Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- In the 1990s, hard-line national security experts outside the government regarded Richard Clarke as a rare kindred soul inside the Clinton administration. That's mainly why he alone of Bill Clinton's senior team was kept on by George W. Bush. So, how did Clarke become President Bush's scourge, taken very seriously at the White House as a threat to the re-election campaign?

The answer lies with personality rather than ideology, with personal relations rather than political strategy. Clarke is now painted as a miscreant by Republicans and as a martyr by Democrats, but he really is a super-bureaucrat accustomed to working behind closed doors who has been thrust into the public arena. Downgraded and disrespected at the Bush White House, he became an anti-Bush activist with his testimony last week, which was used to attack Bush in a television ad by the leftist Moveon.org.

Clarke had complained to friends about the Clinton administration's weakness on terrorism, and probably expected to prosper in a Republican environment. Instead, he has improbably become a leading witness for the Democratic prosecution. His past frustration with Clinton is minimized in his book ("Against All Enemies"), which excoriates Bush.

Until the past week, Clarke was best known inside Washington as one of the most skilled manipulators ever of the national security bureaucracy. He is the hero of journalist Richard Miniter's 2003 book, "Losing Bin Laden," a scathing exposure of Clinton's anti-terrorism failings. Clarke was described as "blunt, tough and unrelenting" in pursuing terrorist Ramzi Yousef, sought in the first World Trade Center bombing. "Imagine what he could have accomplished if Clinton had publicly endorsed his efforts," Miniter wrote.

Clarke was not only the hero but also obviously a prime source of "Losing Bin Laden." Miniter for the first time revealed, directly quoting Clarke, the meeting of "principals" (Cabinet-level officials) on Oct. 12, 2000, after the terrorist attack on the USS Cole. The vote was 7 to 1 against an attack on Osama bin Laden. Only Clarke wanted action.

In his own book, Clarke quickly brushes off the Cole meeting that he described in detail to Miniter. Instead of complaining about Clinton's failure to come to grips with al Qaeda and bin Laden, Clarke recites what sounds like Democratic talking points. He even interprets U.S. intervention in Bosnia as having "defeated al Qaeda," adding that Clinton "had seen earlier than anyone that terrorism would be the major new threat facing America."


Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.
 

 
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