I have no doubt that Richard Clarke, the former National Security Council official who has launched a broadside against President Bush's counterterrorism policies, is telling the truth about every single charge. There are three reasons for this confidence.
First, his basic accusations are consistent with tales told by other officials, including some who had no significant dealings with Clarke.
Second, the White House's attempts at rebuttal have been extremely weak and contradictory. If Clarke were wrong, one would expect the comebacks—especially from Bush's aides, who excel at the counterstrike—to be stronger and more substantive.
Third, I went to graduate school with Clarke in the late 1970s, at MIT's political science department, and called him as an occasional source in the mid-'80s when he was in the State Department and I was a newspaper reporter. There were good things and dubious things about Clarke, traits that inspired both admiration and leeriness. The former: He was very smart, a highly skilled (and utterly nonpartisan) analyst, and he knew how to get things done in a calcified bureaucracy. The latter: He was arrogant, made no effort to disguise his contempt for those who disagreed with him, and blatantly maneuvered around all obstacles to make sure his views got through.
The key thing, though, is this: Both sets of traits tell me he's too shrewd to write or say anything in public that might be decisively refuted. As Daniel Benjamin, another terrorism specialist who worked alongside Clarke in the Clinton White House, put it in a phone conversation today, "Dick did not survive and flourish in the bureaucracy all those years by leaving himself open to attack."
Clarke did suffer one setback in his 30-year career in high office, though he doesn't mention it in his book. James Baker, the first President Bush's secretary of state, fired Clarke from his position as director of the department's politico-military bureau. (Bush's NSC director, Brent Scowcroft, hired him almost instantly.) I doubt we'll be hearing from Baker on this episode: He fired Clarke for being too close to Israel—not a point the Bush family's political savior is likely to make in an election season. (For details on this unwritten chapter and on why Clarke hasn't talked to me for over 15 years, click
But on to the substance. Clarke's main argument—made in his new book, Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror, in lengthy interviews on CBS's 60 Minutes and PBS's Charlie Rose Show, and presumably in his testimony scheduled for tomorrow before the 9/11 Commission—is that Bush has done (as Clarke put it on CBS) "a terrible job" at fighting terrorism. Specifically: In the summer of 2001, Bush did almost nothing to deal with mounting evidence of an impending al-Qaida attack. Then, after 9/11, his main response was to attack Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11. This move not only distracted us from the real war on terrorism, it fed into Osama Bin Laden's propaganda—that the United States would invade and occupy an oil-rich Arab country—and thus served as the rallying cry for new terrorist recruits.
Clarke's charges have raised a furor because of who he is. In every administration starting with Ronald Reagan's, Clarke was a high-ranking official in the State Department or the NSC, dealing mainly with countering weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. Under Clinton and the first year of George W. Bush, he worked in the White House as the national coordinator for terrorism, a Cabinet-level post created specifically for his talents. When the terrorists struck on Sept. 11, Condi Rice, Bush's national security adviser, designated Clarke as the "crisis manager;" he ran the interagency meetings from the Situation Room, coordinating—in some cases, directing—the response.
Clarke backs up his chronicle with meticulous detail, but the basic charges themselves should not be so controversial; certainly, they're nothing new. According to former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's account in Ron Suskind's * The Price of Loyalty, Bush's top officials talked about invading Iraq from the very start of the administration. Jim Mann's new book about Bush's war Cabinet, Rise of the Vulcans, reveals the historic depths of this obsession.
Most pertinent, Rand Beers, the official who succeeded Clarke after he left the White House in February 2003, resigned in protest just one month later—five days before the Iraqi war started—for precisely the same reason that Clarke quit. In June, he told the Washington Post, "The administration wasn't matching its deeds to its words in the war on terror. They're making us less secure, not more." And: "The difficult, long-term issues both at home and abroad have been avoided, neglected or shortchanged, and generally underfunded." (For more about Beers, including his association with Clarke and whether there's anything pertinent about his current position as a volunteer national security adviser to John Kerry's presidential campaign, click