We seem to have a bit of a contradiction, don't we?
Richard Clarke rolled out his book this evening on 60 Minutes, arguing, in brief, that the Bush administration put counter-terrorism and the hunt for al Qaida on the back burner prior to 9/11 and then after 9/11 immediately started focusing on Iraq even though there was no evidence of Iraqi involvement in 9/11 or even al Qaida terrorism generally.
Meanwhile, on the Washington Post op-ed page, Condi Rice has a lengthy column presenting what can only be called a very, very different picture.
The new administration heeded the warnings of the outgoing Clinton administration and not only focused closely on al Qaida and the rise in chatter in the summer of 2001 but was actually preparing a much more aggressive approach than anything that had been considered previously. What's more, the president himself sensed that not enough was being done and called for further scrutiny into the possibility of a domestic attack and a more aggressive plan to "eliminate" al Qaida.
The president, in the telling of Rice and her deputy Steve Hadley, seems to have been more engaged, forward-thinking and insightful on this issue than literally any other major player on the administration's national security team.
Even with all the vastness of the federal bureaucracy and the possible uncertainties of interpretation, there's no question that one of these two people -- Rice or Clarke -- is misleading us.
Rice was (and is) the president's National Security Advisor. Clarke was in charge of counter-terrorism policy at the National Security Council. Nothing discussed by either on this issue should be a mystery to the other. It's possible that neither is lying in a narrow factual sense. But, at a minimum, one must be giving us a deeply partial and misleading account.
(Clarke is yet to get the 'treatment' from the press. So we'll see how his statements hold up. But on this issue -- what happened pre-9/11 -- and the related yellowcake matter, Rice has already developed a track record of inaccurate, misleading, contradictory and contradicted statements -- which we'll be reviewing in future posts.)
This is why we have a press whose job it is not simply to frame this as a potent he-said/she-said but to dig into the details and find out who isn't leveling with us.
One place to start might be this claim which Steve Hadley made on 60 Minutes (and which is also echoed in Rice's editorial) ...
Hadley staunchly defended the president to Stahl: "The president heard those warnings. The president met daily with ... George Tenet and his staff. They kept him fully informed and at one point the president became somewhat impatient with us and said, 'I'm tired of swatting flies. Where's my new strategy to eliminate al Qaeda?'"
Hadley says that, contrary to Clarke's assertion, Mr. Bush didn't ignore the ominous intelligence chatter in the summer of 2001.
"All the chatter was of an attack, a potential al Qaeda attack overseas. But interestingly enough, the president got concerned about whether there was the possibility of an attack on the homeland. He asked the intelligence community: 'Look hard. See if we're missing something about a threat to the homeland.'
"And at that point various alerts went out from the Federal Aviation Administration to the FBI saying the intelligence suggests a threat overseas. We don't want to be caught unprepared. We don't want to rule out the possibility of a threat to the homeland. And therefore preparatory steps need to be made. So the president put us on battle stations."
We've heard the swatting at flies line before. So presumably there must have been some such conversation. The White House has referenced it again and again. But what was the context? And what did it lead to? Documents must have been generated. Directives must have been written up and executed. What are the details?
Someone is not levelling with us. If the press is worth anything it should find out who, right?