discreet element," makes it clear that the Bush Administration would have, as one "contingency", been willing to put U.S. forces on the ground to apprehend UBL.

True, of course, the plan was strengthened massively after the horror of 9/11.

But, at least, the Bush Administration had a plan.

One that, one could credibly argue, marshalled a wide cross-section of U.S. national power.

So, contra Ackerman, I don't think he's caught Condi Rice in a Big Lie.

Indeed, all things considered, I would have to say that Richard Clarke's credibility is at a lower ebb than Condi Rice's--at least where we stand today.

INTERESTING UPDATE:

Reader MP writes in: "Once upon a time, they [TNR] had a different take on the subject."

The New Republic, Nov 5, 2001 p14

White House Watch: Backfired. (Richard Clarke demoted, Wayne Downing appointed as anti-terrorist staff) Ryan Lizza.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2001 The New Republic, Inc.

"It's not often that the White House holds a press conference to announce a demotion. But that's what happened on October 9, when Tom Ridge, President Bush's new homeland security adviser, and Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, introduced the administration's newest anti-terrorism staffers. At a sterile ceremony in the fourth- floor briefing room of the Old Executive Office Building, Ridge and Rice announced that Richard Clarke, a pale, gray-haired man sitting on stage in an ill-fitting suit, would be the special assistant to the president for cyberspace security. It's an important job, and insiders say Clarke wanted it. But it's also a step down: For the last three years Clarke has held the more exalted title of National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-Terrorism-- America's terrorism czar. Sitting next to Clarke at the ceremony was the new czar, Wayne A. Downing, a retired four-star general who will report to both Ridge and Rice and hold the rank of deputy national security adviser. The shift from Clarke, the bureaucratic insider, to Downing, the Army general, signals something important: The war on terrorism will no longer be directed by people who specialize in politics; it will be directed by people who specialize in war.

For almost three decades Clarke mastered official Washington. What he didn't master was counterterrorism. His first brush with notoriety came in 1986 when, as one of the State Department's top intelligence officers, he hatched a bizarre scheme to incite a coup against Muammar Qaddafi in retaliation for the Libyan strongman's support of terrorism. Clarke's plan called for American planes to produce a wave of sonic booms over Libyan airspace while empty rafts washed ashore--not to attack, but to create the effect of an attack, which would spur Qaddafi's enemies to move against him. The plan became public, was scrapped, and created a small scandal for the Reagan White House. Then, in 1992, Clarke's State Department career abruptly ended when the inspector general accused him of failing to stop illegal transfers of sensitive U.S. military technology to China. Clarke strongly denied the accusations but fled State and landed at the National Security Council.

Things didn't go much better there. In 1993 he oversaw Somalia policy during the American intervention, the greatest military debacle of the 1990s. Clarke was also in the middle of the botched effort to get Osama bin Laden in 1996, when the Clinton administration rejected--as The Washington Post recently revealed--a Sudanese offer to hand him over. Then, in 1998, he played a key role in the Clinton administration's misguided retaliation for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which targeted bin Laden's terrorist camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. Clarke reportedly steamrolled intelligence officials who doubted (correctly) the evidence linking the Sudanese factory to either bin Laden or chemical weapons.

Those strikes, we now know, were primarily dictated by political rather than military concerns. They were coordinated because the United States wanted to prove we could hit two far-flung targets simultaneously (the attacks were dubbed "Operation Infinite Reach") and perhaps even because some U.S. officials believed (erroneously) that the Sudanese had attempted to assassinate Tony Lake. And the search for a proper target in Sudan got further bogged down in an attempt to limit civilian casualties. The White House made a fateful decision to strike at night when no workers would be present. The result, as a little-noticed report by CNN recently explained, was that both attacks were delayed just long enough so that bin Laden left his Afghan camp an hour or two before the missiles landed. An uncharitable assessment might suggest that, for the second time in two years, Clarke was central to a decision that led to bin Laden's escape.

But even as these decisions were backfiring, Clarke was demonstrating his real skill: political survival. He is the longest-serving member of the NSC. Universally described as a master of bureaucracy, he made himself indispensable to the NSC transition teams of both the Clintonites and the Bushies. He thus became the only NSC staffer from the first Bush administration retained by Clinton, and one of the only Clinton staffers kept on by the younger Bush. "Dick Clarke is the ultimate survivor," says Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer and counterterrorism official at the State Department. "He is a bureaucrat's bureaucrat. He knows how to write memos, move the paper. The guy's a master."

And it's in political fights that Clarke has had his greatest triumphs. He worked the budget process to increase counterterrorism spending from $5.7 billion in 1995 to $12 billion in 2001. He helped lead a successful administration campaign to oust Boutros Boutros-Ghali as secretary general of the United Nations in 1996. More broadly Clarke tried, at the end of Clinton's term, to formulate a new U.S. terrorist doctrine not dissimilar to the one now articulated by Bush--that the United States would not distinguish between terrorists and the states that harbor them. "We may not just go in and strike against a terrorist facility; we may choose to retaliate against the facilities of the host country, if that host country is a knowing, cooperative sanctuary," he told the Associated Press in 1999. But nobody remembers this because Clarke didn't have the stature to put counterterrorism policy on the front page.

His successor, needless to say, won't have that problem. For William Downing there is nothing metaphorical about the "war" on terrorism. Downing is a highly decorated soldier who graduated from West Point and served several combat tours in Vietnam. He directed special forces in Operation Just Cause, which snatched Manuel Noriega from Panama in 1989. He also led them during the Gulf war. During Somalia, while Clarke coordinated policy from the White House, Downing commanded the elite U.S. troops on the ground. The 18 Americans killed in the October 1993 raid to capture warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed were directed by Downing, whose request to use AC-130 gunships for support was turned down by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell--a debate that could be a harbinger of things to come in the current administration.

Since his retirement in 1996 Downing has been known mostly for his unvarnished views about how to fight terrorism. In a frank report on the Khobar Towers bombing, requested by the Pentagon, he blamed the general in charge of the facility for failing to take proper security measures. The general resigned. In the same report he called terrorism "a form of warfare," and he explicitly rejected the idea of pursuing terrorists as we pursue criminals: "These terrorists are not criminals in the conventional sense. They must be seen as `soldiers.'" Downing noted as far back as 1996 what September 11 has made a cliche: You can't fight terrorism without much better human intelligence. He also sat on the 1999 National Commission on Terrorism, which recommended many of the anti-terrorism measures now being rushed through Congress (see "Sin of Commission," by Franklin Foer, October 8).

With respect to the ongoing debate within the administration about whether to target Iraq after operations end in Afghanistan, there's no question about Downing's views: He literally wrote the battle plan for overthrowing Saddam. Besides Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, and Richard Perle, a formal Pentagon policy adviser, few in Washington are identified as closely with replacing the current Iraqi regime. For the last few years Downing has advised the anti-Saddam Iraqi National Congress. His overthrow plan--unveiled to think tank conservatives and members of Congress--called for U.S.-armed and - trained rebels to launch an attack from safe zones within Iraq that are protected by American air power.

Clearly Downing possesses the right qualities for fighting a war on terrorism. The big question will be how well the four-star general maneuvers the internecine politics of the federal bureaucracy. Perhaps he should stop by Clarke's office for some tips."

Hmmm.

Once someone allegedly scores a good hit or two on evil Georgie (with some help from the press)--their popularity rises, doesn't it?

[my emphasis throughout]

Posted by Gregory at March 26, 2004 11:27 AM
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