Bush's attack on Richard Clarke
The press and government collaborate to violate journalistic ethics
By John W. Dean, FindLaw Columnist
Special to CNN.com
(FindLaw) -- Richard Clarke, former White House counterterrorism coordinator, recently appeared on "60 Minutes," released his new book "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War On Terror," testified publicly before the 9/11 Commission, hit the top of the Bush-Cheney enemy list, and caused a major political stir.
Clarke says, in a nutshell, that President Bush was anything but vigilant about terrorism -- notwithstanding warnings -- before the 9/11 attacks. Clarke also contends that Bush's concocted war in Iraq has harmed America's counterterrorism efforts, while breeding even more terrorists.
"I'm sure they'll launch their dogs on me," Clarke told CBS News reporter Leslie Stahl when he publicly broke his silence. "But 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."
As a former Bush White House insider, Clarke correctly anticipated that he would be attacked. Indeed, he had seen a long list of others who have spoken out slimed, trashed, and discredited by Bush's operatives.
There were generals Anthony Zinni and Eric Shinseki, who expressed concern about the expenses and troop needs to occupy Iraq. There was former ambassador Joe Wilson, who corrected misstatements about Iraq's obtaining uranium for nuclear weapons, and then saw his wife put in jeopardy when her identity as a CIA agent was revealed.
Finally, there was former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who was first fired for questioning the need for tax cuts and later pummeled for telling insider stories in a book. And these examples are only the obvious; there are more.
Efforts To discredit Clarke's information
Clarke has provided information that raises serious questions about Bush's role in fighting terrorism -- the centerpiece of his reelection campaign. For this reason, Clarke wisely braced himself for the worst. But the onslaught surprised even him.
"I'm told that the White House has decided to destroy me," he told CNN at the end of a week of being attacked. He added, "The issue is not about me. The issue is about the president's performance in the war on terrorism. And because I had the temerity to suggest he didn't do much of anything before 9/11, and by going into Iraq he's actually hurt the war on terrorism after 9/11, the White House has geared up this personal attack machine and is trying to undermine my credibility." (Full story)
The Bush White House has failed to refute all of Clarke's assertions. It is not because they have not tried. Rather, it is because Clarke is obviously telling the truth.
For example, Clarke cites his first meeting with Bush on terrorism, which was impromptu and did not occur until after 9/11. At the meeting, Clarke says, Bush wanted him to find out if Saddam Hussein was involved in the dastardly act, even when told that was not the case.
Initially, the White House claimed there had been no such meeting. But confronted with four witnesses to the conversation, they were forced to back down.
Now the White House has not only admitted the meeting, but also corroborated the content of the conversation. Changing their story, they now claim that Clarke is wrong in only one respect: Bush was not seeking to intimate Clarke into producing false information.
But Clarke, not an easily intimidated fellow, certainly would have known when he was being browbeaten.
Fox News plays dirty
When Clarke appeared before the 9/11 Commission at its public hearing, former Gov. (and United States Attorney) Jim Thompson attempted to suggest his statements at different times had been inconsistent.
To be specific, Thompson held up a copy of Clarke's book and a copy of an August 22, 2002 background briefing Clarke had provided several members of the press, including Fox News White House correspondent Jim Angle, who had recorded the backgrounder. "Which is true?" Thompson asked.
In the end, Thompson's effort to impeach Clarke by prior inconsistent statements didn't work -- for reasons I will turn to next. But the use of an off-the-record background briefing, authorized by the White House, is typical of the double standard to which this White House -- not unlike Nixon's -- adheres. They thought they could hurt Clarke on national television by surprising him with the earlier briefing.
Clarke explained to Thompson the context of the document he was waving before the television cameras. "[S]everal people in senior levels of the Bush White House," Clarke said, had pressed him to do the background briefing after Time published an August 12, 2002 cover story called "They Had A Plan." (The reason the White House wanted Clarke to do the background briefing is apparent to anyone who reads the Time story -- it is all about Richard Clarke.)
