It isn’t just politics that has driven Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies to number one on the bestseller list: this is one rip-roaring story, and it opens with a bang. It’s September 11, 2001, and Richard A. Clarke, counter-terror “czar,” is right at the center of the action. While POTUS is in flight from Washington, and the Vice President is secured in his bunker, Clarke sits in session with his counter-terrorism team, directly managing the crisis. Evacuate the White House. Ground air traffic. Secure landmarks: Sears Tower, Disney World, the Golden Gate Bridge. Oh, and don’t forget the Liberty Bell. It is all the more gripping because we know it’s real: and, in reading this account, the reader relives those moments from inside the kernel of power. It’s quite a view.
Clarke gets to say stuff like “over and out,” and his team of tough-talking counter-terror experts is straight out of Central Casting: Bob Cressey, who once “drove the darkened streets of Mogadishu at night in a pick-up truck with a 9 mm strapped to his hip, listening to the gunfire rippling around town”; Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, a stylish can-do blonde whose knowledge of WMD and training with Navy Seals and Delta Force owes more to Hollywood than the Department of Energy. Cofer Black is especially good as “a hard-charging, get-it-done kind of CIA officer who had proved himself in the back alleys of unsavory places.” The tragic hero is played by John O’Neill, Clarke’s closest friend in the FBI: obsessed by Al Qaeda and driven out because he didn’t fit the “narrow little mold that Director Louis Freeh wanted for his agents,” O’Neill became security director of the World Trade Center and died in the cataclysm he had long feared.
At the center of it all stands the somewhat alienated, slightly obsessive Clarke, whose early interest in Osama bin Laden becomes a fixation. In the events of the past decade, seen through the author’s eyes, the pattern of terror slowly materializes out of the intelligence mist. Clarke and his colorful counter-terrorist crew begin to develop a comprehensive overview of the threat posed by the Al Qaeda network long before the rest of the government catches on.
It is shocking to read that, before 9/11, the counter-terrorist chief had never been allowed to brief President George W. Bush on the threat posed by bin Laden. His proposed presidential directive to “eliminate” Al Qaeda had been stuck in the labyrinthine halls of the national security bureaucracy, disdained by neocons so focused on Iraq that even in the wake of 9/11 they complained, as Paul Wolfowitz put it to Clarke, “I just don’t understand why we’re beginning by talking about this one man bin Laden.”
It didn’t help when Clarke explained that these were the bad guys behind 9/11. Wolfowitz would have none of it. To Clarke’s incredulous horror, Wolfowitz gave a spiel touting the crackpot theories of Laurie Mylroie. A writer, Ms. Mylroie maintains that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, as well as the Oklahoma City bombing, and who knows? maybe even global warming. 9/11 couldn’t have occurred without a state sponsor, averred Deputy Defense Secretary with his usual air of smug certitude, and that would have to be Iraq.
We’re in for another shock as Clarke relates how quickly the focus turned away from bin Laden and toward Saddam Hussein. By the morning of 9/12 Wolfowitz was arguing that Iraq, and not Al Qaeda, was the main enemy and the probable perpetrator of the terrorist attacks, while all credible intelligence pointed to bin Laden. “By the afternoon on Wednesday, Secretary Rumsfeld was talking about broadening the objectives of our response and ‘getting Iraq.'” Shoot, Rummy bawled, “there’s no decent targets in Afghanistan!”
Surely he’s joking, thought Clarke. But nobody was laughing, least of all the President, who agreed that we needed “regime change” in Afghanistan as a “first stage.” The second stage, however, was conceived by Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, and in the presidential imagination at that same moment, shortly after the second airliner hit the twin towers, and well before they both collapsed. Iraq was next.
Clarke was incredulous. Such a course, he writes, “would be like our invading Mexico after the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor” not merely counterintuitive but downright nonsensical, and dangerously contrary to American interests.
But by the time 9/11 rolled around, the already dispirited Clarke had long since given up on convincing the Bush administration to take the fight against terrorism seriously enough to home in on bin Laden and his allies worldwide. From that moment of incredulity, as he contemplated the ideologically-driven blindness of Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, the author flashes back two decades to the real beginning of the story.
Clarke’s chapter on the history of U.S. intervention in the Middle East, from Reagan on, illustrates the principle of what Chalmers Johnson has deemed foreign policy “blowback.” He illustrates the unintended consequences of backing Iraq against Iran, tilting toward Israel, and, most fatally of all, creating and supporting the Mujahideen “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan, who would later evolve into Al Qaeda. Although Clarke says that he thinks Reagan was right to intervene, he refutes himself in his subsequent analysis of the massive problems created by our strategy of “rollback.”
