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The insider

A year ago, Richard Clarke blew the whistle on the Bush administration's failure to take Al Qaeda seriously. He's still whistling -- but how long will the public listen?

IT HAS BEEN more than two years now since Richard A. Clarke left the federal government he served for three decades, and more than a year since his testimony before the 9/11 Commission, when he turned to the families of the Sept. 11 dead, and said, ''Your government failed you, and I failed you." Yet over a recent lunch at a Manhattan restaurant, where the Dorchester-born former White House counterterrorism director was joined by his longtime deputy, Roger Cressey, Clarke seemed as much an insider and a celebrity as ever.

From the casual manner in which he let slip little-known details about the ongoing war on terror, to the furtive glances of other diners who recognized him but were too polite to gawk, it was clear that Clarke's prominence in ongoing debates on national security has not diminished.

Whereas former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, another high-level official who was critical of President George W. Bush's policy on Iraq, has faded from view since the election, Clarke - whose 2004 book ''Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror" coincided with his appearance before the 9/11 Commission and helped make him a household name - shows no sign of going away. Which raises the question: What happens when a whistleblower keeps on whistling? And how long will the public continue to listen?

. . .

To be sure, Clarke was an unusual whistleblower from the start. When Dick Cheney dismissively suggested in 2004 that Clarke was not ''in the loop" on terrorism policy, a chorus of commentators responded that not only was Clarke in the loop, ''he was the loop." With 11 years on the National Security Council, including three as national coordinator for counterterrorism, Clarke was able to testify first-hand to uses and abuses of intelligence at the highest levels of government. His claims - that the Bush administration underestimated the Al Qaeda threat in the months before Sept. 11 and undermined the war on terrorism with war plans for Iraq in the months after - were based on his own personal encounters with Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, and other central figures.

Like other whistleblowers, Clarke also faced a vigorous assault on his credibility. Cheney's remark was benign next to suggestions by Republican politicians and commentators that Clarke's revelations were merely a bid to sell copies of his book, smear Rice (who had stripped him of some of his authority when she arrived in office), or score a job in a Democratic administration.

''You get one crack at being a big whistleblower," Daniel Ellsberg, the former defense and state department official who in 1971 leaked the classified documents that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, said in a recent interview. ''Then your credibility decays." But Clarke has worked hard to sustain his credibility and stature since the election, writing and speaking out regularly on defense and intelligence debates as though to position himself as a kind of national security adviser in exile.

Whereas Sandy Berger, national security adviser in the Clinton administration, may be content to write policy papers and build back-channel consensus inside the Beltway, Clarke is a creature of the mass media willing to grab the public by the lapels. In addition to co-teaching a course on counterterrorism at Harvard's Kennedy School with his former NSC colleague Rand Beers, Clarke is a regular commentator for ABC News and recently launched a column called ''The Security Adviser" in The New York Times Magazine, where he has covered topics ranging from Iran's sponsorship of terrorism to the efficacy of a national ID card.

He also has a novel due out in October, titled ''The Scorpion's Gate," that bears the tagline ''Sometimes you can tell more truth through fiction." (''It's a thriller placed in the Middle East," Clarke said, raising an eyebrow. ''There may be US government officials who are distorting intelligence, worried about WMDs, who knows?") And ''Against All Enemies" has been optioned by Columbia Pictures, with a script for the movie currently underway.

''My role is to help people understand complex security issues," Clarke told me. ''It's all about continuing the debate, the dialogue, but trying to do it in a less shrill, partisan way than people did during the campaign. Educating people so they can make their own judgments, but providing the factual and sometimes the interpretive counterweight to the crap the administration gives them."

Of course, Clarke - who has an intense presence, choosing his words carefully and punctuating many sentences with a sudden grin and flash of eye contact, as though to say, ''Isn't it obvious?" - is hardly alone in endeavoring to expand the national conversation about security and intelligence issues. Beers, who quit the NSC in protest over Iraq and became national security adviser to John Kerry's presidential campaign, points to a group of like-minded former officials, such as Leon Fuerth, former national security adviser to Vice President Al Gore, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who are speaking out. And Republican senators such as Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, and John McCain of Arizona have been occasionally vocal skeptics about White House policy.

But few have the dramatic flare of Clarke. Last winter, he wrote a terrifying cover story for The Atlantic Monthly titled ''America Attacked: The Sequel." Written as a fictional history from the point of view of the year 2011, it recounted a disastrous string of low-tech terrorist attacks on shopping malls and casinos, computer networks and chemical facilities, with devastating effects on the US economy and American society.

When asked if such a piece might be seen as alarmist, Clarke replied that this is the only way to get people to sit up and listen.

''Make it a little exciting. Take a page out of the way the 9/11 Commission wrote prose, and talk about Joe and Mary in the trailer park getting knifed on their way to Las Vegas," he said, referring to an incident in the Atlantic article that set the catastrophic chain of events in motion. ''Bring it home. Make it real, and people will read it."

. . .

If there is a Cassandra quality to such talk of future attacks, it is worth remembering that Clarke's warnings about the menace of Al Qaeda were written off by some as hysteria in the years before Sept. 11. And when it comes to informing the public about when it should and should not feel threatened, Clarke is not the only one whose credibility is at issue.

