Could We Have Prevented 9/11?
Slate tells you what Richard Clarke's book reveals about the Bush and Clinton administrations' war on terror.
On March 24, Richard Clarke delivered a persuasive performance in front of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. Clarke—who has worked for Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, serving as counterterrorism chief for the last two—apologized for his failures in fighting al-Qaida. Then he slammed the Bush administration for paying insufficient attention to the terrorist threat in the summer of 2001. His new book, Against All Enemies, makes similar points at greater length.
Although the book amounts to a chronicle of what many in the present Bush administration did wrong (and what Clarke and Clinton did right), it is neither shrill nor overly self-congratulatory. Unlike some of the books Slate has diced and julienned in this space, this one's worth reading, mostly for Clarke's informed account of al-Qaida's rise and the U.S. government's awareness of the threat. But since you may not have time to read the whole thing, Slate presents Clarke's most salient pieces of criticism and praise.
What the Bushies Did Right
Pages 1-29: Put Clarke in charge on the morning of Sept. 11. Clarke describes how he led the Counterterrorism Security Group meeting in which State, Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, and others worked together to ground jets, rouse rescue workers, and protect the president that morning. (Meanwhile, Clarke reports, in the bunker where Dick Cheney and others were located, Lynne Cheney kept turning up CNN, drowning out the CSG teleconference.)
Pages 23-24: Resolved to attack al-Qaida on the evening of Sept. 11. That night, Bush spoke to his staff: "I want you to understand that we are at war and we will stay at war until this is done. Nothing else matters." When Donald Rumsfeld pointed out the legal problems posed by some proposed attacks, Bush said, "I don't care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass."
What the Bushies Did Wrong
Page 30-32: Considered attacking Iraq on the evening of Sept. 12. At one point, Bush pulled a few of his advisors into a conference room:
"Look," he told us. "I know you have a lot to do and all … but I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this. See if he's linked in any way."
I was once again taken aback, incredulous, and it showed.
"But, Mr. President, Al Qaeda did this."
"I know, I know, but … see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred."
"Absolutely, we will look … again." I was trying to be more respectful, more responsive. "But, you know, we have looked several times for state sponsorship of Al Qaeda and not found any real linkages to Iraq. Iran plays a little, as does Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, Yemen."
"Look into Iraq, Saddam," the President said testily and left us.
Pages 229-30, 234: Demoted Clarke. When the administration took office, Condoleezza Rice kept Clarke on staff. But she downgraded his position so that as national counterterrorism coordinator he no longer reported directly to Cabinet-level officials. Clarke reports that Rice's National Security Council staff meetings focused too much on the antiballistic missile treaty and other "vestigial Cold War concerns." (He also says that when he first briefed Rice on al-Qaida, in a January 2001 meeting, "her facial expression gave me the impression she had never heard the term before." Rice, however, discussed the threat of Bin Laden striking U.S. territory in an Oct. 2000 radio interview.)
Pages 230-31: Delayed meetings on counterterrorism. When, in January 2001, Clarke "urgently" requested a meeting with the Cabinet to plan the prevention of future al-Qaida attacks, he got his meeting not in January but in April. And not with the Cabinet but with a group of deputy secretaries. At the meeting, Paul Wolfowitz objected to his agenda—"I just don't understand why we are beginning by talking about this one man bin Laden"—and argued that Iraqi terrorism was an equally serious threat. The Cabinet-level meeting on al-Qaida did not take place until Sept. 4, 2001.
Pages 220-222, 238: Discontinued Predator flights over Afghanistan. Clarke thought armed Predator drones could be used to kill al-Qaida members in Afghanistan without risking American lives. Clinton had authorized several unarmed flights in September and October of 2000, and "from the camera images on three flights," Clarke was convinced the drones had found Bin Laden. The Air Force agreed to prepare armed Predators for use in the spring of 2001. But the Bush administration didn't use them until after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Page 246: Attacked Iraq. Clarke argues that the war diverted resources from the hunt for Bin Laden in Afghanistan and riled up potential al-Qaida recruits. "It was as if Usama bin Laden, hidden in some high mountain redoubt, were engaging in long range mind control of George Bush, chanting 'invade Iraq, you must invade Iraq.' "