Clarke traces the trail of terror through the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City terror attack, the Khobar Towers blast, the downing of TWA flight 800, the Atlanta Olympics bombing, the attacks on U.S. military trainers in Riyadh, and a failed plot to take out New York landmarks, as the shadow of Al Qaeda lurks in the background. When bin Laden is expelled from Saudi Arabia and takes up residence in Sudan, the Balkans become the worldwide rallying point of a burgeoning Islamo- terrorist movement: “What we saw unfold in Bosnia,” reveals Clarke, “was a guidebook to the bin Laden network, though we didn’t recognize it as such at the time.” With the complicity of Bosnia’s Muslim government, Iranian arms and Osama bin Laden’s legions poured into the Euro-Muslim sanctuary: President Alija Izetbegovic was reluctant to expel them even after agreeing to do so under pressure from his American patrons. As Kosovo re-ignites, the context provided by Clarke leads one to wonder what is really going on there: more blowback from yet another heedless intervention?
While a small group, including Clarke, Sandy Berger, and a few others, are convinced early on of bin Laden’s significance as the epicenter of a terrorist conspiracy against America, it isn’t until the summer of 1995, when OBL denounces the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, that Washington begins to recognize Al Qaeda as a distinct threat. Clarke’s bitterness comes through loud and clear in his condemnation of some in the CIA, who were “pathetically unable to accomplish the mission” when it came to Al Qaeda. And, in the end, when the U.S.S Cole was attacked and there was no retaliation, the Clintonites just didn’t get it. “Does Al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon to get their attention” remarked a prescient State Department counter-terrorism official. Apparently so.
Clearly, however, the Clinton administration, for all its operational incompetence, had a far better handle on the nature and extent of the problem than Team Bush. Of the Bush II principals, only Colin Powell ever exhibited any pre-9/11 interest in Al Qaeda. Cheney and the neocons were focused almost exclusively on Iraq: Wolfowitz was actively hostile to the focus on Al Qaeda, and Clarke notes that when our ambassador to Indonesia began making “too much noise” about OBL & Co., Wolfowitz had him fired.
Ms. Rice, who had never even heard of Al Qaeda, is portrayed here as genuinely annoyed that Clarke was bringing this bothersome subject up when there were so many other important items on her agenda. Counter-terrorism? We don’t do “operational” stuff here at the National Security Council, Condi informed him, and Clarke was just going to have to move all that out of the NSC structure, while the whole business was downgraded.
By late June, 2001, Clarke and CIA Director Tenet were convinced that “a major series of attacks” was on the horizon. In July, speaking at a counter-terrorism task force meeting, Clarke notes intelligence pointing to an attack overseas, “in Israel or Saudi Arabia. Maybe. But maybe it will be here.” After finagling for the better part of a year to convene a high-level national security briefing focused on Al Qaeda, Clarke finally gets his wish, on September 4, 2001, and makes his case to the overlords of Washington that they are living in a fool’s paradise. Rumsfeld looks distracted, and keeps bringing up Iraq. Clarke’s proposal to send an armed Predator drone after bin Laden is vetoed.
Clarke is ambivalent about the possibility that 9/11 might have been stopped, at that point. But he does note that the FBI and the CIA “had specific information about individual terrorists from which one could have deduced what was about to happen.” After years of sounding the alarm, Clarke is too saddened and weary to take any comfort in his prescience. He doesn’t have to say “I told you so,” because the rest, as they say, is history.
When it comes to the Iraq war, Clarke’s blues turn to white-hot anger. Short of opening Al Qaeda recruitment centers, the U.S. couldn’t have come to bin Laden’s aid more effectively than by invading and occupying an oil-rich Middle Eastern country that represented no threat to us. “It was as if Usama bin Laden, hidden in some high mountain redoubt, were engaging in long-range mind control of George Bush, chanting ‘Invade Iraq, you must invade Iraq.'”
This administration, says Clarke, is fighting the wrong war, the wrong way, for the wrong reasons: even the Afghan war was “treated as a regime-change rather than a search-and-destroy against terrorists.” The pinpoint strategy pin down and destroy the Al Qaeda network favored by Clarke, versus the broad “drain-the-swamp” social engineering scheme envisioned by the neocons, is what the debate engendered by this book is really all about. It was pragmatism versus ideology in the Bush administration, and the latter won out: now Clarke is taking his pragmatic results-oriented approach to fighting terrorism to the public, and odds are they’ll buy it more easily than a crusade to “end evil,” as the neocons would have it.
Early in the text, as Clarke is walking through an eerily empty West Wing on 9/11, he thinks to himself that, finally, the administration would be forced to move against the Afghan camps which were no doubt as bereft of human beings in that moment as the White House: “We would begin a long fight against al Qaeda, with no holds barred. But it was too late.”
If Clarke is right about that, then God help us. If he’s wrong, then Against All Enemies may have been published just in time to save us from losing the fight of our lives.