Former counterterrorism czar Richard Clark proved himself an unblinking warrior against the Bush attack dogs today as the White House attempted to bring him down — but their weapons were apparently powerless against him.
First, they tried to use a background briefing he gave against him. In today’s press briefing, White House press secretary Scott McClellan tried repeatedly to paint Clarke’s August 2002 background briefing to reporters as “his own words” instead of the words of a man who was special assistant to the president.
Q Scott, just one more on Clarke. Given the fact that you’re pointing to this transcript, reading through it, saying it’s a question of his credibility —
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, it’s his own words.
MR. McCLELLAN: I’m just repeating his own words.
Q Right. So given that, given the fact that he definitely had this quoted as toeing the administration’s line before reporters, why do you think he is saying what he’s saying?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, like I said, this goes to his credibility, and I think that those are questions that Mr. Clarke needs to answer. It was Mr. Clarke who went out and made assertions that this administration was doing nothing prior to 9/11, that we were not taking the threat from al Qaeda seriously, that there was a delay, that we moved slowly. But Dick Clarke, in his words acknowledges, one, that the administration took al Qaeda very seriously and began a process to address the threat very early on; and two, our administration was able to come to quick decisions on a number of issues that had been on the table for several years; and three, that the President directed the White House to develop a new comprehensive strategy of eliminating rather than rolling al Qaeda. You cannot square Dick Clarke’s new assertions with his past words. That’s very clear.
I would like to just point to a couple of other parts of this transcript from Mr. Clarke’s interview with reporters. There’s a question by a reporter. Question: What is your response to the suggestion in the August 12th — well, in the Time Magazine article that the Bush administration was unwilling to take on board the suggestions made in the Clinton administration because of animus against the — general animus against the foreign policy?
Mr. Clark: “I think if if there was a general animus that clouded their vision, they might not have kept the same guy dealing with the terrorism issue. This is the one issue where the National Security Council leadership decided continuity was important and kept the same guy around, the same team in place. That doesn’t sound like animus against the previous team to me,” Mr. Clarke went on to say.
Then a reporter — here it’s listed, Jim Angle, White House Correspondent [From Fox News, which came to the White House with this transcript — CA]: “You’re saying that the Bush administration did not stop anything that the Clinton administration was doing while it was making these decisions, and by the end of the summer had increased money for covert action fivefold, is that correct?”
Mr. Clarke: “All of that is correct.”
Now, two other parts I want to refer to, as well:
Question by a reporter: “Were all of those issues part of an alleged plan that was late December, and the Clinton team decided not to pursue because it was too close to –” Mr. Clarke jumps in here: “There was never a plan, Andrea. What there was, was these two things — one a description of the existing strategy, which included a description of the threat; and two, those things which had been looked at over the course of two years and which were still on the table.”
So the follow-up question: “So there was nothing that developed, no documents or no new plan of any sort?
Mr. Clarke: “There was no new plan.”
Question: “No new strategy, I mean. I don’t want to get into semantics.”
Mr. Clarke: “Plan, strategy — there was no, nothing new.”
And later on, again this is Jim Angle here, asking this question: “So just to finish up, if we could then, so what you’re saying is that there was no — one, there was no plan; two, there was no delay; and that actually, the first changes since October of ’98 were made in the spring months just after the administration came into office?
Mr. Clarke: “You got it. That’s right.”
And finally, because I think this one is important, as well, Mr. Clarke towards the end of the interview went on to say: “You know, the other thing to bear in mind is the shift from the roll-back strategy to the elimination strategy. When President Bush told us in March to stop swatting at flies and just solve this problem, then that was the strategic direction that changed the NSPD” — meaning the National Security Policy Directive — “from one of roll-back to one of elimination.”
So those are Mr. Clarke in his own words, and his own words contradict what he now asserts.
Q Is he a liar or is he just forgetful?
Q Scott, Scott?
MR. McCLELLAN: April.
