Public Nuisance

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The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Monday, March 29, 2004

The last week has been dominated by claims that Richard Clarke's current description of the Bush administration is contradicted by his earlier accounts, even to suggesting a charge of perjury. Most of the accounts have focussed on the briefing Clarke gave in August 2002, praising Bush as an off the record White House aide. I was unable to find a transcript of Clarke's commission testimony, but a good summary of Clarke's positions can be found in his 60 Minutes interview, this talk with Salon, and his interview on MTP. The spin on the briefing is certainly different from what Clarke is saying today, but a careful comparison shows that the factual picture given is not inconsistent.

From 2002:

Actually, I've got about seven points, let me just go through them quickly. Um, the first point, I think the overall point is, there was no plan on Al Qaeda that was passed from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration.

This is the only point where I find any problem in reconciling Clarke's accounts factually. Clarke was questioned on this later and repeated that no plan was given to Rice when she took office.

QUESTION: Are you saying now that there was not only a plan per se, presented by the transition team, but that it was nothing proactive that they had suggested?

CLARKE: Well, what I'm saying is, there are two things presented. One, what the existing strategy had been. And two, a series of issues ? like aiding the Northern Alliance, changing Pakistan policy, changing Uzbek policy ? that they had been unable to come to um, any new conclusions, um, from '98 on.

QUESTION: Was all of that from '98 on or was some of it ...

CLARKE: All of those issues were on the table from '98 on....

QUESTION: Were all of those issues part of alleged plan that was late December and the Clinton team decided not to pursue because it was too close to ...

CLARKE: There was never a plan, Andrea. What there was was these two things: One, a description of the existing strategy, which included a description of the threat. And two, those things which had been looked at over the course of two years, and which were still on the table.

QUESTION: So there was nothing that developed, no documents or no new plan of any sort?

CLARKE: There was no new plan.

QUESTION: No new strategy ? I mean, I don't want to get into a semantics ...

CLARKE: Plan, strategy ? there was no, nothing new.

This seems to contradict reports that a plan was created after the Cole attack, passed on by the Clinton NSC because it was about to leave office, and ignored by the Bush team. That was the main allegation in the story that this briefing was intended to respond to, and it seemed to be largely confirmed by Clarke on MTP.

I want Dr. Rice's testimony before the 9-11 Commission declassified, and I want the thing that the 9-11 Commission talked about in its staff report this week declassified, because there's been an issue about whether or not a strategy or a plan or something useful was given to Dr. Rice in early January. And she says it wasn't. So we now have the staff report of the 9-11 Commission, and it says, "On January 25th, Clarke forwarded his December strategy paper to the new national security adviser, and it proposed covert action to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, significantly increasing CIA funding, retaliating for the USS Cole, arming the Predator aircraft, going after terrorist fund raising."

Now, Dr. Rice has characterized this as not a plan, not a strategy, not a series of decisions which could be made right away, but warmed-over Clinton material. Let's declassify that memo I sent on January 25th and let's declassify the national security directive that Dr. Rice's committee approved nine months later on September 4th, and let's see if there's any difference between those two, because there isn't. And what we'll see when we declassify what they were given on January 25th and what they finally agreed to on September 4th, is that they're basically the same thing and they wasted months when we could have had some action.

Clarke twice states that nothing "new" was given to Rice, which would seem to be narrowly true in that, as he points out, many of these proposals had been unter discussion since the 1998 embassy bombings. Perhaps he is also saying that the proposals weren't strictly from the Clinton administration since the Clinton principals had never fully endorsed them. But this statement can be accepted as true only with the most narrow and quibbling reading. It is now clear that Clark did submit a plan on January 25th, and this was assentially the same plan that was discussed Sept 4, in the first principals meeting on terrorism held under Bush; this general outline is confirmed by the Commission's recent staff report.

Second point is that the Clinton administration had a strategy in place, effectively dating from 1998. And there were a number of issues on the table since 1998. And they remained on the table when that administration went out of office ? issues like aiding the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, changing our Pakistan policy -- uh, changing our policy toward Uzbekistan. And in January 2001, the incoming Bush administration was briefed on the existing strategy. They were also briefed on these series of issues that had not been decided on in a couple of years.

And the third point is the Bush administration decided then, you know, in late January, to do two things. One, vigorously pursue the existing policy, including all of the lethal covert action findings, which we've now made public to some extent.

And the point is, while this big review was going on, there were still in effect, the lethal findings were still in effect. The second thing the administration decided to do is to initiate a process to look at those issues which had been on the table for a couple of years and get them decided.

All of this is emphasizing the continuity of policy on counter-terror activities between the Clinton and Bush administrations. But Clarke's criticism of Bush isn't that he adopted a new policy on terror, but that he and his aides failed to take it seriously, which the Clinton team did. Thus, although the official policy remained the same, less was actually done.

So, point five, that process which was initiated in the first week in February, uh, decided in principle, uh in the spring to add to the existing Clinton strategy and to increase CIA resources, for example, for covert action, five-fold, to go after Al Qaeda.

