Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Clinton grades himself: "I Failed"

We are passing out Presidential grades at the Univeristy of DWSUWF in the undergraduate class: Fighting Al Queda 101.

First, Mr. Clinton, your grade. Do you have anything to say?

CLINTON: "... at least I tried... They had eight months to try. They did not try. I tried... So I tried and failed. When I failed, I left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy and the best guy in the country, Dick Clarke, who got demoted... "

Thank you Mr. Clinton for your frank opinion, and I can certainly appreciate why you think you deserve an "F", but we grade on a curve in this class. And since there are only two Presidents in the class, I cannot give you both failing grades. You are right, you did not do enough to fight Al Queda before 9/11, but the attack actually occured nine months into the Bush adminsitration. And is is quite apparent, that despite explicit warnings and briefings, the Bush administration did little in the time leading up to the attack to act on the warnings of the Intelligence community, Richard Clarke and others to avoid it. So, President Clinton - you get a D minus. President Bush, you get the F.

A few more thoughts. Olberman's "Special Comment" was umm... "special" in the "special needs" meaning of the word, and completely over the top. Chris Wallace asked a legitimate journalistic question, and Clinton lost his temper. But Clinton was right. He tried to kill OBL, and the Bush adminstration was too busy rewarding political patrons, moving and filling boxes on the org chart, and building layers of organizational insulation around the POTUS, to worry about the threat.

I was particularly intrigued by Clinton repeatedly invoking Richard Clarke in the interview: "All I’m asking is, anybody who wants to say I didn’t do enough, you read Richard Clarke’s book."

Fair enough. I read Richard Clarkes book when it was released in 2004. Richard Clarke was one of a very few to be in the unique postion of actually working in the heart of the anti-terrorism efforts of both administrations leading up to 9/11. He was in a position to know in detail exactly what both administrations did and did not do. One interesting element of the world of political blogs and bulletin boards, is that if you have been doing this long enough, you don't get the luxury of a selective memory about what you thought two, three or four years ago. I was not blogging in '04 but I was active on a political bulletin board since 9/11. I posted a report on Clarke's book on that board in '04 and dragged it back out of the archives for your reading enjoyment here. Both the review and the book hold up very well. This is edited slightly to remove irrelevant reference to that board, but otherwise is a snapshot of my thoughts at that time, about Clarke, Clarke's book, Bush, Clinton, terrorism and Iraq:

Posted 3/28/04 - Saw the interview, listened to the testimony, read the book, been mulling it over for a couple days, decided to post my thoughts ...

First, a comment on what this book is and what it is not: Clarke says it best in the preface:
"I began to feel an obligation to write what I knew ...This book is the fulfillment of that obligation. It is, however, flawed. It is a first-person account, not an academic history. The book, therefore, tells what one participant saw, thought and believed from one perspective. Others who were involved in some of these events will, no doubt, recall them differently." Richard Clarke – AAE preface page xi.
This should look familiar to all of us, the entire book is essentially what we do posting on blogs or political discussion boards, an extended personal perspective/rant on current events based on what we know and believe. In this case, the current event is specifically about the 10 year battle with Al Queda, the roots of the conflict, and the impact of the decision to liberate Iraq. There are, of course, some differences between the book and a blog post. The book is a little longer read than most posts, and Richard Clarke, with his 20 years service watching from "courtside", both on the bench and in the game, has a unique and important perspective on these events, unlike those of us limited to the view from the cheap seats in the nosebleed section.

