Wednesday, April 7, 2004

New revelations that the final national security policy paper submitted to Congress by President Clinton barely mentioned the terrorist threat from Osama bin Laden provide some much-needed context for National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s testimony today. As this newspaper reported Tuesday, the 45,000-word document makes no mention of al Qaeda at all and refers to bin Laden by name just four times. The document further undermines assertions by former White House terrorism analyst Richard A. Clarke that the Clinton administration considered al Qaeda an “urgent” threat, while Miss Rice and the Bush administration “ignored” it.

Mr. Clarke’s credibility has been further undermined by two letters written by Rep. Chris Shays, chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security in July 2000 and January 2001 — long before Mr. Clarke became a controversial public figure. In the letters, Mr. Shays was sharply critical of the quality of Mr. Clarke’s work as anti-terrorism czar in the Clinton administration. Last month, Mr. Shays sent another letter to the September 11 commission stating that, under Mr. Clarke, “several presidential directives and a Justice Department five-year law-enforcement plan were clumsily lashed together and called a strategy” to combat terrorism.

Unfortunately, calling Miss Rice to testify before the September 11 commission investigating the attacks provides one more example of what is wrong with Washington today. Rehashing yet again events of the past rather than preparing for the future is harmful to the national interest. Miss Rice has been forced to spend valuable time preparing for her testimony when her attention is needed to events in Iraq.

A sincere effort to gain lessons learned could have been done methodically and quietly rather than on a partisan public timetable geared to sensationalism. (Thank goodness that FDR and his senior advisers didn’t have to waste precious weeks and months being grilled by former isolationists.)

While there are inevitably discrepancies in the ways that honorable people remember events, we know that Miss Rice will not be defensive and will carefully explain the administration’s pre-September 11 approach.

The sharply worded letters sent by Mr. Shays, criticizing Mr. Clarke’s work as the Clinton administration’s counterterrorism czar, suggest that Miss Rice had plenty of reason to be wary of investing a great deal of responsibility in him. In a July 5, 2000, letter to Mr. Clarke, for example, Mr. Shays blasted his evasiveness in responding to committee questions about a comprehensive anti-terror strategy. Mr. Shays amplified these concerns in a Jan. 22, 2001, letter to Miss Rice. In a March 24 letter to Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton of the September 11 panel, Mr. Shays said that Mr. Clarke’s approach to terrorism was “reactive and limited to swatting at the visible elements of al Qaeda,” making him “part of the problem before September 11.” In evaluating Miss Rice’s testimony, the panel will need to take the credibility problems of Mr. Clarke, the administration’s sharpest critic, into account.

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