Looks like that’ll be the topic of the week. Richard Clarke, a career bureaucrat who served in high-level positions under Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush, fired the opening gun last night on the CBS show “60 Minutes.” Clarke and other Clinton administration officials also are to testify tomorrow and Wednesday before the special commission investigating the 9/11 attacks.
First Clarke. He has a book coming out today, so take that into account. He also was demoted by the Bushies (he had been Clinton’s anti-terror czar) and he gives off distinct vibes of being the kind of guy who really, really wouldn’t like being undercut. Take that into account, too.
Nonetheless, what he had to say is extraordinarily blunt criticism of a sitting president, coming as it does from someone who has spent much of his career serving them (though Clarke was no longer a cabinet-level official under Bush, he was head of counter-terrorism). He makes two big points:
-- The Bush administration ignored the al-Qaida threat before 9/11 because it was fixated on Iraq.
-- After 9/11, high administration officials were more interested in bombing Iraq than Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida forces were sequestered. [Even the British government felted compelled to nudge the Bush administration back on course, as this blog reminds us.]
Clarke on Bush and terrorism: “Frankly, I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he’s done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11. Maybe. We’ll never know. …
“I think he’s done a terrible job on the war against terrorism.”
And since Bush has made the war on terrorism the centerpiece of his re-election campaign, this is, well, not good news for him.
Clarke on the administration after 9/11: “The president dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door, and said, ‘I want you to find whether Iraq did this.’ Now he never said, ‘Make it up.’ But the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said Iraq did this.
“I said, ‘Mr. President. We’ve done this before. We have been looking at this. We looked at it with an open mind. There’s no connection.’
“He came back at me and said, “Iraq! Saddam! Find out if there’s a connection.’ And in a very intimidating way. I mean that we should come back with that answer. We wrote a report.”
The Pentagon gets similar treatment.
“[Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld was saying that we needed to bomb Iraq,” Clarke said to Leslie Stahl on “60 Minutes.” “And we all said ... no, no. Al-Qaeda is in Afghanistan. We need to bomb Afghanistan. And Rumsfeld said there aren’t any good targets in Afghanistan. And there are lots of good targets in Iraq. I said, ‘Well, there are lots of good targets in lots of places, but Iraq had nothing to do with it.
“Initially, I thought when he said, ‘There aren’t enough targets in—in Afghanistan,’ I thought he was joking.”
A “60 Minutes” transcript is here.
And a CBS segment summarizing what Clarke said and the administration’s reaction is here.
These are serious allegations, so naturally the administration is doing everything it can to knock them down.
For example, the White House issued this three-page statement. It portrays Bush as on top of the terrorism problem since day one in a way that the Clinton administration never was:
“Myth: The President didn't treat al-Qaida as a serious threat before September 11.
“-- The President recognized the threat posed by al-Qaida, and immediately after taking office the White House began work on a comprehensive new strategy to eliminate al-Qaida.
“-- The President specifically told Dr. Rice that he was ‘tired of swatting flies’ and wanted to go on the offense against al-Qaida, rather than simply waiting to respond.
“--The President's national security team worked aggressively and rapidly to develop a new strategy that would employ all elements of our national power: military, intelligence, diplomatic actions, and financial pressure. The new strategy called for military options to attack al-Qaida and Taliban leadership, command-and-control, ground forces, and other targets. It focused on the crucial link between al-Qaida and the Taliban, recognizing that the two were ultimately inseparable. We would attempt to compel the Taliban to stop giving al-Qaida sanctuary, and if it refused, we would have sufficient military options to remove the Taliban regime. Our strategy focused on the crucial role of Pakistan in this effort and the need to get Pakistan to stop its support to the Taliban, understanding the implications for the stability of Pakistan and its relations with India. …”
And so forth. There are also some point-by-point refutations of Clark’s allegations. It’s all worth a read.
Here’s an AP story that wraps up the official reaction to Clarke, which White House spokesman Scott McClellan dismisses this way: "When you compare Dick Clarke's current rhetoric with his past comments and actions, the bedrock of his assertions comes crumbling down." (Sort of a nonrebutt rebuttal if you ask me.)
However, the administration clearly is on the defensive, in part because Clarke’s charges are just the opening round. He and other Clinton administration officials go before the 9/11 commission this week, where they no doubt will be asked, under oath, to describe their own efforts to defend against terrorism and what sorts of advice and plans they passed on to the incoming Bush administration.
Scot J. Paltrow of the Wall Street Journal helps set the testimony up today with an extensive piece reconstructing what Bush and other administration officials did on 9/11. The 9/11 commission, he notes, has made such a reconstruction one of its chief aims in the hope that any missteps can be identified and made avoidable in future crises.
The Journal generally doesn’t make its stories available online, so let me briefly summarize some of Paltrow’s key points:
-- “Scores of interviews with those who played key roles that day or directly witnessed events suggest that some offical accounts of Sept. 11 are incorrect, incomplete or in dispute.” On one level, I find this unsurprising: it was a chaotic and confusing day. However, the adminstration has displayed a vivid taste for revisionism and it’s the commission’s duty to sort out what actually happened for its final report, which is expected in July.
-- One question is the exact sequence of events while Bush was visiting a grammar-school class in Florida as word of the attacks on the World Trade Center came in. This might be important in answering the question of whether there was anything that could have been done to prevent the attack on the Pentagon.
Bush has said, “I was sitting outside the classroom, waiting to go in and I saw an airplane hit the tower – the TV was obviously on. And I used to fly myself, and I said, ‘Well, there’s one terrible pilot.’” In this reference, Bush is talking about the first plane to strike the tower. However, as Paltrow points out, there were no images of the first plane hitting the Trade Center until that night. Bush’s chief spokesman, Dan Bartlett, writes this off as “just a mistaken recollection.”
Bush entered the classroom just after 9 a.m. Shortly thereafter, his chief of staff, Andrew Card, entered and whispered to the president that a second jet had hit the Trade Center. Card subsequently said that “not that many seconds later, the president excused himself from the classroom …”
However, Paltrow reports, “uncut videotape of the classroom visit … and interviews with the teacher and principal, show that Mr. Bush remained in the classroom not for mere seconds, but for at least seven additional minutes,” a point Bartlett does not dispute. While this was going on, the jet that slammed into the Pentagon at 9:37 was hurtling along its route.
Paltrow’s account of the confusion of the day makes it seem unlikely that those seven minutes would ultimately have made any difference in preventing the Pentagon attack. But it could have been a near thing; hence the commission’s interest in obtaining whatever detail it can.
The administration is continuing to stonewall the 9/11 committee, basically on the ground of “executive privilege” – i.e., the executive branch need not answer questions from the legislative branch. Condoleezza Rice, who was Richard Clarke’s ultimate boss during his tenure under Bush, is the latest to deploy this excuse. Thus, the administration’s side of this story will come not primarily in sworn testimony before the bipartisan commission appointed to determine what happened on 9/11, but in ad hoc statements.