In that briefing, first reported by Fox News, Clarke portrayed Bush as an anti-terror stalwart.Well, that all sounds as if the guy is a goner. Then you can go and read Dana Milbank's take on the hearing and you get a totally different feel. And five guesses as to who carries more weight in the Inside the Beltway conventional wisdom. Sad to say, it is the Washington Post's characterization of Clarke's testimony that will flavor how the rest of the country (except for the blogosphere) is informed about the hearings.
Was he merely parroting talking points given to him by the Bush team? That's the explanation he offered at yesterday's hearing. But he can't get off the hook so easily.
At the very least, what he said in August 2002 must have been factual. Otherwise, Clarke has revealed himself to be an opportunist who will lie at the direction of his superiors.
So, if what Clarke said was true (and no one has contradicted it), why didn't he include it in his book?
A crucial (false) claim of Clinton defenders is that the Clinton team forged an anti-al Qaeda war plan that was then handed over to the Bush administration and ignored. In his August 2002 briefing, Clarke said, "I think the overall point is, there was no plan on al Qaeda that was passed from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration." His book seems to confirm that, but nowhere puts it so starkly.
In his 2002 briefing, Clarke said that the Bush administration decided in "mid-January" 2001 to continue with existing Clinton policy while deciding whether or not to pursue more aggressive ideas that had been rejected throughout the Clinton administration. Nowhere does this appear in his book.
He said in 2002 that the Bush administration had decided in principle in the spring of 2001 "to increase CIA resources . . . for covert action, five-fold, to go after al Qaeda." Nowhere is this mentioned in his book.
In 2002, Clarke emphasized that the Bush team "changed the strategy from one of rollback with al Qaeda over the course [of] five years, which it had been, to a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination of al Qaeda." This is mentioned in his book, but - amazingly - as an afterthought.
Clarke in 2002 knocked down the idea that there was irrational animus toward the Clinton team on the part of the Bushies that blinded them to the necessity of strong counterterrorism. He offered himself, kept on as a holdover from the Clinton administration, as a refutation: "That doesn't sound like animus against the previous team to me." In his book, he suggests there was such an irrational animus.
Finally, in his 2002 briefing, Clarke made it clear that there was no "appreciable" change in U.S. terror policy from October 1998 until the Bush team began to reevaluate policy in the spring of 2001 and get more aggressive. His book implausibly argues the opposite, that Clinton was on the ball and Bush dropped it.
This is just the beginning of the contradictions and mistakes.
* In his testimony yesterday, Clarke said that the Clinton administration had "no higher priority" than fighting terror. No. In his own book, he says trying to force a Middle East peace agreement was more important to Clinton than retaliating for the attack against USS Cole.
Clarke, appearing unfazed by the apparent contradiction between his current criticism and previous praise, spoke to Thompson as if addressing a slow student.I had the same sensation last night trying to catch up on the day's hearings. Listening to Fox News and then to Hardball. I think that Republicans are in danger of getting caught up in the conservative echo chamber and thinking that they have defused this guy.
"I was asked to highlight the positive aspects of what the administration had done, and to minimize the negative aspects of what the administration had done," he explained. "I've done it for several presidents."
With each effort by Thompson to highlight Clarke's inconsistency -- "the policy on Uzbekistan, was it changed?" -- Clarke tutored the commissioner about the obligations of a White House aide. Thompson, who had far exceeded his allotted time, frowned contemptuously. "I think a lot of things beyond the tenor and the tone bother me about this," he said. During a second round of questioning, Thompson returned to the subject, questioning Clarke's "standard of candor and morality."
"I don't think it's a question of morality at all; I think it's a question of politics," Clarke snapped.
Thompson had to wait for Sept. 11, 2001, victims' relatives in the gallery to stop applauding before he pleaded ignorance of the ways of Washington. "I'm from the Midwest, so I think I'll leave it there," he said. Moments later, Thompson left the hearing room and did not return.
It was a masterful bit of showmanship by the former bureaucrat who became a household name in the past week with his charges about Bush. Though more prominent personalities testified in the commission's two-day public hearings, the longtime foreign policy bureaucrat stole the show.
With two dozen cameras recording his every twitch, Clarke disarmed the crowd by starting with an apology to those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, 2001. "Your government failed you," he said. "Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you."
Democrats teed up easy questions for him. Commissioner Timothy J. Roemer got Clarke, who served in four administrations, to say that there was "no higher" priority than terrorism under President Bill Clinton, but the Bush administration "either didn't believe me that there was an urgent problem or was unprepared to act as though there were an urgent problem."
Kerrey did his part to make Clarke a hero. "I feel badly," he told the witness, "because I presume that you are at the moment receiving terrible phone messages and e-mail messages."
Democrat Jamie S. Gorelick continued the praise. After one Clarke pronouncement, she replied: "Well, that's a very sobering statement, particularly from someone whose reputation is as aggressive as your reputation is."
Republican commissioners labored to change that reputation. Fred F. Fielding implied that Clarke may have perjured himself when he spoke to a congressional investigation into the attacks but did not raise complaints about Bush's Iraq policy then. Clarke, though the back of his neck and head were a burning red, replied coolly: "I wasn't asked, sir."
The gallery drew quiet when Lehman questioned Clarke. "I have genuinely been a fan of yours," he began, and then he said how he had hoped Clarke would be "the Rosetta Stone" for the commission. "But now we have the book," Lehman said, suggesting it was a partisan tract.
Clarke was ready for that challenge. "Let me talk about partisanship here, since you raised it," he said, noting that he registered as a Republican in 2000 and served President Ronald Reagan. "The White House has said that my book is an audition for a high-level position in the Kerry campaign," Clarke said. "So let me say here, as I am under oath, that I will not accept any position in the Kerry administration, should there be one."
When Clarke finished his answer, there was a long pause, and the gallery was silent. Lehman smiled slightly and nodded. He had no further questions.