The briefing was done on background; thus the source was off the record. For this reason, release by the White House -- and the identification of the source, Clarke -- was unprecedented and, as the Columbia Journalism Review noted, unethical. Standard journalistic practice when releasing background briefings is to merely state it was that of "a senior administration official." Instead, Fox News (with the consent of the White House) not only named Clarke, but also released the briefing to those who are attacking him.
Former senator Bob Kerrey made the point well when he told his fellow 9/11 commissioners and the television audience that "this document of Fox News, ... this is a background briefing. And all of us that have provided background briefings for the press before should beware. I mean, Fox should say 'occasionally fair and balanced' after putting something like this out. Because they violated a serious trust." Kerrey added, "So I object to what they've done, and I think it's an unfortunate thing they did."
Kerrey was right: Off-the-record briefings ought to be kept off the record. Violating that rule -- and that promise -- will doubtless hurt journalists' ability to use important information that sources will only agree to provide off the record. As the CJR pointed out, this bit of "odious" undertaking may hurt both journalists and the White House.
Could the White House have released Fox News from its confidentiality obligation? Not according to the CJR. As the CJR article explained, "the only ethical way in which a reporter can divulge the person's name would be if the source changed his mind and decided to go on the record." Still, no one -- at either Fox News or the White House -- bothered to ask Clarke before the off-the-record backgrounder was released.
As Joe Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson -- the CIA agent whose identify was revealed -- have also discovered, the Washington press corps has been only too willing to help this White House go after its enemies. They will conceal sources to help the White House. And now, it is clear that they will reveal sources to help the White House.
Nonetheless, the effort to use the background briefing against Clarke failed.
A closer look at the Clarke background briefing
As able an attorney as Gov. Thompson is, his cross-examination of Clarke fell flat. Obviously, he had not read the August 2002 Clarke background briefing closely, nor had he read Clarke's book closely. In addition, he seems to have completely ignored the Time magazine story that had prompted the background briefing in the first place.
The truth is that the background briefing simply does not conflict with anything Clarke says openly, if more bluntly, in his book. When testifying, Clarke acknowledged he used nuance and emphasis to spin the facts in the background briefing. But differences in tone are one thing, and truly conflicting statements are another. And there is no conflict here. To the contrary, the Time account that prompted the backgrounder should be seen as either corroboration for Clarke, or, at a minimum, a prior consistent telling of the story.
The Time magazine story shows that Clarke used both private means (memos and emails that have now been turned over to the 9/11 commission) and public means -- news media leaks -- to get the Bush administration to focus on terrorism.
After again reading the Time article, I realized that the question Governor Thompson should have asked (as anyone who had read the story would) was whether Clarke provided much of the information for the story.
Time describes the "obsessive" Clarke as the terrorism point man who had served in the first Bush administration, and then Clinton's administration, as "just the sort of person you want in a job of that kind." The article also notes that Clarke "had been working on an aggressive plan to take the fight to al Qaeda." It also describes how Clarke's early efforts to get the Bush White House to take action against al Qaeda were foiled.
Clarke was cited as an on-the-record source for parts of the story. In fact, it appears that Clarke told Time many of the points he would later make in the last two chapters of his book.
Similarly, Steve Coll, the Pulitzer Prize-winning managing editor of The Washington Post, has clearly relied on Clarke in his new book "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001." Coll's account either comes from Clarke -- another consistent telling -- or corroborates him.
Certainly, Coll's book supports Clarke's account of the Administration's lackadaisical attitude toward al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden before 9/11. Indeed, Coll provides even more detail than does Clarke himself in his book "Against All Enemies" regarding the inability of the Bush team to take terrorism seriously.
As the "Washington Buzz" section of The Washingtonian recently observed, Clarke was a well-known source for a select group of Washington journalists, and a man who was savvy about the press. According to The Washingtonian, Clarke was known by some journalists who relied on him "as not only mean, but dangerous," and "a shadowy member of Washington's permanent intelligence and bureaucratic classes ... [who once] seemed to wield enormous power."
What does this mean? "Clarke's history with journalist does not bode well for his detractors," The Washingtonian says, for in trying "to discredit Clarke, they are running into journalists who have known him for years." And these journalists -- whatever they may feel about Clarke -- trust his veracity. It also means that Richard Clarke knows how to take care of himself.
