Published on Thursday, March 25, 2004 by the New York Times
Truth as a Weapon
by Maureen Dowd
As the White House was sliming Richard Clarke, the 9/11 families were stroking him.
Several relatives of victims surrounded the ex-counterterrorism chief after his testimony yesterday and reached out to pat him. After being condescended to, stonewalled, led on and put off by the White House, they were glad to hear somebody say: "Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you."
"Mr. Clarke is the first person who has apologized to the families and held himself accountable," said the lovely Kristen Breitweiser of New Jersey, whose husband died in the south tower. "I am enormously grateful for that." She and other widows left the hearing room to protest Condoleezza Rice's lame no-show.
If only Sandy Berger had told the incoming Bush officials that Al Qaeda was no big deal, they might have gotten alarmed about it. They were determined to disdain all things Clinton, including what they considered his overemphasis on terrorism.
Dick Cheney, Rummy et al. were on amber alert, "preserved in amber," as Mr. Clarke put it, obsessing on old G.O.P. issues that had been hot when they were last in power, like a menacing Saddam and a Star Wars missile shield to protect America from the awesome might of the Evil Empire.
Terrorism wasn't really their cup of tea anyhow.
As Mr. Clarke writes, the ascension of Al Qaeda and the devolution of Iraq were topics that called for nuance: "Bush and his inner circle had no real interest in complicated analyses; on the issues that they cared about, they already knew the answers, it was received wisdom."
The Bush crew was thinking big, and Osama seemed puny to them.
Donald Rumsfeld told the 9/11 panel that there had been no point retaliating for the Cole bombing in October 2000, "four months after the fact," because that might have sent a signal of weakness.
So it was too late to whack Osama four months later, but not too late to re-whack Saddam 12 years later?
As he admitted to the commission on Tuesday, the defense secretary didn't like the idea of going after Osama in Afghanistan because "it didn't have a lot of targets." You just ended up bombing rocks instead of palaces. "Afghanistan was something like 8,000 miles from the United States. . . . You can pound the rubble in an Al Qaeda training camp 15 times and not do much damage; they can put tents right back up."
So, not showy and not convenient? Crummy excuses, Rummy.
Paul Wolfowitz was completely uninterested in Al Qaeda unless he could use it as a rationale to invade Iraq as part of his grandiose dream to remake the Middle East in his image. (And John Ashcroft was just too busy covering up immodest statues and trying to cut counterterrorism funds.)
In the Clarke book, Mr. Wolfowitz fidgets as Mr. Clarke urges that armed Predators target Osama at a meeting in April 2001. "Well," Wolfie whines, "I just don't understand why we are beginning by talking about this one man, bin Laden."
Besides confirming what we already knew — that national security in this White House has been as ideologically driven as the domestic agenda — the Clarke book and the commission hearings are most chilling in describing how clueless the agencies charged with sorting through clues were under Clinton and Bush.
Reprising the scene in the White House on 9/11, Mr. Clarke says Dale Watson, the F.B.I.'s counterterrorism chief, called him. "We got the passenger manifests from the airlines," Mr. Watson said. "We recognize some names, Dick. They're Al Qaeda."
Mr. Clarke recalled: "I was stunned, not that the attack was Al Qaeda but that there were Al Qaeda operatives on board aircraft using names that F.B.I. knew were Al Qaeda." Mr. Watson told Mr. Clarke that "C.I.A. forgot to tell us about them."
Mr. Clarke's argument that the Bush team's misguided adventurism in Iraq has actually spawned more terrorism and diverted resources has panicked the Bushies, who are running as heroic terror warriors.
It's always gross to see a White House stoop to smearing the character of someone seen as a threat. It was sickening when the Clinton White House smeared Monica Lewinsky, and it's sickening now.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company