The truth of the matter
Richard Clarke says war on al-Qaeda was mishandled. Is he believable?
By Massimo Calabresi, John F. Dickerson and Daren Fonda
How does a civil servant who has launched a major attack on the Bush presidency protect himself from what he has unleashed?
Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush -- who saw al-Qaeda expand under his watch, attack U.S. interests abroad and produce the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history -- knew he couldn't pin the blame on his bosses if he didn't start by apologizing himself.
So he prepared his words carefully. At 3 a.m. on the day of his testimony, "I got up and went down to my study and actually typed the words out so I wouldn't forget," he told TIME.
When it came time to deliver them in a hearing room in the Hart Senate Office Building, he addressed not just his interrogators, the 10 members of the bipartisan commission charged with investigating the events of 9/11, but also the victims of Osama bin Laden.
"Your government failed you. Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you," he said, in language that struck some people as melodramatic.
After he spoke, some of the victims' loved ones, seated behind him, put down pictures of their dead to applaud; some hugged him when he was done testifying.
Said Stephen Push, whose wife Lisa Raines died aboard American Airlines Flight 77: "I've been waiting for an apology from the government for two and a half years."
Clarke, who quit his job at the National Security Council a year ago, would not have survived Washington's brutal ways in the service of three Presidents if he had not been a good politician.
And last week he needed all the political skills he could muster for what he was about to do -- direct a missile at the very fortress that so far has protected Bush's presidential advantage in this campaign season: the perception that, for all his faults, Bush has done everything he could to keep the country safe and managed the war on terrorism well.
In an early March Gallup poll, the President's approval rating on the issue of terrorism was nearly 30 points higher than that of Democratic challenger John Kerry. Suddenly it looked to some Democrats as if Bush's main argument for re-election -- that the world is too dangerous to change horses in midstream -- could at least be neutralized.
If Clarke's assault was effective, it was partly because he used the tools of an old warrior, surprise and preparation.
First he produced a closely guarded book more than a year in the making, Against All Enemies, whose revelations he unveiled on 60 Minutes three days before his testimony, broadcast live on the cable networks.
His case was devastating: the Bush Administration, he claimed, had dillydallied in its approach to terrorism, ignoring warnings and shelving counterstrategies, getting serious only after the tragedy of 9/11 and then bungling its efforts by launching a diversionary war in Iraq.
The day after Clarke's testimony, a survey released by the Pew Research Center found that a remarkable 89% of those polled had heard about his charges. Clarke's book shot to No. 1 on Amazon's best-seller list.
It is perhaps a measure of the force of the assault on the Administration record that, in an exclusive interview with TIME last week, Vice President Dick Cheney came close to acknowledging that his team might have been more attentive to the terrorist threat before 9/11. "There are clearly some things that could have been done to be more effective," he allowed.
That uncharacteristically humble statement, however, came only after Cheney had used the opportunity to blast Clarke.
"He's taken advantage of the circumstances this week to promote himself and his book." Cheney added, "I don't know the guy that well ... but judging based on what I've seen, I don't hold him in high regard."
Other Bush figures accused Clarke, who is a friend of Kerry's chief foreign policy adviser, Rand Beers, of being partisan. Describing Clarke's apology for 9/11, a Bush adviser remarked, "It's political bulls___. It's great political bulls___, but it's political."
The lead charge against Clarke was that he had changed his story over time. Clarke had anticipated the assault, telling 60 Minutes, "They'll launch their dogs on me."
In the end, it was quite a pack. Even before 60 Minutes aired, White House communications director Dan Bartlett was countering Clarke's charges in interviews with the networks and cable news channels.
Reporters also received a four-page rebuttal of Clarke's book by e-mail from the White House. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who racked up the most Nielsen points, declined to speak publicly before the 9/11 commission, citing Executive privilege, but swung at Clarke for any reporter willing to listen.
She even took the rare step of inviting unwieldy clutches of journalists into her vast but tidy West Wing office. "What's the Texas expression?" asks a Bush adviser, assessing the pell-mell response of the various Administration officials. "A hit dog yelps."
Republicans in Congress then took the highly unusual step of seeking to declassify closed-door testimony Clarke gave in 2002 before a congressional committee to determine whether his remarks back then contradicted what he told the 9/11 commission or wrote in his book.
