Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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The cudgel the Republicans on the 9/11 Commission <$NoAd$>tried to use against Richard Clarke today was the background briefing which the White House released to Fox News.

Here's former Reagan Navy Secretary John Lehmann (itals added)...

I never got Jim Thompson to stand before 50 photographers reading your book. And I certainly never got 60 Minutes to coordinate the showing of its interview with you with 15 network news broadcasts, the selling of the movie rights, and your appearance here today. So I would say, Bravo. (LAUGHTER) Until I started reading those press reports, and I said this can't be the same Dick Clarke that testified before us, because all of the promotional material and all of the spin in the networks was that this is a rounding, devastating attack -- this book -- on President Bush. That's not what I heard in the interviews. And I hope you're going to tell me, as you apologized to the families for all of us who were involved in national security, that this tremendous difference -- and not just in nuance, but in the stories you choose to tell -- is really the result of your editors and your promoters, rather than your studied judgment, because it is so different from the whole thrust of your testimony to us. And similarly, when you add to it the inconsistency between what your promoters are putting out and what you yourself said as late as August '05, you've got a real credibility problem. And because of my real genuine long-term admiration for you, I hope you'll resolve that credibility problem, because I'd hate to see you become totally shoved to one side during a presidential campaign as an active partisan selling a book.

Here's how Fox News described Lehmann's comment ...

"You've got a real credibility problem," John Lehman, former Navy secretary under President Reagan, told Clarke, calling the witness "an active partisan selling a book."

Clarke responded: "I don't think it's a question of morality at all, I think it's a question of politics."

Now, get a load of this Clarke guy! Okay, wait, don't get a load of him yet. Lehmann's broadside was harsh enough. Did Fox accurately portray what Lehmann said? I'll let you decide.

Okay, now ... get a load of this Clarke guy! Lehmann accuses him of all this terrible stuff. And this character Clarke comes back with, "Hey buddy, morality, shmorality. It's all politics to me!"

Hmmm. Actually, that wasn't his response. That was his response to a completely different exchange, which came later ...

THOMPSON: Mr. Clarke, in this background briefing, as Senator Kerrey has now described it, for the press in August of 2002, you intended to mislead the press, did you not?

CLARKE: No. I think there is a very fine line that anyone who's been in the White House, in any administration, can tell you about. And that is when you are special assistant to the president and you're asked to explain something that is potentially embarrassing to the administration, because the administration didn't do enough or didn't do it in a timely manner and is taking political heat for it, as was the case there, you have a choice. Actually, I think you have three choices. You can resign rather than do it. I chose not to do that. Second choice is...

THOMPSON: Why was that, Mr. Clarke? You finally resigned because you were frustrated.

CLARKE: I was, at that time, at the request of the president, preparing a national strategy to defend America's cyberspace, something which I thought then and think now is vitally important. I thought that completing that strategy was a lot more important than whether or not I had to provide emphasis in one place or other while discussing the facts on this particular news story. The second choice one has, Governor, is whether or not to say things that are untruthful. And no one in the Bush White House asked me to say things that were untruthful, and I would not have said them. In any event, the third choice that one has is to put the best face you can for the administration on the facts as they were, and that is what I did. I think that is what most people in the White House in any administration do when they're asked to explain something that is embarrassing to the administration.

THOMPSON: But you will admit that what you said in August of 2002 is inconsistent with what you say in your book?

CLARKE: No, I don't think it's inconsistent at all. I think, as I said in your last round of questioning, Governor, that it's really a matter here of emphasis and tone. I mean, what you're suggesting, perhaps, is that as special assistant to the president of the United States when asked to give a press backgrounder I should spend my time in that press backgrounder criticizing him. I think that's somewhat of an unrealistic thing to expect.

THOMPSON: Well, what it suggests to me is that there is one standard of candor and morality for White House special assistants and another standard of candor and morality for the rest of America. I don't get that.

CLARKE: I don't think it's a question of morality at all. I think it's a question of politics.


THOMPSON: I'm not a Washington insider. I've never been a special assistant in the White House. I'm from the Midwest. So I think I'll leave it there.

We'll touch on the substance of the matter later. In general I think Fred Kaplan had it just right in the title of his piece this afternoon: "Richard Clarke KOs the Bushies."

