Clarke's Shadow


In the buildup to today's testimony by Condoleezza Rice before the 9/11 commission, some TV outlets played video of Richard Clarke's explosive appearance. Clarke's central claim, according to this showdown of testimony, was that George W. Bush and his administration lacked "a sense of urgency" about terrorism in general and Al Qaeda in particular. Clarke has supported the claim against Bush by citing Bush's own statements to Bob Woodward.

As reader Irfan Khawaja points out, however, the interview with Woodward doesn't support Clarke's still-in-play characterization. On page 39 of Woodward's Bush at War, Bush says that he didn't feel the same sense of urgency about Al Qaeda before September 11 that he was to feel after September 11, which seems a lot less confessional than Clarke's rather loose reference would have it, and which doesn't appear to support the edifice of accusation that Clarke has constructed.

Khawaja adds that Clarke has made other such mistakes about Bush's public statements. Among them, telling Meet the Press on March 28 that when the USS Cole was hit, "President Bush was running for office; he never mentioned it." Bush mentioned it the following day. "I hope that we can gather enough intelligence to figure out who did the act and take the necessary action. There must be a consequence." You can find the Bush quote in a Washington Post story by Barton Gellman that appeared on January 20, 2002. The central figure in the Gellman piece is Richard Clarke.


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  1. January 2002? I believe the election was over November 7th of 1999. Besides, Bush DID find out who did it and didn’t do anything about it.

  2. “As reader Irfan Khawaja points out, however, the interview with Woodward doesn’t support Clarke’s still-in-play characterization. On page 39 of Woodward’s Bush at War, Bush says that he didn’t feel the same sense of urgency about Al Qaeda before September 11 that he was to feel after September 11, which seems a lot less confessional than Clarke’s rather loose reference would have it, and which doesn’t appear to support the edifice of accusation that Clarke has constructed.”

    There’s still no evidence that Bush felt any urgency at all before 9/11. He put far more effort into defeating the threat of Al Teamsters.

    “Bush mentioned it the following day. “I hope that we can gather enough intelligence to figure out who did the act and take the necessary action. There must be a consequence.””

    But there was no consequence. And did Bush mention it at all in the following weeks after it dropped out of the news cycle?

  3. Clarke’s book was not the first word on Clinton-era counterterrorism vs. Bush-era counter-terrorism. Republicans, from the White House to National Review Online to Bill Kristol, began denouncing the sloth and hippie-dippie delusion of the Clinton administration on about 9/12, and had been banging that drum loudly for two and a half years before Clarke came out. I suppose I could spend a few minutes doing a google search of old H&Rs to pluck from juicy quotes along those lines from the hawkish regulars, but I think my point will be pretty much granted on this.

    Clarke’s denunciations of Bush’s pre-9/11 anti-terror “campaign” are the first attempt to turn the triumphalist monologue of Republican superiority into a dialogue in which both sides are presented. Of course his history is going to bear elements of reacting to what had been said before on the subject. When you write about an issue that one side has been lying about for two plus years, you’re probably going to take a stab at refuting what you perceive as unfair and untrue.

  4. To Gadfly:
    The Cole was hit in Oct. 2000. The election was in Nov. 2000. Clarke asserted that Bush did not mention the Cole during his candidacy (i.e., between October and November 2000). The Jan. 20, 2002 Post article offers direct counter-evidence of Clarke’s claim. (Why so late? Because the quotation of Bush is made in passing, in the context of a criticism of Bush. The article as a whole is a showcasing of arguments by Richard Clarke–who incidentally is contradicted several times over by other people interviewed in it.) How is your assertion relevant to that issue? It may be relevant to lots of other issues, but the blog doesn’t raise those other issues. It merely raises the one it raises.

    Same response to Jon H:
    You’re just changing the subject, rather than dealing with the issue at hand. The topic here is Clarke’s veracity/accuracy on two narrow issues. Do you have anything to say about that? What the Bush Administration did or did not do about the Cole has no bearing whatsoever on the accuracy/inaccuracy of Clarke’s assertions–and of his general credibility as a witness or author.

