Opinion National security emerged as the sole political trophy of this year's presidential campaign, after a brutal week of Washington infighting over a controversial book by former security czar Richard Clarke.
Last Sunday, Clarke rounded on the Bush administration during a segment on the popular CBS news programme 60 Minutes, claiming to have perceived the growing threat from al-Qaeda, and to have been soundly ignored by the Bushies. The Clintonites, Clarke explained, had wisely heeded him, while the Bushies were possessed by some weird, Oedipal preoccupation with Iraq and Saddam Hussein, and would hear nothing of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or Afghanistan.
Had they only listened to his wisdom, Clarke claimed, the atrocity of 9/11 might have been prevented. "We'll never know," he allowed; but he made it clear that the Bushies had a chance, at least, and deliberately blew it by demoting and ignoring him.
Clarke's opening salvo drew a swift counter offensive from the Bush administration. His sensational claims were motivated by a desire to sell books, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Republican, Tennessee) claimed that Clarke has been inconsistent in his criticisms of the Bush administration, and has pressured Members to make some of Clarke's closed testimony before Congress public so that the inconsistencies can be examined freely. (Clarke later countered that all of his testimony and other documents should be made public, to prevent Republicans from cherrypicking.)
Meanwhile, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice hastily published a rebuttal in the Washington Post.
Contradicting Clarke, who believes that Rice had never heard the words 'al-Qaeda' before meeting him, Rice makes reference to significantly improved counterterrorist efforts under the Bush administration prior to 9/11. "We committed more funding to counterterrorism and intelligence efforts. We increased efforts to go after al Qaeda's finances," Rice declared.
"Through the spring and summer of 2001, the national security team developed a strategy to eliminate al Qaeda -- which was expected to take years. Our strategy marshaled all elements of national power to take down the network, not just respond to individual attacks with law enforcement measures. Our plan called for military options to attack al Qaeda and Taliban leadership, ground forces and other targets -- taking the fight to the enemy where he lived. It focused on the crucial link between al Qaeda and the Taliban," she insisted.
Speaking to reporters, Leezy explained that, "Dick Clarke just does not know what he's talking about." This is clear overstatement, even in view of Clarke's penchant for exaggeration and alarmist predictions. He's been at this a long time, gaining daily, hands-on experience decades before "Doctor" Rice ever emerged from her academic ivory tower to become Junior's Dutch uncle and chief apologist; and if he's made a few bad calls along the way, it's hardly because he doesn't know what he's talking about.
Since Clarke's book began shipping, Rice has demanded, and received, a great deal of press coverage, yet she still refuses to testify under oath as Clarke has done.
So's your old man
After days of charges and counter charges, Clarke's opportunity to testify before the 9/11 Commission arrived. Cynics have observed that his book began to ship only days before his scheduled appearance.
He opened with a most grandiose and theatrical gesture. "Your government failed you," he intoned gravely. "Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you... And for that failure, I would ask, once all the facts are out, for your understanding and for your forgiveness," Clarke said presumptuously. This, clearly, is the language of a man obsessed. By apologizing for not doing the impossible, he gave the world an unpleasant glimpse of his quite considerable messiah complex.
The Bush administration is not guilty of failing to prevent 9/11. It is guilty of something immensely worse: of politicizing the atrocity ruthlessly, of forging a cheap prop out of the wreckage, and crowning Junior with it. It is guilty of misleading the public into a war of aggression, of representing what it wished to believe as fact, and of blaming the wrong country and invading it. It is guilty of sacrificing constitutional liberties on the altar of counterterrorism.
But it is not guilty of failing to prevent the attack. Had that particular plot been thwarted, even if it had been thwarted by virtue of Clarke's wise counsel, another would have succeeded. For all its loose talk of a "war on terror" and "homeland security," the US government can thwart only an unknowable fraction of the violent plans now being laid.
This hardly means that trying is futile: the business of security is to make an attack difficult without sacrificing fragile social assets, such as liberty and privacy, in favor of safety, which cannot be guaranteed at any price. Good intelligence and commonsense defensive measures can go a long way toward raising the bar of national security. But nothing can "protect us," as Clarke suggested. The West has too many targets, and far too many enemies.
My twin towers, mine
This talk of preventing the next 9/11 may be rubbish, but, sadly, it will dominate the presidential campaign. This was inevitable, but Clarke's book has brought it to a head early on. There will be much blame, many accusations, and many, many empty promises from Bush and his opponent, John Kerry. The Bushies have struggled, with considerable success, to own 9/11, to possess it like a lover, to enrobe themselves in the tragedy and foist themselves on the public as avenging angels.
There is nothing else that Bush can run on. The economy is lame, deficit spending has grown to monumental proportions, decent jobs have dried up, and the war in Iraq has been exposed for the preposterously expensive counterterrorist rain dance that it is. Owning 9/11 is the only thing that can possibly keep him in office.
For Kerry, the main job will be to tear it out of Bush's hands. In order to tarnish Bush's image as a "war president," he has been content to allude to his own heroism in the Vietnam war, while Junior was happily, and safely, polishing his brass in the Air National Guard. But Clarke has changed this. Kerry will soon have to begin attacking Bush on national security grounds -- a tactic that, perhaps, he had hoped to delay.
Clarke has been in government too long not to know that his words are destined to accelerate the process by which national security in general, and 9/11 in particular, have been transformed into cheap political grist.
People died that day, though they shouldn't have, and we've already forgotten their names. Men ran up the stairs as the towers came down, and we've forgotten their names too. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden and, more preposterously, Saddam Hussein, have become household words and ready synonyms for evil. We forget the names of the innocents killed, and the heroes who ran up the stairs and died in hopes of assisting them; but we remember the bogey men all right, as we are conditioned to do. Sadly, the bogey man we worry about more will likely determine the election. If it's Osama, Bush is in serious trouble. If it's Saddam, he might just squeak through.
But it's all politics. George W. Bush recently mourned the death of his Spaniel bitch Spot, but he has not yet managed to attend a single funeral for the men he's sent to die in Iraq on a fool's errand. And Kerry will savage him on that, because he must. It's all politics.
A head of state will soon be chosen, based largely on whether we remember Osama, or Saddam -- whether we believe in lies, or lies about lies. In the end, it's only the political process that endures. And Richard Clarke, tossing in his rather significant two Messianic cents, has just helped make it a bit more loathsome than it might otherwise have been.
But that's not his fault. It's ours alone. ®
Thomas C Greene is the author of Computer Security for the Home and Small Office, a complete guide to online anonymity, system hardening, encryption, and data hygiene for Windows and Linux, available at discount in the USA, and soon in the UK.