Richard A. Clarke lived up to his reputation as a Clinton administration holdover yesterday, relying on Clintonian spin to explain away baldly contradictory comments. Asked why he told the press in 2002 that President Bush was "vigorously" addressing the al Qaeda threat when he is now alleging the very opposite, Clarke fell back on the double negative, a tell-tale sign of a Washington weasel, by saying that his comments in 2002 were "not untrue." He had been asked to "highlight the positive aspects of what the administration had done and to minimize the negative aspects of what the administration had done.…As a special assistant to the president, one is frequently asked to do that kind of thing. I've done it for several presidents." A spinning skill, in other words, he got to hone in the Clinton administration.
Clarke's testimony began with another Clintonian rhetorical tactic -- the applause-generating apology that frees the apologizer up to blame everyone but himself. "I failed you," Clarke said to the families of 9/11 victims. "I would ask you for your understanding and forgiveness." Richard Ben-Veniste was impressed by this "courageous gesture." But Clarke quickly made it clear that in his mind he hadn't failed at all. "I had all of the responsibility and none of the authority," he said, downplaying his title as Clinton's terrorism czar. He hadn't failed anyone, but many not sufficiently awed by his prescience had failed him. "People tend to think you are nuts," he said as he recounted how his colleagues, some to his face, some "behind my back," didn't heed his calls about the threat from al Qaeda. Policy change happens slowly in Washington, he said, and only after "body bags" pile up.
It is ironic that Clarke would emphasize the need for proactive strategies -- striking terrorists before the "body bags" pile up even if that means the forward-thinking policymaker is considered "nuts" -- when he is dismissing President Bush as nuts for his proactive toppling of Hussein in Iraq. What Clarke says others have done to him, he is now doing to Bush. But what if Bush hadn't invaded Iraq and Hussein had again attacked American interests? Would Clarke have written a book saying Bush hadn't taken that threat seriously enough, that he should have known that someone who tried to assassinate a U.S. president would try to attack America again?
Clarke at once criticizes Bush for passivity and aggression. He blames him for not pursuing the terrorists and then blames him for provoking them when he does. It is not clear if Clarke wants to catch terrorists or understand them. That Bill Clinton turned a root-causes liberal -- Clarke has said we need to understand the "reasons for terrorism" and figure out why they "hate" us -- into a counterterrorism chief is itself an explanation for America's soft security prior to 9/11.
Clarke is not a hardheaded CIA operative, but a former State Department official with the typical liberal distaste for aggressive CIA covert operations, the ones which would have disposed of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. When Bob Kerrey yesterday said that America should not go back to the "bad old days" of the CIA, Clarke readily agreed.
In tabulating the reasons for 9/11, Clarke forgot to mention the bad old days of the 1990s when the CIA director couldn't even get an appointment with Clinton. Would Clinton's CIA director James Woolsey agree with Clarke that counterterrorism was the Clinton administration's highest priority? Woolsey says that he could not get a single meeting with Clinton during the two years he served as CIA director. In 1994, when an errant plane crash-landed into the White House, White House staffers joked it was Woolsey trying to get an appointment.
Yesterday CIA director George Tenet and Sandy Berger confirmed this Clintonian atmosphere of security sloth when it came out under questioning that the CIA had never even been informed by the Clinton administration that it could assassinate Bin Laden. The "bad old days" anti-CIA mentality led to such stupidity, yet Clarke blames the Bush administration for not undoing in about eight months a mentality the Clinton administration had entrenched for eight years.
Kerrey and Clarke were in agreement about the "bad old days" of the CIA and the bad new days of Fox news. Kerrey said Fox had "violated a serious trust" by reporting the background White House briefing Clarke gave to reporters in which he praised Bush's pre-9/11 approach to Al Qaeda. Clarke nodded appreciatively. Fox was being quite unfair to Clarke. He would never resort to such low tactics as reporting White House conversations.