Smoking Guns

By Stan Persky | April 12, 2004

Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (Free Press, 304 pages, $39, 2004)

Like everyone else, excepting a few Washington, D.C. insiders, I’d never heard of former U.S. counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke until he stepped out of the shadows one Sunday evening a few weeks ago on the CBS TV news magazine, “60 Minutes.”

Before addressing the controversy set off by a heretofore little-known government bureaucrat, let me first confess to an oddball fondness for “60 Minutes,” the unlikely launching-pad for the resulting contretemps. It’s an old-fashioned, investigative journalism show that’s been running ever since God evicted Adam, Eve, and Steve from the Garden of Eden. I think of it as News for Old People, since its chief reporters—Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, Morley Safer and Lesley Stahl—and its audience both clock in at an average age of around 65. Its resident curmudgeon commentator, humourist Andy Rooney, is in his 80s. (It was Rooney who was quick to point out that the semantically incorrect sub-title of Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, ought to read “terrorism,” which is exactly the sort of nitpicking that makes the show endearing.) More important than its deathwatch demographic, “60 Minutes” is one of few TV public affairs programs that has the budget to get its facts straight and that, unlike its tabloid-news competitors, suffers from neither attention deficit disorder nor Alzheimer’s. It specializes in institutional muckraking that locates whistleblowers who embarrass nasty corporations and lying government departments. Whether debunking used-car scams or Masters of the Universe, “60 Minute” segments invariably end with the miscreants refusing to appear on camera, and one of the Methuselah-aged reporters standing before the locked Pearly Gates and duly announcing, “God declined 60 Minutes’ request for an interview.” I knew something big was up when the program accorded the hitherto obscure Mr. Clarke better than half of its alloted hour.

“60 Minutes” viewers quickly learned that Clarke, whom everybody calls Dick (but who isn’t to be confused with ageless teen-music impressario Dick Clark of “American Bandstand”), is a 30-year civil servant who began his Washington career during the Richard Nixon era in the departments of defense and state, and went on to serve in the White House as presidential adviser on counter-terrorism to, successively, Presidents George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, and incumbent George W. Bush. In short, his credentials are impeccable. Clarke resigned only last spring, just as U.S. troops were marching into Iraq, and has since written the abovementioned Against All Enemies. The book, which was to be released the following day, was the hook for his TV appearance. (By the way, in the interests of checking everyone’s motives at the door, it should be noted that Clarke’s publisher, Free Press, is a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster, which is owned by Viacom, the same media conglomerate that owns CBS—one more minor instance of not-so-coincidental “media convergence.” And since Clarke was slated to testify later that week before the bipartisan commission investigating the causes of the “9/11” 2001 terrorist attack on the U.S., the book’s publication date wasn’t exactly a case of accidental cosmic convergence either.)

However, the point of the career resume is simply to establish that Clarke isn’t a flake, a liberal in the belly of the conservative beast, or a partisan fundamentalist of any sort. He’s probably best described as a non-party hawk, one of those Washington jesuits obsessed with their specialty—in this case, counter-terrorism and crisis management. He’s a sober Cold Warrior-type who doesn’t flinch from recommending political assassinations to presidents or seeking authorization for the military to dump Cruise missiles on sites from Afghanistan to Sudan. He has comfortably rubbed shoulders over the years with the likes of Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his own most recent former boss, National Security Adviser Condaleezza Rice (a.k.a., Condi the Warrior Princess), as well as with countless CIA and FBI spooks. Equally, he’s gotten on with Clinton, Al Gore, and Clinton’s NSA, Sandy Berger—i.e., Clarke travels well. From the moment the beefy, mid-50ish, white-haired, blue-suited classic bureaucrat popped up on the tube, and began speaking in sentences—unlike many of his former employers—it was clear that this was a critic not to be brushed off lightly.

All of which makes Clarke’s sweeping charges against the Bush administration the more remarkable. Clarke has now presented his case in a variety of venues—on “60 Minutes,” in Against All Enemies, before the 9/11 commission, and on every TV forum available to him. Just in case you’ve been sunbathing in Mexico for the past month, here’s a brief composite version of Clarke’s claims, to bring you up to speed.

