Richard Clarke made his much-anticipated appearance before the 9/11 commission this afternoon and, right out of the box, delivered a stunning blow to the Bush administration—the political equivalent of a first-round knockout.
The blow was so stunning, it took a while to realize that it was a blow. Clarke thanked the members for holding the hearings, saying they finally provided him "a forum where I can apologize" to the victims of 9/11 and their loved ones. He continued, addressing those relatives, many of whom were sitting in the hearing room:
Your government failed you … and I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask … for your understanding and for your forgiveness.
End of statement. Applause. KO.
Among the many feckless or snarky statements that Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and White House spokesman Scott McClellan have issued about Clarke the past few days, the observation they've recited with particular gusto is that this disgruntled ex-official was in charge of counterterrorism policy during the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the attacks on the U.S.S. Cole, and the bombing of our East African embassies. Their implication was: How can this guy, who allowed so much bloodshed on his watch, be blaming us?
And so now here's Clarke, in an official, nationally broadcast forum, announcing: I failed, I'm sorry, please forgive me. Which, as one member of the panel noted, is more than any official in the Bush administration has said to any victims of the far more devastating 9/11 attacks.
I am not suggesting that Clarke's apology was cynical or purely tactical. I'm sure it was sincere. This is a guy who was obsessive about terrorism when he was the national coordinator for counterterrorism during the Bush 41, Clinton, and—briefly—Bush 43 administrations. His obsessiveness—and his frustration over the fact that his bosses didn't share his sense of urgency—made him genuinely passionate about the issue and genuinely distraught when inadequate policies led to tragedy.
But in his 30 years of service in the upper rungs of the national-security apparatus, Clarke was such a formidable player of bureaucratic politics precisely because he combined eloquent advocacy and shrewd tactics. So, there's little doubt that Clarke truly meant his plea for forgiveness—but also that he knew he was twisting his dagger into Bush a little deeper.
Three of the panel's Republicans tried to throw some punches Clarke's way, but they didn't land.
James Thompson entered the ring with a swagger, holding up a copy of Clarke's new book in one hand and a thick document in the other. "We have your book and we have your press briefing of August 2002," he bellowed. "Which is true?" He went on to observe that none of his book's attacks on Bush can be found anywhere in that briefing.