Clarke’s Hot Book Best Beach Reading Since Ludlum, Proust

Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror , by Richard A. Clarke. Free Press, 304 pages, $27.

If you’re reading these words, you could probably use a hobby.

What’s left to say, after all, about Richard Clarke’s book? Anyone not living in a cave the last few weeks knows the headlines (Condi unconscious; Dubya dopey; Rummy and his neocon pals Saddam-obsessed). And everyone knows how the story turns out, not least the principal villain-an actual cave-dweller.

So, unless Architectural Digest is about to drop by and the designer bookshelf needs filling, why give another boost to Barnes and Noble’s bottom line?

Here are 10 good reasons, none of which have anything to do with what you’ve seen on the tube and read in the papers.

1. Offers best beach reading since Robert Ludlum kicked.

Check out this passage from the first chapter, “Evacuate the White House,” a hold-onto-your-seat tick-tock of what was going on at 1600 Penn. after the planes hit:

“Kurtz and McCauley [a counterterrorism staffer and a Secret Service agent] walked incredulously through the empty White House, past the abandoned interior guard posts. Pete gave the documents to an agent he knew at the vault door in the East Wing for handoff to the Vice President. Together they climbed back up, into the open air of the Colonnade along the Rose Garden. Halfway to the West Wing, they heard a sudden crashing roar and looked up to see two F-15 Eagles screech across the South Lawn at three hundred feet, shaking the two-hundred-year-old Executive Mansion. McCauley pressed his back against the wall, ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God!’

“Kurtz, a Holy Cross graduate, completed the prayer: ‘Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.’ The Combat Air Patrol had arrived. The White House was a war zone.”

Against All Enemies is full of such stuff. And it’s way better-written than The Bourne Identity .

2. Provides preview of Oliver Stone’s next movie.

Remember Terry Nichols? The bespectacled schlumpf who was Timothy McVeigh’s sidekick and helped blow up the Oklahoma City federal building? He’s already doing life without possibility of parole in a federal pen, and looking at the needle if-as seems a safe bet-he’s found guilty at the conclusion of his current state trial on 161 counts of homicide. Well, he may also have been conspiring with Al Qaeda.

The short of it, according to Mr. Clarke, is that in 1994, with initial bomb-makingattemptsgoing nowhere, Mr. Nichols and his Filipino wife decided to drop everything and fly across the Pacific to the city of Cebu, ostensibly so the missus could enroll in college. Just so happens that at precisely that moment, Cebu was also hosting two senior associates of Osama bin Laden: Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Center, and Khalid Sheik Muhammad, mastermind of the second. Coincidence? Mr. Clarke wonders:

“Could the al Qaeda explosives expert have been introduced to the angry American who proclaimed his hatred for the U.S. Government? We do not know, despite some FBI investigation. We do know that Nichols’s bombs did not work before his Philippine stay and were deadly when he returned. We also know that Nichols continued to call Cebu long after his wife returned to the United States.”

Oh, there’s a final “coincidence.” A few years earlier, Mr. Clarke reports, several Al Qaeda operatives attended a radical Islamic conference in-wouldn’t you know?-Oklahoma City.

3. Discloses resemblance between Bill Clinton and Rambo.

Ever since 9/11, the 42nd President has been taking hits from the right for being a terrorism twerp. Too busy with Monica and “promoting the homosexual agenda,” etc., etc. Oh, yeah? Here he is on page 190, telling Joint Chiefs chairman and former Special Forces commander Hugh Shelton the payback he wants for the 1998 destruction of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania-and that’s on top of the 75 cruise missiles he’s already launched at bin Laden.

“‘Hugh, what I think would scare the shit out of these al Qaeda guys more than any cruise missile … would be the sight of U.S. commandos, Ninja guys in black suits, jumping out of helicopters into their camps, spraying machine guns. Even if we don’t get the big guys, it will have a good effect.'”

Who chickens out? The Pentagon, that’s who.

