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Published: Sunday, 3/28/2004

Clarke's real message: America is still not safe

WASHINGTON - We've read the book. We've heard the testimony. So, is Richard Clarke a hero for exposing America's weaknesses in the war on terrorism - or a disgruntled ex-White House staffer with an ax to grind?

Mr. Clarke, the former national coordinator for counterterrorism in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, has written a new book, Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror, that has caused an uproar. So did his testimony before the bipartisan commission investigating whether the murders of 3,000 Americans in New York, at the Pentagon, and in southwestern Pennsylvania could have been prevented.

Mr. Clarke bluntly states that before 9/11, the Bush Administration did not give urgent attention to the known threat that al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden posed; he also said the war in Iraq, which has never been shown to have had any connection with 9/11, has deflected vital resources and energy from the war on terrorism at a crucial period.

During commission hearings, the White House and some Republican members of the panel lashed out at Mr. Clarke.

They accused him of peddling his book and being a hypocrite because he praised administration efforts against terrorism while briefing Congress and the press when he was in the White House, but when he left, wrote a book that ridicules those efforts. Some Republicans say in disgust that Mr. Clarke's real motivation is to see President Bush defeated Nov. 2, and use words such as "scurrilous" and "despicable" in describing him.

The "liberal media" have made him a false hero, according to one incensed Republican.

A reading of the book does show Mr. Clarke to be impolitic and abrasive. He comes off as full of himself, convinced he alone is right. The book is self-serving, larded with incidences where only he predicted the next catastrophe; where he put a top FBI agent in his place by finding a suspected terrorist cell by looking in the phone book; where he convinced a president to do something the president didn't want to do.

He nastily refers to Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice president, as a "right-wing ideologue." He ridiculously says that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, early in 2001, didn't seem to have heard of al-Qaeda. He often does not distinguish between the facts and his own opinion.

Ms. Rice demoted him. So instead of briefing the top players, Mr. Clarke briefed on a second tier. It's clear that still rankles, months after he left the White House. He was used to one-on-one access to President Bill Clinton, whom he felt understood the danger of al-Qaeda; he never was permitted to brief Mr. Bush on terrorism until after 9/11.

On the other hand, Mr. Clarke says he voted as a Republican in 2000 and said under oath that he would never work for John Kerry should the Massachusetts Democrat get elected president. Mr. Clarke worked for President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. Mr. Clinton asked him to stay on. And so did Ms. Rice, although she knew of his reputation as arrogant and obsessed with al-Qaeda.

For all that, Mr. Clarke's book is a tome of remarkable straight talk, studded with chilling details of bureaucratic infighting, of warnings gone unheeded, of pettiness and lack of steadfastness among top aides, of frustration, and the narrow-mindedness of those who should have been concerned only with the safety of the American people.

He may not have gotten all the names, places, dates, and facts correct, but he has gripping recall and detail. It was his solitary apology to the families of the 9/11 victims - because their government had failed them - that was the emotional high point in the commission hearing room.

The real message of the book is not the allegation that Mr. Bush was asleep at the switch for eight crucial months, but that America is still not safe. U.S. cities are still unprepared to deal with either a biological or nuclear disaster. Money has not been spent wisely. Partisan politics has played far too big a role in homeland security.

Whether or not bin Laden is caught, al-Qaeda is growing and the chance to stop it is gone. America is more hated in the Arab world than ever before. Old allies are angry. U.S. soldiers are dying in Iraq.

With Mr. Bush's campaign built around his claim that the nation needs his leadership in the fight against terrorism, the allegations in Mr. Clarke's devastating book should be part of the national debate. And his charges are devastating or the White House wouldn't be so worried about them.

Mr. Clarke is an iconoclast burning with what he sees as his duty to tell Americans what he thinks. Judge for yourself the value of his wake-up call by reading the book (get it at the library to avoid shelling out $27). Faced with one of the most important elections of our lives, we have a civic duty to think this through for ourselves.



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