I've been thinking a lot about Richard Clarke, and not merely because of the limitless chance to make "American Bandstand" jokes ("He's got a beef, you can dance to it.") His new book is being declared a bombshell, which means it's the "Bush AWOL" story all over again: an old charge, sexed up with some new details. And, indeed, it's largely a rehash of the "Bush knew" furore from 2002. Clarke has two main charges against President Bush: first, that he unforgivably fumbled the ball in his first months in office, missing a chance to prevent 9/11; and second, that he focused on Iraq, at the expense of the war on terror.
There's a lot to discuss about Clarke, but I'd like to focus on his first point for the moment:
He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11.
-Clarke on "60 Minutes" [emphasis mine]
I find this hard to believe. I also find it hard to believe that Clarke actually believes it (actually, it seems he once said he doesn't.
)The planning for 9/11 began as early as 1999; the notion that the first 16 months of the 9/11 operation were just filler, with nothing noteworthy or detectable happening until the last eight, simply beggars belief. That Clarke seeks to slam Bush for shirking the war while undertaking a lame defense of the Clinton administration's "bomb the camp but try not to hurt anybody" approach to terrorism doesn't help his credibility as an impartial terror expert.
Oh, but Bush was warned, the story goes; there was all that "chatter". One of the main problems facing U.S. intelligence is that we are almost too
good at hearing chatter, and not very good at interpreting it. Radio intercepts are great, but in mass they can become meaningless if you don't have humint assets on the ground to filter them through. One of the reasons our humint is so weak is because the Clinton administration, stung by revelations of CIA relationships with thuggish human rights violators, instituted new rules for running agents that essentially precluded recruiting anyone bad enough to be useful. The result is intelligence summaries like this:
In June 2001, the intelligence community issued a warning that a major Al Qaeda terrorist attack would take place in the next many weeks. They said they were unable to find out exactly where it might take place. They said they thought it might take place in Saudi Arabia.
Yes, well, aside from being uselessly vague on the timing and nature of the attack, and getting the location wrong, they pretty much nailed it, didn't they? That summary is by Clarke himself, in an interview
on PBS' Frontline. In the interview, he also sets out his prescription for dealing with Al Qaeda:
Blow up the camps and take out their sanctuary. Eliminate their safe haven, eliminate their infrastructure. They would have been a hell of a lot less capable of recruiting people. Their whole "Come to Afghanistan where you'll be safe and you'll be trained," well, that wouldn't have worked if every time they got a camp together, it was blown up by the United States. That's the one thing that we recommended that didn't happen -- the one thing in retrospect I wish had happened.
Let me go on record as saying I would have been thrilled if President Bush had done this (pre-emption, anyone?). But I, it should be clear by now, am a knuckle-dragging militarist of the first rank. There is simply no way that Bush, just months after his Presidency's bitter birthing pangs, with his transition still in progress, could have initiated aggressive military action based on intel like that. And the exact same people who are currently treating Clarke like the Revealed Prophet of Counterterrorism would have shrieked like constipated banshees had Bush actually followed the plan Clarke suggests.
Go back and read some of the op-eds published just after 9/11, at the dawn of the Afghan campaign. Virtually every argument deployed against the Iraq War got its first field test in Afghanistan. They're all there: "unilateralism", "no proof of a link", "we're fighting a network, not a country", "we're alienating our allies", "we're squandering the world's goodwill", "we're creating more terrorists", et cetera, et cetera. It's mostly forgotten now, but there were many people who rolled their eyes at the mere notion of a "war on terror" in the first place (now, of course, even Massachusetts liberals throw the term around like they coined it). And that was after
a catastrophic attack on U.S. soil. The liberal Clarke-boosters are essentially saying: Bush is criminally negligent for not doing what we would have given him no end of grief for doing.
And even if Bush had bombed the crap out of Afghanistan starting the day of his inauguration, it's unlikely that it would have stopped 9/11 anyway. Al Qaeda, like most terrorist groups, is structured using cells which work independently of one another, each having a small piece of the plan. By the time Bush entered office, the hijacker cell was already inside the U.S., and the operation in motion. I suppose it could have been prevented had the training camps been bombed to dust, and
the FBI sent to question any flight student suspected of also being an Arab. Please see my comment about constipated banshees above, and double the decibel level.
The Richard Clarke of the PBS interview is exactly the kind of guy that was the subject of much public hand-wringing about the gung-ho simplisme
of the U.S. response to 9/11 not two years ago. Now he's gospel. To paraphrase that French guy, we are all terror hawks now.