March 22, 2004: Introduction to a Blog

Welcome, friends, to the latest feature of the Tony Snow Show website: My blog. (That’s shorthand for an online diary, known in the trade as a weblog, which since has been shortened to “blog.”)

I’ll try to post each weekday on topics large and small. Some days, like today, I’ll tackle big, grave matters. At other times, I’ll aim at smaller quarry. If nothing else, they can give you a sense of where I stand on things, and might even provide a juicy target if you disagree. (Feel free to express support or opposition to my views.)

The Big Topic: Did George Bush fall asleep on the job?

Richard Clarke, Bill Clinton’s former White House counterintelligence chief and 30-year public servant for administrations of both parties, got a big moment in the sun on last night’s edition of “60 Minutes.” Clarke, who is hawking a book that I have yet to read, accused President Bush of dereliction of duty, insinuating that the commander-in-chief was so preoccupied with knocking off Saddam Hussein that he ignored Usama bin Laden. Give Clarke credit for guts. He decided to tug on Superman’s cape, and guess what? Team Bush has hit back. Hard.

Condi Rice, Clarke’s chief target, appeared on the morning shows wearing something she seldom wears in public: absolute, seething passion. Gone was her usual sense of proud composure, and so were the usual robotic answers. She had talking points, but she also had an attitude. Her fury showed, and it made for terrific television.

Her main gripes: Clarke kept his blockbuster assertions to himself when it mattered – for nearly two years after September 11. In addition, he was obsessed with ideas that seemed bold and large during the Clinton years, but looked pathetically small after the terror strikes on Washington and New York. The president dismissed Clarke’s suggestions as “swatting at flies” because they were too timid and tepid.

While scribes will depict Clarke as a Tortured and Neglected Man of Conscience, he isn’t likely to become a subject of great public sympathy and acclaim. Anybody who has spent a couple of years in Washington has encountered a self-proclaimed “whistle-blower” who is merely a chest-thumper. Clarke is like one of those guys who shows up at the family reunion, jumping into the frame in every photo. In his case, however, the picture features world leaders. Perhaps I overstate, but he seems determined to make himself into a bigger player than he was.

Give him credit for one thing, though. He has raised a key question: Which of the two presidential candidates is better suited to wage the war on terror, and which responded more manfully and decisively in the hours and days following the al Qaeda assault on American soil? But his presentation, as presented on "60 Minutes," raises questions of its own.

First, was Clarke settling scores? Before Bill Clinton came to office, Clarke had spent his public service career toiling as a bureaucratic gnome in significant but uncelebrated positions. President Clinton delivered him to the promised land of access — he briefed Clinton regularly. When George W. Bush came to office, Clarke retained his position as counterterrorism chief, but lost access to the president. That’s the sort of thing that causes many Washington insiders to tremble and rage. I don’t know if Clarke was one of them, but it’s worth asking.

More significantly, the Clinton administration failed miserably and repeatedly in its efforts to take out al Qaeda. You can find wonderful analyses of that period in a couple of recent books: Rich Miniter’s “Losing bin Laden” and Stephen Coll’s “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.” Both describe the way in which Bill Clinton was ill-served by hand-wringing minions, who stalled promising efforts to nab or kill bin Laden. Mansoor Ijaz also argues that Clarke himself nixed an effort to transfer bin Laden eventually into U.S. hands. Clarke emerges as a folk hero in some of these accounts, in that he constantly hectored colleagues to go after bin Laden. Alas, those efforts yielded little fruit in either White House.

Clarke also spoils his moment by botching a key fact. He places a great deal of emphasis on a September 12, 2001 meeting in which he allegedly spoke with the president in the White House situation room. The only problem is that White House records indicate that no such meetings took place. The White House’s response to Clarke hints at other inconsistencies:

• Clarke says his warnings about al Qaeda were ignored and that he was frozen out of top White House counsels for months. White House records indicate that he chaired a high-level meeting on al Qaeda barely a month into the administration, and that his own task force had completed an action plan by September 4.

• Clarke says the president was determined to make Saddam a scapegoat for the September 11 massacres. But the White House timeline indicates that intelligence sources had thoroughly discounted any Iraqi role in the affair by September 16, at which point the president ordered aides to focus on Afghanistan and bin Laden.

• Clarke apparently never requested to brief the president on any key September 11th issues — hijackings, al Qaeda cells in the United States, etc. In fact, he only once asked to brief the president — not about terror, but cybersecurity.

There’s a political dimension as well. Clarke and other Clinton-era aides say they handed the Bush White House a plan for getting bin Laden, and that the Bushies dismissed it out of hand. Yet, the Clinton folks didn’t start talking about this plan until …. September of 2002, just before the Congressional midterm elections. That’s not all: Sandy Berger, Clinton’s former national security adviser, has backed away from claims that there ever was a formal “plan” for knocking out the bad guys. At best, the Clinton team had a series of suggestions, which, according to Rice, the Bush administration did adopt, but which were neither necessary nor sufficient for silencing the bad guys.

One more thing: Newsweek reported recently that Clarke’s best friend is Rand Beers, who also happens to be John Kerry’s foreign-policy adviser. That means little, of course; many of my closest friends disagree with me on lots of things. Nevertheless, the two buddies apparently spent some time recently sipping wine on Beers’ porch and bemoaning the evils of the Bush Doctrine. They believe the administration has been insufficiently warlike against bin Laden and that it has been too mean to our former European allies. In other words, the president should have acted unilaterally against bin Laden, but not against Saddam.

 In any event, the early bidding makes Clarke look like a disgruntled employee who a) didn’t like getting demoted after a moment in the sun under Bill Clinton, b) still fumes at having failed to capture bin Laden or to persuade anybody in any administration to take his advice seriously, c) wants revenge by selling a book that contains “revelations” he didn’t bother to share with past generations of congressional investigators or key officials in the Bush administration and d) wants grateful Americans to cushion his path with palm fronds and hallelujahs.

I’ll post again on the case – and reassess the early returns – after I’ve had a chance to read his book. After all, you can’t believe everything you see on "60 Minutes."