- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Last week, former anti-terrorismadviser Richard A. Clarke unleashed a barrage of criticism against the Bush administration for its conduct of the war on terror and the subsequent decision to attack Iraq. For those who may have been on vacation in places lacking electricity, that Monday, Mr. Clarke’s book, “Against All Enemies,” was published and the author became a ubiquitous feature on television and radio talk shows. On Wednesday, he testified before the National Commission on Preventing Terrorist Attacks, known as theSeptember 11 commission.

Mr. Clarke, who spent10 years working for four presidentson counter-terrorism, charged the Bush administration with failing to place sufficient urgency in defanging al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden before September 11 and, by invading Iraq, greatly damaging Washington’s ability to win the global war on terror. The White House vigorously struck back and, with political allies in Congress and the media, accused Mr. Clarke of all matter of distortions and “profiteering” from his privileged position in government. Meanwhile, the controversy settled on whether or not National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice should testify in open session, an interesting but not necessarily critical issue.

The tragedy is that several, more crucial elements are missing in action so far in assessing the war on terror and the war in Iraq. Rather, like the Department of Defense’s policy toward homosexual behavior — “don’t ask, don’t tell” — there appears to be a reluctance to ask the toughest questions. If that reluctance continues, the battle against terror cannot be won — nor can the nation be made safer. In simplest terms, what other questions should the nation be asking regarding the events before and after September 11?

First, on Sept. 12, 2001, the United States had garnered an unprecedented amount of international goodwill. The NATO alliance, for the first time in history, invoked Article V, declaring that the attack against America was an attack against NATO. Since then, that goodwill has been squandered. And, worse, it has been replaced with profoundly negative views among friends and allies abroad about American policies in the war on terror and Iraq. How this happened and how, if at all, this damage can be repaired are questions that must be answered.

The second point, loud and clear, is that the presidential transition and confirmation processes are badly broken. Irrespective of the contested election that limited the new Bush team’s preparations for assuming power and filling vital administration positions, it simply takes too long to select, vet and confirm officials. Usually Cabinet secretaries are speedily confirmed. However, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was “home alone” in the Pentagon for weeks, until his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, came aboard in May.

Clearance forms take days to fill out and require considerable expense for legal opinion. It is ironic that mistakes or errors in filling out those forms could lead to criminal charges. Revealing the most personal matters of family and finances, available to the whole world, deters many who would otherwise serve.

For those lacking a security clearance,background checks also take time. Now that the FBI is dedicated to countering terrorism, the time lags can only increase. Surely there must be a better way to field senior officials to serve in government. “Why this is so?” is a question that the commission must address.

Third, as if we did not know, our process of government poses a huge obstacle to taking decisive action absent an event as horrific as September 11 or Pearl Harbor. One lesson from Mr. Clarke’s book is that while the Clinton administration fully understood the threat of al Qaeda, by his account, it was not capable of responding in kind. And, if the Bush administration did underestimate the danger of terrorism, how did the professionals in government, including Congress, permit that to happen?

My own personal quarrel with Mr. Clarke is not that he is right or wrong. It is that he may be underestimating both the dangers of the terrorist threat and the strategic consequences of occupying Iraq. Clearly, any White House will go into a protective stance and erect strong defenses against such allegations. Have we forgotten Vietnam so soon? And a presidential campaign is perhaps the worst yet only way that the nation can get to the bottom of such controversies. However, as with people, if there are symptoms of illness, not consulting a qualified physician is foolish.

Let us hope that this bipartisan September 11 commission can become that physician. Regardless of what this examination concludes for this and prior administrations, the tough questions must be addressed. We cannot delude ourselves with a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

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