Clarke the Policy Maker

Glenn Reynolds points

Boston Herald op-ed entitled, “Skeleton in Clarke’s closet” which reveals something I didn’t know:

We’d like to know how Clarke squares his contention that he was the only one in the Bush administration truly committed to thwarting terrorism before the Sept. 11 attacks with this: It was Clarke who personally authorized the evacuation by private plane of dozens of Saudi citizens, including many members of Osama bin Laden’s own family, in the days immediately following Sept. 11.

Interesting. And I agree with this assessment:

By all accounts, Clarke made hundreds of decisions in the days after Sept. 11, many clear-headed and right.

Approving those special flights seems like a wrong one, but it was a judgment call made in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil in history.

Perhaps it was the best decision he could make under the circumstances. It’s too bad Clarke cuts no one in the Bush administration the same slack he so easily cuts himself.

Quite right.

Dean Esmay makes a rather cogent observation as well.

Clarke seems like a fairly typical career civil servant who is neither appointed nor elected. Such people tend to become fairly narrow-minded, inflating the importance of their own role, and also resentful of the “big vision” folks–i.e. the elected and appointed officials who have to tie together broad policy positions involving far more than one civil servant’s specialty. This is pretty normal, but now, all future administrations are going to have to worry that the career civil servants whose job is to give them information and advice will try to make them look stupid.


If our governing officials can no longer trust the people who work for them, this is not a good thing. Because we’re not talking about blowing the whistle on criminal activity here: we’re talking about policy debates, and a career civil servant deciding he doesn’t like the strategies formulated by the people he works for–and being treated like a hero by partisans who just don’t happen to like the people in office right now.

Very unhealthy, very dangerous in the long run.

While Clarke wasn’t, in the strictest sense, a civil servant–he served at the pleasure of administrations who kept him on–I agree with Dean’s larger point: Guys that specialize on the trees don’t understand when others focus on the forest. That’s true of any level of bureaucracy. To recount one silly example, one of my many collateral duties as a young lieutenant was safety officer for the battery.* I frequently had to drive to Frankfurt to meet with the people at the V Corps safety office, mostly civilians. They honestly believed that safety was the primary mission of the line units, rather than just something to be mindful of when performing their actual duties. I told them, no, if safety were the main thing then we could just have everyone stay home watching cartoons rather than driving very large vehicles and firing those big rockets that go “boom.” That was an alien concept to them.

*Artillery for “company.”

FILED UNDER: Terrorism, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Hal says:

    My god. This is the best you guys can do?

    No wonder his nib’s poll numbers are tanking.

  2. Ara Rubyan says:

    I remember reading the seven-month-old Vanity Fair article that the Boston Herald breathlessly reveals in their article. Here’s the money graf that you neglected to quote:

    “Somebody brought to us for approval the decision to let an airplane filled with Saudis, including members of the bin Laden family, leave the country,” Clarke told Vanity Fair. “My role was to say that it can’t happen unless the FBI approves it. . . And they came back and said yes, it was fine with them. So we said `Fine, let it happen.’ “

    How come you didn’t include this in your original post?

  3. carsick says:

    Clarke testified in front of the committee just a few days ago about the Saudi flights. He left the decision up to the FBI.
    How soon we overlook recent actual sworn testimony in an effort to confuse the issue. Or is it that reporters just don’t know what their job entails?

  4. Paul says:

    It never ceases to amaze me that the goofball left with ride their pony down in a blaze of glory.

    Clarke has been discredited on so many levels it is ceasing to be funny. Yet the whack job left still treat him like a paragon of virtue.

    Why do you folks think you keep losing elections? Because you have lost all sense of reality and proportion.

    Quit acting like partisan idiots during a time of war and maybe.. just maybe America can take you seriously again.

    Of course you will don your tinfoil hats and ignore the point. That’s why you keep losing power.

  5. Paul says:

    But to answer your question…

    Clarke keeps telling us how he was the only one that knew what was REALLY going on.

    If that was the case, why the HELL did he defer the decision to the FBI when he KNEW what was going on???? Why didn’t he stop them?

    DUH! You never thought of that!

  6. M. Murcek says:

    The “Saudi evactuation flight” was a staple of the drooling left’s argument that Bush is an honarary member of the House of Saud. Now a guy who the left wants to point to as inside proof that the Bush administration is soft on terror turns out to be at the center of the “evacuation flight” story.

    The circular logic is amusing. A whole ‘nother meaning for spin…

  7. Hal says:

    You’re starting to sound real anxious Paul. Guess the DOW above 10,000 isn’t working out as well as you hoped?

  8. Paul says:

    I’m not anxious. I’m annoyed by your stupidity. Never confuse the two.

