Politicized Intelligence

Mansoor Ijaz has a withering response to Richard Clarke’s claims that the Bush Administration was indifferent to terrorism before 9/11.

Mr. Clarke’s premise that Bush national security officials neither understood nor cared to know anything about al Qaeda is simply untrue. I know because on multiple occasions from June until late August 2001, I personally briefed Stephen J. Hadley, deputy national security adviser to President Bush, and members of his South Asia, Near East and East Africa staff at the National Security Council on precisely what had gone wrong during the Clinton years to unearth the extent of the dangers posed by al Qaeda. Some of the briefings were in the presence of former members of the Clinton administration’s national security team to ensure complete transparency.

Far from being disinterested, the Bush White House was eager to avoid making the same mistakes of the previous administration and wanted creative new inputs for how to combat al Qaeda’s growing threat.

Mr. Clarke’s role figured in two key areas of the debriefings — Sudan’s offer to share terrorism data on al Qaeda and bin Laden in 1997, and a serious effort by senior members of the Abu Dhabi royal family to gain bin Laden’s extradition from Afghanistan in early 2000.

• Fall 1997: Sudan’s offer is accepted by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, then rejected by Mr. Clarke and Clinton National Security Adviser Samuel “Sandy” Berger.

Sudan’s president, Omar Hasan El Bashir, made an unconditional offer of counterterrorism assistance to the vice chairman of the September 11 Commission, then Rep. Lee Hamilton, Indiana Democrat, through my hands on April 19, 1997. Five months later on Sept. 28, 1997, after an exhaustive interagency review at the entrenched bureaucracy level of the U.S. government, Mrs. Albright announced the U.S. would send a high-level diplomatic team back to Khartoum to pressure its Islamic government to stop harboring Arab terrorists and to review Sudan data on terrorist groups operating from there.

As the re-engagement policy took shape, Susan E. Rice, incoming assistant secretary of state for East Africa, went to Mr. Clarke, made her anti-Sudan case and asked him to jointly approach Mr. Berger about the wisdom of Mrs. Albright’s decision. Together, they recommended its reversal. The decision was overturned on Oct. 1, 1997.

Without Mr. Clarke’s consent, Mr. Berger is unlikely to have gone along with such an early confrontation with the first woman to hold the highest post at Foggy Bottom.

U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed by al Qaeda 10 months later. Files with detailed data on three of the embassy bombers were among the casualties of Mr. Clarke’s decision to recommend missile attacks on an empty Khartoum pharmaceutical plant rather than get Sudan’s data out almost a year earlier to begin unraveling al Qaeda’s network.

To this day, neither Mr. Berger nor Mr. Clarke has explained to the American people why a deliberative decision of the U.S. government, made by interagency review, was overturned in such cavalier fashion by a small clique of Clinton advisers in the face of Sudan’s unconditional April 1997 offer to cooperate on terrorism issues. If he was interested in facts, why did Mr. Clarke spurn the recommendations of his own intelligence and foreign policy institutions that the Sudanese offer be explored? Why did he not act on the Sudanese intelligence chief’s direct approach to the FBI, of which he was aware, in early 1998 just prior to the final planning stages of the embassy bombings?

• Spring 2000: Abu Dhabi’s offer to get bin Laden out of Afghanistan falls flat.

In late 1999, after a barrage of threats from al Qaeda’s senior leadership against the Abu Dhabi royal family, a senior family member approached the Taliban foreign minister and Mullah Omar to discuss mechanisms for getting bin Laden out of Afghanistan. Mr. Clarke, who enjoyed close relations with the Abu Dhabi family, was brought into the loop early to prevent separation between Washington and Abu Dhabi on such a sensitive matter.

While Mr. Clarke was skeptical of the idea at first, he played ball long enough to understand the real intentions of the Taliban regime. Smart enough, except when the deal got real.

As the strategy started taking shape in earnest — a personal request from President Clinton to Sheikh Zayed, Abu Dhabi’s ruler, seeking help to get bin Laden coupled with a $5 billion pan-Arab Afghan Development Fund that would be offered in return for bin Laden taking residence under house arrest in Abu Dhabi, with the possibility of extraditing him later to the United States — Mr. Clarke again scuttled the deal by opting instead for the militaristic solution. He pushed for armed CIA predator drones to hunt bin Laden in the remote mountains of northeastern Afghanistan.

Abu Dhabi was left with a black eye. The Taliban became even more aggressive in allowing al Qaeda to plan and carry out terrorist operations from Afghan soil. Another chance to capture the world’s most notorious terrorist had been lost.

