Richard Clarke's book, condensed.

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March 25 2004 8:19 PM

Could We Have Prevented 9/11?

Slate tells you what Richard Clarke's book reveals about the Bush and Clinton administrations' war on terror.

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Page 248-50: Created the Department of Homeland Security. Clarke argues that the launch of the new department led to molasses-slow bureaucratic reshuffling, not efficient counterterrorism. He believes a White House office on homeland security would have been more effective and says that Bush thought so, too—after all, that's what he initially created. The department's authorization was politically motivated, Clarke says: When Sen. Joe Lieberman appeared to be about to outflank the administration on counterterrorism with his popular bill founding the department, Bush shifted positions, supported and signed the bill, and claimed the idea as his own.

Page 234: Allowed Clarke to quit. When, in the summer of 2001, Clarke asked Rice if he could be reassigned to cybersecurity, he explained his rationale: "Perhaps … I have become too close to the terrorism issue. I have worked it for ten years and to me it seems like a very important issue, but maybe I'm becoming like Captain Ahab with bin Laden as the White Whale. Maybe you need someone less obsessive about it." Or—Clarke's implication is obvious—maybe not.

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What Clinton Did Right
Page 129: Declared "a war on terror before the term became fashionable." This was back in 1996, after the first World Trade Center attack, the Bush assassination attempt, the Khobar Towers attack, and the Oklahoma City bombing. (On Page 127, Clarke notes that it's possible that al-Qaida operatives in the Philippines "taught Terry Nichols how to blow up the Oklahoma Federal Building." Intelligence places Nichols there on the same days as Ramzi Yousef, and "we do know that Nichols's bombs did not work before his Philippines stay and were deadly when he returned.")

Page 225: Thwarted al-Qaida's efforts to establish a militant Islamist state in Bosnia. Clinton's efforts to quell the war in the Balkans "defeated Al Qaeda when it had attempted to take over Bosnia by having its fighters dominate the defense of the breakaway state from Serbian attacks."

Pages 79-84: Responded to Saddam Hussein's assassination attempt on George H.W. Bush with force. He ordered the bombing of Iraq's intelligence headquarters, which, Clarke says, paired with a "stark warning" to the Iraqis, "successfully deterred Saddam from ever again using terror against us."

Pages 112-21, 129: Responded to Iran's role in the 1996 Khobar Towers attack with an unspecified "intelligence operation" intended to deter further Iranian terrorism.

Page 186: Responded to the African embassy bombings with strikes on terrorist camps in Afghanistan and a chemical plant in Sudan, even though he anticipated criticism for the timing. (The strikes took place on Aug. 20, 1998, at the height of the Lewinsky scandal.) According to Clarke, Clinton said: "Do you all recommend that we strike on the 20th? Fine. Do not give me political advice about the timing. That's my problem. Let me worry about that."

Pages 211-12: Worked to prevent al-Qaida attacks planned for the millennium. In December 1999, Clinton's National Security Adviser Sandy Berger "convened the Principals [Cabinet-level officials] in crisis mode. 'We have stopped two sets of attacks planned for the Millennium. You can bet your measly federal paycheck that there are more out there and we have to stop them too. I spoke with the President and he wants you all to know.' " Clarke adds: "It was the sort of attention we needed in the summer of 2001."

Page 225: Recognized early on that terrorism was a primary post-Cold War threat, and "greatly increased funding for counterterrorism and initiated homeland protection programs."

What Clinton Did Wrong
Page 225: Went too easy on the CIA. "He had given the CIA unprecedented authority to go after bin Laden personally and Al Qaeda, but had not taken steps when they did little or nothing." (Clarke, however, goes pretty easy on Clinton for this failing: "Because Clinton was criticized as a Vietnam War opponent without a military record, he was limited in his ability to direct the military to engage in anti-terrorist commando operations.")

Page 131: Didn't always push hard enough for homeland protection measures. In 1996, Clarke championed a plan for "a permanent air defense unit to protect Washington." Despite Clarke's efforts, Clinton's Treasury Department refused to OK it. "Most people who heard about our efforts to create some air defense system in case terrorists tried to fly aircraft into the Capitol, the White House, or the Pentagon simply thought we were nuts."