Dick Clarke's transformation

Robert Novak

3/29/2004 12:00:00 AM - 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."

Clarke's experience with the Bush administration appeared to heighten his appreciation of Clinton. Whereas he had briefed Clinton, Bush was briefed by CIA Director George Tenet. Clarke found himself at "deputies" rather than "principals" meetings. The final indignity was his rejection by Secretary Tom Ridge for a high-ranking Homeland Security post.

While Clarke had worked closely with Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger in bureaucratic maneuvers to further Clarke's anti-terrorist agenda, Condoleezza Rice as Berger's successor was not engaged. Clarke clearly had difficulty in relating to Rice, describing her to close associates as "shallow."

Beyond Rice, friends say, Clarke felt uncomfortable with the conservatives brought in by George W. Bush as he had not felt with George H.W. Bush's or certainly Clinton's team. The White House team is not hospitable to outsiders, and Clarke was surely an outsider.

Clarke since he left the government is described by friends as becoming much closer to Rand Beers, who succeeded him as chief terrorist official in the Bush administration. Beers shocked Washington last June when he quit his high-ranking post in the Bush administration to become Sen. John Kerry's foreign policy adviser. Since then, Clarke and Beers have been collaborating.

That Beers is a registered Democrat and Clarke says he is a registered (but never an active) Republican is inconsequential. Clarke's only political contributions in 2002 and 2004 were to two former colleagues on the Clinton National Security Council staff who are running for Congress as Democrats.

While Clarke testified under oath last week that he would not join a Kerry administration, he is now, in effect, part of the Kerry campaign. His book's publication was timed to coincide with his testimony, and his transformed posture is one of political partisan.