  5. Bush is like an elephant in a parade: scads of intelligent people fight to grab shovels and walk along behind him.

  6. Ruthless:
    Wow, what a brilliant comment. Well, it would have been brilliant–if I had been defending Bush. But I’m not. I’m not the one here defending anyone. I’m attacking Clarke. And if you just replace “Bush” with “Clarke” in your comment, I think you’ll make a remarkable zoological discovery.

  7. Is it just me, or has the strategy to attack Clarke’s credibility switched from contradiction of his major thesis and sliming his character, to death by a thousand cuts over uncrossed T’s and undotted I’s?

    I see a lot of niggling over peripheral details, but little that casts the gist of his story in a bad light.

    Do you suppose “the Vulcans” used these petty snipes to justify ignoring his warnings about terror, and focusing on Great Games?

  8. I agree with Joe. Richard Clarke has now been shown to be inaccurate in about a thousand little ways. And there’s certainly no reason a priori to think that a Clinton administration holdover to the Bush administration might have some reason to exaggerate the virtues of the former and the faults of the latter. Or anything on the face of it odd about arguing that the Clinton administration was gung ho and cowboy-like in its preemptive strikes against al-Quaeda, but the Bush administration was timid. No, the light on this gist is great!

  9. Irfan,
    My cute comment was just thrown out there. Not directed… well, maybe toward Charles Paul Freund.
    But I stand by that there’s many more heavy-weight intellegentsia walking behind Bush.

    Why is that?

  10. Irfan, I read your first paragraph three times and still don’t get it. My fault for being a year off on the election but, still, an article two years hence about a conversation “in passing” doesn’t exactly impeach Clark.

    But you cleared it up later when you said “I’m attacking Clarke”. Not clarifying, not arguing, not correcting. Attacking.

  11. David, why not call Clarke a Reagan administration holdover. Clinton wasn’t the first to tap Clarke. The fact that Bush kept Clarke from the Clinton administration says something positive about Clarke’s competence. It’s really neither administration’s fault, but to say Clinton did nothing regarding terrorism is disingenuous. There were a few major plots stopped by Clinton and domestic terrorism was a bigger issue than Islamist terrorism (see: OK City and Atlanta Olympics vs. WTC, foreign embassies and the Cole).

  12. Rice stated that Bush singed his first security directive to destroy al-Qaida before 9-11.

    So much for Clarke’s contention they “did nothing”.

  13. I’m a bit confused as to why all of this really matters. Granted, it’s become a contest over bragging rights and whatnot, but if the administration had just said, “Yes, we weren’t as strong on terror as we should have been before 9-11,” what teeth would Clarke’s argument have?

    Even if Clinton’s administration WAS tougher on terror, what the hell would it matter? Clinton didn’t stop all of the attacks during his administration; 9-11 was planned during his term.

    I don’t understand why a) people siding with Clarke are so upset, and b) why people siding against him are so defensive.

    Can anybody explain? (Beyond, “It’s an election year,” please.)

  14. Okay, I wasn’t clear enough. My point is, we were all pretty much ‘tards about terror before 9-11. This whole argument seems to ignore that.

  15. Shanep, Bush signed, on 9/4/01, a plan Clarke gave him in January so, yes, he got under the wire about “doing something”.

    You’re right! Now do an endzone dance.

  16. David, Clarke does not celebrate the Clinton admininstration as a gung-ho tough guy on terror. His book denounces them for ignoring his warnings and not doing enough. The comparison he makes between Clinton and Bush is “bad” and “even worse.”