4. Makes you wish (again) that you’d voted for Dukakis.

George W. Bush likes to say that the reason bin Laden and his buddies are so cross is that we got what they don’t: democracy, Big Macs, babes not swathed in sheets. According to Mr. Clarke, it’s a tad more complicated. The no-questions-asked relationship with Israel annoys them, too, and for that, he says, credit goes to Ronald Reagan: It was his bright idea to throw four decades of Middle East evenhandedness into the dumpster and make Israel something like an F-16–equipped 51st state.

Because of the Evil Empire’s sticking its nose in the neighborhood, Mr. Clarke doesn’t mind that so much. Dubya’s daddy, however, is a different story.

Bush the Elder, Mr. Clarke says, made one good move (throwing Iraq out of Kuwait), then turned it into catastrophe by not finishing the job. His skin saved and his Republican Guard spared, Saddam proceeded to butcher the Shias in the south, the Kurds in the north. This, in turn, scared the bejeebies out of the Saudis, who asked us infidels and our impedimenta to stick around-a Koranic sacrilege which, in turn, further radicalized Osama and Co. Throw the end of the Cold War into the mix, as Mr. Clarke tells it, and the World Trade towers are as good as gone:

“Those feeling disadvantaged by the global system and wishing to blame their lot on foreign forces had only one world-dominant nation to blame for their troubles, one major target to motivate their followers: America.”

Thanks, George.

5. Reveals thousands wasted hiring Naomi Wolf.

Apart from the Supreme Court, the principal reason Al Gore isn’t President today is George W. Bush’s successful portrayal of him as a wuss. Naomi Wolf, you’ll recall, was recruited to counter that image by clothing the then Vice-President in earth tones, the better to make him seem an “Alpha Male.” Turns out, Mr. Gore already was; Florida voters just didn’t know it. History might have been infinitely cheerier had they been privy to the following 1993 Oval Office meeting.

To the horror of White House counsel Lloyd Cutler, Mr. Clarke was recommending to the President an “extraordinary rendition”-spook-talk for snatching a terrorist without benefit of legal nicety-and Mr. Clinton was still chewing his fingernails, when Mr. Gore, fresh off a plane from South Africa, walked in:

“Clinton recapped the arguments on both sides for Gore: Lloyd says this. Dick says that. Gore laughed and said, ‘That’s a no-brainer. Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.'”

They tried. Not for the last time, they failed.

6. Illustrates how government ought to work.

The disintegration of T.W.A. 800 off Long Island and the Atlanta Olympic Park bombing in 1996 panicked the public. What the public didn’t know-though Mr. Clarke did-was that neither involved international terrorism. There were plenty of real terrorists running around, however, and money to fight them was tough to come by. “It was a good time,” he writes, “to play the Washington game of seeking increased funding.” The calculation led to a meeting with Leon Panetta, who had become the White House chief of staff after running the Office of Management and Budget with a particularly tight fist.

“Panetta, doodling on a legal pad and half looking up at the group, asked, ‘What do you need, Dick.’ The OMB staff shuffled papers; that was not the way they wanted to begin the meeting.

“‘Little over a billion.’ There were both gasps and groans from OMB. I continued, ‘Four-thirty for airline security upgrades, four-thirty for force protection for DOD bases like Khobar, some more for FBI, some more for CIA.’

” … ‘Okay, sounds good. Let’s get it up to the Hill this week. Anything else, anyone?’ Panetta rose from the table. Meeting over.”

7. Confirms how it usually does.

In March 1995, a wacko Japanese religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo, released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 12, injuring more than 1,000 and prompting Mr. Clarke-a Xanax commercial if ever there was one-to worry about Aum pulling the same stunt on the I.R.T. The F.B.I. told him to relax: They didn’t have a file on Aum, ergo, they don’t exist. Not convinced, Mr. Clarke had a chat with his new bureau liaison, John O’Neill.

“‘How can you be so sure there are no Aum here, John, just because you don’t have an FBI file on them? Did you look them up in the Manhattan phone book to see if they’re there?’

“‘You serious?’ O’Neill asked, not sure whether I was being funny. When I assured him that I meant it, he directed his deputy to leave the conference room and call FBI New York. A while later the FBI agent returned to the room and handed O’Neill a note.

“O’Neill glanced at it and said, ‘Fuck. They’re in the phone book, on East 48th Street at Fifth.'”

