At least two things should raise suspicions about the motives of Richard Clarke, the former anti-terrorism advisor to four presidents, whose name, face and book were all over the newspapers last weekend and on "60 Minutes" Sunday night (March 21). One is that Clarke's book, in which he accuses the Bush administration of not heeding "warnings" from the Clinton administration about possible terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda, was available only to journalists and not to those in the administration on the receiving end of Clarke's criticism. This is according to an administration spokesman with whom I spoke.
The other red flag that should make us cautious about Clarke's assertions is that his former deputy, Rand Beers, is now an advisor to the presidential campaign of John F. Kerry. Part of Kerry's campaign strategy is to persuade the public that President Bush has failed to effectively fight the war on terror.
Clarke is right about one thing. He admits "there's a lot of blame to go around (for 9/11), and I probably deserve some blame, too." Yes, he does, and he can begin with the first World Trade Center bombing and continue with the bombing of the USS Cole and the attack on the American Embassy in Tanzania, all of which occurred on the watch of President Bill Clinton, whom Clarke was advising. Was Clinton not listening to Clarke's advice? Did Clinton "do a terrible job on the war against terrorism," the charge he levels against President Bush, who was in office less than nine months prior to 9/11?
Responding to Clarke's allegations, a senior administration official told me that Clarke is engaged in a "flagrant effort to avoid responsibility for his own failures." He added, "The Clinton administration never gave the Bush administration a plan that included the possibility of hijacked airplanes used as missiles to be flown into buildings. Most of their advice was general in nature." Even if it had specifically warned the Bush people, he said, it probably would not have prevented Sept. 11, which was well on its way to the execution stage by the time the Bush administration took office.
The official confirmed press reports that Al Qaeda suspects at Guantanamo Bay are providing "good stuff that's reliable" and are helping to locate wanted suspects still in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Does he think there is a possibility Osama bin Laden will be captured or killed this year? "There are a lot of military and CIA people who are surprisingly optimistic he will be found this year," he said. Even so, he noted, capturing or killing Osama, while gratifying, will be mostly "symbolic," because others among "the death worshippers" will take his place.
The senior official thinks press reports of nuclear suitcase bombs are exaggerated, but he cannot rule out the possibility.
Where was Clarke while all of these threats were developing? He was the chief advisor to President Clinton on terror. The Clinton administration approached terror as a law enforcement problem, not a national threat, which is precisely the strategy Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry would pursue were he to become president. At least that is the strategy he says he will employ today. Who knows what he'll propose tomorrow or next week?
The ineffective response to terrorism by the Clinton administration encouraged the terrorists to go for broke with such high-profile targets as the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Capitol or the White House. We know that it was only because of the bravery of passengers on the fourth plane, which crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, that the horror was not greater.
If Clarke wants to cast blame for 9/11, he should look in a mirror. It was he, not the Bush administration, who controlled the power, strategy and direction of U.S. policy toward terrorism for the last decade. That we were hit hard on 9/11 was not the fault of George W. Bush, but of William Jefferson Clinton and his chief advisor on terrorism, Richard Clarke.