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You Don’t Have to Be a Hippie to Identify a Liar

Richard Clarke must be wondering if explaining what the United States did not do in the war on terrorism is more dangerous than actually fighting the terrorists. Clarke, the former terrorism czar for presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, is now being vilified by a host of Bush officials, including Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, as a liar.

The type of attack being made on Clarke, which consists of leaks, threats and intimidation tactics, has become the genuine hallmark of the Bush presidency. Previous victims of the Bush smear machine include:

Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who challenged the fantasy spun by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and correctly insisted that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to pacify Iraq.

Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had provided the Bush administration with a report that Niger had not supplied Iraq with uranium yellowcake essential for building a nuclear device. Not only were his character and competence called into question, but his family’s security was jeopardized by a White House leak that his wife, Valerie Plame, was a covert CIA operative.

Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, who reported on the Bush administration obsession with Iraq and talk early on of removing Saddam Hussein.

These smear campaigns were mild compared to the vicious assault now underway against Clarke. What is the truth about Clarke?

I was neither a personal friend nor fan of Clarke when I was in government. In my experience, he was arrogant and intense. He probably still is. However, Clarke also is a competent professional who has served faithfully with Democratic and Republican administrations since the 1970s.

My first contact with Clarke came during January 1991 in the operations center at State Department. Clarke was then assistant secretary of state for political military affairs, and shared space in the back rooms of the task force area with our state counterterrorism unit.

In 1992, Clarke was exiled to the National Security Council over a flap involving Israel. I was told at the time that this move was intended to get rid of him.

I left government service in 1993, but continued to monitor Clarke’s counterterrorism activities through friends and former colleagues in the various policy and intelligence bureaucracies. Some close friends complained (and still do) that Richard was too alarmist and too pushy on some issues. While some can quibble about his personality, there should be no dispute that Clarke was an aggressive advocate for a tough response to terrorism.

Unfortunately, politicians in both parties chose to ignore him on key issues. President Clinton, for example, sat on the Presidential Decision Directive 39, which laid out his administration’s plan for fighting terrorism, for 28 months after taking office in January 1993. Clinton finally signed the document after the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995. Clarke had pushed to get it done sooner.

Clarke was just as pushy with the Bush administration. In the first months of the Bush presidency, a terrorism issue unrelated to Al Qaeda came to the front burner. Four U.S. oil workers were being held by individuals tied to Colombian terrorists in the jungles of Ecuador. The U.S. Embassy requested the deployment of U.S. counterterrorism forces (civilian and military) to Ecuador to help find and rescue the workers.

Clarke chaired a meeting of the Counter Terrorism Support Group (CSG) at the Old Executive Office Building to consider the matter. He wanted to grant the request and was backed by the Department of State, the CIA and the FBI. The Department of Defense, however, balked. At the end of the day, the Bush administration, against Clarke’s recommendation, chose to treat terrorism in Ecuador as a criminal matter rather than a military issue. U.S. military forces stayed at home.

Clarke has told the uncomfortable truth in his book, and now finds himself the target of the full fury of angry Bush partisans, who insist that fighting terrorism was Bush’s highest priority. The evidence shows otherwise.

For starters, Clarke presented a memo to Rice outlining the URGENT (this tag is on the document) threat presented by Al Qaeda in January 2001. While Rice insists she made terrorism a top priority, one of her first decisions in the early days of 2001 was to downgrade Clarke’s position as the national coordinator for counterterrorism. How is that making terrorism an elevated priority? It is not. Clarke also requested in January 2001 that President Bush convene a meeting of principal Bush officials (e.g., the secretary of state, secretary of defense and the attorney general) but this meeting was postponed by Rice until Sept. 4, 2001. That seven-month gap represents time that, in retrospect, could have been used to prevent the 9/11 attacks.

The Clarke bashers also insist that that no more could have been done before 9/11 than what was done during the first eight months of the Bush presidency. Oh? If that was the case, why did Bush direct the airlines to lock cockpit doors after 9/11? Why did the Bush administration decide to arm pilots, put more air marshals on planes and federalize the security force doing screening at airports? Why did the Bush administration order attacks on Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan? Why did Bush officials establish emergency financial task forces to hunt down the trails of terrorist financing, if all had been done prior to 9/11?

The uncomfortable facts show that Richard Clarke proposed many of these measures in the early days of the Bush presidency. Action was taken only in the aftermath of 9/11.

Here is the bottom line: Clarke was right, and the Bush administration and the people of the United States would have been better off if his warnings in the early days of 2001 had been heeded.

Rather than attack Clarke’s character, Republican operatives should focus their venom on the terrorists who killed Americans in the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon. George W. Bush should set the tone and thank his former terrorism chief, apologize for this week’s ugliness, and focus on getting Osama bin Laden. As one American, I say: Thank you, Richard Clarke.

—Larry C. Johnson


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