Published on Tuesday, March 23, 2004 by the New York Times
Lifting the Shroud
by Paul Krugman
From the day it took office, U.S. News & World Report wrote a few months ago, the Bush administration "dropped a shroud of secrecy" over the federal government. After 9/11, the administration's secretiveness knew no limits — Americans, Ari Fleischer ominously warned, "need to watch what they say, watch what they do." Patriotic citizens were supposed to accept the administration's version of events, not ask awkward questions.
But something remarkable has been happening lately: more and more insiders are finding the courage to reveal the truth on issues ranging from mercury pollution — yes, Virginia, polluters do write the regulations these days, and never mind the science — to the war on terror.
It's important, when you read the inevitable attempts to impugn the character of the latest whistle-blower, to realize just how risky it is to reveal awkward truths about the Bush administration. When Gen. Eric Shinseki told Congress that postwar Iraq would require a large occupation force, that was the end of his military career. When Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV revealed that the 2003 State of the Union speech contained information known to be false, someone in the White House destroyed his wife's career by revealing that she was a C.I.A. operative. And we now know that Richard Foster, the Medicare system's chief actuary, was threatened with dismissal if he revealed to Congress the likely cost of the administration's prescription drug plan.
The latest insider to come forth, of course, is Richard Clarke, George Bush's former counterterrorism czar and the author of the just-published "Against All Enemies."
On "60 Minutes" on Sunday, Mr. Clarke said the previously unsayable: that Mr. Bush, the self-proclaimed "war president," had "done a terrible job on the war against terrorism." After a few hours of shocked silence, the character assassination began. He "may have had a grudge to bear since he probably wanted a more prominent position," declared Dick Cheney, who also says that Mr. Clarke was "out of the loop." (What loop? Before 9/11, Mr. Clarke was the administration's top official on counterterrorism.) It's "more about politics and a book promotion than about policy," Scott McClellan said.
Of course, Bush officials have to attack Mr. Clarke's character because there is plenty of independent evidence confirming the thrust of his charges.
Did the Bush administration ignore terrorism warnings before 9/11? Justice Department documents obtained by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, show that it did. Not only did John Ashcroft completely drop terrorism as a priority — it wasn't even mentioned in his list of seven "strategic goals" — just one day before 9/11 he proposed a reduction in counterterrorism funds.
Did the administration neglect counterterrorism even after 9/11? After 9/11 the F.B.I. requested $1.5 billion for counterterrorism operations, but the White House slashed this by two-thirds. (Meanwhile, the Bush campaign has been attacking John Kerry because he once voted for a small cut in intelligence funds.)
Oh, and the next time terrorists launch an attack on American soil, they will find their task made much easier by the administration's strange reluctance, even after 9/11, to protect potential targets. In November 2001 a bipartisan delegation urged the president to spend about $10 billion on top-security priorities like ports and nuclear sites. But Mr. Bush flatly refused.
Finally, did some top officials really want to respond to 9/11 not by going after Al Qaeda, but by attacking Iraq? Of course they did. "From the very first moments after Sept. 11," Kenneth Pollack told "Frontline," "there was a group of people, both inside and outside the administration, who believed that the war on terrorism . . . should target Iraq first." Mr. Clarke simply adds more detail.
Still, the administration would like you to think that Mr. Clarke had base motives in writing his book. But given the hawks' dominance of the best-seller lists until last fall, it's unlikely that he wrote it for the money. Given the assumption by most political pundits, until very recently, that Mr. Bush was guaranteed re-election, it's unlikely that he wrote it in the hopes of getting a political job. And given the Bush administration's penchant for punishing its critics, he must have known that he was taking a huge personal risk.
So why did he write it? How about this: Maybe he just wanted the public to know the truth.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company