Within days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the White House public-relations office began to shroud those events behind personality propaganda, heroic mythology and even religious mysticism. Over the years to come-and until now, perhaps-stirring words and images would serve not only to repackage George W. Bush, but also to obscure the plain facts about his administration’s fateful errors.
The President’s chief political strategist and his National Security Advisor claimed falsely that Al Qaeda had targeted Air Force One on that terrible late-summer morning, thus transforming his prudent flight from Florida to Nebraska into a dramatic escape from peril. The President’s supporters suggested that God had chosen George W. Bush to lead America, in anticipation of national crisis.
During the ensuing year, while the air was filled with such mystifying nonsense, the President and the Vice President warned Congress against an independent investigation of the circumstances leading up to the disaster. After public clamor for an investigation finally prevailed over that intimidation, the White House tried every conceivable tactic to hinder the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, even while claiming to support the commission unreservedly.
Clearly, the President preferred flattering myths to hard facts about 9/11. Now, with the publication of Richard Clarke’s memoir, Against All Enemies , we know why.
Mr. Clarke is a nonpartisan professional who has devoted his life to national security, serving four Presidents of both parties during a distinguished public career that spanned 30 years. Unlike most of those who have rushed to criticize him, he rose to the highest levels of government strictly on merit rather than family or political connections. His devotion to duty and his qualifications in his field may be measured by his role on Sept. 11, 2001. He ran the Situation Room in the hours immediately after the attacks, while the President flew to Offutt Air Force Base and the Vice President sat in a fortified bunker; and when the White House was evacuated in fear of another suicidal crash assault, he stayed there to continue his work.
His book confirms in detail what some of us have long suspected: During the first nine months of 2001, the Bush administration largely ignored loud alarms about Al Qaeda sounded by Mr. Clarke, by C.I.A. director George Tenet and by other former Clinton administration officials. Preoccupied with national missile defense, the scuttling of the Kyoto and anti-ballistic-missile treaties and, above all, with Iraq, the administration had no time for the terrorist threat until too late.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who now prevaricates shamelessly on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program, proclaimed in May 2001 that he would undertake an immediate review of the nation’s preparedness to deal with terrorism. As The Washington Post reported in January 2002, that review was postponed until after Sept. 11. The Vice President was busy meeting with energy lobbyists instead of responding to the urgent findings of the Hart-Rudman commission’s crucial, multi-volume study of homeland insecurity.
After Mr. Clarke’s remarkable interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes, the White House answered his book’s revelations by seeking to discredit him. The administration’s attack squad should try to coordinate their stories more carefully, since their initial salvos contradict each other. Mr. Cheney says that Mr. Clarke “wasn’t in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff,” and suggests that he had left his job as the counterterror chief before 9/11. Yet the official White House response to his book states that Mr. Clarke “continued, in the Bush Administration, to be the National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and the President’s principal counterterrorism expert. He was expected to organize and attend all meetings of Principals and Deputies on terrorism. And he did.”
With stunning gall, Mr. Cheney and Condoleezza Rice both have tried to blame Mr. Clarke for earlier terrorist attacks, denigrating his tireless efforts as if they had done better. In fact, Mr. Clarke prodded both Republicans and Democrats to take more decisive action against Al Qaeda-and, in his informed estimate, the far-sighted President Clinton performed considerably better than his distracted successor.
“Clinton left office with [Osama] bin Laden alive, but having authorized actions to eliminate him and to step up the attacks on al Qaeda,” writes Mr. Clarke. He also notes that the Clinton administration frustrated Al Qaeda’s millennium bomb plot, stopped its attempted takeover of Bosnia, vastly expanded American counterterrorism programs and preparations, and ended Iraqi and Iranian terrorism against the United States.
Today, the White House smears Mr. Clarke because of his friendship with Rand Beers, another career public servant who resigned as Mr. Bush’s senior counterterror adviser last year to join John Kerry’s Presidential campaign. Both are honorable men who believe they are still serving America by breaking with this arrogant and unwise administration. Someday, the partisan assaults on them will be recognized as the highest of compliments.