The Vindication of Richard Clarke

by Margie Burns

Former White House security advisor's memo to Condoleezza Rice shows he warned her of al Qaeda threat in early 2001.
The testimony of former White House security advisor Richard Clarke to the 9/11 Commission is now thoroughly vindicated. In 2004, Clarke told the Commission under oath that he had warned then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and the administration about the terrorist threat posed by Al Qaeda in early 2001.

Clarke’s testimony, on March 24, was shortly followed by denials and arguments from the White House. The next day, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said, “Well, but look, in terms of Dick Clarke, I mean, Dick Clarke has a growing credibility problem. He stands by his past comments [loyal to the administration] which contradict his new assertions. And he continues to struggle to reconcile his changing story with those past comments. He continues to make statements that are flat-out wrong.”

The White House line, that there was something wrong with Dick Clarke, was then predictably amplified by the rightwing “noise machine,” which immediately rushed into action. Following Clarke’s "60 Minutes" interview that week, Rush Limbaugh interviewed Vice President Cheney on Dick Clarke (the transcript is still on the White House web site). Cheney was heard to say, “Well, he wasn't--he wasn't in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff. And I saw part of his interview last night, and he wasn't....It was as though he clearly missed a lot of what was going on.”

Clarke’s testimony, however, is more than borne out by the long-delayed release of the memo itself.

Its date is January 25, 2001: “Memorandum for Condoleezza Rice.” It begins, “Condi, Steve asked today that we propose major Presidential policy reviews or initiatives. We urgently [underlined] need such a Principals level review on the al Qida network.” For the record, that “principals” meeting finally took place on September 4, 2001, more than eight months after Clarke requested it, and exactly one week before 9/11.

One of the first moves by the incoming Bush team was to abolish inter-agency work groups and to reorganize intelligence committees by geographical region. Clarke warned against this. No wonder they spent months attacking him.

The first paragraph refers, furthermore, to information about al Qaeda already laid out: “As we noted in our briefings for you, al Qida is not some narrow, little terrorist issue that needs to be included in broader regional policy.”

The full paragraph continues, “Rather, several of our regional policies need to address centrally the transnational challenge to the US and our interests posed by the al Qida network. By proceeding with separate policy reviews on Central Asia, the GCC, North Africa, etc. we would deal inadequately with the need for a comprehensive multi-regional policy on al Qida.” One of the first moves by the incoming Bush team was to abolish inter-agency work groups and to reorganize intelligence committees by geographical region. Clarke warned against this. No wonder they spent months attacking him.

Clarke’s warning is what one might consider emphatic: “We would make a major error if we underestimated the challenge al Qida poses, or over estimated the stability of the moderate, friendly regimes al Qida threatens.”

He also recommends specific concerns to address, invites analysis and critique, and calls for immediate focus on the topic: “I recommend that you have a Principals discussion of al Qida soon and address the following issues,” including “Threat Magnitude: Do the Principals agree that the al Qida network poses a first order threat to US interests in a number of regions, or is this analysis a ‘chicken little’ overreaching and can we proceed without major new initiatives and by handling this issue in a more routine manner?”

The memo was concurred in by, among others, CIA analyst Mary McCarthy, whose testimony to Congress, in this writer's opinion, was some of the best presented on domestic intelligence.

Commentators like Limbaugh can say what they like about Clarke, of course. But Clarke's memo gives no sense that he was somehow irrational. Insiders subject to extreme complacency or the tunnel vision brought about by relentless self-advancement do not typically invite comment, much less debate. Look at George W. Bush and his new Secretary of State, who just held a speaking engagement in Paris that was limited to pre-screened students with pre-approved questions.

Margie Burns, a freelance writer and college English instructor, lives in Cheverly, Md. She can be reached at

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This story was published on February 14, 2005.