Q Is he a liar or just forgetful?
MR. McCLELLAN: You’ve had your turn.
Here McClellan disputes that the White House even attempts to coordinate its daily communications strategy.
Q Scott, back to Terry’s question. Are these just basically talking points? We know every day all of you start from the beginning of the day to disseminate — well, to figure out what you’re going to say to the media, how you’re going to present your spin, I guess, you would say in some ways. And was he just following talking points, the spin line?
MR. McCLELLAN: I don’t know if that’s — I don’t know if that’s quite an accurate description of the way we start our day or what we do.
Q Well, I mean when you start your day, you guys are talking about what you want to put out there and how you’re going to put it out there, and what you should not say. And was he, indeed, following the line that you were given here that day?
MR. McCLELLAN: This was Mr. Clarke describing what he knew in his own words. This was not anybody but Mr. Clarke making these comments.
Q But, Scott, in this administration when reporters go and ask you, other persons around here, we get the same words — the same words come out. There’s no variation or anything. Was he —
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that’s a sign that we’re following the President’s direction and his policies.
Q You’re following talking points, correct?
MR. McCLELLAN: No. Again, you need to separate out some of this. This was Mr. Clarke, on his own, making these comments back in the spring of 2002. This was him in his own words.
So, according to McClellan, there are no talking points and Clarke is a rogue special assistant to the president who talks off the reservation — in his own words, remember — but who’s own words back up the president’s policies.
Then, during his testimony today before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Commission member Gov. James R. Thompson held up the transcript of the Aug. 2002 press briefing and asked, “Which is true?”
Clarke responded with, “I was asked by several people in senior levels of the Bush White house to do a press backgrounder to try to explain that set of facts that minimized criticism of that administration. And so I did.”
“I was asked to make that case to the press,” Clarke continued. “I was special assistant to the president, and I made the case I was asked to make.”
Thompson responded with incredulity that such things ever happen, asking, “Are you saying to me you were asked to make an untrue case to the press and the public and you went ahead and did it?”
“No sir,” replied Clarke. “Not untrue. Not an untrue case. I was asked to highlight the positive aspects of what the administration had done and to minimize the negative aspects of what the administration had done. And as a special assistant to the president, one is frequently asked to do that kind of thing. I’ve done it for several presidents.”
So far, the White House’s only line of defense against Clarke is that he’s “a liar and a boob and both out-of-the-loop and responsible for everything that went wrong,” as Josh Marshall neatly summarizes. And those are pretty weak considering he’s got 30 years of service under his belt, he was the loop and his book shows how the Clinton White House did a lot of things right — such as preventing al Qaeda from taking over Bosnia in the mid 1990s. [pp 136-140]
Aside: I’m outraged that Fox approached the White House with this background briefing tape. According to McClellan, “it was Fox News who yesterday came to us and said they had a tape of this conversation with Mr. Clarke.” If that’s true, then a news organization that was included in a briefing with the agreement that it was on background — that is, with no quotes and the briefer not be identified — approached a source’s former employer and offered to give up apparently conflicting words that the employer could use against the source. (I read the transcript. It’s not particularly contradictory, frankly, and can easily be read as how Clarke characterized it.) This is a major journalistic no-no. When I was at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, we were taught to go to jail before you give up your sources. And you sure as hell don’t approach someone you’re supposed to be covering and offer to help them out against someone.
But back to Fox. Anyone who still thinks Fox is “fair and balanced” should really have their head examined. If you like it because it’s a right-wing attack network, more power to you. At least you’re honest with yourself. But if you really think it’s working for anything but Bush’s re-election, you really need to get out more.
But all this criticism is really secondary because Clarke reserves he real outrage for Iraq. When the subject of the war there came up, Clarke said to the Commission, simply and devastatingly, “By invading of Iraq, the President of United of the States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism.”
For a long several seconds, there was nothing in the room but a deadly silence.