- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

Richard A. Clarke’s book-peddling accusations President Bush ignored the al Qaeda threat before September 11, 2001, attacks dominated the news last week. But at least one Bush critic on this score says Mr. Clarke’s election-timed charges may not amount to much.

“It will not have much traction because what he’s charging is not that new and not that specific,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a national security analyst at the Brookings Institution.

The fierce White House counterattack showed the well-oiled Bush campaign is now running at full throttle — raising enough questions about Mr. Clarke’s ulterior political motives to blunt the potency of his charges. Apparently, the man who served as a counterterrorist expert in both the Clinton and Bush administrations was passed over for the No. 2 Department of Homeland Security post and sought vengeance for his dismissal. Observers allege that, despite his denials, Mr. Clarke (who is close to key Kerry campaign advisers) hopes to secure a major position in a John Kerry administration.

Widely known for his abrasiveness and ego, Mr. Clarke comes close to saying, with all of the information available on al Qaeda’s pre-September 11 activities, the attacks might have been prevented. With considerable hubris, he even suggests that if he had access to the FBI’s intelligence at the time, he might have been able to connect the dots and foil the plot. “We’ll never know,” he says.

Mr. O’Hanlon rejects such bombastic claims. “I’m not aware of anything specific that Clark recommended we do before September 11 that really could have stopped this. If one had been a lot more vigilant, there are things we could have done but it’s easy to say that in retrospect.”

No Bush cheerleader, Mr. O’Hanlon rejects Mr. Clarke’s claim the president was naive or fixated on Iraq when the president asked him to look into Saddam Hussein’s relationship with al Qaeda. The CIA had long reported that key terrorist leaders were constantly going in and out of Baghdad.

“I can’t fault Bush on that one,” Mr. O’Hanlon says. “I don’t think there was such a link, but who could be against a rigorous attempt to make sure?”

Lost in the media frenzy over Mr. Clarke’s exaggerated claims is the fact Mr. Bush’s first military response was to go after al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and the Taliban regime there that harbored Osama bin Laden and his terrorist armies.

Also lost in the hullabaloo over Mr. Clarke’s self-serving allegations was what the bipartisan, independent September 11 commission looking into the attacks had to say about the Clinton administration’s risk-averse policies that let the terrorists train, plot and plan their evil deeds during the eight years of his presidency.

Among some of the panel’s early findings:

• The Clinton administration had four opportunities between December 1998 and July 1999 to get bin Laden, but their plans were all abandoned because of White House uncertainty over intelligence and unjustified fears civilians might have been killed in the attacks.

“Having the chance to get [bin Laden] three times in 36 hours and forgoing the chance each time has made me a bit angry,” said one CIA unit chief.

• A month after the Clinton administration struck worthless al Qaeda target sites following bombings of U.S. Embassies in east Africa, the Pentagon produced a secret report calling for “a more aggressive counterterrorism posture.” But its eight-point antiterrorism plan was abandoned because President Clinton’s senior advisers found it “too aggressive.”

• Throughout the Clinton years, there was confusion within CIA ranks about whether they could kill bin Laden, though Clinton policymakers have told the commission there was no confusion they knew about.

“But if the policymakers believed their intent was clear, every CIA official interviewed on this topic by the commission, from [CIA Director George] Tenet to the official who actually briefed the agents in the field, told us they heard a different message,” according to the commission. “CIA senior managers, operators and lawyers uniformly said they read the relevant authorities signed by Clinton as instructing them to try to capture bin Laden,” not kill him.

Simply put, the Clinton administration was weak, fearful and vacillating in going after al Qaeda, refusing to hit its training camps in the mountains of Afghanistan. Who says so? None other than Mr. Clarke himself, though his criticism of the Clinton years gets little media attention compared to his criticisms of President Bush. Moreover, in a recently disclosed 2002 background session with White House reporters, when he was advising the Bush administration, Mr. Clarke had high praise for Mr. Bush’s leadership on the antiterrorism front. According to an official transcript of his remarks, approved by the White House and reported by Fox News, Mr. Clinton sought to roll back the response to al Qaeda while Mr. Bush’s new policy was bent on “eliminating al Qaeda,” Mr. Clarke said.

Where all this finger-pointing will lead, no one can say right now. But Americans know Monday-morning quarterbacking when they see it, and they know the difference between leadership and playing politics in the midst of a campaign.

An AP-Ipsos Public Affairs poll last week found voters trusted Mr. Bush to do better than Mr. Kerry at protecting the country from terrorist attacks by a stunning 58 percent to 35 percent.

Moreover, despite all he political pounding the war in Iraq has taken in recent weeks, a March 5-7 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll still found half of Americans polled said the war that ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime made America safer from terrorism.

I very much doubt a disgruntled, politically driven book-peddler is going to change that view.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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