The campaign to destroy Dick Clarke's credibility is today rolling out (or I should say the White House is rolling out) a background briefing Clarke gave in August 2002. (Needless to say, the White House has taken it off background -- which is in itself reminiscent of this earlier incident. Interestingly, the transcript has thus far only appeared on the White House-subservient Fox News network, which may be a point that bears watching.)

They've brought this transcript forth because in it Clarke seems to follow some of the same line or spin that the Bush administration is now using against him -- much of it this point about whether there was a 'plan' handed over. Now, I've given it a quick read. And on some points there's not much of a contradiction at all. On other points there are contradictions, though I think one of the issues here is that what now Clarke says the new team ignored wasn't a Clinton administration plan per se, but rather his plan.

In any case, the larger point I think is this: Career civil servants working for a given White House do tend to follow that White House's spin when they're giving background briefings. That's hardly a surprise. It's somewhat in the nature of the enterprise.

Luckily we don't have to rely on what Clarke said then or what he's saying now.

He's now come forward, speaking for himself, with a long list of detailed claims and accusations about the White House's inattention to the terrorism issue during the first eight months of the administration and their desire to wrench the war on terror into a second Iraq war after 9/11.

As Fred Kaplan notes in this excellent piece in Slate, if Clarke's claims are factually wrong they should be easily rebuttable -- given that the White House has all the relevant documents and evidence at its disposal. Yet, thus far, they've scarcely made an attempt and have focused all their fire on attacking Clarke personally -- that he was liar and a boob and both out-of-the-loop and responsible for everything that went wrong.

That pretty much tells you the whole story.

McClellan on Richard Clarke from yesterday's gaggle <$NoAd$> ...

QUESTION: And then, can I ask you to clarify, too, because one of the points you've made is he was here for nearly a decade; why did he raise these concerns -- why did he raise these concerns a year-and-a-half after he left? What, then, was the report that he put together that, then, was on the President's desk September 4th, the action plan in terms of doing --

McCLELLAN: Well, that was something the National Security Council put together. That was something -- it was a comprehensive strategy for eliminating al Qaeda, not rolling back al Qaeda. The President wanted a strategy that had teeth, that when we came in and we looked at -- looked at the threat posed by al Qaeda, we made it a top priority. But the President wanted to go beyond the actions of the past, which were maybe aimed at rolling back al Qaeda. He wanted a comprehensive strategy that had teeth. That's why we made al Qaeda a priority from very early on.

And then you also look at what we did after 9/11. We immediately took action to go into Afghanistan and remove the Taliban from power and to deny al Qaeda the safe haven that they had in that country to plan and plot against America and our friends and allies.

QUESTION: But you have left the impression that Clarke did little or nothing to deal with or propose solutions to dealing with al Qaeda while he was here.

McCLELLAN: No, no, no. Here in the United States. No, no. Dr. Rice actually asked him for ideas in the very first week of this administration that he had for going after al Qaeda. And some of those -- some of those we pursued --

QUESTION: Wasn't he the one who pushed in many ways and helped put together the report that landed on the President's desk September 4th?

McCLELLAN: He was involved in our counterterrorism efforts up until October 9th of 2001, when that position was separated, something that he actually suggested, as well.

QUESTION: Well, help clarify, because if he was involved with and helped author this report that had to deal with dealing with al Qaeda that landed on the President's desk a week before September 11th --

McCLELLAN: At the direction of --

QUESTION: -- how can you say he did nothing or raised no concerns?

McCLELLAN: At the direction of -- at the direction of the National Security Advisor. I'm talking about here in the United States. Remember that the fact is that he was not in many of the meetings where he would have some of the direct knowledge of what he asserts. He appears to be more wrapped up in the process about what title he had and what meetings he was able to participate in or not participate in. The world according to Dick Clarke is all about Dick Clarke. If he and his ideas are not at the center of all that is going on, then he thinks you cannot be taking terrorism seriously.

Well, let's look at the facts. Let's look at the action we took. This President took action immediately upon coming into office to develop a comprehensive strategy to eliminate al Qaeda. The first major foreign policy directive of this administration was a comprehensive -- to develop a comprehensive strategy to eliminate al Qaeda, not to roll back al Qaeda.

