Allegation: The Bush administration failed to treat the al-Qaida threat as an urgent priority before Sept. 11, 2001.
True. Bush acknowledged in an interview with Bob Woodward last year that he “didn’t feel that sense of urgency” before Sept. 11. But top officials from the Clinton and Bush administrations agree that their options for attacking al-Qaida bases in Afghanistan were limited until Sept. 11 galvanized world opinion. Although few in Washington were as alarmed by the al-Qaida threat as Clarke was, Bush was concerned enough that he directed his staff to come up with a better strategy for eliminating the terrorist network.
Allegation: The Bush administration was fixated on Iraq from the day Bush took office.
True, but some officials were more fixated than others. Iraq had been near the top of the list of global trouble spots for at least a decade, so it’s not surprising that Bush pressed intelligence agencies to look hard for any evidence of Iraqi involvement in Sept. 11. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has acknowledged that he raised the possibility of attacking Iraq in the days after Sept. 11, despite the fact that there was and still is no evidence linking Iraq to the terrorist attacks.
Allegation: More diligent action against al-Qaida could have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks.
Probably not, but there’s no way to know for sure. The independent Sept. 11 commission is sharply divided on this question. There’s no doubt that more could have been done to thwart the attackers, but Clarke has acknowledged that even if Bush had followed all his advice, it wouldn’t have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks.
Allegation: Iraq was a distraction from the war against al-Qaida.
True. The war in Iraq diverted attention and resources from the campaign in Afghanistan and elsewhere. In addition, the war appears to have inflamed Islamic radicals, and allowed al-Qaida two years to decentralize. But Bush may be right in saying that a free and democratic Iraq could help blunt the appeal of terrorism in the Arab world and point the way to a new era there. And the lesson of what happened to Saddam Hussein could curb the behavior of other hostile nations.
Allegation: Clarke wasn’t “in the loop.”
False. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice put this one to rest almost as soon as Vice President Dick Cheney made the allegation. “I would not use the word out of the loop. … He was in every meeting that was held on terrorism,” she said. However, it isn’t clear what loop Cheney meant.
Allegation: Clarke is an opportunist whose motives and credibility are suspect.
Judgment call. Clarke clearly has an agenda, but that doesn’t mean his critique is incorrect. The election-year timing of his book’s publication, his financial interest in maximizing public interest in it, his past praise for Bush’s performance and his rosy view of the Clinton administration raise questions about his motives. Even so, rather than rebutting Clarke’s criticism on its merits, Bush administration officials and their allies have cast doubt on his motives. Clarke has denied under oath that he would accept any position in a Kerry administration.