Clarke's detractors: Brutal but unpersuasive
The attacks on Clarke -- by Vice President Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Scott McClellan and others -- have been all over the lot.
Cheney claimed Clarke was "out of the loop," only to be undercut by Rice who said he was in the loop. Rice, offering no specifics, merely claims that Clarke has changed his position. And as press secretary, McClellan has little remaining credibility; no one believes him anymore as being a reliable source for anything other than daily amusement for the White House press corps.
The most vicious public attack so far has come from the White House's representative in the Senate, Majority Leader William Frist. It appears Frist failed to carefully read Clarke's book, the Time account, or Coll's book. Frist's speech to the Senate ignored the nuance of Clarke's statements in the August backgrounder, and sought to recast Clarke's words. But the Majority Leader largely avoided substance, and opted instead to take cheap shots.
Frist questioned Clarke's ability by suggesting that he was responsible for not preventing terror attacks on his watch -- despite all Clarke's efforts to do just that. He also claimed that Clarke was now "pointing fingers" to shift blame from himself, when Clarke is the only official to acknowledge his failures.
Frist questioned Clarke's loyalty because he had spoken openly. And he called Clarke a liar without providing any specifics -- asserting that Clarke had "dissembled in front of the media," with no explanation of when or how.
Indeed, Frist suggested Clarke may have "lied under oath to Congress." To determine if that had occurred, Frist (along with Speaker Hastert) is seeking to have Clarke's testimony to the joint Congressional inquiry into 9/11 declassified. That scare tactic didn't scare Clarke a bit: Clarke himself has asked that his prior testimony be declassified!
Disingenuous charges avoid serious issues
Probably the most disingenuous assertion Sen. Frist made in his attack was when questioning Clarke's motives in writing his book. Frist said, "I personally find this to be an appalling act of profiteering, of trading on insider access to highly classified information and capitalization upon the tragedy that befell this Nation on September 11, 2001." And he added, "Mr. Clarke must renounce any plans to personally profit from this book."
Apparently, Frist is unaware (or would rather not mention) that Clarke submitted his book to the National Security Council for security clearance. The White House has known what he was going to say for months. In fact, had they not dilly-dallied, the book would have been out much sooner. There is no "highly classified information" in Clarke's book. Frist's charge is hogwash.
Frist's position is pure hypocrisy. Is Frist now claiming that his insider status was not a factor in his own most recent book -- "When Every Moment Counts: What You Need To Know About Bioterrorism From the Senate's Only Doctor," which was published following the anthrax attacks on the Senate offices? And isn't the former surgeon trading on his elective office by calling himself the "Senate's only doctor"? Did the people of Tennessee elect him to write books?
Finally, Frist claims that it "was not [Clarke's] right, was not his privilege, and was not his responsibly" to apologize to the families of the 9/11 victims. This is rather petty for a majority leader. Frist, apparently able to see into the mind and soul of Richard Clarke -- a man he states he has met but does not know -- says Clark's "theatrical apology ... was not an act of humility but it was an act of arrogance and manipulation." It didn't strike most Americans that way.
Maybe the Republican majority leader should take another look at Clarke's apology. He's not apologizing for the nation, or the government. Rather, he is apologizing for a failure of government activities of which he was part.
"Those entrusted with protecting you failed you," he said. "And I failed you." Then Clarke makes a very important addition. "And for that failure, I would ask, once all the facts are out, for your understanding and for your forgiveness." (Emphasis added.)
To all those unhappy with Clarke's candor, I suggest you wait until all the facts are out. Let's hear what Condoleezza Rice -- who has now agreed to testify openly -- has to say under oath about the facts. For Clarke is a man who knows them -- and he has again warned us all that the Bush-Cheney White House still does not have its act together to fight terrorism. If we fail to listen, we do so at our peril.
Bush, Cheney, Rumsfield and Rice would do themselves -- and the nation -- a favor by reading "Against All Enemies," for it is about much more than them, and they should not ignore the knowledgeable and passionate Richard Clarke any longer.
John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.