QUESTION: Understood, but explain how there's not a glaring contradiction. You say he did nothing, and yet there was a report that was on the President's desk a week before September 11th.

McCLELLAN: What did I say? Wait, wait. What did I say? I did not say --

QUESTION: You said he was more involved in process and which meetings he was in. I’m trying to understand --

McCLELLAN: He is more focused on -- he appears to be more focused on process and what title he had and what meetings he was in or not in.

QUESTION: What was the report on September 4th?

McCLELLAN: That was the comprehensive strategy to eliminate al Qaeda, at the direction of Dr. Rice and the National Security Council and the President of the United States, who made it clear early on. He said, I don't want to be swatting at flies, we need a comprehensive strategy to eliminate al Qaeda.

More soon.

The lead summary from this <$NoAd$>evening's uber-insider Nelson Report ...

Clarke Terrorism Charges...White House must head-off before it gets "outside the Beltway"

Summary: the 9/11 Commission has always been a high risk potential for the Bush Administration, hence the very careful limits put on official cooperation. Hearings this week, "bombshell" book by former WH staffer Richard Clarke, have high risk potential to change attitudes "outside The Beltway". Polls consistently show the public still puts "trust" in double digits for Bush over Kerry on terrorism war. So White House reacts quickly, and very very firmly, to anything resembling a credible criticism of Bush...see the deconstruction of ex-Treas. Sec. O'Neill, UN inspector Blix, and now Clarke. The White House's top terrorism expert going back to the Reagan Administration provides anecdotal and eye-witness testimony apparently corroborating many other sources that Iraq was THE fixation, at the expense of all else. VP Cheney's rebuttal that Clark "out of the loop" is confusing, if Clarke was given the terrorism oversight job by NSC chief Rice. This one will bear watching...the polls will tell the tale.

Taiwan elections...let's give it a rest for today, except to note that President Chen has endorsed the idea of an official recount, and the High Court has said it will think about it, and rule on all this as soon as possible. But that's not likely to be before Friday's anticipated certification of Chen's reelection, so KMT is still screaming.

As soon as the transcripts of today's testimony appear, watch for Tim Roemer's exchange with Paul Wolfowitz over Richard Clarke's claims. Wolfowitz would not clearly address the validity of claims which his spokesman yesterday was bold enough to call a 'fabrication'.

More soon. And later, the gaggles start flowing ...

Amazing. Jim Woolsey is on Lou Dobbs show, as I write. He continues to press the Iraq-al Qaida link, suggests only that it's not clear Saddam 'ordered' the 9/11 attacks (my recollection, I haven't seen the transcript yet), and goes on to accuse Clarke of being crazy or thoroughly lacking in credibility because he accuses Woolsey, Laurie Mylroie and others of saying what they have in fact been saying for years. A through-the-looking-glass performance.

Spin and push-back is a delicate art. Used indiscriminately it can show how weak your real case must be.

Case in point. This afternoon the White House released Richard Clarke's resignation letter from January 2003, arguing that boilerplate praise for the president contained in the letter shows that Clarke has flipflopped and is thus a hypocrite.

Here's the phrase that they're highlighting: "It has been an enormous privilege to serve you these last 24 months ... I will always remember the courage, determination, calm, and leadership you demonstrated on September 11th."

The best they can do.

Today President Bush said: "The facts are these: George Tenet briefed me on a regular basis about the terrorist threat to the United States of America, and had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on Sept. 11, we would have acted."

I would hope so. But isn't this setting the bar rather low?

I certainly doubt there was any intelligence with remotely that level of specificity.

But that statement does suggest the president's team is bracing for quite a lot of uncomfortable information to come out. Why else make such a statement that really does no more than state that which goes without saying: namely, that had the White House had detailed knowledge about where and when the attack would occur that they would have done something about it?

It's amazing how many partisan Democrats and disgruntled former employees working under cover as career civil servants, spies and military officers have betrayed this president. It just seems to happen again and again and again. I mean, just think of the list: Rand Beers, well-known partisan Democrat and hack, Richard Clarke, self-promoter, disgruntled former employee, and "self-regarding buffoon", Karen Kwiatkowski, conspiracy theorist and all-around freak, Valerie Plame, hack and nepotist, Joe Wilson, partisan hack, self-promoter and shameless green tea lover. When will the abuse end?