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March 24, 2004

The Attack Method, or How I Lost the Election

TNR's Ryan Lizza "
Logic Jam":
Their initial approach, now discarded, was to argue that Bush actually embraced Clarke--a holdover from the Clinton administration--in 2001, thus demonstrating that the administration was serious about Al Qaeda before September 11. On "60 Minutes" last weekend, Condoleezza Rice's deputy, Steve Hadley, made this case:

Dick is very dedicated, very knowledgeable about this issue. When the President came into office, one of the decisions we made was to keep Mr. Clarke and his counter-terrorism group intact, bring them into the new administration--a really unprecedented decision, very unusual when there has been a transition that involves a change of party. We did that because we knew al Qaeda was a priority, that there was a risk that we would be attacked and we wanted an experienced team to try and identify the risk, take actions to disrupt the terrorists--and if an event, an attack were to succeed, to be an experienced crisis management team to support the president.

This approach seemed to overcome the central paradox in any Bush strategy to destroy Clarke: How can you defend yourself from charges that you didn't take terrorism seriously before 9/11 while simultaneously attacking the credibility of the person you put in charge of terrorism before 9/11? Hadley's answer was to point out that Clarke's appointment proved the Bush administration was serious.

But on Monday, once the Bushies had taken a closer look at how devastating Clarke's account was, Hadley's soft approach was abandoned. The new method for overcoming the inconvenient fact that Bush put Clarke in charge of terrorism was to simply write Clarke out of the history of the Bush administration altogether. Instead of Bush's terrorism adviser, Clarke became a weak Clintonite who did little to halt Al Qaeda's rise during the 1990s. If there was one consistent theme to yesterday's attack, this was it. The most intellectually dishonest performance was Dick Cheney's emergency interview on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. Limbaugh wondered how in the world Bush could have made this guy Clarke head of counterterrorism. "Well, I wasn't directly involved in that decision," Cheney said. "He was moved out of the counterterrorism business over to the cybersecurity side of things. That is, he was given the new assignment at some point there. I don't recall the exact time frame."

Who could be expected to keep track of such minor details as how long Clarke was kept as counterterrorism czar? Maybe some scenes from Clarke's book would jog the vice president's memory. Clarke was the guy standing in Cheney's office on the morning of 9/11 with Rice in the minutes after the first attack. He's the guy that Condi turned to and asked, "Okay, Dick, you're the crisis manager, what do you recommend?" Later in the day he was also the guy standing in between Rice and Cheney in the White House Situation Room. He was the one whose shoulder Cheney placed his hand on when he asked, "Are you getting everything you need, everybody doing what you want?" Cheney might also remember Clarke as the guy who asked Cheney to request authorization from Bush to shoot down any hijacked airplanes. He may also recall him as the man who briefed Bush when the president finally arrived back at the White House. In other words, Cheney neglected to inform Limbaugh's audience that Clarke didn't move to cyberterrorism until a month after 9/11.

Clarke's nine-month tenure as the man in charge of counterterrorism in the Bush administration is being thrown down a memory hole. "So the only thing I can say about Dick Clarke," Cheney continued on Limbaugh's show, "is he was here throughout those eight years going back to 1993, and the first attack on the World Trade Center in '98 when the embassies were hit in east Africa, in 2000 when the USS Cole was hit, and the question that ought to be asked is, what were they doing in those days when he was in charge of counterterrorism efforts?"

Rice echoed the memory-hole strategy yesterday, noting on Fox News, "Dick Clarke was counterterrorism czar for a long time with a lot of attacks on the United States. What he was doing was--what they were doing apparently was not working. We wanted to do something different." She didn't get a chance to explain how this statement comports with Hadley's insistence that "one of the decisions we made was to keep Mr. Clarke and his counter-terrorism group intact" because "we wanted an experienced team to try and identify the risk, take actions to disrupt the terrorists."

So there's a significant problem with the memory-hole strategy: It requires everyone to suspend their knowledge of one of the most elementary facts of this story. Perhaps recognizing this, the White House has trotted out a few supplementary lines of attack.
Lizza also has a little quote in a Campaign Journal post, not about the letter Clarke sent Bush on resigning, but about the letter Bush sent Clarke in return:
I would never accuse the White House of selectively leaking a document that doesn't tell the whole story, but why didn't Bush's aides also release the letter Bush sent Clarke? Here's what The Washington Post reported in a March 13, 2003 piece about Clarke's retirement:

The present commander-in-chief is said to like Clarke -- he sent him a warm, handwritten note and invited him to the Oval Office on Feb. 19 for a goodbye chat
Seems niceties are the way to go both ways ... or they really did like each other before ... or only Bush liked Clarke or ....

TNR also has headlines: Chutzpah
by Lawrence F. Kaplan -- Dems are using Richard Clarke's book to rehabilitate Clinton's terrorism policy. That's bad history -- and bad politics.
and Without Distinction
by Spencer Ackerman -- Colin Powell's intellectually dishonest testimony before the 9/11 Commission.