"It is one thing for Mr. Clarke to dissemble in front of the media," said Senate majority leader Bill Frist, "but if he lied under oath to the United States Congress, it is a far, far more serious matter."
A number of Democrats who had heard Clarke's 2002 testimony came to his defense, saying they heard nothing then that was at odds with what he is saying now.
With all the dust flying around Clarke last week, the question of whether Washington appropriately handled the terrorist threat tended to get lost. That question is of course the one of greatest interest to the public in the wake of 9/11.
TIME's guide to the main charges:
Terrorism was not a top priority of the Bush team before 9/11
In his strongest public statement, to 60 Minutes, Clarke said Bush "ignored" the terrorist threat before 9/11.
To the commission he testified, more soberly, that, for the Administration, it was an "important issue but not an urgent issue." Clearly, the Clinton White House worried more.
Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger remembers telling his successor, Rice, during the transition that, for the Bush team, "the No. 1 issue that you're going to be dealing with is terrorism generally and al-Qaeda specifically."
The record of the Bush Administration's first half-year suggests its members didn't buy it.
They were more focused on Russia, China and especially missile defense. In his book Bush at War, Bob Woodward quotes Bush himself saying of Osama bin Laden, "There was a significant difference in my attitude after September 11. I was not on point, but I knew he was a menace ... But I didn't feel that sense of urgency."
Clarke's strongest argument in this dispute is the pace with which the Administration considered the plan he proposed on Jan. 25, 2001 for combatting al-Qaeda.
The program had evolved during the Clinton years, as al-Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and then the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000.
The Bush team put the proposal through an April meeting of senior officials, took their time with it over the summer and finally brought it to Bush's Cabinet-level security and foreign policy chiefs, who approved it, just a week before 9/11. None of that suggests it was a national-security priority.
The details of NSPD 9, the five- to six-page paper that was approved September 4, remain classified.
Its primary elements include covert and military efforts to disrupt al-Qaeda around the world, increased security of U.S. embassies and military bases, efforts to track down al-Qaeda funding networks, a strong public diplomacy program to win Muslim hearts and minds and a campaign to deny al-Qaeda a sanctuary in Afghanistan.
Bush officials say they took months to approve a plan to fight al-Qaeda because they wanted to eliminate the group rather than roll it back, as they claim Clinton would have done.
They also say they added crucial elements, including planning for a potential military invasion of Afghanistan three to five years down the road. But a senior Bush Administration official admitted to TIME that NSPD 9 was in nearly all respects the same as the plan Clarke proposed on January 25.
The Clinton Administration shoudl have got bin Laden
At the hearings last week, commissioner Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic Senator from Nebraska, pointed out that bin Laden formally declared war against the U.S., among others, in February 1998, and argued that the U.S. should have responded in kind. In her testimony, Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright allowed that Kerrey was "probably right."
But what might the U.S. have done?
Clinton tried to kill bin Laden. After the embassy attacks in Africa, the U.S. launched cruise missiles on a training camp in Afghanistan where bin Laden had been spotted, but in the time it took to decide to strike and during the flight time of the missiles, fired from ships in the Arabian Sea, bin Laden escaped.
He was sighted several more times in Afghanistan, in December 1998 and February and May 1999. Each time Clinton officials ruled out strikes because there was no guarantee that bin Laden would be there when the missiles hit or because too many civilians would have been killed or, in one case, an Emirati prince could have died.
An interim report by the 9/11 commission cites a CIA field official as saying that last case in particular was a lost opportunity to kill bin Laden before 9/11. It might have helped if the CIA under Clinton had been clear on its orders.
Officials of the agency, from director George Tenet to operatives in the field, believed that bin Laden could be killed only in the course of a legitimate capture attempt.
Clinton White House officials say their position was that he was fair game. Both sides now say they were unaware that they had different interpretations of the orders.
Once Bush took office, some critics say, his Administration should have acted faster to deploy armed Predator spy drones to start hunting for bin Laden once the winter weather cleared in early 2001. The first successful test of an armed Predator was in February 2001.
However, the lethal planes weren't used in Afghanistan until after 9/11. CIA officials were worried that bin Laden and his Taliban hosts might learn how to evade or shoot down the drones when there were few available, and the agency was also concerned that assassinating enemies with the Predator would provoke an international outcry against the CIA.