To begin, a comment on the controversy of the day. Is Richard Clarke:
  1. A dedicated and respected patriot and public servant, committed to fighting the terrorist threat and sounding the alarm about how that war is and was being prosecuted.
  2. An opportunistic partisan, who has timed the release of the book, related interviews and charges to coincide with the 9/11 committee and have a maximum political impact on the Presidential election.
Afer reading the book, IMO, the answer is decidedly "Yes". These are not mutually exclusive views of Richard Clarke. He is both. Does he come across as biased, as a partisan in the book? Absolutely, but it is a uniquely Richard Clarke brand of partisanship. Not Republican/Democrat but rather a black/white distinction between those fighting with us and those fighting against us. And that line is drawn in the sand demarcating those who (in his view) understand the nature of the battle when fighting Al Queda, and those who do not. Very similar in spirit to GWB's "You are with us, or against us" ultimatum. Clarke arrives at a conclusion that the Bush Administration simply does not "get it". As a consequence, he feels that for the battle to be won, the administration must go. From this perspective, seeing this book as a partisan attack on the Bush administration is completely accurate. But from Clarke's perspective, the fact that this administration is Republican is irrelevant. He is seeing them simply as one more in a series of obstructions to fighting the real enemy. And just like he has spent 10 years bulldozing bureaucratic obstacles and clearing away policy obstructions to prosecute the battle against Al Queda, he will do everything he can do now to remove this perceived obstacle (the administration) to get the counter-terrorism fight back where it belongs. He is motivated by love of country, hatred of Al Queda, and a consuming guilt that he could have and should have found a way to stop 9/11. He fought this battle with his heart and soul for 10 years. Writing this book was cathartic for him, and gave him a chance to see his battle from a broader perspective. He obviously came to a realization, that through the book, he can still contribute to the fight. This emerges clearly in this comment from the epilogue:
"This book is, as I said in the Preface, my story, from my memory. It has helped me to tell it. I needed to tell you that we tried, tried hard to stop the big al Queda attack, that the professionals who sat at the Counterterrorism Security Group table cared, and would have given our own lives if that could have stopped the attacks. I had to admit that, strident as I was about the al Queda threat, I did not resign in protest when my recommendations to bomb the al Queda infrastructure were deferred by the Clinton administration or my appeals for "urgent" action were ignored by the Bush administration. Perhaps I should have. I needed to tell you why I think we failed and why I think America is still failing to deal with the threat posed by terrorists distorting Islam." RC - AAE (page 289)
So having covered the preface and epilogue, what about all that stuff in the middle. Clarke describes the roles he played for the Reagan, Bush(41), Clinton, and Bush(43) administrations, and the significant terrorism events that transpired during that time. All four administrations are praised and damned for their handling of the war. On balance, though, the Clinton administration clearly is portrayed in the best light. I see this as a consequence of the role that Clarke filled in that administration, and the unique working relationship he had with Clinton, one that was unusually close for someone who was essentially in a staff position. It is instructive to see how Clarke describes the "National Coordinator for Security Infrastructure Protection and Counterterrorism" role that was created, and held by him in the Clinton and early Bush administration:
"It had become pretty clear to Sandy Berger that terrorism and domestic preparedness were major problems, presidential priorities and should be among the very few growing budgets in Washington ... Berger thought we needed a "terrorism czar" and he wanted it to be me... I did not want to repeat that [Drug War Czar problems] and feared that the departments would see a czar as a challenge to their authority. Nonetheless, Berger floated the idea of a "National Coordinator" for counterterrorism ... Finally, just to make it clear that the National Coordinator was just a White House staff job, the directive contained language noting that he could not order law enforcement agents, troops, or spies to do anything, only their agencies could. Some czar. On balance, however it was a slight improvement to have a National 'Coordinator for Security Infrastructure Protection and Counterterrorism. With a title that long, however, it quickly became "Terrorism Czar" to the media. It was clearly an improvement to have ten programs with clear accountability and responsibility focused in the departments and agencies, but the notion that there was a Terrorism Czar, was misleading. In fact, what the departments had insisted on, and the White House had acquiesced to, was that there would not be a czar, with a staff, budget or operational decision making. I now had the appearance of responsibility for counterterrorism, but none of the tools or authority to get the job done." (pages 166-170)
I am a private sector guy, but I have seen jobs like this in large corporations with mixed results. At a large software company where I was once employed, we called it a "designer job". An overlay responsibility, but without direct lines of management authority to the "feet on the street" that were actually doing the work. These roles usually ended up being an ineffectual and impotent joke. But, with the right personality and strong support from the boss, this kind of role can occasionally be spectacularly effective in cutting through entrenched bureaucracy to advance a focused objective. Clarke had, by all accounts, an extraordinary level of interaction and support from President Clinton. He had deep relationships in all the relevant agencies, he was respected, had "friends in high places", and he was as knowledgeable about the Al Queda threat as anyone in government. Under Clinton, it all clicked. He forged the job into being a "go-to guy" for the President with a reputation as someone who could get things done. With his obsessive personality and the force of the POTUS behind him, he could twist arms, step on toes, and do whatever was needed to get action, Whether it was getting predators deployed in Afghanistan, appropriate measures taken in the Atlanta Olympics, or preparing for Millennium attacks, he was the man to get things done. But it is also clear, that the authority and effectiveness of the position flowed from relationships and personalities, and was not inherent in the role itself. Should it be any surprise then, that the role changes dramatically when you have a new president, a new administration and new staff in the beginning of 2001? It apparently was a surprise to Clarke.

