March 24, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Terror and Betrayal

Clear the front page - members of the Bush administration wanted to know about any Iraqi involvement in the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York after September 11. The White House cared nothing about finding the real terrorists who took 3,000 lives, and the administration has to date done a lousy job of fighting terrorism. So says former Bush administration counterterrorism official and newly minted celebrity Richard Clarke.

Well, front pages have been cleared, and news headlines written. Mr. Clarke himself will be a star of the show at the congressional hearings this week of the September 11 commission, in an election year to boot. His timing and sensationalism are impeccable from a marketing standpoint. If his new book - "Against All Enemies"- sells a lot of copies, it will be to the detriment of the administration he served. Not exactly a new phenomenon in Washington, but it is still unconscionable.

Mr. Clarke resigned from the White House 13 months ago, apparently because he was demoted to coordinator for cyberterrorism efforts from as more responsible and high-profile position on the National Security Council. As a result, he clearly harbors a deeply personal resentment against National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

"Frankly," Mr. Clarke stated in his now famous interview on "60 Minutes" on Sunday, "I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11. Maybe. We'll never know." He went on to say, "I think he's done a terrible job on the war against terrorism."

The charge is ludicrous. No president has done more to fight terrorism, including going to war, than Mr. Bush. In fact, it is a wonder that Mr. Clarke has chosen this line of argument because it leaves his own position so vulnerable. There is bountiful evidence that the president who chose to ignore terrorist attacks was not George W. Bush, but Bill Clinton, whom Mr. Clarke served as eight years as national coordinator for counterterrorism.

As will be recalled, the White House actually did not lose any time concluding that immediate responsibility for the attacks rested with Osama bin Laden. Barely days after September 11, AttorneyGeneralJohn Ashcroft announced the identity of many of the suicideattackers, mostly of Saudi Arabian origin, pointing the finger at the al Qaeda network.

And barely a month later, American planes took off for Afghanistan to root out the Taliban government that had been providing aid and comfort for al Qaeda, including bin Laden. How could this be the action of a White House obsessed with Saddam Hussein?

Contrast this with the reactions of the Clinton White House. As terrorist attacks escalated throughout the 1990s - from the first Trade Center Bombing, to the attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, to the attack on the USS Cole in the harbor in Yemen.

To his credit, Mr. Clarke argued passionately for military retaliation against al Qaeda after the assault on the USS Cole, but he wasn't heard. After all, historically, attacks on American vessels have drawn the country into war: the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II. After the USS Cole? Nothing.

" 'What's it going to take to get them to hit al Qaeda in Afghanistan?' " Mr. Clarke railed in frustration after a meeting with the Clinton defense team," according to "Losing bin Laden: How Bill Clinton's Failures Unleashed Global Terror," by Richard Miniter. " 'Does al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon?' "

Now, the Bush administration may have been delayed in its anti-terrorism efforts by a few factors. First of all, Democratic candidate Al Gore refused to concede the election, which held up crucial cabinet appointments. Later, Democrats, who controlled the Senate, dragged their feet in getting Bush appointees confirmed.

Still, according to Mr. Miniter, on Sept. 4, 2001, a retaliatory strike against al Qaeda in Afghanistan was approved by the national security adviser. She asked for a meeting to present the plan to the president - a meeting that was set for September 11, 2001, at 3 pm. But by then, the terrorists had struck New York and Washington.

So, by all means let us hear the story, the whole story. And let us never forget that in Mr. Clarke's self-serving account, we are also looking at a book-marketing director's dream.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times