    Sean, it matters because defining Democrats as soft on defense (in this case, terror) continiues to lie at the heart of Republican campaign strategy. It’s how they won in 2002, it was how they rammed though their war resolution, and it was supposed to be how they would win in 2004. Look at David’s comment – to people like him, it is absurd “on its face” to say that a Democratic president could have been better on a security issue than a Republican. Note that he does not even make this argument on its merits, just asserts that such a statement is proof of Clarke’s dishonesty or stupidity or insanity or whatever. Richard Clarke simply cannot be allowed to destroy pretty much the only thing the GOP has going for it in a national election.

  17. Gadfly,
    Why did it take Clarke so long to write up that plan?

  18. Joe,
    Okay, thanks. I’m haven’t been in the US for a bit, so I’ve missed all of the campaign posturing. That makes a lot more sense.

  19. Is there any question as to which party the terrorists hope wins?

  20. Walter Wallis,
    Yeah there’s question.
    They’ll want Bush defeated, but that’s just because he’s the incumbent.
    Recall they wanted Carter defeated.

  21. Yes, because we have no idea their motives. If they want the US to go down a path that will lead to a clash of civilizations and cause the Muslim world to rise up against the West in a pre-Apocalyptic orgy of war, then they want the Republicans. If they want a party to turn tail and run, then they want the Democrats. However, neither of these stereotypes are particularly true, but they are probably what the extremeists think the parties each bring to the table.

    I don’t give a fuck who the terrorists want as my president, I’m voting for the LP.

  22. Gadfly,

    I’m glad to see from your remarks that you don’t spend your time (shock) attacking Bush. You just correct, clarify, and argue against. Noted.

    The 9/4/01 signature is pretty significant, don’t you think? Before the attack, not for obvious political gain, and more than had been done in the previous 12 years. Also, what is the obsession by Clark and his backers that everything he said should have been made into policy as soon as it issued from his mouth? You mean all of the other presidents did exactly what he said whenever he said to do it? He has the benefit of hindsight to say, “See I told you so!”

    I have a friend who is something of a conspiracy theorist. He predicts dire motivations in 99% of cases. He is not always wrong, but if he gets to drag out the times he is right, reason dictates that we need to look at all the times he was wrong. We remember the seemingly remarkable foresight only when the results are remarkable, and we forget gross mispredictions because the consequences are never seen.

    Again I ask what would happen if on 8/1/01, we had a TSA foisted on us. Any good lefties out there think they wouldn’t be griping?

  23. joe:

    They win a lot of elections for that to be the only thing going for them.

  24. There’s that, tax cuts, and social conservatism, Jason, and the latter two aren’t going anywhere this year.

  25. Picture Bush, during the 2000 election, saying, “We need to improve airport security because a terrorist could hijack an airplane and run it into the WTC.”

    He’d have been laughed out of the contest, and probably sued by the travel industry.

    Hindsight is 20/20.

  26. What a colossal waste of time this all is. Even if everything Clarke says is true (which is a laugh in itself), it doesn’t really make any difference.

  27. I like the general attitude I’m seeing here: So what if Clarke’s stories are inaccurate? So what if he has a tendency to repeat the same inaccurate story over and over and no one ever catches it? You half expect Pontius Pilate to post and ask: “Yeah, so what is truth anyway?”

    To Gadfly: You don’t get it, huh? Let me explain. Suppose I ascribe a statement to you. Turns out the ascription is FALSE. Then I go around collecting plaudits for being a tell-it-like-it-is whistleblowing TRUTH TELLER. See a problem? This is a guy who, on the basis of a mystical ability to read faces and body language, can tell you what you believed or didn’t believe at a given time. He’ll misquote the same passage from the same book a dozen times without getting caught. He’ll make blanket assertions on national TV that are not just false, but whose falsity can be refuted by an article in which he is the central figure. But we’re supposed to believe everything he says about the period 1998-2001. Why?

    It doesn’t matter that I happened to find the falsehood in a newspaper dated Jan. 2002. For all I know, the Bush quote is also reported in newspapers dated fall 2000; I haven’t checked because that’s irrelevant. But I guess what I don’t get is why it is that this whole discussion, which is supposed to be about the TRUTHS that Richard “Socrates” Clarke is imparting to us, never gets around to the FALSEHOODS embedded in his assertions. And rest assured, the two that Freund mentioned are the tip of the iceberg.