Here are the simple facts. Al Queda was not a primary issue in the 2000 campaign. Bush and Gore were debating about which ABM system should be built, whether the US should be in the "nation-building" business, and whether the agreed increased military spending should be deployed on a "general build-up (Bush) or technological effectiveness (Gore). Al Queda was an after-thought ("Of course we need to fight terrorism! - Next subject."). Despite the Bin Laden 'declaration of war", in January of 2001 there were a grand total of something less than 30 dead Americans at the hands of al Qaeda. It did not look like it was on the front burner for the new Bush administration, because it was not. It was not on the front burner for anyone, except Richard Clarke and his team. When I was reading Clarke's (often self-serving) account of his bureaucratic battles to defend us from al Qaeda, I kept thinking, " this guy is like Ahab going after the white whale." Interestingly enough, Clarke then make this comparison himself, when relating his conversation with Condi Rice regarding transfer from the Counterterrorism Role to the Cyber Security Role in 2001 pre 9/11.:
"Winter had turned to Spring. The daily NSC meetings were filled with detailed discussion about the ABM Treaty and other issues that I thought were vestigial Cold War concerns. One day I saw an editorial cartoon of Uncle Sam sitting on a throne reading the ABM treaty, while a fuse ran down on a bomb beneath his seat and terrorist ran away behind him. The cartoon hit me hard. I asked to be reassigned ... "Perhaps" I suggested, "I have become too close to the terrorism issue. I have worked it for ten years and to me it seems like a very important issue, but maybe I'm becoming like Captain Ahab with bin Laden as the White Whale. Maybe you need someone less obsessive about it. " I assume that my message was clear enough: you obviously do not think that terrorism is as important as I do since you are taking months to do anything; so get somebody else to do it who can be happy working at it at your pace. We agreed that I would start the new critical infrastructure and cyber job at the beginning of the new fiscal year [October]." -RC -AAE (Page 234)
This paragraph is interesting for two reasons. Clarke is clearly venting to the reader about his frustration with the Bush administration. But he also is clearly not explicitly venting his frustration to his boss. He is resigning, and "assuming" that his message is clear. Bad assumption. There is no reason to expect that Condi Rice can read his mind over the reason one of her many staffers is resigning their role. In my experience managing people, I always made a point of taking what employees say at face value. You only get yourself in trouble by basing decisions on your mind-reading ability. Here we see the roots of the surprise, sense of betrayal, and resulting "set the dogs loose" over-reaction by the Bush administration to what Richard Clarke is saying now.

In the last Chapter of the book "Right War, Wrong War", Clarke lays out the case for why liberating Iraq was the wrong move in the war on terrorism. This is where I differ from his thesis in the book. I was and am a supporter of the Iraqi war. I won't go though all his reasons (its a long chapter), but it nets out to a thesis that Al Queda was still an imminent threat and Iraq was not. His analysis led me to question my support of Iraq war, and think about my reasons for supporting it a year ago. One advantage of being a long-time participant in political boards and blogs, is that you can go back and see what you actually thought as opposed to what you remember or want to remember. For me, it was not primarily about WMD's. This post was a distillation of my reasons for supporting the war:

This is the point:

9/11 was caused by religious fanatics exploited as dupes and patsies by a megalomaniac with the resources and support of a rogue state (Afghanistan).

