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Hullabaloo


Thursday, March 25, 2004

 
Shaking The Trees

Fred Kaplan writes another fine article in Slate today about Richard Clarke. He again notes Clarke's legendary reputation as a brilliant bureaucratic infighter as he did in his first piece on the subject a couple of days ago. This skill is mentioned frequently by those in Washington who know Clarke.

Clarke demonstrated his insight into the process with this statement on Larry King Live last night:

CLARKE: Well, we'll never know. But let me compare 9/11 and the period immediately before it to the millennium rollover and the period immediately before that. In December, 1999, we received intelligence reports that there were going to be major al Qaeda attacks. President Clinton asked his national security adviser Sandy Berger to hold daily meetings with the attorney general, the FBI director, the CIA director and stop the attacks. And every day they went back from the White House to the FBI, to the Justice Department, to the CIA and they shook the trees to find out if there was any information. You know, when you know the United States is going to be attacked, the top people in the United States government ought to be working hands-on to prevent it and working together.

Now, contrast that with what happened in the summer of 2001, when we even had more clear indications that there was going to be an attack. Did the president ask for daily meetings of his team to try to stop the attack? Did Condi Rice hold meetings of her counterparts to try to stop the attack? No.

And if she had, if the FBI director and the attorney general had gone back day after day to their department to the White House, what would they have shaken loose? We now know from testimony before the Commission that buried in the FBI was the fact that two of the hijackers had entered the United States. Now, if that information had been able to be shaken loose by the FBI director and the attorney general in response to daily meetings with the White House, if we had known that those two -- if the attorney general had known, if the FBI director had known, that those two were in the United States, Larry, I believe we could have caught those two. Would that have stopped...


Michael Isikoff added this on the subject later in the show:

I do want to say, though, on the question of -- I was struck -- the most fascinating thing that Clarke said, to me, during the hearings today was he laid out a scenario by which -- actually, a plausible one, by which September 11 could have been prevented if there had been the kind of urgency to the issue that he thought it could be. And that was, we did know. The government did know. The CIA knew and the FBI late in August knew that two of the hijackers -- Nawaf al Hazmi (ph), Khalid al Midar (ph) -- were inside the United States. Two suspected al Qaeda operatives were inside the country. Yet there was no concerted government attempt to find these guys. There was a late bulletin from the FBI.

What Clarke suggested he would have done -- he says he would like to think he would have done, had he known about this, was an all-out public manhunt. Put these guys' pictures all over the place, "America's Most Wanted," have their pictures in the paper. And had that been done, which does sound like a plausible thing that could have been done, it might at least have deterred those two guys...

KING: Yes.

ISIKOFF: ... from getting on the planes, and it might well have disrupted the plot. It's the first time I've heard a plausible scenario by which the government could have taken the little information it did have and actually stopped the plot.

KING: Putting their pictures where everybody gets on board an airplane.


I think that this is a very interesting insight. Clarke, a 30 year veteran of the government and one who has a fierce reputation for cutting through the bureaucracy to get things done, says that the way to deal with an urgent national security threat is to force the issue to the top of the agenda by having the president personally lean on the cabinet heads to "shake the trees" in their own bureaucracies. That makes sense to me. When people are called to account by the boss on a certain issue they turn up the heat on their underlings. It's human nature and its certainly been my experience in the workplace.

And, he says that if that had been done in the spring and summer of 2001, when by all accounts there was a lot of intelligence that something "big" was about to happen, it's entirely possible that some of the "dots" would have been connected before they blew up the world trade center and the pentagon.

Clarke himself says that we will never know if we could have uncovered or disrupted the plot, but certainly it is clear that the system he describes in the Clinton administration was successful previously in disrupting the millenium bombing plot. That should count for something.

But, the bigger issue, I think, is that this illustrates once again what a grave mistake it is to have a president who is arrogant yet intellectually incurious and whose inexperience in life and government makes him manipulable by others. Clarke had previously worked for Reagan who was surrounded by highly professional foreign policy realists and Bush Sr who was a highly professional foreign policy realist himself. With Clinton he found a nimble, intelligent thinker who was open to new ideas and methods for dealing with post cold war threats and who was accessible and personally engaged in the decision making process.

But, George W. Bush was an inexperienced and overly protected executive with little personal depth and too much faith in a cabal of neocon radicals. He relied on an intellectually weak staff whose main job was to create unnecessary layers of bureaucracy to protect their boss from difficult problems. These layers of bureaucracy insulated him from the important issues of the day and made it impossible even for a brilliant bureaucrat like Clarke to cut through the maze and convince the ossified Iraq obsessives to look up from their dusty PNAC wish-lists and deal with the terrible threat we faced right that very minute.

The failure stemmed directly from the president because he is not in charge. No organization works under that kind of leadership much less a sophisticated bureaucracy. The system completely broke down under the effect of no real leadership, competing agendas and focus in the wrong direction.

The Bush administration's image of competence and cool collected professionalism is completely phony. From DiUllio to O'Neill to Clarke we see first hand that this is a highly dysfunctional White House, one that spends much more time on politics than policy and that is philosophically incoherent and at constant war with itself. It has been reduced to issuing thuggish threats of reprisal to any civil servant who insists upon doing his job. The president is hardly more than a public relations flack, his national security advisor is a cipher, his various cabinet departments are wholly owned subsidiaries of special interests, he's been completely manipulated by a radical Vice President and a slightly insane Secretary of Defense and his economic policy has been entirely directed toward short term political ends. And yet, amazingly, in virtually every single action it has taken, his administration has failed spectacularly.

In light of this we really need to let go of this "well, these things happen," attitude and recognize that we have been duped into thinking that 9/11 could not have been prevented. Clearly, it could have. Other plots were thwarted and they were thwarted because the government focused attention on it and directed its resources toward that end.

It is true that the bigger question of how badly Bush dealt with the issue of terrorism AFTER 9/11 is probably a more potent campaign issue, because the results of going into Iraq are still fresh and easily observable. But, after listening to Dick Clarke for the last few days and beginning to read through is book, I am convinced that Bush dropped the ball.

But then, it was entirely predictable that he would drop the ball because he was never qualified to be president and that lack of qualification led him to make very poor choices in advisors and very poor judgements about the nation's priorities.

The bigger lesson in all of this, and one which I'm sure will go inheeded by many, is that you should not elect stupid people to the presidency. Smart ones can screw up, but it's not guaranteed that they will. But, a stupid yet arrogant president is bound to fail. The job is just too complicated for someone like that.


Update: Brad DeLong and Matt Yglesias discuss the related topic of Condi Rice's obvious lack of proper qualifications for the job of NSA under the current circumstances.





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