Richard Clarke’s charges that the Bush administration ignored the growing threat of Al Quaeda — and ignored his own prescient warnings about that threat — in the months leading up to the attack on the World Trade Center became a cause celebre among those who wished fervently to believe both in the incompetence or venality of the President and his policies and in the capacity for government to keep us safe from such atrocities:
If only we had only listened to the smart and dedicated people like Richard Clarke (and his old boss, Bill Clinton), then we could have back our golden age…
That is certainly the story that was told by the news media. But, notwithstanding subsequent revelations about Mr. Clarke’s apparent epiphany on the dangers of Islamic Fascism between the time of his services on the Clinton and Bush foreign policy teams, is it really reasonable to expect that a new President and a new administration — even if they have both a vision and a mandate — is going to turn around decades of policy thought and practice in their first nine months in office? And, if the Bush team had chosen to be more proactive and more expeditious in countering the dangers posed by Al Quaeda, is it reasonable to presume they would have been able to convince the Congress and the American people to go along with that new “activism” — especially in light of the bitter dispute over the very legitimacy of the election that brought them into office, and the resistance they have encountered to activism in both foreign and domestic security policy even after the 9/11 attacks? I think not.
I found the press coverage of Richard Clarke generally credulous and sycophantic, a mythical narrative of the hero in the white hat taking on the corrupt sheriff rather than a factual report on a simple (if passionate) policy debate. I wrote this letter to the Public Editor of The New York Times to point that out.
25 April 2004
I would like you, in fairness, to peruse the headlines and stories relating to Richard Clarke’s charges and testimony over the last few weeks and evaluate what you see on the implied subtext. It has seemed to me — and this inference is not restricted to my reading of The New York Times; it covers a range of news outlets — that stories concerning Clarke himself consistently rest on a subtext of the frustrated moral hero telling us truths that others have tried to obscure; while pretty much any story about what anyone in the current administration says portrays their words as merely a political defense — it is all about “defending themselves” and “how it will play out in the campaign,” rather than about what they actually said or what actually happened. This leaves the impression both that we can’t trust anyone but Richard Clarke in this matter and that your reporters and headline writers have some miraculous (but so far unreported) insight into the affair that allows them to make that judgment for us.
I suspect I know what was happening in the white-house prior to 9/11: Richard Clarke was perceived to be one of those single-agenda zealots carping incessantly about imminent disaster, who can’t understand why no one is rearranging their entire world view to match up with his or elevating his particular concern above all others — which gave him the role more of devil’s advocate than of policy advisor within the national security staff. Meanwhile, a ‘conservative’ foreign policy team that was frustrated with the mealy-mouthed tit-for-tat way we’d been dealing with terrorism specifically and foreign despots generally, and assuming we had no imminent threats to worry about, were quietly and considerately — which means slowly — thrashing out a strategic plan for dealing with those things in a long-term meaningful way — and having trouble coming up with plans that could be both effective and palatable to a public and Congress that also didn’t perceive any imminent threat. If you actually read to the bottom of the news articles, and discount the snide way that any administration statement is treated as a political subterfuge, that is the undamnable picture that emerges.
In that context, Richard Clarke could be considered either visionary or merely persistent — like people who consistently predict a stock market crash throughout a long economic bubble which eventually bursts. Give him credit, he was right that Al Quaeda was more of a threat than anyone else realized. But, in the absence of really good intelligence (and our intelligence appears to have been generally abysmal), it is hard to imagine what we might have done differently to counter that threat. We can be disappointed that our political leaders were not true visionaries in their abilities both to see through the noise to the underlying threat and to rally the public behind actions to counter it. But we cannot really be surprised or condemnatory. The fact is that our systems — and rightly so — are designed to constrain shoot-from-the-hip judgments and rash action.
But you get none of that nuance from your news reports. Instead, it is the selfless and objective white hat Clarke against the self-serving and politicized black-hats in the administration.
If you, after perusing your coverage, think I am being overly critical so be it. But I suspect that a reading with open eyes and a detached honesty will lead you to the same conclusion I have come to.
Thank you for your consideration.
© Copyright 2004, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell