Previous critics of the Bush administration have proved to be easy targets for the White House. The Bushies effortlessly dismissed Paul O'Neill with a wave of the hand. "We're not in the business of doing book reviews. I don't get in the business of selling or promoting or critiquing books," White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters upon publication of Ron Suskind's account of O'Neill's tenure as Treasury Secretary. This worked partly because the media was predisposed to believe that O'Neill was a bit quirky and unreliable -- and partly because his accusations about the Bush administration's obsession with Iraq were outside his area of expertise. Rand Beers and Joe Wilson, two other national security whistle-blowers, did some damage to the White House. But by subsequently embracing John Kerry, they made it easy for the administration to paint them as partisan opportunists.
Former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke is proving to be a tougher opponent. He's served presidents from both parties. He says he won't work in a Kerry administration. His foreign policy views in the 1980s and 1990s placed him in the camp of Republican hardliners. He writes warmly of his relationship with Richard Perle. And most of his attacks on Bush are from the right, not the left. He is undoubtedly the toughest critic whose credibility the White House has ever had to undermine; he represents a potent cocktail of nonpartisanship, expertise, and withering criticism aimed at Bush's greatest electoral strength. For the last 48 hours, administration officials have done their best to chip away at Clarke and his case against the president. They've adopted several different tacks -- none of which is particularly honest, and many of which are mutually contradictory.
Their initial approach, now discarded, was to argue that Bush actually embraced Clarke -- a holdover from the Clinton administration -- in 2001, thus demonstrating that the administration was serious about al Qaeda before September 11. On "60 Minutes" last weekend, Condoleezza Rice's deputy, Steve Hadley, made this case:
Dick is very dedicated, very knowledgeable about this issue. When the President came into office, one of the decisions we made was to keep Mr. Clarke and his counter-terrorism group intact, bring them into the new administration -- a really unprecedented decision, very unusual when there has been a transition that involves a change of party. We did that because we knew al Qaeda was a priority, that there was a risk that we would be attacked and we wanted an experienced team to try and identify the risk, take actions to disrupt the terrorists -- and if an event, an attack were to succeed, to be an experienced crisis management team to support the president.T
His approach seemed to overcome the central paradox in any Bush strategy to destroy Clarke: How can you defend yourself from charges that you didn't take terrorism seriously before 9/11 while simultaneously attacking the credibility of the person you put in charge of terrorism before 9/11? Hadley's answer was to point out that Clarke's appointment proved the Bush administration was serious.
But on Monday, once the Bushies had taken a closer look at how devastating Clarke's account was, Hadley's soft approach was abandoned. The new method for overcoming the inconvenient fact that Bush put Clarke in charge of terrorism was to simply write Clarke out of the history of the Bush administration altogether. Instead of Bush's terrorism adviser, Clarke became a weak Clintonite who did little to halt al Qaeda's rise during the 1990s. If there was one consistent theme to yesterday's attack, this was it. The most intellectually dishonest performance was Dick Cheney's emergency interview on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. Limbaugh wondered how in the world Bush could have made this guy Clarke head of counterterrorism. "Well, I wasn't directly involved in that decision," Cheney said. "He was moved out of the counterterrorism business over to the cybersecurity side of things. That is, he was given the new assignment at some point there. I don't recall the exact time frame."
Who could be expected to keep track of such minor details as how long Clarke was kept as counterterrorism czar? Maybe some scenes from Clarke's book would jog the vice president's memory. Clarke was the guy standing in Cheney's office on the morning of 9/11 with Rice in the minutes after the first attack. He's the guy that Condi turned to and asked, "Okay, Dick, you're the crisis manager, what do you recommend?" Later in the day he was also the guy standing in between Rice and Cheney in the White House Situation Room. He was the one whose shoulder Cheney placed his hand on when he asked, "Are you getting everything you need, everybody doing what you want?" Cheney might also remember Clarke as the guy who asked Cheney to request authorization from Bush to shoot down any hijacked airplanes. He may also recall him as the man who briefed Bush when the president finally arrived back at the White House. In other words, Cheney neglected to inform Limbaugh's audience that Clarke didn't move to cyberterrorism until a month after 9/11.
