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Voices in the Wilderness Are Turning Into a Chorus

March 30, 2004|Daniel Benjamin | Daniel Benjamin, co-author of "The Age of Sacred Terror" (Random House, 2002), was on the National Security Council staff from 1994 to 1999.

In its effort to discredit Richard Clarke, the White House and its allies claim that what the former counterterrorism chief has said in his book and before the 9/11 commission is inconsistent with his past remarks. National security advisor Condoleezza Rice has said his book is "180 degrees from everything else that he said."

Perhaps. I haven't seen everything Clarke said or wrote when he was in the administration. But I do know that the judgments Clarke has offered in "Against All Enemies" and his public testimony comport precisely with what he told me in early 2002.

As director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff, I worked for Clarke in 1998 to 1999, and I stayed in touch with him after I left. In meetings in his Old Executive Office Building suite, at his home and over meals, he described for me his deep disappointment at the failure to stop the 9/11 attackers and his conviction that the Bush administration had not viewed the threat of jihadist terror with sufficient urgency. No amount of bureaucratic badgering, he felt, could get them to recognize Al Qaeda as the preeminent threat facing the U.S.

In reporting for our book, "The Age of Sacred Terror," Steven Simon and I found that Clarke was not alone. Several top U.S. government officials agreed in interviews that the new administration had been unwilling to revise its understanding of America's security position and too slow to recognize the danger of Al Qaeda.

Brian Sheridan, President Clinton's outgoing assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and low intensity conflict, was astonished when his offers during the transition to bring the new Pentagon leadership up to speed on terrorism were brushed aside. "I offered to brief anyone, any time on any topic. Never took it up."

Even if one dismisses Sheridan's remarks as those of a political appointee, the same cannot be done for Don Kerrick. A three-star general, Kerrick had served at the end of the Clinton administration as deputy national security advisor, and he spent the final four months of his military career in the Bush White House. He sent a memo to the NSC's new leadership on "things you need to pay attention to." He wrote about Al Qaeda: "We are going to be struck again."

But he never heard back. "I don't think it was above the waterline. They were gambling nothing would happen," he said.

The most damaging remarks came from Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until Oct. 1, 2001. Shelton told us that in the Bush administration terrorism had moved "farther to the back burner." He also recounted how the Joint Chiefs of Staff, frustrated at the lack of progress in dealing with Al Qaeda, had begun a disinformation program in the last year of the Clinton administration to create dissent within the Taliban. But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz shut it down. Counterterrorism, the new leadership felt, was not a military mission.

Shelton added, "The squeaky wheel was Dick Clarke, but he wasn't at the top of their priority list, so the lights went out for a few months." Shelton summed up Rumsfeld's attitude as being "this terrorism thing was out there, but it didn't happen today, so maybe it belonged lower on the list."

Is the White House going to vilify these men too?

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