1. The Bush administration, notwithstanding its post-9/11 “War on Terrorism,” did not pay a hell of a lot of attention to the threat of terrorism posed by Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization from January 2001, when it took office, to September 11, 2001, when more than the roof fell in. Furthermore, Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice et al. didn’t make terrorism a priority despite a) the availability of an ominous and comprehensive anti-terrorism report commissioned by the Clinton administration and produced by former Senator Gary Hart, b) heavy-duty warnings to Rice from Clinton NSA Berger during the administrative transition, c) a set of repeated requests beginning in January 2001 by adviser Clarke for urgent top-level meetings on the threat of terrorism, and d) CIA and other intelligence agency warnings of imminent major terrorist attacks in summer 2001. There was even a prescient e-mail from Clarke to Rice months before the attack, imagining “hundreds of dead in the streets of America,” and asking, “What will you wish then that you had already done?” Within the bowels of spookdom, it was known that there were al Qaeda agents resident in the U.S., that suspicious guys were at U.S. flight schools learning to maneuver but not land airplanes, and that the eavesdropping on international electronic chatter indicated something “very, very, very, very big” was about to happen, maybe even in the U.S. itself. Some of the details of this near-negligent policy were already known. For instance, Washington Post editor Bob Woodward’s Bush at War (2003), a work sympathetic to the American president, reports in passing Bush’s concession that prior to 9/11 he was not “on point” on the al Qaeda threat. But it was not until Clarke’s extensive from-the-horse’s-mouth revelations on “60 Minutes” and in his book that anything like the full story was available.

Now of course, even if all of the available intelligence had made it to the White House, and if the “Principals,” as the top cabinet-level and agency people are known, had further “shaken the trees” and had their “hair on fire” (to use a couple of Clarke’s favourite metaphors), there is no claim being made (by Clarke or anyone else) that anything necessarily would have happened any differently. However, the Bush principals didn’t discuss terrorism until Sept. 4, 2001. If they had done something earlier and more urgently, maybe, just maybe… is about as far as Clarke allows himself to dream. The administration regarded terrorism as “important,” concedes Clarke, but not “urgent.” Despite the administration’s subsequent self-congratulatory tone about its response to terrorism, Clarke makes a devastating case that prior to 9/11, the Bush regime was negligent. Instead of terrorism, the early focus of the Bushies, as they’re disparagingly known, was on Star Wars schemes, and the dangers of China, Russia and Iraq.

2. It’s the latter country that’s important to Clarke’s argument. The Bush administration was obsessed with Iraq to the point of distraction, is Clarke’s second major claim, and he offers unprecedented evidentiary support for his charge that it was determined to find a pretext for war with Saddam Hussein.

3. Finally, Clarke argues that the war in Iraq has been disastrous for the war on terrorism, diverting major military and fiscal resources from the hunt for al Qaeda to the adventurism of “regime change” in Iraq, and worse, that it has spawned the growth of terrorist recruitment and organization rather than diminishing it.

Clarke’s book begins with a Tom Clancy-style eyewitness account of what happened inside the evacuated White House on Sept. 11. The pop prose notwithstanding, it’s a pretty riveting tale, and Clarke is the guy to tell the story, since he was, for all practical purposes, running the government of the United States from the West Wing that morning while the president (or POTUS as he’s called in government-speak) was in a kindergarten in Florida, and Vice-President Cheney and NSA Rice were stashed in an East Wing emergency bunker.

Once the initial steps to secure the country had been taken, talk immediately turned to the response, which would obviously involve going after al Qaeda, based in Afghanistan, and the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban government there that harbored the terrorist organization. Yet, that wasn’t the only target on the minds of U.S. leaders in the hours right after 9/11. Clarke was incredulous to discover that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld “was talking about broadening the objectives of our response and ‘getting Iraq,’” an initiative he and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz had pushed prior to 9/11. An astonished Clarke likened the idea to “invading Mexico after the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor.” Nor did Rumsfeld drop the notion. Instead, according to Clarke, the defense secretary “complained that there were no decent targets for bombing in Afghanistan and that we should consider bombing Iraq, which, he said, had better targets. At first I thought Rumsfeld was joking. But he was serious and the President did not reject out of hand the idea of attacking Iraq.” This was on Sept. 12, 2001, a year-and-a-half before the Iraq war was launched.

If there is any doubt about this preoccupation, the most dramatic anecdote Clarke told on “60 Minutes” (and which is repeated in his book) was his encounter with Bush on the evening of Sept. 12. “He grabbed a few of us and closed the door to the conference room. ‘Look,’ he told us… ‘See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way…’ I was once again taken aback, incredulous, and it showed. ‘But, Mr. President, al Qaeda did this.’” Bush, however, was not to be put off, and insisted on checking the Saddam connection. Clarke replied: “’Absolutely, we will look… again… But, you know, we have looked several times for state sponsorship of al Qaeda and not found any real linkages to Iraq. Iran plays a little, as does Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, Yemen.’ ‘Look into Iraq, Saddam,’ the President said testily and left us.”