    You’re right that I’m “attacking” Clarke. I think he is one of the most full of shit figures on the public stage since the departure of the guy he so loudly praises: William Jefferson Clinton, our first African American president. But attacking and arguing are hardly exclusive forms of action: some arguments are attacks. So I’m sorry, but what’s the problem with “attacking” supposed to be? Clarke is not exactly the most genteel guy on God’s green earth. He is reputed to be a “bulldog,” in his colleagues’ words. I’m not sure why his critics have to emulate St. Francis of Assisi in discussing his claims.

    As to whether the two errors mentioned here are peripheral or central to Clarke’s claims, I myself would say that they are peripheral. But what if it turns out that there are LOTS of errors in Clarke’s peripheral claims? Wouldn’t that affect claims about his reliability?

    Now suppose that there are errors in his central claims, too. In fact, suppose that for any claim Clarke makes, whether peripheral or central, there is a good chance that it will involve a distortion, an omission, a misquotation, or an outright falsehood–and that it will do so in subtle ways, mixed in with perfectly accurate assertions. Wouldn’t that be a problem in a context where praise and blame are relevant issues, as they are on the 9/11 Commission?

    This isn’t the place to lay out all of Clarke’s distortions etc., but if you read Clarke’s book carefully, then read his interviews, and then go back into Lexis-Nexis, that is what you start to find. If you then take seriously the fact that he has been contradicted forthrightly by the likes of Anthony Zinni, Condoleeza Rice and many others–and that he was contradicted THROUGHOUT his 30 years in the bureaucracy–you have to wonder why so many putatively smart people are putting so much stock in the testimony of one clever and ambitious bureaucrat who spent the last 30 years of his life (by his own admission) “spinning” propaganda tales for this or that immediate purpose. Why assume that such a man is going to be aboveboard NOW?

    I myself didn’t vote for Bush and wouldn’t do so if you put a gun to my head. I think he’s an idiot, and I think the actually available record bears that out in a hundred ways that we didn’t need Richard Clarke to explain to us (e.g., Woodward’s book). But I also know bullshit when I see it. And Richard Clarke is it.

  28. The one good moment this morning (I broke down to watch the delicious Condi) was when Kerrey (the GOOD Kerrey) basically tried to change the subject to something real. The rest was Washington navel-gazing.

    Clarke has been about as focused as a drunk-driver careening across six lanes of traffic in a mad dash to get to the liquor store before closing.

    You can read the book, google the interviews he gave AFTER, google the interviews he gave BEFORE, run the video of the testimony– and besides realising that there are at least as many versions as there have been occasions for Clarke to speak at length about it…ALL you are going to come away with is:

    a.) Clarke REALLY despises Bush. (A LOT of people have that reaction to Bush.)

    b.) Clarke thinks the war is a mistake. (There is controversy about this…did’ja notice?)

    c.) Clarke thinks he’s a lot smarter than most folks.

    Which places him squarely in the tribe of Beltway policy types…the same guys who think that bussing and affirmative action are good ideas, and who believe they are smart enough to intrude themselves into almost anything you might think was your business.

    Which is likely why he decided, after some eight years of trying and failing to protect us from al-Qaida, it HAD to be the fault of a Texas parvenu.

    And who are those guillotine-watching “9-11” families? Is it…

    a.) a quorum for a REALLY big-ticket class-action law-suit?

    b.) A cluster of emotionally stunted losers– akin to the Viet Vets who make a lifetime of it, like Kerry (the BAD Kerry)?

    c.) Both?

  29. Diffrnt Andy writes: “Why did it take Clarke so long to write up that plan?”

    It took that long for the plan to work up through the extra layers of bureaucracy imposed by Bush. Under Bush, Clarke had to deal with deputies, not principals. Which slowed things down.

