Intelligence Failure

Reviewed by Samuel J. Spector

Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror
by Richard A. Clarke
Free Press, 2004, 304 pages.

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Several books in the wake of 9/11 have pledged to provide detailed accounts of how the Bush administration articulated and carried out its controversial national security strategy. The most thorough of these are Plan of Attack by veteran journalist Bob Woodward, and Ghost Wars by Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll. But Richard A. Clarke is uniquely positioned to make good on that promise: As deputy assistant secretary of state for intelligence in the Reagan administration, assistant secretary of state in the first Bush administration, and, from May 1998 to March 2003, national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection, and counterterrorism, his new book is truly an insider’s account—and there’s no one like a disgruntled former high-level official to tell a good story.
Against All Enemies, which appeared against the backdrop of Congress’ 9/11 commission hearings in March 2004, is a page-turner. Particularly enthralling is the play-by-play account of the White House’s response in the hours after the attack on the World Trade Center, when Clarke was appointed “national crisis manager.” It is a shame, then, that the book’s central thesis—namely, that the Clinton administration handled the terror threat far better than did that of President George W. Bush—does not hold water.
Clarke argues that, unlike Clinton, Bush “squandered the opportunity to eliminate al-Qaida,” and, by waging war in Iraq, contributed instead to that organization’s revitalization. Clarke lays out a series of priorities that he contends were not shared by the Bush administration either before or after September 11: Eliminating al-Qaida, stabilizing nations threatened by Islamic terrorism while offering clear alternatives to radical Islamist ideology, and reducing vulnerabilities at home. Clarke reports, for example, that although early on he asked national security adviser Condoleezza Rice for a cabinet-level meeting to discuss the terrorist threat, the meeting did not take place until September 4, 2001—too late to have had any preventative value.
Although Clarke’s criticism of Clinton is far less harsh than that which is reserved for Bush, he does acknowledge some of the limitations of Clinton’s counterterrorism policies. In the period leading up to al-Qaida’s declaration of war against the U.S. in February 1998, for instance, Clarke details two missed opportunities to go after the al-Qaida leadership, as well as the largely ineffective retaliation against targets in Afghanistan after the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Meanwhile, a joint FBI-CIA investigation into the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen failed to name al-Qaida as the perpetrator. Pressed into single-mindedness by the goal of securing an Israeli-Palestinian peace, Clinton was hardly eager to take a retaliatory action that might harm American standing in the Arab world, Clarke concedes.
Still, Clarke lauds Clinton for taking the threat from al-Qaida seriously long before September 11. By neutralizing the threat of state-sponsored terrorism posed by Iraq and Iran, he argues, Clinton readily identified al-Qaida as the principal post-Cold War threat, and thereby bolstered American counterterrorist capabilities. According to Clarke, Clinton was impeded not by his unwillingness to apply sufficient resources toward combating terrorism, but by bureaucratic paralysis in—and among—the CIA, the FBI, and the Pentagon, as well as pressure from a Republican Congress. “Despite the 1995 Presidential Decision Directive on the subject [of preventative measures against chemical and biological terrorism],” writes Clarke, “only the Defense Department was taking [it] seriously, and the Pentagon’s concern seemed limited to the safety of their troops from such weapons.... The other departments were not taking any hints that they should put some serious money in their budgets for this purpose.”
Indeed, Clarke offers favorable assessments of Clinton’s handling of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the debacle in Somalia. He credits the striking of Iraqi intelligence headquarters by American cruise missiles following the averted assassination attempt on former President Bush in Kuwait with deterring Iraq from perpetrating any further terrorism until the invasion in March 2003, insisting that “it seemed that Saddam had gotten the message. Subsequent to that June 1993 retaliation, the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities never developed any evidence of further Iraqi support for terrorism directed against Americans.” Until, that is, “we invaded Iraq in 2003.” Last, he credits U.S. covert actions in response to the 1996 Khobar bombing with ending Iran-sponsored terrorism against American targets.