Clarke's nine-month tenure as the man in charge of counterterrorism in the Bush administration is being thrown down a memory hole. "So the only thing I can say about Dick Clarke," Cheney continued on Limbaugh's show, "is he was here throughout those eight years going back to 1993, and the first attack on the World Trade Center in '98 when the embassies were hit in east Africa, in 2000 when the USS Cole was hit, and the question that ought to be asked is, what were they doing in those days when he was in charge of counterterrorism efforts?"
Rice echoed the memory-hole strategy yesterday, noting on Fox News, "Dick Clarke was counterterrorism czar for a long time with a lot of attacks on the United States. What he was doing was -- what they were doing apparently was not working. We wanted to do something different." She didn't get a chance to explain how this statement comports with Hadley's insistence that "one of the decisions we made was to keep Mr. Clarke and his counter-terrorism group intact" because "we wanted an experienced team to try and identify the risk, take actions to disrupt the terrorists."
So there's a significant problem with the memory-hole strategy: It requires everyone to suspend their knowledge of one of the most elementary facts of this story. Perhaps recognizing this, the White House has trotted out a few supplementary lines of attack.
One is to portray Clarke as fetishizing meetings. A pillar of Clarke's evidence for the administration's lack of attention to terrorism before 9/11 is that there was never a meeting of Bush's senior national security advisers to discuss the issue. There were principals meetings about Iraq, the ABM treaty, and Kyoto, but not al Qaeda. During the late summer of 2001, when intelligence chatter about an attack peaked, Clarke urgently pressed for a cabinet-level meeting, but Rice rejected his request. Now the White House is claiming that Clarke was just obsessed with meetings, and preferred process to action. "To somehow suggest that the attack on 9/11 could have been prevented by a series of meetings -- I have to tell you that during the period of time we were at battle stations," Rice said yesterday. McClellan added, "He's been out there talking about whether or not he was participating in certain meetings. So it appears to be more about the process than the actual actions we have taken." Obviously, the topics the administration chooses to hold high-level meetings on suggest a great deal about its priorities, but Clarke's main point goes beyond that. In his book he argues that cabinet-level meetings during the dangerous period of late summer 2001 actually could have been instrumental in shaking information out of the bureaucracies. During the Clinton administration, Clarke insists such meetings drilled into cabinet secretaries the urgency of the threat and pushed officials to uncover clues that thwarted attacks.
The other problem with the White House's dismissal of Clarke's alleged meeting fetish is that it contradicts one of the Bushies' other attacks on him. Maybe those cabinet-level meetings on al Qaeda weren't important, but McClellan suggests that Rice's staff meetings were essential. "Dr. Rice, early on in the administration," McClellan said yesterday, "started holding daily briefings with the senior directors of the National Security Council, of which he was one. But he refused to attend those meetings, and he was later asked to attend those meetings and he continued to refuse to attend those meetings." Apparently, some meetings are more important than others.
When White House officials yesterday weren't ignoring the fact that Clarke worked for Bush or complaining about his attendance record at staff meetings, their final major argument was that his approach to terrorism was more timid than the new administration's. "We didn't feel it was sufficient to simply roll back al Qaeda; we pursued a policy to eliminate al Qaeda," McClellan told reporters. This is an odd statement since Clarke for several years had been calling unambiguously for the complete destruction of bin Laden's organization. In fact, it was Clarke himself who was tasked with writing the new administration plan to deal with al Qaeda. He pulled out his plan from the Clinton years, and presented it at a deputies meeting. It was the Bushies who flinched at the plan's aggressiveness. Several deputies thought the goal to "eliminate al Qaeda" went too far. They wanted the document to say "significantly erode al Qaeda." Clarke won but it hardly mattered. September 11 happened before Bush ever signed the plan.
Why are the administration's attacks such a bundle of confusion? Probably because this White House has never been confronted with such a credible and nonpartisan critic on the issue of terrorism. Polls over the last six months show an erosion of the public's confidence in one of the pillars of Bush's strength: his credibility. But that has not translated into a weakening of Bush's second greatest asset -- voters' belief that he would confront terrorism better than John Kerry -- and the administration wants to keep it that way. Of course, not everything Richard Clarke writes is necessarily the Gospel truth, and the press may quickly lose interest in his criticisms. But for the first time since 9/11, Bush's greatest accomplishments have been credibly recast as his greatest failures. No wonder the White House response seems so desperate.
Ryan Lizza is an associate editor at TNR.
By Ryan Lizza