LONDON. — Richard Clarke, former White House counterterrorism czar for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, testifies today before the commission investigating the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States. He is well-qualified to do so because few individuals over the last decade, inside or outside government, better understood the Islamic extremism threat in all its dimensions.
But rather than deliver a factual recounting and analysis of intelligence failures and politically charged antiterrorism policies that plagued his years as coordinator for counterterrorism operations, he has chosen to characterize the Bush White House as indifferent to the threat posed by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network prior to the September 11 attacks without consideration for the failures on his watch during the Clinton years. This is inaccurate and adds nothing to our understanding of how distant terrorists could plan and carry out such daring and effective attacks.
Mr. Clarke’s premise that Bush national security officials neither understood nor cared to know anything about al Qaeda is simply untrue. I know because on multiple occasions from June until late August 2001, I personally briefed Stephen J. Hadley, deputy national security adviser to President Bush, and members of his South Asia, Near East and East Africa staff at the National Security Council on precisely what had gone wrong during the Clinton years to unearth the extent of the dangers posed by al Qaeda. Some of the briefings were in the presence of former members of the Clinton administration’s national security team to ensure complete transparency.
Far from being disinterested, the Bush White House was eager to avoid making the same mistakes of the previous administration and wanted creative new inputs for how to combat al Qaeda’s growing threat.
Mr. Clarke’s role figured in two key areas of the debriefings — Sudan’s offer to share terrorism data on al Qaeda and bin Laden in 1997, and a serious effort by senior members of the Abu Dhabi royal family to gain bin Laden’s extradition from Afghanistan in early 2000.
Fall 1997: Sudan’s offer is accepted by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, then rejected by Mr. Clarke and Clinton National Security Adviser Samuel “Sandy” Berger.
Sudan’s president, Omar Hasan El Bashir, made an unconditional offer of counterterrorism assistance to the vice chairman of the September 11 Commission, then Rep. Lee Hamilton, Indiana Democrat, through my hands on April 19, 1997. Five months later on Sept. 28, 1997, after an exhaustive interagency review at the entrenched bureaucracy level of the U.S. government, Mrs. Albright announced the U.S. would send a high-level diplomatic team back to Khartoum to pressure its Islamic government to stop harboring Arab terrorists and to review Sudan data on terrorist groups operating from there.
As the re-engagement policy took shape, Susan E. Rice, incoming assistant secretary of state for East Africa, went to Mr. Clarke, made her anti-Sudan case and asked him to jointly approach Mr. Berger about the wisdom of Mrs. Albright’s decision. Together, they recommended its reversal.The decision was overturned on Oct. 1, 1997.
Without Mr. Clarke’s consent, Mr. Berger is unlikely to have gone along with such an early confrontation with the first woman to hold the highest post at Foggy Bottom.
U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed by al Qaeda 10 months later. Files with detailed data on three of the embassy bombers were among the casualties of Mr. Clarke’s decision to recommend missile attacks on an empty Khartoum pharmaceutical plant rather than get Sudan’s data out almost a year earlier to begin unraveling al Qaeda’s network.
To this day, neither Mr. Berger nor Mr. Clarke has explained to the American people why a deliberative decision of the U.S. government, made by interagency review, was overturned in such cavalier fashion by a small clique of Clinton advisers in the face of Sudan’s unconditional April 1997 offer to cooperate on terrorism issues. If he was interested in facts, why did Mr. Clarke spurn the recommendations of his own intelligence and foreign policy institutions that the Sudanese offer be explored? Why did he not act on the Sudanese intelligence chief’s direct approach to the FBI, of which he was aware, in early 1998 just prior to the final planning stages of the embassy bombings?
Spring 2000: Abu Dhabi’s offer to get bin Laden out of Afghanistan falls flat.
In late 1999, after a barrage of threats from al Qaeda’s senior leadership against the Abu Dhabi royal family, a senior family member approached the Taliban foreign minister and Mullah Omar to discuss mechanisms for getting bin Laden out of Afghanistan. Mr. Clarke, who enjoyed close relations with the Abu Dhabi family, was brought into the loop early to prevent separation between Washington and Abu Dhabi on such a sensitive matter.
While Mr. Clarke was skeptical of the idea at first, he played ball long enough to understand the real intentions of the Taliban regime. Smart enough, except when the deal got real.