Americans are going to be seeing a lot of Richard Clarke in coming days. He's the former White House counterterrorism chief whose new book, "Against All Enemies," criticizes the Bush administration for ignoring the threat from Al-Qaida before Sept. 11, 2001, and focusing almost immediately after on attacking Iraq. The body of evidence Clarke marshals to make his case is deep and compelling. That probably is why the White House already has ginned up its efforts to discredit both Clarke and his thesis. Whom to believe? There are many good reasons to believe Clarke.
Responding to Clarke's interview on "60 Minutes" Sunday night, White House spokesman Dan Bartlett dismissed Clarke's charges as a "red herring," something designed to draw attention from the real issue. But no issue is more "real" than what this administration did both before and after 9/11. That's the issue being studied right now by a bipartisan congressional commission, in front of which Clarke will testify this week.
Bartlett then loosed a red herring of his own: He said that Clarke is motivated by politics. "He has chosen at this critical time, in the middle of a presidential campaign, to inject himself into the political debate." Well, yes. Clarke left government a year ago; that seems a reasonable gestation period for a detailed nonfiction work on an issue of such importance. Is Bartlett suggesting the information Clarke provides should have been withheld from the American people until safely after the election?
A few facts about Clarke: He's a Republican. He served 30 years in government; for 10 years, under three Republican presidents and one Democrat, he served in the White House as one of the nation's most senior national security advisers. Clarke is not a dove. He believes in an assertive foreign policy and a vigorous projection of U.S. military power, which should make him a natural ally of Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. Indeed, while serving as an assistant secretary of state in the early 1990s, he worked with Cheney and Wolfowitz to assemble the coalition that pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. He argued, with Wolfowitz, that the war ought to be prolonged until the Iraqi Republican Guard was destroyed. Finally, what Clarke has to say about the current Bush administration's obsession from the start with Iraq is corroborated by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill in his memoir, "The Price of Loyalty."
As for the substance of Clarke's thesis, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice lays out the basics in the page opposite. Rice's credibility already has been substantially damaged by her misstatements and deceptions concerning the intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq. She makes too many assertions in this column to discuss, but consider one for which independent verification is available:
• Rice writes, "We committed more funding to counterterrorism and intelligence efforts." The descriptor "more" is deliciously subjective. Funding for counterterrorism had increased tenfold during the Clinton years, although a great deal more was sought. The additional funds were rejected by the GOP-controlled Congress, as former FBI Director Louis Freeh testified in October 2002.
In a memo from 2000, Attorney General Janet Reno identified counterterrorism as her department's top priority. Both before and immediately after Sept. 11, Attorney General John Ashcroft and the White House downplayed the significance of terrorism. Prior to Sept. 11, the issue disappeared entirely from the list of Department of Justice priorities. Moreover, on Sept. 10, 2001, Ashcroft proposed cutting $65 million for counterterrorism grants to state and local governments because applications for the funds were lagging. Immediately after Sept. 11, the FBI requested an emergency appropriation of $1.5 billion for counterterrorism. The White House allowed only $531 million, a third of what the FBI said it needed.
Rice would have Americans believe the Bush administration came into office eager to confront terrorism and willing to spend what was necessary to do that. The record, however, says otherwise -- in budgets, in priorities, in the well corroborated obsession the administration had with attacking Saddam Hussein. As it came into office, the Bush administration's take on President Bill Clinton was that he had been too obsessed with Osama bin Laden. The Bush team didn't intend to do that. But between the two obsessions, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden, we'd say that Clinton, with Clarke's advice, made the right choice.
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