What ensues is not cause for comfort. First, the chemical-weapons geniuses at the Pentagon said they don’t want to muddy their HazMat suits, which are in a locker four hours down I-95 anyway. So off trotted a helpful somebody from the U.S. Attorney’s office posing as a city fire marshal to inspect the building. He reported that Aum was furiously loading up a rental van with boxes of God-knows-what-news that produced, at long last, an F.B.I. surveillance car. You can guess what happened: They lost the van in traffic.

8. Proves pulp fiction handier than Proust.

The Aum episode got Mr. Clarke and colleagues very antsy about chemical-weapons attack. But it was Tom Clancy who saved the day. With an assist from the insomnia of POTUS:

“Clinton’s reading habits had always amazed me. He was an eclectic reader, who apparently stayed up very late almost every night devouring a book. After the Tokyo attack, he began reading fictional accounts like Rainbow Six and The Cobra Event in which terrorists wield chemical and biological weapons. Some books he sent to us for our comments. Some he discussed directly with experts outside the government. The books just reinforced what he had already decided: we needed to do more to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on these weapons and we needed to be ready if they did.”

9. Shows need for revision of famous maxim.

“Patriotism,” said Dr. Johnson, “is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” But the good doctor never met Paul Wolfowitz. Richard Clarke had to, once the Bushies took charge. Their first meeting-four months after Mr. Clarke told the newly installed Condi Rice that Osama bin Laden posed an imminent danger to the United States-made clear that it would not be a marriage made in heaven.

“Wolfowitz turned to me. ‘You give bin Laden too much credit. He could not do all these things like the 1993 attack on New York, not without a state sponsor. Just because the FBI and CIA have failed to find the linkages does not mean they don’t exist.’

” … It was getting a little too heated for the kind of meeting Steve Hadley [Rice's deputy] liked to chair, but I thought it was important to get the extent of the disagreement out on the table: ‘Al Qaeda plans major acts of terrorism against the U.S. It plans to overthrow Islamic governments and set up a radical multination Caliphate, and then go to war with non-Muslim states.’ Then I said something I regretted as soon as I said it: ‘They have published all of this and sometimes, as with Hitler in Mein Kampf , you have to believe that these people will actually do what they say they will do.’

“Immediately, Wolfowitz seized on the Hitler reference. ‘I resent any comparison between the Holocaust and this little terrorist in Afghanistan.’

“‘I wasn’t comparing the Holocaust to anything.’ I spoke slowly. ‘I was saying that like Hitler, bin Laden has told us in advance what he plans to do and we would make a big mistake to ignore it.'”

Did that move Mr. Wolfowitz? Sure. And the Pope is buying a retirement condo in Williamsburg.

10. Portrays your defense dollars in action.

Over and over, Mr. Clarke writes, he and Mr. Clinton tried to noodge the Pentagon to take a whack at Osama and all the little Osamas. And the response from the Joint Chiefs of Staff-those beribboned guys who get big jobs at Boeing and General Dynamics when they’re done-was unvarying:

· It would take a very large force;

· the operation was risky and might fail, with U.S. forces caught and killed, embarrassing the President;

· their “professional military opinion” was not to do it;

· but, of course, they would do if they received orders to do so in writing from the President of the United States;

· and, by the way, military lawyers said it would be a violation of international law.

Been bewildered why the most fearsome military since time began can’t catch one guy? Bewilder no more.

Your reviewer promised 10 reasons to plunk down the cost of two movie tickets and a popcorn special. Actually, there are a ton. Like learning how Ramzi Yousef-architect of the 1993 World Trade Center attack-turned up at J.F.K. without a passport, and immigration let him waltz right in. Or discovering why Madeleine Albright became convinced that the clueless C.I.A. was suffering from “battered child syndrome.” (Alas, how George Tenet found out about Dubya’s unnatural relationship with Spotty the spaniel-the only conceivable explanation for his continued employment-is not revealed in these pages.)

There’s one last reason, which is how you’ll feel when you’ve finished Richard Clarke’s brave, damning, gripping book: that a lot of people ought to burn in hell because of 9/11. And not all of them live in caves.

Robert Sam Anson reviews books regularly for The Observer.