Clarke's Lament

Agencies try, and fail, to fight terrorism.

After stirring up a white-hot political controversy, Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies has been boiled down to its headline-grabbing criticism that President Bush did too little to stop al Qaeda, both before and after Sept. 11. But Clarke's memoir of his counterterrorism career is more than an anti-Bush broadside: It's also a cautionary tale of how federal agencies reacted to the terrorism threat during the Clinton and Bush administrations-a story with few peaks and many valleys.

In Clarke's telling, one of the high points came on Sept. 11, when bureaucratic rivalries were put aside in the scramble to safeguard the United States after the terrorist attacks. In a breathless narrative, Clarke recounts the scene in a chaotic White House Situation Room, where officials linked by videoconference carried out the government's response to the crisis: grounding thousands of airplanes, closing land borders and scrambling fighter jets above U.S. cities. With many Cabinet-level officials out of town or stashed away in bunkers, their deputies seized the initiative. The Navy's Atlantic Commander marshaled his Norfolk-based fleet and steamed for New York, even though no one at the Pentagon had ordered him to. "At times like these, initiative was a good thing," Clark writes.

But as the rest of Clark's memoir makes clear, many agencies lacked the initiative for a full-on fight against al Qaeda before Sept. 11. The book is full of bitter anecdotes of Clark and his counterterrorism allies aghast at bureaucratic colleagues who opposed stronger action against al Qaeda. After the USS Cole was bombed in Yemen in October 2000, an attack that bore the stamp of al Qaeda, agencies still resisted bombing the group's training camps in Afghanistan. Instead, they pressed for full CIA and FBI investigations. "What's it gonna take, Dick?" asks Mike Sheehan, a State Department official, after one White House meeting. "Who the shit do they think attacked the Cole, fuckin' Martians? . . . Does al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon to get their attention?"

One of Clarke's favorite punching bags is the FBI, which he depicts as painfully ignorant of al Qaeda. Only after the 2000 Millennium terrorist threat, when the United States and other countries uncovered several al Qaeda cells, including some in the United States, did the FBI begin to focus its 56 field offices on terrorism. "The FBI is like an aircraft carrier," Dale Watson, counterterrorism chief at the FBI, tells Clarke in 2000. "It takes a long time to stop going in one direction and turn around and go in another." Clarke claims the military also was uninterested in the anti-terrorism mission, producing plans suited for conquering nations when the White House asked it to snatch specific terrorists.

Clarke repeatedly runs into agencies that are reluctant to work together. In 1996, it takes an intervention from Vice President Al Gore to prod agencies to get serious about safeguarding the Atlanta Olympics. Agencies respond, yielding lessons used to protect other national events. But as Clarke laments, "The teamwork and integration forced on the departments for special events did not always continue when the events were over."

By all accounts, Clarke was a skilled bureaucratic infighter, and after Clinton appointed him counterterrorism czar in 1998, he did persuade agencies to pony up anti-terrorism funds, which were used to start homeland preparedness programs and tighten security at U.S. embassies and Defense installations overseas. Just as often, though, his ideas, such as a plan to tap the Secret Service and Customs Service to create an air defense unit to protect Washington, fell on deaf ears. "Most people who heard about our efforts . . . thought we were nuts," he admits.

Without Sept. 11 to clarify their priorities, many Clinton officials made potent arguments against Clarke's proposals. In 2000, Gen. Anthony Zinni, then head of the military's Central Command, opposed bombing al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, arguing it could destabilize Pakistan. Clarke himself is reluctant to criticize Clinton for not bombing the camps after the Cole attack, acknowledging the administration's last gasp effort for a Middle East peace accord was a higher priority. "If we could achieve a Middle East peace much of the popular support for al Qaeda . . . would evaporate overnight. There would be another chance to go after the camps."

In his memoir, Clarke and his allies-like the FBI's John O'Neill, who died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11-come off as latter-day Paul Reveres, trying to warn their fellow bureaucrats of the gathering threat before it is too late. But even officials who share Clarke's urgency, such as the CIA's George Tenet, are stymied by bureaucratic pushback. One is left with an appreciation for how easy it is for agencies to review, study and assess their way out of taking action, until a major event jolts them awake. In such an environment, Clarke concludes his warnings were destined to fail: "And America, alas, seems only to respond well to disasters, to be undistracted by warnings." It's a sobering thought as officials gird for the next wave of terrorist threats.

NEXT STORY: The Wisdom of Solomon