  9. Hal says:

    Paul, listening to you is a lesson in contemplating a confused mind. You have only one strategy, which is to yell everyone down. Unfortunately (for you), this no longer works very well and is losing effectiveness by the hour. The curtain has been pulled aside and the “Great Oz” act just doesn’t cut it any more.

  10. akim says:

    What a lovely discussion. But anyway – I am inclined to believe Clarke so far. At the same time I am inclined to listen to really devastating arguments regarding his claims. So far the whole focus has been on his personal credibility/character. How easy it is to accuse a life-long bureaucrat of being a wily resentful liar? You don’t wanna know what it means, to be a career-bureaucrat.

    Me being in Canada I constantly get to watch all those documentaries regarding, for instance, those Saudi-loaded planes stealthly departing USA right after the attacks. Sadly, it would be rash to conclude that it was Clarke-only decision. Really, where was the prez looking and all those other brainy folks at the top? Could a bureaucrat worthy of his name work against his own bosses while under duty? That would be scandalous.

    The canadian media (they’re so nasty, I know) tried their best to show that Bush and Co had rather close ties (oil? oil) with the Saudis and Bin Laden’s extremely large and powerful family. Sure, this looks pretty crazy – since some in that family actually financed some bad stuff that gave such a bad name to “Bin Laden”. What’s crazy is that it’s not all that black-and-white as people like Paul would wish to believe. Yes, your President talks to you as if you were little children, of “liberty” and the “axis of evil” and “war on terror” – and it is the sacred mystery of high politics that those at the top of the world are somehow able to reconcile mind-boggling entaglements and very impure contradictions.

    The top of the world is not pure and shining – it’s pretty ugly up there, messy big time. Clarke’s disgruntled attack is one instance of that messiness being brought to light, and it looks bad, sure does, but you better take a close look and pinch your nose for all the stink.

    But don’t just say it’s not there.

  11. Paul says:

    akim it is not just personal credibility. The EXACT FACTS he claims have been disputed.

    *He claims on 9/12 Bush “intimidated” him in the situation room. There is a problem with that story. Bush did not go into the situation room on 9/12. (a President’s every move is recorded.)

    *He claimed Dr. Rice never heard of al Qeada. She was talking about it during the campaign.

    *He claimed Clinton had a terrorism plan and Bush ignored it. Problem is he told reporters years ago that Clinton had no such plan.

    *He claimed Bush asked him if there is a link to IRAQ. AND BUSH DID. Clarke ALSO says that Bushed asked him to also consider if it was Al Qeada, Hamas, and Hezbola. (DUH! That is the President’s job.)

    The list goes on and on.

    He claimed all sorta of stuff that is not true. It is far from a personal attack to point out that he is not telling the truth.

    The only people that still believe Clark also believe the war was about oil and Al Gore invent the internet. Ya can’t reason with crazy people. Hal is a prime example.


  12. Hal says:

    This is an interesting part for me as well (the not black and white thing). It seems as though the Bush administration has had Richard Clarke’s book in hand for quite some time before it came out. I think he claims it was delayed by three months while the Administration looked at it. In any event, that’s an awful long time to dissect a book and come up with a defense.

    And it’s stunning to think that the best they could come up with the slime strategyt they are pursuing. Tom Daschle put it best

    “I couldn’t be more disappointed in the White House’s response,” he said. “They have known for months what Mr. Clarke was going to say. Instead of dealing with it factually, they’ve launched a shrill attack to destroy Mr. Clarke’s credibility.”

    The explanation that James has given is that “it’s no big deal” and just kind of shrugs it off. I’m wondering if that was the strategy of the administration and then they just forgot about it because they were more focused on the campaign and their ad war.

    The real tragedy here is that even the lessons that Clarke would want us to learn don’t seem to be sinking in. Certainly the people attacking Clarke in such a ridiculous way don’t even notice there are lessons here that even they can learn – even if Clarke is a scumball.

    The transitioning in of a new Administration is a vulnerable time for America. Regardless of the political spin, one lesson is that our political system demands that the incoming administration actually listen to the outgoing, previous administration.

    They can’t just come in with dripping contempt and say they know what their priorities should be. A lot more humility and thought about transition plans should be put in by the winner of an election. A terrorist strike when you’re preocupied with tax cuts and such is something we can predict in the future.

    A criteria we should be applying to Kerry, no doubt. Some intrepid reporter should ask the man how he would handle the transition with the Bush administration. How would he weigh the evidence and priorities reported to him by Bush’s staff?

  13. Hal says:

    Paul: You set the bar way too low. For example, having terrorism simply as a priority (without modifiers) isn’t the issue. The issue is that it wasn’t an urgent priority. The urgent priorities of the incoming Bush administration were clearly tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts. Lower priorities were an ABM system, faith based charities, and trying to feed the conspiracy theory of Saddam’s non-existent terrorism against the US. Terrorism, and specifically Al Qaeda, fell somewhere in the middle? Or where?

