WASHINGTON -- It is only March but the 2004 Chutzpah of the Year Award can be safely given out. It goes to Richard Clarke, now making himself famous by blaming the Bush administration for 9/11 -- after Clarke had spent eight years in charge of counterterrorism for a Clinton administration that did nothing.
The 1990s were al Qaeda's springtime: Blissfully unmolested in Afghanistan, it trained, indoctrinated, armed and, most fatally, planned. For the United States, this was a catastrophic lapse, and in a March 2002 interview on PBS' ``Frontline,'' Clarke admitted as such: ``I believe that had we destroyed the terrorist camps in Afghanistan earlier, that the conveyor belt that was producing terrorists sending them out around the world would have been destroyed.'' Instead, ``now we have to hunt (them) down country by country.''
What should we have done during those lost years? Clarke answered: ``Blow up the camps and take out their sanctuary. Eliminate their safe haven, eliminate their infrastructure. ... That's ... the one thing in retrospect I wish had happened.''
It did not. And who was president? Clinton. Who was the Clinton administration's top counterterrorism official? Clarke. He now says that no one followed his advice. Why did he not speak out then? And if the issue was as critical to the nation as he now tells us, why didn't he resign in protest?
Clinton had one justification after another for going on the offensive: American blood spilled in the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the embassy bombings of 1998, the undeniable act of war in the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Response: A single, [W1]transparently useless, cruise missile attack on empty Afghan tents, plus a (mistaken!) attack on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory.
As Clinton Defense Secretary William Cohen testified, three times the CIA was ready with plans to assassinate Osama. Every time, President Clinton stood them down, because ``We're not quite sure.''
We're not quite sure -- a fitting epitaph for the Clinton antiterrorism policy. They were also not quite sure about taking Osama when Sudan offered him up on a silver platter in 1996. The Clinton people turned Sudan down, citing legal reasons.
The ``Frontline'' interviewer asked Clarke whether failing to blow up the camps and take out the Afghan sanctuary was a ``pretty basic mistake.''
Clarke's answer is unbelievable; ``Well, I'm not prepared to call it a mistake. It was a judgment made by people who had to take into account a lot of other issues. ... There was the Middle East peace process going on. There was the war in Yugoslavia going on. People above my rank had to judge what could be done in the counterterrorism world at a time when they were also pursuing other national goals.''
This is significant for two reasons. First, if the Clarke of 2002 was telling the truth, then the Clarke of this week -- the one who told the 9/11 commission under oath that ``fighting terrorism in general and fighting al Qaeda, in particular, were an extraordinarily high priority in the Clinton administration -- certainly (there was) no higher priority'' -- is a liar.
Second, he becomes not just a perjurer but a partisan perjurer. He savages Bush for not having made al Qaeda his top national security priority, but he refuses even to call a ``mistake'' Clinton's staggering dereliction in putting Yasser Arafat and Yugoslavia(!) above fighting al Qaeda.
Clarke gives Clinton a pass and instead concentrates his ire on Bush. For what? For not having pre-emptively attacked Afghanistan? On what grounds -- increased terrorist chatter in June and July 2001?
Look. George W. Bush did not distinguish himself on terrorism in the first eight months of his presidency. Whatever his failings, however, they pale in comparison to those of his predecessor.
Clinton was in office eight years, not eight months. As Clarke himself said in a 2002 National Security Council briefing, the Clinton administration never made a plan for dealing with al Qaeda and never left one behind for the Bush administration.
Clarke says he pushed very hard for such critical anti-al Qaeda measures as aid to and cooperation with Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan's Northern Alliance. By his own testimony, the Clinton administration then spent more than two years -- October 1998 to December 2000, the very time the 9/11 plot was hatched -- fruitlessly debating this and doing absolutely nothing.
Clarke is clearly an angry man, angry that Condoleezza Rice demoted him, angry that he was denied a coveted bureaucratic job by the Bush administration. Angry and unreliable. He told the commission to disregard what he said in his 2002 briefing because he was, in effect, spinning. ``I've done it for several presidents,'' he said. He's still at it, doing it now for himself.