''The administration as a user or manipulator of intelligence has really lost its credibility and the intelligence community's credibility," says Rand Beers, pointing to the trumped-up case of Iraqi WMDs and the failure, ''despite a hemorrhage of data points in the summer of 2001," to appreciate the terrorist threat prior to Sept. 11. One result has been the perception, especially in the charged atmosphere of the election campaign, that the administration's decisions about when to go public with threat assessments have been driven as much by politics as security.

''Have there been any Al Qaeda press conferences since the 5th of November?" former senator and 9/11 commissioner Bob Kerrey asked. ''None. How many were there leading up to the election? About one every week. My guess is that the number of threats has not gone down."

The repeated warnings, Clarke believes, have caused the country to drop its guard. He says that the fire and police chiefs whom he advises have told him that the terror alert level ''can go orange, red, yellow, polka dot," and they will not react, because they have become inured to such warnings.

And yet Clarke, who maintains many contacts inside the government, knows that some alerts are more legitimate than others. He recalled the warning early last fall of a terror attack on financial institutions, which was met with skeptical jokes by late-night talk show hosts.

''That one was actually something they probably should have believed," he said. But ''they had been so lulled by Tom Ridge's color codes and duct tape, thinking that all of these people who issue warnings are just boobs."

For all his own forthrightness, Clarke says that officials need to know when to keep their mouths shut. ''I think it's the duty of government sometimes not to share information when that information's clearly bogus," Clarke said. ''There should be some quality control. And [the Bush administration] didn't do that. That's how they lost credibility."

By contrast, Kerrey said, Clarke ''has tremendous credibility," despite the partisan attacks on him. ''He's not always right - but you know he's not cooking the books to suit his own political interests."

While it might behoove Kerrey, a Democrat, to endorse Clarke, there are also Republicans who defend him. After White House spokesman Scott McClellan suggested last March that the charges in Clarke's book boiled down to ''Dick Clarke's American grandstand,"' Senator Hagel replied that the White House should not evade the issue by assaulting Clarke's personal integrity. ''This is a serious book written by a serious professional who's made serious charges," Hagel said last March. ''And the White House must respond to these charges."

That Clarke emerged from the crucible of last spring's 9/11 hearings with his reputation intact may be due to his long experience with bare-knuckle Washington combat. During his years in government he was known as brilliant but impatient, an abrasive figure who was willing to alienate peers and superiors in order to get things done. A former colleague once described him as ''a hands-on bureaucratic guerrilla."

This muscular approach to bureaucracy has earned Clarke some detractors, among them Michael Scheuer, the former intelligence officer who ran the CIA's Bin Laden desk and, under the name Anonymous, has written two of his own books, including the best-selling ''Imperial Hubris," criticizing the Bush administration's war on terrorism. It is ironic that Scheuer, who in fact agrees with Clarke on many of the fundamental issues surrounding 9/11, Al Qaeda, and the Iraq war, has become such a vociferous critic.

''I have a very jaundiced view of Clarke," says Scheuer, who maintains that Clarke's performance before the 9/11 Commission was a bid for a role in a Democratic administration, and who describes Clarke's book as ''a job application."

Daniel Ellsberg disagrees, pointing out that if Clarke was concerned merely with his own professional advancement, resigning his senior post in the Bush administration would have been counterproductive. ''Clarke was in," Ellsberg told me.

Still, Ellsberg asks why it was that Clarke - like O'Neill, or Scheuer, or, for that matter, himself during the Vietnam War - waited to make his revelations until it was, in some respects, too late. Had Clarke and others broken rank earlier, Ellsberg said, ''I believe they could've stopped the Iraq war."

. . .

Clarke says he does not envision a return to public office. Having spent decades pushing to get his various agendas through the political bureaucracy, he explains, he can have more influence from outside the political establishment than from within it.

Whatever he says today, Clarke will likely be offered posts in future Democratic administrations. And the logic of his professed desire to remain outside the government raises the question of how he can retain his special insider aura now that he no longer ''is the loop." As an interpreter of unfolding events Clarke can draw on his long experience and his many contacts, but at what point does he stop being the whistleblower holding politicians' feet to the fire and become just another commentator?

Inevitably, given his reputation as the official who saw 9/11 coming, Clarke's ongoing relevance will depend to a large degree on his ability to spot the next threat. And the emerging issue about which Clarke is most concerned today is that America's enemy is changing before its eyes.

''This is my Battle of Algiers' analogy," he said, referring to Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 film about the Algerian revolt against the French. ''In The Battle of Algiers' the French have an organizational chart of the Algerian resistance and they eliminate all of them. And then they lose."

''For us," he continues, ''the Battle of Algiers is Iraq. Because we're doing Iraq, we're generating a whole new generation and we have no idea who they are."

Clarke believes that America could continue to capture and kill key Al Qaeda figures, but still lose the war on terrorism. Over lunch, he and Roger Cressey seemed almost nostalgic for the organizational clarity of Al Qaeda.

''If you've got a movement, you can't attack it," Cressey said. ''It doesn't have a nerve center. Al Qaeda was a rational actor."

''It was organized like a business," Clarke said.

''And the global Sunni extremist movement is not," Cressey added.

''I think there's a cycle," Clarke concluded. ''If you think of Al Qaeda as a curve, we're largely on the downside of that curve, but where that curve starts sloping down, the curve of the next wave, the next generation, is building up. And it's going to hit us in a little while."

Patrick Radden Keefe is a project leader at the World Policy Institute and the author of ''Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping" (Random House).

(Illustration / Barry Blitt)
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