  30. Jason Ligon writes: “The 9/4/01 signature is pretty significant, don’t you think? Before the attack, not for obvious political gain, and more than had been done in the previous 12 years.”

    Um, I’m pretty sure Clinton’s cruise missile strikes and millenium arrests are far more significant than Bush’s signing of a piece of paper.

    Nothing had actually been *done* as of 9/4/01. No money had been allocated. He just signed a piece of paper.

  31. first of all, Irfan, good post!

    Jon H,

    If Richard Clarke took however many years to write his piece, do you expect Bush to “do” all that stuff in a few months? is that how your government works? How long did it take for Bush to get his nominees (not the right-wing judges) to be confirmed? don’t bother with facts if they don’t bash Bush, right?

    clarke himself said implementing all that stuff wouldn’t have prevented 9-11. what are you saying Bush should have done?

    clarke has also agreed that he lied (only he said he lied when he was working for Bush – but is telling the truth now). when all of the media is blathering about “clarke said … blah …” as if that is the gospel, why is it a problem to point out that clarke is a liar?

    No one has ever demonstrated that Bush lied about WMD, but I am sure you accept that as a fact – but Clarke lied? No! Can’t be.

  32. Irfan seems to have a bug up his ass about Clarke.
    Let’s postulate Clarke is a flit with a bug up his ass about Al Qaeda.
    The drama here is how bureaucracy confronts reality.
    It’s the thrill of turning over a big flat rock and watching the bugs scurry.
    Clarke did some of the heavy lifting. The 911 Commission did some heavy lifting. The media did some heavy lifting. Irfan did some of the lifting.
    Enjoy the spectacle.

  33. assuming someone told all of us before 9-11 that islamist Arabs were planning on hijacking commercial airplanes and crash into building, what would the lefties and civil libertarian champions have the government do?

    can any lefty/libertarian answer this question with the benefit of hindsight?

  34. ruthless,

    Clinton govt’s final report (completed in Dec 2000) had ZERO mentions of Al Queda and named bin laden 4 or 5 times. If Clarke had a bug up his ass about AQ, how do you explain the report?

    Clarke was the all-knowing big daddy of counter-terrorism in the (supposedly serious about terrorism) Clinton adm.

  35. …what would the lefties and civil libertarian champions have the government do?

    Issue an FAA directive that warns of the specific threat and asks the airlines to take immediate measures towards improving anti-hijacker tactics including increased cockpit security.

    You said I could use hindsight!

  36. Irfan,
    I understand your point, but for the most part one could replace the name Clarke in your post with Bush or most of the members of his administration (or if you prefer, Clinton and members of his administration) and remain perfectly accurate. And, unlike Clinton, Bush is hailed by his supporters as a refreshing, honest breath of fresh air in the White House.

    I take most of this back, Bush fits better than Clinton. We all knew he was full of shit so we would pass everything through the b.s. meter. That and Clinton never claimed to be able to read the souls of foreign leaders and describe them in a way that only someone with a complete detachment from reality would (Sharon a “man of peace”?!?!? Shit, he got elected on a platform that he wasn’t a man of peace.).

    Does Condi lose her credibility because she spends her time spinning for Bush? If you don’t believe me, listen to Condi’s speech and listen to McClellan’s speech after Clarke’s testimony (for a recent example). You show me a cabinet official that doesn’t toe the party line and I’ll show you one that is a) out of the loop, b) has an axe to grind and/or c) updating their resume. I’m not saying Clarke is right, but there’s too much focus on the man and not the message. If we hold a high standard of truth to every politician and bureaucrat, we’ll have no one left to believe. That’s why the important thing is to analyze the words not the man. If his words are full of shit, then you can safely ignore them. If there’s some validity, then pay attention.

  37. I dunno zorel, we managed to stop the LA bombing and the millenium plot without the Patriot Act. I have faith in our system.