This is the main basis for the suggestion that Bush was preparing a more aggressive response to al Qaeda before 9/11. However, it's unclear whether the plan to increase the CIA covert action resources was specifically aimed at al Qaeda. In either case, no attempt was made to increase current funding, putting off action against Bin Laden to October, when the funds would actually be available, at the earliest.

The sixth point, the newly-appointed deputies - and you had to remember, the deputies didn't get into office until late March, early April. The deputies then tasked the development of the implementation details, uh, of these new decisions that they were endorsing, and sending out to the principals.

Over the course of the summer - last point - they developed implementation details, the principals met at the end of the summer, approved them in their first meeting, changed the strategy by authorizing the increase in funding five-fold, changing the policy on Pakistan, changing the policy on Uzbekistan, changing the policy on the Northern Alliance assistance.

This restates the point, agreed on in Clarke's recent testimony, that on Sept 4 the Bush national security principals finally did meet and approve the January plan in principle. Clarke puts the empahasis on the actions that were ultimately taken rather than on the delay, and gives an excuse for the delay, that key personnel weren't in place in some cases until early summer. This isn't an entirely unreasonable excuse, but the truth is that Bush was able to get things done in numerous areas between Jan 20 and Sep 11. The reality of missing personnel in some departments made counter-terror initiatives harder, but they still could have been undertaken had they been a priority.

Some other moments in the questioning are quite interesting.

QUESTION: What is your response to the suggestion in the [Aug. 12, 2002] Time [magazine] article that the Bush administration was unwilling to take on board the suggestions made in the Clinton administration because of animus against the ? general animus against the foreign policy?

CLARKE: I think if there was a general animus that clouded their vision, they might not have kept the same guy dealing with terrorism issue. This is the one issue where the National Security Council leadership decided continuity was important and kept the same guy around, the same team in place. That doesn't sound like animus against uh the previous team to me.

Note the clever non-denial denial. Clarke cites his own retention (but not his de facto demotion) and says it "doesn't sound like animus". He never actually denies that animus against Clinton did warp the Bush policy, although on a careless reading he appears to.

Clarke: One of the big problems was that Pakistan at the time was aiding the other side, was aiding the Taliban. And so, this would put, if we started aiding the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, this would have put us directly in opposition to the Pakistani government. These are not easy decisions.

ANGLE: And none of that really changed until we were attacked and then it was ...

CLARKE: No, that's not true. In the spring, the Bush administration changed ? began to change Pakistani policy, um, by a dialogue that said we would be willing to lift sanctions. So we began to offer carrots, which made it possible for the Pakistanis, I think, to begin to realize that they could go down another path, which was to join us and to break away from the Taliban. So that's really how it started.

There was a decision in June 2001 to seek improved ties with Pakistan, while continuing to ask for Pakistani assistancce in getting the Taliban to expel or turn over Bin Laden. This may well have been a good choice, and perhaps contributed to Musharraf's decision after 9/11 to assist in the overthrow of the Taliban. But it also means that Pakistan was given somewhat improved relations withou actually delivering any results as far as acting against al Qaeda, which it was implicitly supporting as the main sponsor of the Taliban, while key Pakistani officials gave al Qaeda active support including warning Bin Laden in 1998 of the planned cruise missile attack against him.

Clarke: And you know, the other thing to bear in mind is the shift from the rollback strategy to the elimination strategy. When President Bush told us in March to stop swatting at flies and just solve this problem, then that was the strategic direction that changed the NSPD from one of rollback to one of elimination.

This is the other incident cited to back up the story that Bush was engaged on a tougher line against al Qaeda before 9/11, and often cited in the past week by White House spinners. But it is really a classic example of Bush fecklessness rather than foresight. Bush didn't have a detailed discussion of the problems involved in going after al Qaeda, he didn't approve or request any specific action, and he never followed up the many times that al Qaeda was discussed in his daily briefings.

It's actually classic Dubya. Rather than take the serious steps needed to address a real problem, just assume that once you set your Texan genitalia swinging in the breeze, the display of bumptious machismo will overcome all obstacles.

The main elements of Clarke's case against Bush are the obsession with Iraq before and after 9/11, the lack of a serious response to the threats of terror activity that were visible in the late spring and summer of 2001, the low emphasis placed on the problem of terrorism prior to 9/11, and the poor choice to invade Iraq after. None of this is contradicted by what Clarke said in August, 2002. In the one area where there is a potential contradiction, the document prepared for Condi Rice on Jan 24, the commission's own reports confirm that his more recent statements are the more reliable.

Furthermore, only in a few details is it necessary to rely on Clarke as a witness. The Iraq fixation, for instance, was confirmed by Paul O'Neill as well as by the anonymous sources that General Clark often cited during his campaign - for which he was viciously attacked by GOP spinners. Bush himself admitted to Bob Woodward that terrorism had been a low priority before 9/11. Even the attacks on Clarke have often served to underline his essential points - they have suggested that he is bitter because his mandate was reduced and he was demoted, but the very fact that these things happened is an indication of how unserious the Dubya team was about terrorism prior to 9/11.