These are certainly interesting times for the commission investigating 9/11. On March 21st, we saw former Bush administration counterterrorism czar Richard A. Clarke come out on “60 Minutes” and basically say that the Bush administration dropped the ball prior to 9/11. Clarke also served as a top terrorism adviser under President Clinton.
Of course, Clarke has a new book out, and it’s probably pretty tough to sell books if you are fair and balanced by also assessing at least equal blame for 9/11 to the Clinton administration. So, Clarke basically decided to ignore the fact that Bill Clinton was in office for eight years prior to 9/11, while President Bush hadn’t even reached the eight-month plateau.
Clarke’s primary argument is that Bush refused to heed Clinton administration warnings on al Qaeda in the opening months of his presidency and instead chose to focus on Iraq from the start.
There are a few problems with this analysis, however. Number one, Iraq should have been dealt with 12 years ago and every year since, so there’s really nothing alarming about a new president conducting meetings on how best to deal with the threat posed by that country.
Second, Clarke has directly contradicted comments he made in 2002 praising the Bush approach to terrorism. At that time, he said that Clinton officials never even presented a plan to the incoming Bush team to deal with al Qaeda.
“Um, the first point, I think the overall point is, there was no plan on al Qaeda that was passed from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration,” Clarke said in an August 2002 press conference.
When asked whether Bush’s people showed any animosity toward their Clinton terrorism predecessors, Clarke replied, “I think if there was a general animus that clouded their vision, they might not have kept the same guy dealing with terrorism issue. This is the one issue where the National Security Council leadership decided continuity was important and kept the same guy around, the same team in place. That doesn’t sound like animus against uh the previous team to me.”
Clarke also said that in 2001, the Bush team not only continued the Clinton polices but developed a speedy plan “that called for the rapid elimination of al Qaeda.”
On “60 Minutes,” he said, “(Bush) ignored terrorism for months when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11. Maybe. We’ll never know.”
In review, the Clarke of 2002 said that there was no al Qaeda plan presented by the Clinton people to the Bush people, the Bush team showed no animosity toward the former administration’s foreign policy, and Bush’s advisers were planning to step up pressure on al Qaeda. The Clarke of 2004 has blatantly flip-flopped on all three points. Clarke must have consulted John Kerry on the importance of consistency.
Third, what exactly did President Clinton do in eight years to slow the growth of al Qaeda and terrorism in general? After the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, embassies were attacked in 1998, and the U.S.S. Cole was bombed in 2000, Clinton responded by launching cruise missiles at empty Afghan tents and mistakenly bombing a Sudanese pill factory. With responses like that, al Qaeda must have been scurrying for cover. On the contrary, they continued to strengthen during the 1990’s.
It’s no surprise that two weeks after 9/11, President Bush told Newsweek about his approach to terrorism, “When I take action, I’m not going to fire a 2 million dollar missile at a 10 dollar empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive.”
However, the main point is that Clarke almost totally avoided Clinton’s putrid record on terrorism and instead put the overwhelming majority of 9/11 blame on Bush. While Bush didn’t exactly earn high marks on terrorism in his first eight months, it’s ridiculous to basically heap all of the blame on him.
There’s the issue of Clarke selling books now. There’s also the fact that he was demoted from chief terrorism coordinator by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. He ultimately resigned in January 2003, likely not a happy man and leaving with a bone to pick.
Clarke has picked it now, but his contradictions make him look like a fool. His are the very one-sided, partisan-sounding comments that have no place on either side at the 9/11 commission. Blame for not doing more to prevent the tragedy rests with both the Bush and Clinton administrations, to differing degrees, and it’s useless to try to pin the blame on one person. Clarke and his sheep of followers should wise up.