CONDI VERSUS CLARKE
In this corner, we have the reigning champion, Condoleezza Rice, from the current administration, and in the other corner the challenger, Dick Clarke, from the establishment bureaucracy. The question as to who will win this battle has occupied the newscasts and print media for the last two weeks and proved a rating bonanza for “Sixty Minutes”. Mr. Clarke opened the sparring by stating that the Bush administration was weak on fighting terrorism. He not only wrote this in his book, but also talked about it on numerous TV shows starting with “Sixty Minutes”. Condoleezza Rice, supported by administration forces, immediately counter attacked and outflanked Clarke by appearing on more TV shows over the following days while chiding Clarke. The back and forth open dialogue between the two principles missed the point, as it is obvious to me that both were correct. They just differed in their opinion as to how they saw the same matter; they didn’t differ on significant facts. . It’s no different than two people looking at the same scene from a different perspective. Their public arguments so far has not touched on the more important matter of the Iraq War and the success of the in progress fight against terrorism.
We, the public, should withhold judgment about the argument and all the issues surrounding the events of September 11th until the designated commission publishes its final report in July. There should be enough blame for all in the final product. Nevertheless, some things are already clear. Among these is that the failure crossed party lines including both the Clinton and Bush administrations. It involved officials at many levels in a variety of agencies inclusive of the permanent government staff that inhabit Washington regardless of who's in office. If we have to point fingers, we have to aim them at both the Democrats and Republicans. If Clinton’s people failed, then Bush’s people also did so, since they followed the same anti terrorist plan as Clinton.
Most troubling was the failure of both the Clinton and Bush administrations to appreciate the urgent nature of the al Qaeda threat. According to a preliminary commission staff report, the government had information about the horrible ambitions of bin Laden as early as 1996. This was before there were any terrorist attacks on U.S. facilities. Before that time, of course, we had sponsored bin Laden in our undeclared war on the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. To some extent, our cold war policies created this threat, although bin Laden had sufficient monetary resources to turn against us after we had stopped subsidizing him. Our casual non-retaliation response to the 1983 Lebanese bombing of the Marines probably also gave him impetus and laid the framework to attack us with impunity without fear of retaliation. The subsequent 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center had nothing to do with bin Laden. We did, however, seek and convict those responsible for this tragedy. Still bin Laden’s continuing public threats to destroy the United States failed to ring the appropriate alarm bells. Why bin Laden had even appeared on American TV magazine shows denouncing our country. Few were concerned.
Clinton did respond to the African embassy bombings by attempting to kill bin Laden in his Afghanistan training camp by launching missiles at the remote site. Clinton also launched missiles into a Sudanese building purportedly used as a weapons manufacturing plant. Both attacks failed in whatever their objectives were. The media gave mixed, but mostly negative, reviews to these attempts. Right-wingers wanted more forceful action, but, to my recollection, failed to say what we should have done. No one promoted invading Afghanistan with land forces. Although they denounced Clinton’s attacks as bombing empty desert tents and a milk factory, they never said what he should have done or what they would have done if they had been in power. At the time, and in retrospect, most people recognized that the missile attacks failed because of poor intelligence. There are conflicting stories as to whether we just missed bin Laden or if he had even recently been in the camp. As opposed to the prior terrorist attacks on the marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, we did strike back, however. Afterward, in October 2000, someone torpedoed the USS Cole in Yemen. We were not sure who did it, but in January 2001, the intelligence community finally established that al Qaeda was responsible for this act.
By this time, Clinton was out of office or leaving office while the Bushies were arriving. The Florida chad crisis obviously hampered a smooth takeover. Still, the ball passed to the Bush court. What transpired in the transition process is still not clear and part of the dispute between Condi and Clarke. What is clear is that over the next seven months our government took no overt action to retaliate against al Qaeda. They just let the CIA decision that al Qaeda was responsible for the Cole attacks hang in limbo or forgot about it. As President Bush's counterterrorism chief at the time, Dick Clarke, testified the current administration ''considered terrorism an important issue, but not an urgent issue”. That’s so until September 11th aroused the nation.