The exchange is worth repeating because it had an immediate role in the extraordinary counterattack on Clarke that the White House was to launch in the succeeding days. In fact, the first hint of it came the night of Clarke’s appearance on “60 Minutes.” Since it’s standard practice for such programs to provide a semblance of “balance” by allowing for rebuttals to sensational accusations, “60 Minutes” looked for a White House respondent to Clarke’s allegations. The best it could scare up on short notice was one of Condi Rice’s minions. Confronted by the story of Bush’s order to Clarke to find an Iraq connection, Rice’s staffer blandly told “60 Minutes” reporter Lesley Stahl, “We have no record of that conversation in the White House.” The implication was unsubtlely obvious: maybe Mr. Clarke is fibbing. The veteran journalist cast a very cold eye on the messenger, and said words to the effect, Young man, perhaps you’ve never heard of “60 Minutes,” but we have a substantial budget to do fact-checking, and we have two sources to substantiate Mr. Clarke’s story of his conversation with the president, and one of them is an eyewitness. The sub-text of her thrust was: Do you think we’re so dumb as to let Clarke make a sensational claim like that without checking it? There was a nanosecond of silence in the perpetual white noise of television as the camera watched Rice’s subordinate swallow his tongue before his reptilian brain clicked on the inner digital machine that produces the requisite bureaucratic babble. The next day the White House allowed that perhaps such a conversation had taken place. The day after that, it was conceded that maybe the President had asked Clarke to check for an Iraq connection, and it was implied that it was completely appropriate for the President to canvass all options.

Iraq-9/11 matters for two reasons. First, the suggestion that there was a link between the two was one of several false pretexts concocted by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq. Second, the administration succeeded in getting more than half the American public, according to polls, to believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. But, as long as we’re looking at manufactured gullibility, it should also be noted that more than half the Arab population, according to polls, came to believe that the 9/11 attacks were a Jewish plot, which only tells us that Islamic madrassa schools are as effective as American TV in inculcating pure ignorance.

The aborted effort to discredit Clarke on “60 Minutes” was only the beginning. Clarke’s book hit the stores on Monday; on Wednesday, he testified before the 9/11 commission. Even those who might regard Clarke as self-serving or worse would have to give him points for performance. He opened his CNN-live-televised testimony before the commissioners, in a hearing room filled with relatives of 9/11 victims, by skipping the bafflegab and unreservedly apologising. Your government failed you, we failed you, “I failed you,” Clarke declared. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, or in TV’s never-never land. He then went on to tell his tale, which he repeated that night on CNN’s Larry King talk show and countless other media outlets. King had a couple of old-bird intelligence committee U.S. Senators, Joe Biden and John Warner, available to comment on Clarke, along with some media stalwarts. No one contradicted the former counter-terrorism adviser.

From the moment I first heard Clarke on “60 Minutes” a few days earlier, I had the sense, This is the smoking gun. On all his subsequent appearances, Clarke was credible, consistent, unflappable. We’re used to getting a lot of rhetoric and not much truth from public life. This was unnervingly different. There might be some argument with the interpretation, but the facts weren’t in dispute. I’d seen the Watergate hearings in the 1970s, the Iran-Contra scandal hearings in the mid-80s: Clarke’s story, told over several days, in a variety of oral and printed forms, had much of that weight. (Whereas, the sex life of Bill Clinton, though it occupied even more media space in the late-90s, had only the unbearable lightness of being, and almost nothing relevant to the matter of government.) At the same time, since it is a presidential election year, and a specially bitter one at that, and because there’s just too much money flowing down Washington’s Potomac River between now and election night on Nov. 4, it’s unlikely that Clarke’s account of malfeasance will have lasting consequences.

At least, not if the Bush government has anything to do with it. For about 4 or 5 days after the publication of Against All Enemies, not very much governing took place in the United States. That’s because practically every major government official in the Bush administration had taken to the media hustings to denounce Dick Clarke. Vice-President Cheney said Clarke was “out of the loop,” a curious charge considering that when the 4th terrorist plane—the one that crashed in Pennsylvania—was still aloft and aimed at the White House, it was Clarke and his team who were manning the fort while Cheney was in the bunker. That’s about as in the loop as you can get, I should think. And then there were Rumsfeld, Rice, and a legion of White House communications coordinators, spokespersons for government this-and-that, and assorted hacks. Even a couple of Republican senators, Bill Frist and Mitch McConnell were enlisted. Clarke was a money-grubbing, book-peddling, disloyal, disgruntled, sensation-seeking, ill-informed, vainglorious, self-indulgent, two-faced… I don’t have the slightest doubt they would have called Clarke a child molester if they thought they could get away with it.

