28 March 2004

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.

Ofc. Krupke at 3:44 AM
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23 March 2004

There are times when you don't feel like playing, and tonight was one of them. I'd had to get up early for a largely pointless training class (for which the PD will doubtless try to stick us for the overtime), I was fighting off a case of the springtime crud and a killer headache, and I was hungry. My misery meter thus pegged in the red zone, I appealed to my supervisor, who agreed to let me go home an hour early. Nice. So I dropped my paperwork for the night and cruised over to Taco Bell, determined to spend the last minutes of my shift chewing on nachos in the Crown Victoria Cafe.

It was getting the food that was my great cosmic mistake, I think. I can run the balance of a night without a peep on the radio, but the minute I pull into a drive-thru, the city explodes. No sooner had the creepily cheery late-night counterperson handed me my bag of fodder, when the call went out. A crew of cops from the tough industrial city north of ours were in a high-speed pursuit, bearing down the interstate towards us. According to the information we had, the suspect in the car had assaulted a woman, and was currently believed to still have her in the car with him.

We scrambled to get in position to intercept, when it seemed suddenly as if they had detoured into another jurisdiction. Nervous supervisors got on the radio, telling us to stand down. Then the dispatcher said that the pursuit column had suddenly veered down an off-ramp and into Southern City's road grid. About ten seconds later an officer on scene with the chase reported that the suspect had wrecked his car in one of our public housing projects. Short, staccato transmissions followed, cops' interjections cut short by the clicking radio and their racing lungs. The guy was out of his car and running.

I was zipping down from the expressway, blue lights flashing, and on a hunch I wheeled around, thinking the guy would try to get gone under the overpass. Two other cops had the same thought, and I scooted in behind them as the suspect hurtled between the concrete pillars and right into our ad hoc ambush. As I braked to a stop, the suspect was on the ground, wriggling as two officers fought to pin him, and another laid into his legs with a collapsible nightstick. The radio crackled that the suspect might have a gun. I slammed the cruiser door, launching my 32-oz promotional plastic cup of pink lemonade in its cheap window-frame holder all over the front seat. When I got into the fight we were able to roll the guy onto his stomach, at which point his left hand disappeared under his body. Reaching for something? I wrenched it out by the wrist, screaming some version of "Gimme that!!!" then locked his arm out behind him, where a sweating, out-of-breath cop from the neighbor city snapped the cuffs around his wrists. No gun. Good thing we didn't shoot him, I guess.

He had beaten his lady friend (he already had a pending warrant in Southern City for domestic violence), led an army of cops on a dangerous chase through three or four different jurisdictions, ran from the wreck, then fought on the ground. There's no way to count the number of people he put at risk. He had a pathetic finish, panting, mewling and pleading like a kid, face down on the cold dirty sidewalk. His pants, worn in the low thug style, had slipped down to around his ankles. He couldn't (or wouldn't) stand up, and another cop and I had to drag him along to put him in the cruiser. Typical: plenty of energy to run and struggle, none to walk to the car. By the time he tells his story in lockup, he'll have been ten feet tall and slinging cops around like frisbees.

And then it was over. The duty supervisors shooed all the extraneous cops from the scene, while EMS responded to treat the woman and the baby that had been in the car with this idiot when he did his long, quick Jimmy Cagney slide into oblivion. I packed it in then, ate the last of my cooling tacos and headed home for a well-deserved snooze before my oh-too-damn-early court appearance in the morning...

Fuck. Now I'm wide awake.