“Your government failed you…and I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn’t matter because we failed.” These were the words spoken by Richard Clarke, the deposed White House terrorism “czar,” appearing before the 9/11 commission to investigate the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Taken at face value, Clarke’s admission appears genuine and represents a rare form of mea culpa given the seemingly blame-free political culture of Washington.
Clarke, who currently serves as a Lecturer in Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, spoke to a packed audience at the Arco Forum. His name and face have become familiar in American households after a recent 60 Minutes interview, where he claimed that President Bush ordered him to find a link between the Iraqi regime and the terrorist attacks waged by al Qaeda on September 11th.
Clarke’s newly-published book, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, takes things even further. The book portrays the President and his senior advisors as completely disinterested in what Clarke argued was a clear and present danger from Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.
Clark states that instead of engaging this real enemy, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld used the 9/11 attacks as a means to galvanize support for the war to topple Sadaam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
But even without the book, the publicity surrounding his accusations and the overly-defensive posture immediately adopted by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Richard Clarke’s voice is not one to be ignored.
He served under three different presidents as a member of the National Security Council (NSC), prior to which he worked in the defense and the intelligence communities for nineteen years. Clarke appears both credible and patriotic, undermining the claims that his sudden pangs of conscience are meant only to promote his new book.
The topic of America’s current vulnerabilities to a terrorist attack was a subject which had listeners leaning forward in their chairs. Clarke admitted that while our airports and airlines have become safer since the attacks, mass transit systems like subways and railroads remain unprotected and at risk. As a Boston native, Clarke could assert that, “…the Red Line looks no different today than it did before 9/11”.
Additionally, Clarke pointed out that the innumerable cargo containers that enter the U.S. every minute of the day remain almost entirely unchecked for the presence of “weaponized” biological or chemical toxins.
Perhaps Clarke’s most scathing criticism came when he stated, “…by invading Iraq, the President greatly undermined the war on terrorism…we stepped into bin Laden’s propaganda [and prediction] that the United States would invade and occupy an oil-rich, Arab country.” Clarke further claimed that America’s brazen actions have so inflamed Islamic sentiment against Americans that it will take generations to repair the breach. He described the near and long-term challenge as “winning the war of ideas over the jihadist ideology,”; a challenge that he conceded was a “hard problem,” exacerbated by the lack of respected, Islamic leaders in America. While some might credit Clarke for shrewdly assessing this dilemma, his inability to suggest even a bullet-point remedy, much less a detailed action plan, was troublesome given his vast experience.
When questioned which of the major party candidates within the upcoming presidential election terrorists most want to win, Clarke would not offer a definitive answer. He suggested that a win by President Bush might further stoke the flames of Islamic-extremist sentiment against the United States, thereby playing into al Qaeda’s hand. Clarke hinted that Senator Kerry, as someone who purportedly understands national security concerns, might position America better for the longer-term war on terrorism. It’s difficult to take this “intelligence assessment” at its face value however – is Clarke giving his earnest opinion or positioning himself for a return to a Kerry White House?