While Clarke’s case may not be foundation-shaking in the long run, it was sufficient to require the White House to retreat and offer up National Security Adviser Rice for unprecedented, under-oath, public testimony before the 9/11 commission. The weekend before testifying, she had been on “60 Minutes,” explaining to elderly reporter Ed Bradley the infallible principle that prevented sitting advisers to the president from testifying before congressionally-linked committees. However, within 48 hours, Bush himself was forced to relent in the wave of “what have you got to hide?” public pressure. Rice’s testimony then led to the further unprecedented declassification of a Presidential Daily Briefing document, the PDB of Aug. 6, 2001 headed “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside U.S.” Although all the president’s men and warrior princesses declared that the PBD didn’t mean anything, not really, they couldn’t repair the slight crack in Humpty Dumpty’s credibility.

All that remains to be addressed is the question, Is Clarke’s book worth reading? As one slightly overhip review in the New York Observer asked, “What’s left to say, after all, about Richard Clarke’s book?”

After his breathless thriller of an opening chapter, Clarke settles down to review terrorism and counter-terrorism knowledge and policy over four administrations. Some of it is potted history, but since most of us didn’t hear of something called al Qaeda until Sept. 12, 2001—I remember being rather startled by how quickly the U.S. government was able to post the names and photos of all the hijackers, as if they already knew quite a bit about all of this—the review of everything from the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan to the foiling of a millennium terrorist plot in 2000 is useful.

There are also all sorts of arcane tidbits of information. For example, when the Japanese religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo, released poison gas in the Tokyo subway in March 1995, Clarke immediately asked the FBI about Aum in the U.S. The FBI told Clarke not to worry, they didn’t have a file on Aum, so it didn’t exist in the U.S. Unconvinced, Clarke said to his FBI pal, John O’Neill (who later died in the Twin Towers), “’How can you be so sure… did you look them up in the Manhattan phone book?’ ‘You serious?’ O’Neill asked, not sure whether I was being funny…” A while later an agent handed O’Neill a note. “O’Neill glanced at it and said, ‘Fuck. They’re in the phone book, on East 48th Street at Fifth.’” Oh yeah, the FBI lost the fleeing Aum van in traffic.

Clarke also offers some surprising assessments of persons and administrations. He is contemptuous of the FBI leadership, but gives passing grades to CIA director George Tenet, who provided face-to-face daily briefings on terrorism to George W. Bush, but couldn’t get the president sufficiently interested. He also gives surprisingly high marks to Bill Clinton, “who identified terrorism as the major post-Cold War threat and acted to improve our counter-terrorism capabilities, and who (little known to the public) quelled anti-American terrorism by Iraq and Iran and defeated an al Quaeda attempt to dominate Bosnia,” despite being bogged down in trailer-park to Oval Office sex shenanigans. It’s clear that Clarke is rather fond of the brainy Clinton, who tended to stay up ‘til 2 in the morning reading everything from briefing reports to Gabriel Garcia Marquez (in advance proof copies, yet) to Tom Clancy thrillers, all while watching the government news channel on TV. About Bush, Clarke is measured, saying it was “clear that the critique of him as a dumb, lazy rich kid was somewhat off the mark. When he focused, he asked the kind of questions that revealed a results-oriented mind, but he looked for the simple solution, the bumper sticker description of the problem.”

In the end, the reason to read Clarke, despite the media saturation and ever though Against All Enemies is hardly deathless prose, is to get a sustained sense of the story and the issues it raises. About the only ideological predisposition required is an acceptance of the notion that, Yes, Virginia, there really are terrorists out there. And the story is, as Clarke puts it, “how, even after the attacks, America did not eliminate the al Qaeda movement, which morphed into a distributed and elusive threat; how instead we launched the counter-productive Iraq fiasco; how the Bush administration politicized counter-terrorism as a way of ensuring electoral victories; how critical homeland security vulnerabilities remain; and how little is being done to address the ideological challenge from terrorists distorting Islam into a new ideology of hate.” Clarke even has the savvy to devote a thought or two to the protection of civil liberties in the midst of “Patriot Act” security measures. Since all of this has relevance to the U.S. presidential election, and since whether or not Bush is re-elected matters… well, you can figure out for yourself how much you need to know and when you need to know it.

Vancouver, April 12, 2004, 3558 words


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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