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Leave partisan finger-pointing out of Sept. 11

Mike Marchand | Sunday, March 28, 2004

The question “How did the Sept. 11 attacks happen?” is a noble question that deserves an answer if we’re ever to stop future attacks.Sadly, the process was muddled when partisan finger pointing, on both sides, entered into the equation. However, nobody performed more blame-casting than Richard Clarke, former White House counterterrorism adviser, who completely incidentally and not in any way involved with his testimony before the 9/11 Commission, has a new book out, in stores now.It’s far too reductive to dismiss Clarke as merely a disgruntled ex-employee who’s seeking vengeance against the administration that demoted him and shut him out of the decision-making process, or a partisan hack out to sell copies of his books. He is both, of course, but he’s not merely both. When it comes to counterterrorism, the man does know what he’s talking about – he’s served under four administrations in positions that are normally cycled out when a new president takes over. And if I’m someone who sincerely wishes to stop terrorism, I’d certainly rather listen to him than some paper-pushing bureaucrat.But instead of blasting the code of bureaucracy, which is as resistant to change as the other Dick Clark is to the normal human aging process, he instead lashed out against President George W. Bush and his administration. According to Clarke (the counterterrorism guy, not the “$25,000 Pyramid” guy), the Bush administration “ignored” the threat from al-Qaeda and then, after Sept. 11, focused too much on Iraq at the expense of destroying al-Qaeda.It would be a spectacular accusation, were it true in the slightest. Perhaps Dick Clarke’s “Rockin’ New Year” calendar differs from mine, but I could have sworn we invaded Afghanistan to attack al-Qaeda nearly two and a half years before entering Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. And Clarke feels that the Administration “ignored” al-Qaeda during 2001 because they weren’t “important enough for him to hold a meeting on the subject, or for him to order his national security advisor to hold a Cabinet-level meeting on the subject.” But even though the Administration’s first Cabinet-level meeting concerning al-Qaeda happened just one week before the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush did in fact order National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to compose a strategy to confront al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden in April of that year, saying he was tired of “swatting flies.” Clarke even admits this in his book.But that belies the major point – Does Clarke really think that just holding meetings is an effective counterterrorism strategy? According to Clarke’s 9/11 Commission testimony (but not his book, in which he blatantly contradicts this statement), there was “no higher priority” than terrorism in the Clinton Administration. But during those two terms, the World Trade Center, two American embassies and the U.S.S. Cole were bombed. Clinton’s Cabinet must have met a bunch of times. But yet the only counterstrikes were missile attacks at some empty tents and an aspirin factory. The Bush administration might have done nothing to stop al-Qaeda in eight months. But the Clinton administration did practically nothing in eight years, and Clarke was the nation’s top counterterrorism official during that time. Perhaps Bush was acting prudently by moving Clarke into a position two steps under Rice.I am not, by the way, seeking to blame the Clinton administration for Sept. 11 because they stood pat during al-Qaeda’s formative years. As I noted above, the fault lies not with any individual politician but with the entire bureaucratic process, where inertia is king, and nobody acts to change anything without sufficient impetus. Everybody mismanaged during the period before Sept. 11, and Clarke admitted as much when he apologized to the victims of Sept. 11 for failing them.But hindsight is not sufficient enough to start pointing fingers. Partisan hacks want to undo the president’s record following Sept. 11 by discrediting his record before it. Fine. So what should Bush have done? Acted preemptively? That seemed to go over real well when we did it last year. What should have been the reason for wiping out al-Qaeda in 2001, actionable intelligence? Gathered by the same people who are now being tarred and feathered for stating that Saddam Hussein had vast caches of weapons of mass destruction?Bush’s detractors want to have it both ways. And nobody saw that coming better than Richard Clarke. In an e-mail to Rice four days after Sept. 11, he said, “When the era of national unity cracks in the near future, it is possible that some will start asking questions like did the White House do a good job of making sure that intelligence about terrorist threats got to FAA and other domestic law enforcement authorities.” He then summarized all the ways the administration had tried to secure the nation before Sept. 11.Clarke can spin his record all he wants. But Clark still did it better on “American Bandstand.” Mike Marchand, class of 2001, laughed his butt off last night at the Capitol Steps show at Lake Michigan College. His e-mail address is marchand.3@alumni.nd.edu. “Undistinguished Alumnus” appears every other Monday.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.