    Instead of trying to play “gotcha” on whatever narrow point your trying to make to discredit the source, you would serve your political party well to speak to the substantive facts.

    After all, terrorism isn’t going away and it’s a heck of a lot more important than tax cuts, ABM systems and whatever else it is that GW stands for.

    Which is why the whole Iraq war is such a boondoggle. We’re spending inordinate amount of lives, money, time and diplomatic capital on something that has only the most tenuous of threads connecting it to the “war” on terrorism. It’s not like we have infinite resources, you know.

  14. Dodd says:

    Clarke’s credibilty, akim, is central to his claims. He made it that way by conscious choice. To impeach his credibility by pointing out prior inconsistent statements is “character assassination” (as Josh Marshall and his ilk would have – but only when the target is someone they’re pumping up, of course), then we’d better get rid of cross-examination (which is, of course, a central feature of the way our courts go about discovering truth).

    Were Clarke’s statements consistent, he could show that to be the case. Since they are not, he is left no recourse but to say, in essence, ‘Well, I was lying then. But I’m not now; the fact that, whereas I had nothing personal to gain before but just happen to be promoting a book now, has nothing to do with it!’

  15. Hal says:

    Well, if you were actually able to attack the credibility, then I’d agree. The problem y’all on the right are having is that you can’t even prevent the credibility attacks from shooting each other in the foot.

    And some credibility attacks are actually effective. But no one except the already converted seem to be buying the one’s being ladled out. Not a good sign that the strategy is working. The republican party faithful isn’t the target audience.

  16. SwampWoman says:

    Looks like to me that Clarke has 3 different stories…prior to book, in book, and flogging the book. Guess that means that at least 2 more books are coming out.

    I would think that he would have to earn enough from this book to retire on, because I do not think that he would be trusted by whoever is in the oval office not to write a well-paid “expose” telling the facts as he viewed them (which may or may not be correct and seem to fluctuate over time).

  17. Hal says:

    I guess we should just let deputy national security adviser Steve Hadley speak for Clarke’s credibility

    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.

  18. Dodd says:

    And some credibility attacks are actually effective. But no one except the already converted seem to be buying the one’s being ladled out.

    Yes, something along those lines is readily apparent, since you are clearly utterly uninterested in the blatant contradictions between the various forms of Mr. Clarke’s story. The subject matter of this post is but one tiny little detail in an ever-increasing mountain of evidence. Have you actually read the August, 2002 transcript?!?

    QUESTION: You’re saying that the Bush administration did not stop anything that the Clinton administration was doing while it was making these decisions, and by the end of the summer had increased money for covert action five-fold. Is that correct?

    CLARKE: All of that’s correct….

    [I]t [the five-fold increase in intelligence funding for operations against al-Qaida] came up in April and it was approved in principle and then went through the summer. And you know, the other thing to bear in mind is the shift from the rollback strategy to the elimination strategy. When President Bush told us in March to stop swatting at flies and just solve this problem, then that was the strategic direction that changed the NSPD from one of rollback to one of elimination.

    What manner of mental convolutions were necessary for you to ignore the fact that the content of that briefing – which he affirmed under oath this week was true, having already sworn that no-one in the Administration asked him to lie in the first place – is diametrically opposed to the version of events he’s pushing now?

    Clarke doesn’t have any credibility left, save amongst those who a) aren’t paying attention to any of this anyway or b) for whom the only requirement to be credible is that one be peddling a story that’s critical of President Bush.

  19. Paul says:


    Seek Therapy.


  20. Hal says:

    Paul: bite me.

    Dodd, interesting. Alternate interpretation

    The result was a strategy paper that he had presented to Berger and the other national security “principals” on Dec. 20. But Berger and the principals decided to shelve the plan and let the next Administration take it up. With less than a month left in office, they did not think it appropriate to launch a major initiative against Osama bin Laden. “We would be handing (the Bush Administration) a war when they took office on Jan. 20,” says a former senior Clinton aide. “That wasn’t going to happen.” Now it was up to Rice’s team to consider what Clarke had put together.

    Translation: of course they were doing the exact same thing as the Clinton administration. The Clinton administration wanted to do more, but thought it appropriate for the next administration to make that determination.

    Therefore, a consistent explanation in sync with the facts. Clarke could still be yelling and screaming for the Bush administration to do more and truthfully answer as you have quoted.

    Try again.