The first WTC bombing was caused by religious fanatics exploited as dupes and patsies by a megalomaniac with the resources and support of a rogue state (probably Iraq or Iran).

The Lockerbie TWA flight bombing was caused by religious fanatics exploited as dupes and patsies by a megalomaniac with the resources and support of a rogue state (Libya)...

It may be that we in the US are slow learners, as it sometimes takes a baseball bat to the head (like 9/11) for us to understand a threat that requires action. Regardless of our learning disabilities, it is clear to us now that Saddam Hussein is a megalomaniacal head of a rogue state, and that he has explicitly threatened and attempted carry out terrorist attacks against the US by exploiting religious fanatics and supplying them with the frightening resources at his disposal.

We cannot do much about religious fanatics in the short term. We can do something about the megalomaniacs with the inclination and resources to exploit them to their own political ends."

Although I take issue with how the post-war occupation was planned (or not) and executed (or not), I still stand by that reasoning. I also find support in Clarke's book for that reasoning, although not in the way he intends it. In these quotes, Clarke bemoans the fact that America does not respond to a threat until there are thousands of body bags.
"Al Queda had emerged from the soil after the Cold War like some long dormant plague, it was on a path of its own, and it would not be swayed. And America, alas, seems only to respond well to disasters, to be undistracted by warnings. Our country seems unable to do all that must be done until there has been some awful calamity that validates the importance of the threat."(page 238-9)

"Beginning in the Reagan administration, U.S. policy had permitted he use of lethal force against a terrorist if the lethal act was necessary to stop a imminent attack. It was clear that there were going to be more al Qaeda attacks. What did "imminent" mean? Did we have to know the exact date of next al Qaeda attack in order to use lethal force?" (page 203)- RC - AAE
It was clear to me then, that given enough time and opportunity, Saddam would have found a way to exact revenge against Americans. The warning signs were as clear with Iraq as they were with Al Queda. We could quibble about how "imminent" the Iraq threat was, but I agreed with GWB, that we did not need to wait for more body-bags to address the threat.

Back to Ahab - Concluding thoughts on Richard Clarke: Obsessive focus on a single subject, as Clarke is/was focused on al Queda, can simultaneously benefit and impair vision. In the case of the object in focus (al Queda) this obsession can produce clarity of vision that may let him see what no one else does. That same obsession, however, may blind him to any other threats (Iraq) in comparison to the object of obsession.

No matter whether we agree with Richard Clarke about Iraq, the evidence of the last ten years is that when Richard Clarke is stridently warning that the "sky is falling" specifically about Al Queda and Islamic Fundamentalist Terrorism threat to the US, he has proven to be dead-on right. We have lost too many lives for not adequately heeding his warnings. For this reason alone, we should all take this dire prediction very seriously indeed:
"If WE DO NOT SHIFT ATTENTION back to where it should have been after September 11, we face the prospect of the following scenario by 2007: a Taliban-like government in Pakistan armed with nuclear weapons, supporting a similar satellite nation next door in Afghanistan and promoting Al Qaeda-like ideology and terror throughout the world; in the gulf, a nuclear armed Iran, promoting its own version of Hezbollah-styled ideology, an Saudi Arabia after the fall of the House of Saud, creating its own version of a fourteenth century theocratic republic. Under those circumstances, even if we had created a Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq, America and the world will be vastly less secure."Richard Clarke - AAE (page 284)
Three years to 2007. Seven Months to the election. tic-toc-tic-toc-tic-toc


That election has come and gone. We have another election in 6 weeks. 2007 is a few months away. In the intervening two years since I wrote this report, Richard Clarke is looking more and more like a prophet. The leaked NIE Report has confirmed that Richard Clarke was right in general, if not in the specifics. The Iraq war has made us less secure. And it can get worse in the next two years.

Whether or not the decision was right to occupy Iraq in 2003 has been rendered moot by the incompetence of this administration in executing the post-war planning and occupation. It could have been done correctly. It was not. Now we have a bigger problem.

We need new thinking. We need the single party group-think of this administration to be disrupted. We need power to be shared by an opposition party. We need divided government. We need it now.

Divided and Balanced.™ Now that is fair.

Just Vote Divided.

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