Condoleezza Rice faces not just the 9/11 commission this week but the specter of Richard Clarke, the disgruntled former National Security Council terrorism expert who did his best to undermine the credibility of his former boss when he testified before the commission on March 24. The main thrust of Clarke's testimony was that Rice and the entire Bush team were insufficiently attentive to terrorism as an imminent threat because they were focused on other things, especially Iraq. And the media played right along, parroting Clarke's criticism with front-page news stories questioning Rice's pre-9/11 judgment, like this one in The Washington Post: "Top Focus Before 9/11 Wasn't on Terrorism; Rice Speech Cited Missile Defense." Or this in The New York Times: "New to the Job, Rice Focused On More Traditional Threats."
That criticism from Clarke might have been more persuasive had he been equally hard on the Clinton Administration, for which he worked for eight years. But, no, he gave Clinton and the whole national security team high marks, saying, "My impression was that fighting terrorism in general, and fighting al Qaeda in particular, were an extraordinarily high priority in the Clinton Administration, certainly no higher a priority. There were priorities probably of equal importance, such as the Middle East peace process, but I certainly don't know of one that was any higher in the priority of that administration."
Funny, I don't remember the Clinton years that way -- but then maybe my mind is clouded by the disease so common to active partisans, selective memory. So I decided to do a little research to see how the media portrayed the Clinton Administration's priorities at the time.
Using Nexis, the exhaustive data bank of newspaper articles, magazine pieces, and radio and TV transcripts, I looked back over eight years of stories in which Rice's predecessors in the Clinton Administration, Anthony Lake and Samuel Berger, were mentioned in stories that also included references to terrorism or Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda, to see whether they were out sounding the alarm on these threats.
During the entire Clinton Administration's tenure, only 278 stories appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, or Chicago Tribune, which cited these officials in stories that also mentioned either terrorism (271), bin Laden (71), or al Qaeda (4). Most of the mentions of terrorism, however, referred to attacks against Israel or other non-U.S. targets. And few of the stories even suggest that the Clinton Administration made fighting terrorism its top priority.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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