Speaking to America

March 25, 2004

AFTER ALL THIS time, someone finally apologized. Richard A. Clarke, who was the U.S. government's chief of counterterrorism on Sept. 11, 2001, appeared yesterday before the commission investigating that horrible day and addressed the families of those who were killed: "We tried hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask - once all the facts are out - for your understanding and your forgiveness."

Such simple and such heartfelt words, but none that anyone else in government has ever been able to utter.

Mr. Clarke, of course, has already been in the news this week for his new book attacking the Bush administration - now that he's no longer a member of it - for losing sight of al-Qaida in its eagerness to go after Iraq. The White House has responded by dumping scorn on him, rather than trying to answer the substance of his accusation.

Yesterday, he told the commission that Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, was wrong, twice, in statements she made about al-Qaida. (She had written that the Clinton administration did not have a plan for dealing with al-Qaida and that the Bush administration was contemplating, before 9/11, a direct military assault on the organization's bases in Afghanistan.) Ms. Rice met with reporters late yesterday, after Mr. Clarke's testimony, and dumped more scorn on him.

Ms. Rice, it must be said, has pursued a curious course in regard to the 9/11 commission. She met with the panel in closed session but refused to appear in public on the grounds that a person in her position - one that does not require Senate confirmation - cannot be compelled to testify. Well, maybe. But it's difficult to understand what reason she could have for not wanting to testify, to present her understanding of events to the American public. After 30 months, a forum had finally been arranged for an airing of all perspectives on the events leading to the 2001 attacks. And Ms. Rice invoked a principle in order to avoid taking part.

Yet minutes after Mr. Clarke finished testifying, she met with reporters and angrily, and defensively, denounced him. That was the wrong forum, and the wrong tone.

Mr. Clarke said that the Bush administration was less convinced of the urgent threat of terrorism than its predecessor had been. He said that neither administration could decide on a useful way to retaliate for the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000, and that in hindsight this lack of action had probably emboldened al-Qaida. Most damaging was his assertion that low-level FBI agents were aware that two al-Qaida operatives - who were to become hijackers - were in the United States in the summer of 2001, but that this information was not shared with the leadership of the FBI or any other agency. But the failings of the FBI were already pretty clear.

To us, the key moments yesterday were less about facts and more about proportion: Mr. Clarke swearing to tell the truth, and apologizing, and Ms. Rice hiding in the White House, and attacking.

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