Mr. Clarke wasn't the only witness to offer that view. Deputy CIA Director McLaughlin said much the same thing. The Woodward book, “Bush at War”, said essentially the same thing when it quoted Bush as saying that there was no sense of urgency in his administration before the September 11 attacks. Further, Vice President Cheney also indirectly concurred when, in his Clarke counter attack, he stated that Clarke was “out of the loop”. To have your counterterrorism chief out of the loop on the fight against terrorism indicates that you don’t consider antiterrorism an urgent matter. Cheney’s remark was astounding, but few pundits picked up on it. Clarke’s accusation was obviously not that different from what others considered occurred; still the administration did not formally concede that Clarke was correct. .
Clarke received additional support from an unlikely source, Secretary of State Colin Powell. In a television interview on PBS' News Hour, Powell said Clarke had "served his nation very, very well" and was "an expert in these matters," referring to counterterrorism. While saying that Clarke's book is "not the complete story," Powell said that he was "not attributing any bad motives" to Clarke. In my opinion, it is significant that Powell, who seems to be the trustworthiest of the Bushies, did not openly condemn Clarke like others in the administration did. Clarke’s allegation seemed true when connected with Powell’s comments and the fact that Clarke is a long standing Republican highly regarded for his knowledge and dedication, but considered a hardliner. So, what is the big uproar with Condi Rice about? Realistically, I doubt that our country would have accepted our invasion of another country before 9-11. To the degree we were censured by other nations for our unjustified invasion of Iraq even after 9-11, any attack on Afghanistan or Sudan before 9-11 would have generated an even greater uproar. I also doubt that the American public would have accepted us invading Afghanistan before 9-11. Rice may be defensive because she is on record stating that no one ever anticipated that terrorists would use planes as missiles and crash them into buildings. The commission disclosed that Clarke sent her a memo saying that this was a possibility before 9-11.
In her defense, Rice stated that the administration was developing a plan to respond to al Qaeda, but had not reached a conclusion as to what to do until September 4th. From some indications the plan decided upon was the one Clarke provided in January. An administration witness before the commission stated that no military aspects were included in the plan. Rice said it included military aspects. This is a factual difference, but one not between Condi and Clarke. Condi further stated that in the interim they followed Clinton’s plan. This admission must have hurt the Bush people because they always advocated doing everything opposite from what Clinton had done.
The Bush White House rebuffed a proposal in early 2001 to support anti-Taliban rebels in Afghanistan, yet no other force was available to take on bin Laden's protectors. Like Clinton, Bush used diplomacy with the Taliban to discharge bin Laden from his sanctuary. Further, during July and August the intelligence community was drowning in sinister ''chatter'' from terrorist sources. Yet, they found no ''actionable intelligence'' to justify an attack on al Qaeda although al Qaeda was previously known to have attacked us in Africa and Yemen. Previously Clinton’s people had also testified that they found no ''actionable intelligence’’ to attack al Qaeda. Bush might have been reluctant to use missiles to kill bin Laden and destroy his camps because of the criticism Clinton had received from the right-wingers.
In the circumstances, since both administrations essentially followed the same course, although Clinton had attempted to assassinate bin Laden through missile strikes while Bush had not, it is strange that the Bush people mounted such a counter attack on Clarke. The furious counterattack mounted against Clarke, however, is a reminder that, in Washington, politics trumps even the most grievous national security concerns, particularly in an election year. From a political viewpoint, Bush had little option to accept the charge without some denial since he is running as a war president. He can’t run on job gains or economic performance so he has to protect his role as a strong activist against terrorism.
It is especially unbecoming for the national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, to offer to ''refute'' Mr. Clarke's testimony in private when she refused to appear publicly under oath herself, all the while appearing virtually nonstop on television. She almost outdid O J coverage for TV appearances. The principle she purported to protect, that the president’s staff assistants are shielded from giving Congressional compelled testimony under oath is valid, but has not always been sustained. Nixon’s Henry Kissinger, Carter’s ZB and Clinton’s Sandy Berger have all appeared before Congress in their capacity as National Security Adviser. Berger particularly so on several occasions, in unquestionably political investigations of Clinton’s administration concerning alleged Chinese payoffs. Doctor Rice, however, failed to appreciate the benefit of the commission hearings as a public explanation of how the U.S. government failed to deal with the clear and present danger of terrorism until the call went out for body bags at ground zero. Unquestionably, the public wants to know what happened. Rice noticeably never tuned in her political antenna to what the public wanted.