Mr. Clarke’s selective memory serves no interest but his own agenda. He personifies the politicizing of intelligence by pointing fingers during the political high season for failures that not only occurred on his watch but also were due partly to his grand vision he would one day personally authorize a drone operation to kill bin Laden.

Interesting. Hindsight is 20/20 and Clarke’s arguments were obviously persuasive at the time, since they were enacted into policy. Still, his own failures in the unfolding of the al Qaeda threat are worth noting when he decides–two years after the fact–to come out and make charges that others didn’t do enough to secure our country. The fact that the timing coincided with the release of his new book is also worth noting.

Update: The advantage of criticizing a failed policy of the past is that we know what happened didn’t work and it’s possible that a rejected option would have.
My point in quoting Ijaz isn’t that 9/11 was Clarke’s fault–even if his policy views were idiotic (and I’m not sure they were) he had to get buy-in from other senior officials to put them into operation–but that he had a substantial hand in shaping the policies that left OBL out there leading terrorist strikes for years. It renders rather implausible his claims that “if only they’d listened to me,” we’d have avoided 9/11.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, 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.

Comments

  1. jen says:

    I caught a bit of Ijaz’s interview on Fox News yesterday and I’ve never seen him that angry. He’s really incensed over Clarke’s assertions. I’ve never seen him like that – he’s usually very mild mannered.

  2. Brett says:

    So, it’s all Clarke’s fault, really — because he wanted a more “militaristic” solution?

  3. Steven says:

    No, Brett, the issue is Clarke’s credibility, and, more importantly, how much he represents a clear asssessment of the Bush administration’s view on al Qaeda and terrorism in general.

  4. Paul says:

    Let’s review Brett. Clarke was the head counter-terrorism under Clinton but not a whole lot of counter-terrorism occurred.

    There are dozens of factual inaccuracies in his charges and he was well known to be loopy long before his book came out. He was loopy under Reagan. (spend some google time)

    The only people that believe he is telling the truth also believe that Bush was AWOL, Al gore invented the internet and that the Tooth Fairy really exists.

    And there is just no reasoning with those people.

  5. Brett says:

    I was responding to the specific claims made in the excerpt, not the (predictable) broad-brush character assassination coming out of the White House. Look again at the second bullet point above. Ijaz seems to indicate that he believes that Clarke’s fault was in promoting the use of military force rather than diplomacy, unless I’m reading the argument wrong. No?

  6. James Joyner says:

    Brett,

    Yes, I think that’s right. He was looking for a chance to blow OBL up rather than work a deal to facilitate his capture. The advantage of criticizing a failed policy of the past is that we know what happened didn’t work and it’s possible that a rejected option would have.

    See my update.

  7. Dodd says:

    It’s always amusing to me how, when the WH responds to detractors, it’s always a “broad-brush character assassination coming out of the White House” or some such thing. Clarke can accuse Bush et al of whatever vile crimes he wishes and they accept that as mere policy disagreement. But as soon as anyone points out that maybe, just maybe, Clarke has an axe to grind and perhaps his credibility in making the charges is less than exemplary, that’s “character assassination.”

    Well, sorry, Brett. As much as you might prefer that they just lie there and try to enjoy it, when one is attacked, one has the right to fight back. Clarke put his own credibility squarely at issue when he claimed that he warned them what to do and they ignored him. If, in fact, that isn’t quite true, then it is in no way “character assassination” to point that out.

  8. Brett says:

    James:

    I’m really not sure that the charge is “if only they’d listened to me, we’d have avoided 9/11.” I just read the bulk of the book, and it’s the final two chapters that are really worth focusing on, it seems to me (of course, I read them last so they’re in my thoughts). The argument is that in order to avoid another 9/11, we need to get serious about going after al Qaeda, and the war in Iraq does little toward that goal (and is probably counterproductive). I can understand why the Bush administration has focused on the criticisms of its pre-9/11 policies, but to be honest, it’s the rest of the argument that’s got me worried.

  9. James Joyner says:

    Brett:

    That’s a reasonable enough argument, although certainly not a novel one. It’s certainly not what 60 Minutes focused on. Of course, I’ve long quit watching that show, since Hewitt doesn’t even bother to pretend to be an honest journalist anymore.

    I’m not sure what else it is we should be doing to fight al Qaeda. We’re certainly killing a lot of them in Iraq, although I think that’s a happy accident rather than the plan behind the war.