'Tenor and tone'

Rich Lowry
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Posted: Mar 29, 2004 12:00 AM

In explaining the discrepancy between previous comments he made about President Bush's anti-terrorism policy and the harsh ones that he is making now, Richard Clarke has said the difference is a matter of "tenor and tone." Indeed. And since Clarke is beating Bush up with "tenor and tone," it is impossible to catch him in actual deliberate lies, no matter what Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist fervently hope.

But Clarke's tenor is unfair, and his tone is an outrage. For evidence, look no further than the preliminary report of the 9/11 Commission itself, from which all the quotes below are drawn.

Clarke's tenor suggests that it was bizarre that it took Bush officials, many of whom weren't in place until the spring of 2001, eight months to bring to the verge of presidential approval a plan to eliminate al-Qaida. But policy-making takes time. The Clinton administration's Presidential Decision Directive 39 identified terrorism as a national security concern, and was "signed in June 1995 after at least a year of interagency consultation and coordination." At least a year.

Clarke's tone makes it sound as if Clinton officials were extremely solicitous of his anti-terror plans. Well, that's nice for him to believe. He circulated among Clinton officials an anti-al-Qaida plan in September 1998. "This strategy was not formally adopted, and Cabinet-level participants ... have little or no recollection of it, at least as a formal policy document."

Clarke's tenor says it is an outrage that the Bush team approved more CIA counterterrorism spending in principle, but hadn't yet made it happen. Really? In the 1990s, more resources were supposed to go to the CIA, but "baseline spending requests, and thus core staffing, remained flat. The CIA told us that Clarke kept promising more budget support, but could never deliver."

Clarke's tone says it was scandalous that the Bush team considered aiding the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance for eight months before deciding to do it. This is how the Clinton team handled the question of aiding the Northern Alliance: "The debate continued inconclusively throughout the last year and a half of the Clinton administration."

Clarke wanted to fly Predator reconnaissance missions over Afghanistan in 2001 while an armed version of the plane was being developed. Clarke, in his tenor, suggests resistance to his view was irrational. But other officials wanted to wait until they had armed Predators ready to go, so as not to lose the element of surprise. The armed Predator got up and running relatively quickly: "A program that would ordinarily have taken years was, [Air Force officials] said, finished in months; they were 'throwing out the books on the normal acquisition process just to press on and get it done.'"

Clarke's tone strongly implies that no one in the Bush administration took any serious action in the summer of 2001 when terrorist "chatter" increased, in marked contrast to the Clinton team's on-the-ball response to similar chatter around the time of the millennium. Not quite. In the summer of 2001, "the CIA again went into what the DCI [George Tenet] described as 'Millennium threat mode,' engaging with foreign liaison and disrupting operations around the world. At least one planned terrorist attack in Europe may have been successfully disrupted during the summer of 2001."

"Security was stepped up for the G8 Summit in Genoa, including air-defense measures. U.S. embassies were temporarily closed. Units of the Fifth Fleet were redeployed from usual locations in the Persian Gulf. Administration officials, including Vice President Cheney, Secretary Powell and DCI Tenet, contacted foreign officials to urge them to take needed defensive steps."

The FBI issued a threat advisory. There was an FAA warning. Then, things calmed down. "On July 27 Clarke reported to [Condi] Rice ... that the spike in intelligence indicating a near-term attack appeared to have ceased, but he urged them to keep readiness high."

Clarke can't pooh-pooh his Bush criticisms as just tenor and tone -- they are at the root of his dishonesty.