    Try these on for size. Place a security directive in ariports, order all planes to not surrender the controls to hijackers and double down on air marshalls. Oh and quietly search Arabs extra tight.

    Before anyone says something about searching Arabs would piss off the ACLU before 9-11, let me state that I used to get search 100% of the time I would fly out of Logan Airport. I once asked why and was told it was random. I pressed and said it can’t be random every single time. I was told that I fit “the profile.” It was a minor inconvienance, but I didn’t complain (and still don’t for that matter). Since 9-11, I have been searched once, when I had a one-way ticket between NY and SF (I was moving).

  38. To Mo: Is Bush full of shit? Yes. Does Condi lose some of her credibility for being his spokesperson? Probably. I don’t know the details about her as I do Clarke’s, but I would not close the door on the possibility. Rice aside, Bob Woodward’s account of Bush suggests a man who has zero knowledge and doesn’t want to be burdened by any. I am very far from pro-Bush. And no, Sharon is not a man of peace. This is the guy who flirts with “transfer” as a policy option. I even agree that the Bush White House has focused too much on Clarke the man–because for the most part they’re too stupid to know how to take on his arguments. How is that for sweet reasonability on my part? But that doesn’t change my estimation of Clarke.

    Thanks to zorel for his/her kind comments, but I have to correct one thing: Zorel writes that Clarke said that implementing his proposals would NOT have prevented 9/11. Yes, that’s what he told Sen. Gordon while under oath on March 24. The day before, however, he told the UK Guardian just the opposite: that his proposals, if adopted, would “probably” have stopped 9/11. Of course, that would be when he *wasn’t* under oath. (Compare the 9/11 Commission transcript with Julian Borger’s March 23 report, “9/11 hijackers could have been stopped, ex-aide says” in the Guardian.)

    I am sure that Clarke has some Clintonian way of reconciling “could have been stopped” with “could not have been stopped.” I mean, it all depends on how you define “could,” “have,” “been,” “stopped” and “not.” But at this point, I would damn well like to hear the attempted reconciliation stated out loud and on the record.

  39. Please, Mr. Reason, in the future don’t ever put crackpots like this on your thread.

  40. I just got a novel idea. Why don’t we hold a hearing of everyone involved in decision making prior to 9/11 to determine what to do to reduce the possibility of another similar attack on the U.S.?

  41. Why did Irfan decide is was necessary to add “the first African American President” to his description of Clinton’s stupidy, sleaziness, and incompetance? I wonder.

    Anyway, The New Republic has a “curse on both houses” article about Clarke’s book, and how it assails both the Clinton and Bush administrations. However, Clarke singles out Al Gore of all people for praise, for leading tow (ultimately failed) efforts to reform airline security. One was an attempt to impose greater security regulations on air travel, which was squashed by Republican Congressmen and airline industry lobbyists, the other a “reinventing government” effort to reform the DOT and FAA, which was sqashed by Democratic Congressment and the ACLU. Then there were other initiatives, like hardening cockpit doors, that his commission never even tried to implement, because they were so obviously politically undoable.

  42. That “crackpot” sure took the piss out of your arguement though, didn’t he?

  43. Joe–

    Nice try with the insinuation of racism. It would have worked better, however, if I was actually asserting that Clinton WAS an African American. Sorry if you didn’t catch the allusion or the sarcasm, but I was doing just the reverse. (Just to spell it out for the allusion-impaired: the sentence in which I alluded to Clinton’s being an “African American” referred sarcastically to the enthusiasm expressed for him at the very time he was being exposed as a pathological liar. One conspicuously idiotic instance of that enthusiasm was his being dubbed “our first African American president” by Toni Morrison and later by Arthur Miller.)

    The thing I love about this Clarke debate is that old whining complaint about how Clarke and his defenders keep getting…what’s the word? “Smeared”?

    But I’ll leave you all to your own devices now. Best wishes from your favorite “crackpot”–


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