More blunt than bureaucratic

Clarke: The longtime civil servant was known for his `bruising style,' but also as someone who got things done.

9/11 Hearings

March 25, 2004|By Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman | Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Richard A. Clarke's version of events had withstood hours of testimony by former colleagues and superiors before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. Then one of the panel members, James R. Thompson, a former Republican governor of Illinois, took the microphone.

"We have your book, and we have your August 2002 press briefing," Thompson said. "Which is true?"

For a moment, the former White House counterterrorism chief was thrown off balance. Could he explain why he had praised the Bush administration's counterterrorism efforts in that 2002 background briefing - only to condemn them in a book he has just published amid a presidential campaign?

Clarke recovered with a new slap at the White House spin machine: As a White House official, he had been instructed to "highlight the positive" and "minimize the negative" about the administration's counterterrorism policy after a critical article in Time magazine. Special assistants to the president, Clarke noted, are "frequently asked to do that."

With his blunt insider's account of counterterrorism policy in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, Clarke, 53, a longtime survivor through several administrations, has exposed failings by both presidents.

In his view, Clinton correctly identified the terrorism threat but failed to put forth an effective policy to destroy al-Qaida. Bush and his top aides gave too little attention to terrorism and al-Qaida until it was too late, and became consumed after the Sept. 11 attacks by a determination to topple Saddam Hussein.

His criticism has been buttressed by stinging reports prepared by the staff of the bipartisan commission. The panel noted numerous instances of failed diplomacy and a reluctance by both administrations to consider decisive military action against al-Qaida.

But it was Clarke's indictment of President Bush - leveled even more strongly in a 60 Minutes interview than in his book - that electrified the capital and turned this week's 9/11 hearings into a major skirmish in the race for the White House, although neither candidate was in the room.

"I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism," Clarke said on the Sunday night program. "He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11."

In a passage of the book that the White House says cannot be corroborated, Clarke says Bush urged him on Sept. 12, 2001, to seek "any shred" of information showing that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attacks.

Neither Clarke's fast-paced, occasionally humorous prose, with its frequent quotations of senior officials using four-letter words, nor his canny promotion of his book, Against all Enemies, fits anyone's picture of a faceless civil servant.

In his long government career serving administrations of both parties, Clarke was hardly a typical bureaucrat, former colleagues say.

"He plays hard," one administration official said, describing what he called Clarke's "bruising style." But the official added, "He gets things done."

A Pennsylvania native with degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Clarke worked in intelligence, the Pentagon and the State Department before joining the White House National Security Council staff under the first President George Bush.

His tenure as assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs included one episode that showed him to be less than a stickler for regulations.

In 1992, the State Department's inspector general criticized him for overlooking diversions of American weaponry and technology by Israel to other countries. It led to his being forced to leave the department and move to the White House staff.

Clarke challenged the findings against him, and in a 1999 newspaper interview claimed that they had been exaggerated as part of an administration effort to pressure Israel.

As White House counterterrorism adviser, Clarke writes, he became frustrated with the military's reluctance to launch anti-terrorist operations. Officers, he said, worried about risks and suggested larger forces than he thought necessary.

His account is supported by a former Pentagon official, who has given closed-door testimony to the commission. Although President Bill Clinton and his top national security advisers made counterterrorism a priority, the official said, "They were being resisted by their own bureaucracy."

The official - who spoke on the condition of anonymity - explained that at the time the Pentagon was locked into Cold War habits, years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and was not focused on the threat of terrorism. Some Pentagon officials were even reluctant to fund counterterrorism.

But one former Pentagon official said Clarke was too quick to call for the Pentagon's Special Operations forces to go after Osama bin Laden, without recognizing the complexity and risks of such efforts.

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