Over the weekend, former Bush administration official Richard Clarke -- author of the new book, Against All Enemies -- told 60 Minutes' Lesley Stahl , "I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it." That's a serious charge by any stretch, but even more so once you realize Clarke's role at the White House: He advised George Bush on terror.
Intriguing? To say the least.
Clarke claims he asked for "a Cabinet-level meeting to deal with the impending al Qaeda attack" when Bush came into office in January '01. The meeting didn't take place till September -- at which point it was too late to do any good. And his warnings, all along, went unheard.
"I began saying, 'We have to deal with bin Laden,'" Clarke says of an April '01 discussion. "Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, said, 'No, no, no . . . We have to talk about Iraqi terrorism.'"
In fact, according to Clarke, Iraq remained atop Team Bush's to-do list even right after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Donald Rumsfeld, for one, pushed hard for war with Baghdad. As Clarke puts it, Rumsfeld "said there aren't any good targets in Afghanistan," but "lots of good targets in Iraq" -- which is odd, since Iraq didn't house Usama bin Laden and the Taliban.
And as for the president? "The president dragged me into a room . . . and said, 'I want you to find whether Iraq did this,'" Clarke says. "Now he never said, 'Make it up.' But the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted... a report that said Iraq did this."
Bush has since said for the record  Iraq did not.
So now the clean-up crews are working overtime in their effort to discredit Dick Clarke. Writing in the Washington Post, Condoleezza Rice defended Bush's first days in office . "The president wanted more than a laundry list of ideas simply to contain al Qaeda or 'roll back' the threat," she said. "The president and Congress, through the USA Patriot Act, have broken down the legal and bureaucratic walls that prior to Sept. 11 hampered intelligence and law enforcement agencies."
More to the point, Dick Cheney told Rush Limbaugh  that Clarke "wasn't in the loop . . . on a lot of this stuff." In fact, according to Cheney, Bush was unimpressed with Clarke's results as Bill Clinton's terrorism czar -- and so much so he demoted Clarke from a Cabinet-level post.
And asked by Limbaugh if the administration "wanted to go in and level Iraq" before 9/11 -- as Clarke claims -- Cheney said, bluntly, "that's just not the case."
Yet, to a degree, we know that it is.
In a letter marked January 26, 1998 , the Project for the New American Century -- or PNAC -- urged then-president Clinton to adopt a strategy that would "aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime from power." This strategy was to include "a willingness to undertake military action," with an eye towards ending "the threat of weapons of mass destruction." And should Clinton adopt it, PNAC said, "We stand ready to offer our full support."
Eighteen men signed this letter -- including future Bush administration officials Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle. Cheney himself signed PNAC's 1997 Statement of Principles , as did Jeb Bush.
The vice president is entitled to defend his pre-9/11 support for regime change. But to shrug it off like it never existed? That's "just not the case," I'm afraid.
But let's get back to Clarke for a moment. Let's assume he really was out of the loop. This man's White House tenure dates back through Clinton and Bush, Sr., all the way to Ronald Reagan. Even with his demotion, we're not talking about an entry-level grunt or intern here. We're talking about a man who's spent three decades in government (sort of like Saddam). So even if he does hold a grudge, and even if his book is self-serving, what's it matter if his facts check out? It's not like he's the first former Bush official to make these claims.
"From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go," former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill  said of the Bush White House recently. Now, of course, no one's going to deny Saddam's being "a bad person," but what about his weapons? Was America's war truly an act of self-defense? Not according to O'Neill, it wasn't. "I never saw anything that I would characterize as evidence of weapons of mass destruction."
O'Neill was quickly dismissed as bitter. He wasn't a team player, they said. That's why the administration fired him.
Nazi Germany had folks who weren't team players. Hitler called them "the Jews."
And say what you will about Clarke and O'Neill, but their stories aren't uncorroborated. In 2002, Bob Woodward -- the man who broke Nixon -- published Bush at War. "Before the [9/11] attacks, the Pentagon had been working for months on developing a military option for Iraq," Woodward wrote in his even-handed account. By 9/12, "Rumsfeld was raising the possibility that they could take advantage of the opportunity offered by the terrorist attacks to go after Saddam immediately." Just like Clarke has suggested.
Americans were sold a war in self-defense. September 11th "changed everything," it was said, and we mustn't allow terrorists to get weapons from states like Iraq. Yet, last year, Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair , "The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction." Perle, too, told a London crowd  last November, "I think in this case international law stood in the way of doing the right thing." The bottom line is this war was going to happen one way or another, whether we liked it  or not .
Which brings us back to 9/11.
Two months before the 2000 election, PNAC proposed  a defense strategy that'd "preserve and extend" -- keyword: "extend" -- America's "position of global leadership." Its realization would be slow in coming, they said, "absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event -- like a new Pearl Harbor." On September 11, 2001, under PNAC's watch, a catastrophic and catalyzing event occurred. Anthrax-laced envelopes popped up soon thereafter, planting a seed for war over WMDs. To date, we've found neither the person who sent those letters nor weapons in Iraq. That's three major intelligence failures. We're supposed to give them more money and more power now. Oh, but don't worry: They want to "protect" us. They want to "democratize" the world.
"Now, who knows what the real situation is," Howard Dean said  last year, "but the trouble is that by suppressing that kind of information, you lead to those kinds of theories."
We hear so much about foreign dictators. We know leaders cause problems to keep themselves employed. Why is it some questions about 9/11 are out-of-bounds? Americans ought to be asking all questions, even the seemingly silly ones. Assessing our own errors won't bring back the victims, but it won't trash their memory, either. Mistakes were made. We know this. But was it incompetence or corruption? Dean's comments were criticized, but his logic was spot-on: The fact is we don't know what happened. If the White House is on the up-and-up here -- if their want for regime change was as well-intentioned as it now seems ill-advised -- they should open up and show us, for their sake and ours.
Patriot Act supporters tell civil libertarians they don't have to worry if they've done nothing wrong. The same standard should apply to elected officials and bureaucrats. They have nothing to fear if they've nothing to hide. But if they hide? Perhaps we should fear them.