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The U.S. Department of Fear

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William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail: warkin@igc.org.

For all the sustained attention paid to whistle-blower Richard Clarke, and for all the fireworks surrounding the investigations of the 9/11 commission, we still don’t have an answer to the most important question: Could the events of Sept. 11 have been prevented by the Bush and Clinton administrations?

I think the answer is yes. But not by killing Osama bin Laden prior to the attacks or by following the advice of Richard Clarke.

In his book and recent testimony, former terrorism czar Clarke suggests that, because of a myopic focus on war with Iraq, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and various Cabinet secretaries and Bush political appointees all ignored his warnings that Al Qaeda was the real threat to the United States.

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It is true that the new administration believed that a final showdown with Saddam Hussein would take place on its watch. The Bush gang assumed that either sanctions would crumble or the cat-and-mouse game of enforcing the no-fly zones would escalate into a full-fledged war.

The new administration also came to office firmly committed to an “ABC” foreign policy -- Anything But Clinton. Central to this philosophy was rejection of the previous administration’s tendency to “swat at flies,” which is how the Bush crowd saw Clinton’s Kosovo air war and his retaliation for earlier Al Qaeda attacks.

So when Clarke, who had also served in the Clinton White House, sent an “urgent” memo to Rice and others on Jan. 24, 2001, warning of an impending Al Qaeda attack, it is no wonder the new administration wasn’t seized with any urgency.

Another factor was Clarke himself. Not only was he seen by some as major-domo of a feckless strategy, the overheated Clarke in the past had cried wolf, trumpeting exaggerated warnings of impending doom.

“If an attack comes today with information warfare,” Clarke publicly warned on Dec. 7, 1998, it would be “much, much worse than Pearl Harbor.” A computer information attack would present the U.S. with “a nationwide catastrophe ... [and] severely test our reconstitution capability,” he said.

A year later, Clarke warned of another looming nationwide catastrophe: the Y2K computer problem. And after the 2000 election, he called on the next president to boost computer security to prevent a “digital Pearl Harbor.”

Clarke often joined Clinton Defense Secretary William S. Cohen in warning of the perils of a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction, cautioning that a tiny number of biological weapons could kill millions of Americans.

All through this period, Clarke was also a master at the Washington game of “I’ve got a secret.” Former colleagues say Clarke frequently bragged of knowing things he couldn’t talk about. When military actions were launched, as in the bombing of the aspirin plant in Sudan that the Clinton team claimed was connected to Iraq, Bin Laden and chemical weapons, Clarke hinted at having the tippy-top secrets that justified action.

Cyber warfare, Y2K, Al Qaeda, anthrax. In Clarke’s shadowy world, the dots were all connected.

After Sept. 11, the Bush administration in its shock and grief, came around to the Clarke view that the only thing that would have been more awful for the United States was a terrorist attack with biological, chemical or radiological weapons. And so they focused their attentions in that direction.

The Bush administration accepted the Clarke-Cohen conviction that terrorists were eventually going to obtain weapons of mass destruction, and like the previous administration, they began to see signs of impending doom everywhere they turned. Sure, it is the case that Iraq was already on the agenda of administration heavyweights. But as they began contemplating the potential of Hussein handing over weapons of mass destruction to Al Qaeda or some other terrorist group, national security professionals from both parties agreed that something needed to be done.

Now Clarke is again unhappy about the way the Bush administration is fighting the war on terror. He says going to war against Iraq was a mistake and a diversion. Yet he fails to see that the White House’s grasping at straws of weak intelligence, its unwillingness to take chances with the weapons of mass destruction that they believed Hussein had, and its defiance of many in the international community are a direct outgrowth of the Clarke mind-set.

One can only wonder what Clarke would be saying today had the Bush administration not gone to war with Iraq: What would he be warning us about Saddam Hussein and the threat he poses? No doubt he would have something to complain about, some new apocalypse to warn America about.

And he does. “The No. 1 nation that threatens us today is Iran and has been Iran for a very long time,” Clarke said last May. Iran, he warned, uses terrorism to attack the U.S. Iran is about to acquire nuclear weapons.

The bigger problem in all of this, though, is not what Clarke said or didn’t say; nor is it whether the Bush administration’s Iraq policy is wise. The problem is that we’re running American foreign policy on fear. The national security professionals provide raw -- and often unreliable -- intelligence, which creates a sense of panic, and the imagined consequences of inaction spark covert wars and secret deals that are both seductive and much easier to carry out than openly debated and declared wars.

You want to better understand what happened in the first nine months of the Bush administration? It was in many ways a continuation of the very Clinton approach the new Bush team supposedly hated.

U.S. counterterrorism strategy before Sept. 11 was dominated by largely ineffective covert action. A few officials in soundproofed rooms directed top secret activities based on the highest-level intelligence. Such secret operations had two flaws. They focused on things like killing Bin Laden and picking off terrorists one at a time -- an approach subsequently abandoned -- and the secretive operations excluded the broader institutions of government and society, even the military, that must be mobilized in any effective strategy for dealing with terrorism.

As a consequence, the State Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service failed to screen Arab visitors and verify passports and visas. The CIA and intelligence community heard the chatter but didn’t have a clue. The Justice Department made drugs and crime a higher priority than terrorism. The FBI and local law enforcement agencies couldn’t see what was right in front of their eyes. The Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration didn’t move to improve airline security.

Ultimately, the federal government failed to fulfill its covenant to protect American lives and liberties because it failed to explain to the public and even to its own institutions the threat that we all faced. Instead of focusing on improving government operations across the board in ways that could have prevented terrorism, both the Clinton and Bush administrations got caught up in the derring-do of assassinations and covert actions. And that meant that plots went undetected, suspects unchecked and box cutters were taken easily onto airliners.


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