‘No’ Not Part of His Vocabulary
In his 30 years as a master Washington bureaucrat, Richard Clarke learned to get the job done, no matter what it took -- and no matter whom it annoyed.
If Clarke needed money for a program, he wouldn’t hesitate to fish it out of someone else’s budget. If he wanted action from a military officer, he’d call the officer in the field, ignoring the Pentagon’s chain of command. “Government is designed not to work,” he would tell subordinates. “Our job is to make it work anyway.”
It made him one of Washington’s most effective bureaucrats. But it also made enemies of those he thought stood in the way of his mission.
This week, those enemies have come to include President Bush and senior officials of the administration that Clarke once served as the nation’s top counterterrorism official.
On Monday, White House officials denounced his new book, “Against All Enemies,” as irresponsible, while Clarke fired back that it was “outrageous” for Bush to run on an anti-terrorism record that the book described as counterproductive.
Over three decades, Clarke, 53, held national security posts at the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House, rising to high-level positions in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
“If you were obstructing things, he’d roll you,” said Jonathan Winer, a friend and former State Department law enforcement official. “And people who were trying to defend their territory against him would say ... you couldn’t turn your back on him.”
Some in the Reagan and both Bush administrations thought his politics leaned a little to the left; some in the Clinton administration feared that, because of his past service, he might be a little too far to the right. But his knowledge of the issues and the system kept his career advancing.
When Islamic militants hit the World Trade Center in 1993 and a Japanese cult attacked a Tokyo subway in 1995, Clarke argued for more action and more spending against terrorism. In 1998, after Al Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in Africa, the Clinton administration promoted him to be the government’s first federal counterterrorism “czar.”
Raised in Boston and trained at the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Clarke worked night and day at the White House, presiding over one meeting after another between top-level officials.
“He owned the situation room,” Winer said. “When the government got stuck on an issue, he would push it forward. I saw that again and again.”
Others described him as an aggressive official who could not take “no” for an answer.
“Of course he made enemies,” said Steven Simon, a Rand Corp. scholar who worked with Clarke on and off for 20 years. “People got annoyed. He thought nothing of bypassing the Pentagon to talk to military commanders, or going around the CIA to the [National Security Agency] to get to the bottom of an intelligence issue.”
Clarke pushed the CIA to provide him better and more intelligence. He pushed the FBI to log progress on terrorism investigations related to terrorism, even though then-FBI Director Louis J. Freeh was resisting pressure from the Clinton White House.
Associates said Clarke, who describes himself politically as an independent, didn’t discuss policy in partisan terms. Simon said he believed that Clarke was “a dove in domestic politics, and a hawk in foreign policy.”
One current CIA official said that Clarke was always seen as apolitical, and that his criticisms of the Bush administration were not a result of partisanship. But this official contends that Clarke has a stake in defending his legacy. “He’s got his own record to defend,” the official said. “The fact is that Sept. 11 happened on his watch, a watch that extended quite a few years. There’s no doubt that he’s been very serious for some time in defending those records.”
The intelligence official said Clarke “has a bulldozer of a personality; he’s rubbed just about everyone he’s come in contact with abrasively. But he’s ... an effective bureaucrat who got things done.”
When Bush took office, Clarke was one of the few officials held over from the Clinton administration in a senior post. But his office was reduced in importance in a reorganization of the National Security Council.
In November 2001, he changed jobs, becoming special advisor on cyber terrorism. And in February 2003, two months after the White House blocked his selection as deputy secretary of the new Homeland Security Department, he submitted his resignation.
Bush invited Clarke to his office for a goodbye chat. Associates said senior White House officials thought he didn’t fit into its low-key, consensus-oriented style. “The administration is very tribal, very-close knit, and Dick was not part of their crowd,” Simon said.
For his part, Clarke in his final months felt growing frustration with the Bush team, associates said. Winer said Clarke told him “he couldn’t work for these people anymore.”
Although he didn’t discuss details of the work, Winer added, “he expressed tremendous frustration about his inability to get done things that he thought were important.”
Staff writers Greg Miller and Josh Meyer in Washington contributed to this report.