  21. Dodd says:

    Well, that answers my question. You clearly haven’t bothered to read the transcript. If you had, you’d have seen Clarke himself repeatedly – repeatedly! – denying in no uncertain terms that there was any plan handed over. This is the last of several such:

    QUESTION: Were all of those issues part of alleged plan that was late December and the Clinton team decided not to pursue because it was too close to …

    CLARKE: ere was never a plan, Andrea. What there was was these two things: One, a description of the existing strategy, which included a description of the threat. And two, those things which had been looked at over the course of two years, and which were still on the table.

    You really should read all of it, Hal. It isn’t very long, but it’s mightily illuminating. The details of that “existing strategy” and what the Bush team did with it (left it in place) plus a lot of damning (to his book tour version of events) details about the process by which they came up with a new, more vigourous strategy starting within weeks of taking office. Either he was lying when he unequivocally denied that there was a plan handed over in that briefing and said that the Bush team specifically decided not to continue to try to “roll back” al-Qaeda but, rather, to develop a strategy to eliminate them, or….

    But, since Clarke isn’t a credible witness, let’s see what Sandy Berger – the supposed source of this alleged plan and the supposed person who decided to shelve said alleged plan for the new Administration to deal with had to say about this so-called plan:

    Sandy Berger… testified [to the joint House and Senate intelligence committees investigating Sept. 11 intelligence failures]… said that after 1998, the Clinton administration took numerous steps to kill Usama bin Laden and crush Al Qaeda, but he contradicted published reports that the outgoing Clinton administration offered the incoming Bush team a war plan to go after Al Qaeda.

    Now, was Berger lying? Or is Clarke’s credibility getting a bit tattered?

    The prosecution rests.

  22. Hal says:

    Well, let’s see. We’re just the peanut gallery, and there’s a lot more that will come out in the wash.

    Prosecution? Ha.

  23. Hal says:

    Just watched Clarke on Meet the Press, and boy. You guys are looking like cheap chumps with these ridiculous attacks.

  24. akim says:

    Ever since the appearance of the FOXnews transcript (released by White House, how nice of them) it’s been clear to me that this is just not enough because the underlying assumption is wrong.
    The 9/11 commission (excerpt I’ve seen on McLaughlin Group panel, on tv) explicitely questioned Clarke in no uncertain terms on “which is true – your book or this 2002 transcript?” to which Clarke gave the obvious response: that a public servant will say whatever is needed to promote the line of whatever administration he’s serving at the moment (the moment in question being 2002).
    Pat Buchanan agrees with me on that (ha, no my hero to be sure) and a lot of other less than-willing people do too. Look here:

    Wrong assumption: public servants in office don’t lie. Hard fact: they do and they do it with flourish.
    That’s why we are always in such a dire need of ballbusting investigative journalism.

    Which is also why pitting that 2002 background-briefing-to-reporters against the current rather rabid pronouncements of this former bureaucrat is a bit of a lame move. And I think it’s past history already.

    On the other hand: the more I listen to pro and cons, the more obvious it becomes that there is a substantial *difference of emphasis* (rather than substance, please note) in Clarke’s book and Clarke’s pronouncements in various interviews this week, including whatever was said on the 9/11 commission.

    This difference of emphasis seems to be as follows. In the book he seems to give a lot of credit to the Clinton policy on terrorism as opposed to Bush’s, and to himself as its highest executor. In the interviews the emphasis is decidedly on something else: the way Bush cabinet was dead-set on wiping out Iraq way before 9/11, how this blurred their attention to other “detals”, how they subsequently *used and doctored* 9/11 events to implement that preconceived strategy.

    This is very important. For one thing, this is what eventually caused the incredibly *bad* handling of world-opinion prior to action in Iraq. The capital of sympathy the US had after the 9/11 attacks and the strike against Afghanistan was squandered and outright trampled by the messy and bully-like push for war in Iraq.
    I remember rather vividly how ambivalent the “rest of the west” was about that war – ambivalent and not at all “decidedly and resolutely opposed”. And I have to wonder: was there really no way on earth to *bring it about* without alienating everybody else in the process? Or perhaps it simply wasn’t of any consequence to the present administration? Poisoned seed – the fruit is rotten.

    Inside the USA this bullying was typified through relentless, blind media propaganda leading up to the war. Yeah, I think americans were *fooled* into that particular war under those particular claims – all of them were proven false and more of this falseness is coming to the surface every day, and Clarke’s allegations are in line with this, and for a reason – because that’s the truth for you.

    Does this mean that the war on Iraq should not have been? Does it mean that Saddam was such a cool dude and should have been left to do his thing in peace? Hell no. But if this administration had any sense it would have handled it *way* differently, and perhaps would have had the good common sense to *wait* and do it in *good time*, with proper support – both military and diplomatic.

    That’s what this whole Clarke thing is about in no small measure. And he certainly deserves to be listened to – beyond all the bickering bullshit.