Politics was behind most of the administrations’ actions since Clarke spoke out. Since the administration had to vet the book before the publisher released it, what Clarke had to say did not come as a surprise. What was a surprise was how badly the Bushies handled the issue knowing it was coming. President Bush missed an important opportunity to talk frankly to us about how his administration had handled terrorism before the 9-11 attacks, and how it had responded afterward. In some respects, he has a strong account to tell about how he brought us together after 9-11 to forcibly tackle al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Yet, in testimony before the investigating commission, his Secretaries of State and Defense mostly stonewalled despite strong evidence that they, like their Clinton predecessors, failed to take the al Qaeda threat seriously enough. Nor did the Bushies react with sufficient urgency to the “chatter” warnings in the summer of 2001 signifying a major attack.
More significantly, his national security adviser, who initially refused to answer the commission's questions in public, led an ugly and personal offensive against Dick Clarke. Mr. Bush himself casually declared that had he known that terrorists were planning to fly airplanes into buildings, he would have done something to stop it. Gee, that’s enlightening and gives me assurance! His declaration gives you an idea that he is not attuned to the important matters the commission is examining and the public’s concern that such a tragedy doesn’t happen again.
What is not being followed up in the Condi Clarke blow up is Clarke’s assertion that Bush was pushing a war with Iraq at the same time his experts were telling him that Iraq was not involved in 9-11. Bush’s fired Secretary of Treasury, Paul O’Neil, made a similar accusation that Bush was obsessed with Iraq. Cheney also said that O’Neil was “out of the loop”. That made no sense since a Secretary of the Treasury has to be involved in any war planning. How else can you finance a war? I initially heard the first George Bush make this “out of the loop” comment about the Iran Contra affair. I’m not sure whether Cheney taught Bush senior this or vice a versa, but the Bushies like to use it. O’Neil’s comments give credence to Clarke’s allegations about George W and Iraq.
It’s too bad that the Condi Clarke altercation is not zeroing in on the Iraq War issue, since the war seems to be a more important matter in the final analysis. September 11th happened, was serious, but I find it doubtful that we could have completely stopped the actions of 19 men dedicated to destruction. All the witnesses before the commission said so. Neither do I think that the Clinton or Bush anti-terrorism actions were completely futile. Clinton’s alerts helped us stop the millennium bomber as he crossed the border from Canada. I believe in diplomacy before war. We might have done more to prevent 9-11, but I’m not sure what. The Iraq war has harmed us throughout the world causing us to lose allies whom we need to fight terrorists on a worldwide basis. We removed military forces from Afghanistan to fight in Iraq, thus slowing down the war against the terrorists. Anti terrorism was not the Bush’s administration’s first priority since all the experts informed Bush that Iraq was not involved in 9-11 and terrorist activities since 1991. The war has probably also increased the power and strength of the terrorists and put us in greater danger. We should not lose sight of this.
''Your government failed you,'' Mr. Clarke told the families of the victims of 9/11. There's plenty of blame to go around, but at least he accepted some responsibility for his own role. It is a revealing illustration of character, integrity and courage, or lack thereof, that others aren't willing to do the same thing. I find it interesting to think that in Japan most people in both administrations confronted with the same situation would not only have apologized, but resigned. It should make us think of the wide cultural gap between nations throughout the world. All too often we insist that other people think like we do. The finger pointing between Condi and Clarke should stop since it is not productive and no one will gain from it. Let’s wait until the commission issues its report. In the intervening period, we have learned of a new Democratic mantra to counter the Republican charge of “liberal Democrat”. That’s “Republican attack machine”. Maybe this fight has brought us something after all, besides headlines, even if it’s not much more than another election year cry. Let’s get back to fighting the al Qaeda terrorists.