In joining the chorus attacking the Bush administration at a vulnerable stage in its campaign in Iraq and at home, Clarke effectively absolves the Clinton administration of responsibility for failing to deter the attacks of September 11. “Clinton left office with Bin-Laden alive, but having authorized actions to eliminate him and to step up the attacks on al-Qaida,” Clarke writes. “He had seen earlier than anyone that terrorism would be the major new threat facing America, and therefore had greatly increased funding for counterterrorism and initiated homeland protection programs.”
What’s interesting here, however, is that in absolving Clinton, he unintentionally reveals evidence that implicates him at least as much as George W. Bush in not doing enough to stave off the attacks. Indeed, Clarke’s rosy picture of the Clinton administration is contradicted by the succession of missed opportunities, aborted missions, bureaucratic incompetence, and half-measures that Clarke himself mentions. Thus Clarke glosses over the failures of Clinton’s policies, just as he consistently fails to pose the difficult questions about the ways in which those policies impacted the credibility of American deterrence around the world.
Clarke overlooks, for instance, the inability of Clinton’s national security team to make the crucial connection between the 1993 World Trade Center bombers and the transformation of the Afghan Services Bureau into al-Qaida. He neither questions the Clinton administration’s treatment of the investigation as primarily a criminal matter, nor holds it accountable for the FBI’s failure to translate Arabic materials that could have shed light on al-Qaida’s structure and plans.
Instead, Clarke’s selective account can be relied upon to overstate the significance of counterterrorist actions ordered by Clinton. Rather than dwelling on evidence suggesting Clinton paid insufficient heed to the emerging threat from al-Qaida, for example, Clarke directs our attention to a retaliatory missile strike upon the headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence services in Baghdad in June 1993. This “success,” however, is undermined by Clarke’s revelation that the strike was scheduled for a Saturday night upon the suggestion of Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who was worried about legal grounds and casualties. “I was initially disappointed that the retaliation had been so small, that targets had been taken off the list, and that the raid was scheduled in the middle of the night when few Iraqi intelligence officers would be present.” As Clarke acknowledges—almost despite himself—this is not the last time that legal technicalities trumped tactical aims during Clinton’s tenure.
Similarly, Clarke fails to recognize that successful deterrence is achieved only when an enemy is convinced that the costs of a further action outweigh its benefits. He seems unperturbed, for instance, by the likelihood that the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia within months of the “Black Hawk Down” incident in October 1993 harmed America’s deterrent power and confirmed al-Qaida’s perceptions that the U.S. had “cut and run.” Clarke contents himself instead with a shockingly unimaginative conclusion: “Did our self-restraint reduce our deterrence? I feared that it would, but I had no idea about how to do anything about it.” Nor, when he turns to Iraq, can Clarke be bothered to evaluate the harm to American credibility of over a decade of failed inspections and toothless UN Security Council resolutions.
Clarke asserts that Clinton and his advisers were committed to placing the U.S. response to terrorism high on the list of post-Cold War priorities. But even if, as Clarke suggests, terrorism received adequate attention under Clinton, this attention did not translate into meaningful action. For example, Clarke applauds an agreement to coordinate FBI and National Security Council terrorism investigations, only to reveal that the memorandum was never signed. Furthermore, although Clarke credits Clinton with making important speeches on terrorism and major policy declarations, like the one that emerged from the 1996 international summit on terrorism in Sharm al-Sheikh, he seems strangely blind to the fact that the administration’s willingness to act rarely matched its keenness to issue high-profile statements. Clarke’s position itself—national coordinator for counterterrorism—affords us a good example of this impotence, since as he admits, it possessed no budgetary or operational decision-making powers, nor the authority necessary to get the job done.
We urgently require someone of Clarke’s experience to guide us toward purposefulness in the war on terror by coming to grips with the irresoluteness of the past. Unfortunately for the readers of Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke does not rise to the occasion.

Samuel J. Spector was a 2003-2004 U.S. Fulbright Fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.

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