Richard Clarke has very thin skin -- literally. It's the kind of complexion that shows the ruddy glow of a circulation system at work. But when asked a really tough question while testifying before the 9/11 commission, I wondered if the former White House counterterrorism honcho would have the decency to blush. How could he write a book, just published, ripping the Bush administration for ignoring Al Qaeda before the attacks of Sept. 11 and still, as recently as August 2002, have briefed the press on the energetic and decisive steps the administration took, also before Sept. 11, to combat Al Qaeda?
The rollout of the Clarke book "Against All Enemies" has been a gloriously orchestrated affair, with its publication date (set by Viacom's Simon & Schuster) and a "60 Minutes" interview (broadcast by Viacom's CBS) timed to coincide with the author's commission testimony (not Viacom's Congress). Fox News, however, unexpectedly lobbed a bombshell into the media mix -- a briefing transcript in which Clarke thoroughly contradicts his current version of events. Little wonder commission member and former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman saw fit to tell the white-haired Clarke, "You've got a real credibility problem."
The Richard Clarke most people heard of for the first time this week is the unstinting critic of the Bush administration, the man who accuses the president of having "failed to act prior to September 11 on the threat from Al Qaeda despite repeated warnings, and then harvested a political windfall for taking obvious yet insufficient steps after the attacks." This is a message the media has spread like gospel, and, alas, new facts are unlikely to change the story of these high priests of Bush-bashing.
According to Clarke, and now the media, the Bush White House was asleep at the controls, oblivious to the anti-terror roadmap of an ever-vigilant Clinton administration -- during whose eight years, of course, a terrible string of terrorist attacks against the United States occurred, from the first World Trade Center bombing to the destruction of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania to the attack on the USS Cole. But no matter. (If you follow the findings of the 9/11 commission, you'll see that the Clinton administration passed up three opportunities to finish off Osama bin Laden, but this fails to score in the current blame game.) "Frankly, I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism," Clarke told CBS's Lesley Stahl. "He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11.
Maybe. We'll never know."
What we'll never know is how Clarke could say this. He probably assumed his 2002 background briefing would never pop up again. But not only did he reveal in this earlier briefing that there was "no plan on Al Qaeda that was passed from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration," he also said that the Clinton Al Qaeda strategy had failed to evolve since 1998, leaving "on the table" such vital questions as Pakistan policy and aid for the Northern Alliance. As a result, he said in 2002, "the Bush administration decided then, you know, mid-January (2001), to do two things.
One, vigorously pursue the existing policy, including all of the lethal covert action findings ... (and) initiate a process to look at those issues which had been on the table for a couple of years and get them decided." By the end of the summer, Bush officials -- who, Clarke reminded the media, "didn't get into office until late March, early April" -- had "developed implementation details" and, even more important, changed the Clinton strategy of "rollback" to "a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination of Al Qaeda." As Clarke put it then, "President Bush told us in March to stop swatting at flies and just solve the problem."
I was watching this week's hearing very carefully, but while Clarke might have reddened a shade or two when finally asked to square his two different versions of events, I can't be sure. He should have. At the very least, he should not have maintained under oath that his indictment of the Bush administration in his book and recent interviews are "consistent" with his past statements. According to 9/11 commissioner Fred F. Fielding, the new Clarke also contradicts classified testimony the old Clarke gave to an earlier joint congressional inquiry.
Only one of Clarke's accounts can be true, but which one? This is an important question, one the media must try to answer. If they don't, then they are the ones who should blush.