- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

In hawking his book and testifying before the commission investigating the September 11 attacks, former counterterrorism boss Richard Clarke testified that the Bush administration largely ignored the threat from al Qaeda prior to the attacks. Under softball questioning from a Democratic member of the September 11 panel, former Rep. Tim Roemer, Mr. Clarke asserted that there was “no higher” priority than fighting terrorism under former President Clinton, but that the Bush administration “either didn’t believe me that there was an urgent problem or was unprepared to act as though there were an urgent problem.”

But Mr. Clarke’s assertions are contradicted by his own words. National Review editor Rich Lowry, for example, points out that, in his book, Mr. Clarke writes that forcing through a Middle East peace agreement was a higher priority for Mr. Clinton than retaliating for al Qaeda’s attack on the USS Cole.

Moreover, in a Sept. 15, 2001, e-mail to National SecurityAdvisorCondoleezza Rice, Mr. Clarke outlined some of the major steps taken by the Bush administration in the summer of 2001 to put the nation on a higher alert footing in an effort to prevent a possible attack.

Mr. Clarke noted, for example, that on July 5, 2001, representatives of federal law enforcement agencies — including the FBI, the Secret Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Customs Service, the Coast Guard and the Immigration and Naturalization Service — were summoned to a meeting at which they were warned of a possible al Qaeda attack. “Thus, the White House did ensure that domestic law enforcement (including FAA) knew” of the possibility “that a major al Qaeda attack was coming and it could be in the U.S. … and did ask that special measures be taken,” Mr. Clarke observed in his e-mail to Miss Rice.

More damning to Mr. Clarke’s credibility, in an August 2002 background briefing for journalists, reported Wednesday by Fox News, he explained in greater detail all the steps that the Bush administration took prior to September 11 to deal with the growing threat from al Qaeda (see facing page).

Just days after coming into office on Jan. 20, 2001, the Bush administration decided to “vigorously pursue” the Clinton policy of taking covert action, which could include killing Osama bin Laden. In the spring of 2001, Mr. Clarke noted in that background briefing, the new administration decided “to add to the existing Clinton strategy” by increasing five-fold CIA resources for covert action against al Qaeda. At that same briefing, Mr. Clarke also forcefully rebutted the assertion that the Bush administration’s approach to the problem was motivated by a general animus toward the Clinton administration. “This is the one issue where the National Security Council leadership decided continuity was important and kept the same guy around, the same team in place,” Mr. Clarke said. “That doesn’t sound like animus against the previous team to me.”

Mr. Clarke said that from Oct. 1998 until Dec. 2000, the National Security Council in the Clinton administration failed to make any new recommendations on how to deal with the burgeoning al Qaeda threat. By contrast, in the summer of 2001, Mr. Clarke said, the Bush administration changed U.S. policy from the “rollback of al Qaeda over the course of five years” to its elimination. All of these points, however, are ignored or glossed over in his new book — which depicts the administration as laggards in dealing with the al Qaeda terrorist threat.

The emerging picture of Dick Clarke is one of a political chameleon and an impetuous man who is starved for attention after years of toiling anonymously in government bureaucracies. He points to his service in Republican administrations, and says he was a registered Republican in 2000 (credentials that make it easier to peddle a book bashing a Republican president). But a survey by Insight magazine, a sister publication of the Washington Times, found that his only political contributions in the last decade went to Democrats. T. Irene Sanders, executive director of a research group called the Washington Center for Complexity and Public Policy, described an odd encounter with Mr. Clarke several months ago, after he spoke at a luncheon on cyberspace security (see adjacent letter to the editor,). When she asked him a technical question he could not answer, he responded that they should write a book together, boasting that his publisher, Free Press, does a good job of obtaining publicity for authors.

But Mr. Clarke’s enormous capacity for self-promotion and taking liberties with the facts may be catching up with him. Time magazine’s online edition yesterday published a blistering review of his book and his endless television appearances. Mr. Clarke, the magazine concluded, has become so shrill in disparaging President Bush that he “undermines a serious conversation about 9/11.” Time also criticized “the polemical, partisan mean-spiritedness that lies at the heart of Clarke’s book, and to an even greater degree, his television appearances flacking it.” We wholeheartedly agree.

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