It has been widely speculated that the Democrats will use Condoleezza Rice’s confirmation hearing as an opportunity to resurrect the charge that she failed to heed warnings about al Qaeda given by Richard Clarke during the transition from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration. The point would not be to refuse to confirm her, but to once again use Clarke’s charges to discredit both Rice in particular and the Bush administration in general.
We have repeatedly critiqued Clarke’s baseless attacks on the Bush administration, which grew out of his disagreement with the administration’s policy on Iraq. Examples are “Richard Clarke, Fraud,” “Clarke Takes a Beating,” and “Richard Clarke, Liar.” If you search our site, you will find many other posts discussing Clarke’s fictitious charges.
Clarke’s credibility has long been in tatters, but the final blow was delivered today when the joint Select Committee on Intelligence released the transcript of his testimony before that committee on June 11, 2002. Clarke’s testimony, with only slight redactions for security reasons, can be accessed here.
Clarke’s testimony is completely devoid of any suggestion that he delivered any warning of any kind to Rice or any other member of the Bush administration, let alone any claim that any such warning was disregarded. In fact, what is notable about Clarke’s appearance before the Joint Committee is that the Bush administration was scarcely mentioned at all. There was a great deal of discussion about what happened during the Clinton administration, and Clarke generally tried to defend Clinton against criticism. But, with a single exception noted below, not even the most partisan Democrats on the committee, like Nancy Pelosi, tried to suggest that there was anything the Bush administration could or should have done differently during the brief time it was in office prior to September 11, 2001.
This is the complete text of Clarke’s prepared testimony as it related to the Bush administration:
In 2001, the Bush administration, immediately upon coming into office, asked for a review of how we were organized on terrorism, on homeland security and on cybersecurity. The recommendation of that review was that we split the counterterrorism portfolio from the cyberterrorism portfolio. That was agreed by May in the principals committee, and I asked to be assigned to the cybersecurity portfolio, since I had done counterterrorism for 10 years.
The Bush administration also tasked in February [Ed.: That is, within a matter of days after taking office] a policy review of al-Qa’ida. That was developed over the course of the spring and resulted in a draft Presidential directive to eliminate al-Qa’ida. That Presidential directive was finalized by the principals in the first week in September.
That is precisely consistent with Rice’s testimony before the Intelligence Committee.
Later on in Clarke’s testimony, a Congressman asked whether the Bush administration failed to support the approval of two memoranda of notification relating to al Qa’ida (i.e., approvals for covert action). Clarke denied that this had happened:
You said they were not supported by the NSC [Ed.: The National Security Council, headed by Condoleezza Rice] during this administration in 2001. I think that is inaccurate. What occurred during the spring was that the Deputies Committee of the NSC, Deputy CIA Director, Deputy Secretary of State, et cetera, met four or five times to go over our policy with regard to these MoNs and with regard to [deleted] Afghanistan, al Qa’ida in general. Those MoNs were designed to be signed after the President signed the national security directive. Now, that national security directive on the eliminatin of al Qa’ida was approved by the principals on September 4th and was on its way to the President’s desk on 9/11. So they were never disapproved. In fact, they were being incorporated in an overall package.
Specifically relating to the “warnings” that came out in the spring and summer of 2001 based on intelligence gathered overseas, Clarke testified that the Federal Aviation Administration and the FBI did what they could. They passed alerts on to 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies and to all airports and airlines. But the information was so general that nothing more effective could be done. See pages 62-63 of the transcript.
Clarke’s testimony is actually very interesting. The thrust of the questioning is about why the Clinton administration didn’t do a more effective job of pursuing al Qaeda during the 1990s. Clarke says that they tried, but were frustrated by institutional weaknesses whose roots went back at least to the 1970s. The biggest problem, Clarke argues, is that over a period of decades, the CIA was beaten up on so repeatedly by Congress over failed operations that the agency became too risk averse ever to act.
What happened here is pretty obvious. Clarke testified reasonably candidly in June 2002. But a year later, he had broken with the Bush administration over Iraq, and, like a number of other former bureaucrats, he turned his policy disagreement with the President into a personal attack. Clarke fabricated the story that he had delivered some kind of warning or secret plan to Condoleezza Rice, which she ostensibly failed to understand or to act upon. Clarke’s tale briefly caused problems for the administration, until Clarke’s credibility collapsed when it was revealed that his story was contradicted by his own contemporaneous words, as, for example, in a briefing that he gave to reporters in August 2002.
The Intelligence Committee’s release of the complete transcript of Clarke’s June 2002 appearance should be the last nail in the coffin of the Democrats’ plan to use him to discredit Rice.