Invading Afghanistan before 9/11 would have been politically difficult. It's highly doubtful that neighboring countries such as Pakistan, then an ally of the Taliban, would have allowed the U.S. to use their territory for basing operations. And there were other difficulties.
As it was, when Clinton sent cruise missiles into Afghanistan in 1998, he was accused by members of Congress and the media of a wag-the-dog strategy of attempting to divert attention from the scandal over his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
After the Cole bombing, Clarke advocated striking al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan but could not win support from the FBI and the CIA, which were not yet convinced that al-Qaeda was responsible.
Meanwhile, Clinton was engaged in a last-ditch effort at winning an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. And it's hard to imagine the U.S. public, much less American allies, supporting a full-scale assault against al-Qaeda, an enemy few Americans could have identified three years ago, in the absence of the provocation of 9/11.
9/11 could have been prevented
"Assuming that [your plan] had been adopted, say, on Jan. 26, 2001, is there the remotest chance that it would have prevented 9/11?" Republican commissioner Slade Gordon asked Clarke last week.
"No," Clarke replied. Killing bin Laden and bombing al-Qaeda training camps, as Clarke advocated, might have dealt the organization a setback.
But most U.S. officials believe that the planning for the terrorist attacks was already so far advanced that such actions wouldn't have halted them. Some of the 9/11 hijackers were already in the U.S. in early 2000 laying plans.
In theory, greater vigilance at home might have exposed their conspiracy. There were clues.
Two of the hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq al-Hamzi, were sought by the FBI and the CIA as suspected terrorists.
An FBI agent in Phoenix, Arizona, had noted a pattern of Arab men signing up for lessons at flight schools. Zacarias Moussaoui, the suspected 20th hijacker, was learning to fly in Minnesota, apparently without asking for landing lessons.
Clarke argues that if the President had been demanding action every day from his top aides, they would have passed the heat down the chain of command, and perhaps connections would have been made.
That kind of attention from Clinton in late 1999, Clarke contends, prevented a planned al-Qaeda attack against the Los Angeles airport on New Year's Eve.
Bush officials respond that the 1999 plot was undone more by luck than by executive action; an immigration agent blocked a suspicious man from crossing the border with British Columbia. In any case, no one denies that it would have required good fortune to foil the 9/11 plot.
The Iraq war worsened the terrorist threat
In his book and in media appearances promoting it, Clarke goes beyond his criticism that the Bush Administration failed by neglecting to wage a war on terrorism before 9/11.
He accuses the Administration of actually making things worse by fighting what Clarke regards as an unnecessary war in Iraq.
He seconds the allegation of former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill that the Administration was intent on invading Iraq from the time it took office, the justifications be damned.
Clarke charges, and John Kerry has agreed, that the Iraq war diverted U.S. efforts away from the fight against al-Qaeda, undermined global cooperation against terrorism and fueled Islamic extremism.
The Administration responds that it can both fight terrorism and remove what it believes was a grave threat in Iraq. Indeed, Bush officials still see them as connected.
They believe you must simultaneously attack terrorist networks directly, diminish the number and availability of the terrorists' allies and change the environment that breeds terrorism. "On all three scores Iraq makes a contribution to the war on terror," says National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack.
That remains to be seen. The Madrid bombings suggested that the Iraq war had inspired further terrorist attacks. And by the Administration's admission, al-Qaeda has taken root in Iraq and is targeting Americans, those who help them and innocent civilians.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has stopped saying the U.S. would rather fight terrorists in Iraq than in the U.S. While an Iraq free of Saddam Hussein is potentially a partner against terrorism, the disorder there hardly guarantees that outcome.
And there is still no evidence that Saddam and al-Qaeda ever collaborated in attacking the U.S.
Clarke told 60 Minutes that because of Bush, "Americans went to their death in Iraq thinking that they were avenging September 11."
In the end, the drama produced by Clarke in Washington was not about the last terrorist attack against the U.S. but about the next one.
Since it began its work in early 2003, the commission has uncovered huge failings in the national-security system, including how even a presidential order can be misunderstood down the chain of command.
But these dangers got lost in a high-stakes political showdown. Unless Washington can focus on them, someone may risk having to ask forgiveness again.
With reporting by Timothy J. Burger and Mark Thompson/Washington
Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.