'Who's going to believe us?'
Richard Clarke, in campus appearance, continues to fault Bush team's post-9/11 policies
| 16 September 2004
After 30 years in Washington and a decade in the White House, Richard Clarke burst upon the national consciousness in March as the author of the best-selling Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror. In a heated election year, this ultimate insider — the government’s top security adviser under Bill Clinton and, until resigning last year, George W. Bush — charged that the president who built a reputation on his leadership of the “war on terror” had not only failed to heed warnings of likely al Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets, but had botched the post-9/11 response as well.
Clarke’s dramatic second act came weeks later, when he appeared before the commission investigating the September 11 attacks. “To the loved ones of the victims of 9/11, to them who are here in the room, to those who are watching on television: your government failed you,” Clarke said, in perhaps the most riveting moment of the high-profile hearings. “Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you.”
At Zellerbach Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 7 — the day when U.S. military deaths in Iraq passed the 1,000 mark — that moment was replayed on video for a capacity crowd, as Clarke himself watched from the stage. Then, in conversation with Berkeley national-security experts Michael Nacht and Steven Weber, he warned that instead of improving intelligence and boosting security, the Bush administration has waged a misguided war, leaving the nation vulnerable to new domestic attacks and hindering anti-terrorism efforts abroad.
“What we have done with the invasion of Iraq is that [al Qaeda has] a lot more recruits now, and they’re a lot more militant than before the invasion,” he said. “The pool of people who really hate us is so much greater than it was on 9/11 because of this needless and counterproductive war in Iraq.”
Our policies in Iraq have been “almost entirely wrong,” he added. “The president kept saying Iraq was the central front in the war against terrorism — well, it is now.”
Meanwhile, despite beefed-up security at the nation’s airports, “nothing’s been done” to protect subways and other commuter rail lines, leaving them exposed to the kind of devastating, pre-election attack that shocked the world recently in Madrid. “That could happen on the BART system today, guaranteed.”
Echoing his now-famous frustration with the Bush White House — expressed in his book, in his testimony before the 9/11 commission, and on “60 Minutes” and the Washington talk-show circuit — Clarke said the federal government had two central tasks following the strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It should have gone after al Qaeda, which it did “for a while” before shifting its focus from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein. And it should have worked on reducing vulnerabilities here at home.
“We really haven’t done that very much,” Clarke said, bemoaning what he called the government’s “token efforts” at boosting security.
What the Bush administration has done instead, he suggested, is alienate much of the U.S. population and the world community.
In the calm, measured baritone familiar to millions of Americans, Clarke predicted that no matter who wins the White House this November, the erosion of America’s credibility abroad — a consequence of the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq — will hamstring the president in addressing legitimate national security threats like Iran and North Korea.
“Iran really did support al Qaeda, and Iran really is trying to get nuclear weapons,” he said, drawing a contrast with Iraq. When it becomes necessary to deal with genuine threats — from Iran and North Korea to Pakistan, another candidate to become a nuclear power — “who’s going to believe us?”
Clarke, whose book takes its title from the oath to protect the Constitution “against all enemies” that’s sworn by everyone from presidents to new citizens, sparked the most enthusiastic applause when he condemned what he termed the administration’s “stupid” assaults on civil liberties inside U.S. borders, which, he said, sow mistrust between Americans and their own government.
While acknowledging that Jose Padilla — held without formal charges since May 2002 for allegedly plotting with al Qaeda to set off a radioactive “dirty bomb” in the U.S. — “is not a nice man, and probably ought to be in jail,” Clarke objected that Padilla, a Brooklyn-born U.S. citizen, is being denied his right to due process because Attorney General John Ashcroft believes he is an “enemy of the state.”
“What the lawyers call extralegal,” he said, “I call illegal.”
Declaring that the enemy is “not terrorism per se” (“You can’t engage in a war on a tactic”), Clarke said the most militant Islamic fundamentalists mean to establish theocratic, 14th-century-style caliphates, much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan.
“I don’t think we should do their job for them,” he said to cheers, “and start taking away civil liberties here.”
Clarke talked for about 80 minutes with Nacht, a professor of public policy and dean of Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, and Weber, director of the campus’s Institute of International Studies and a professor of political science. The event was sponsored by the Goldman School, the Institute, and the Office of the Chancellor.