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Context of 'August 22, 2002: Counterterrorism ‘Tsar’ Richard Clarke Appears to Praise Bush Administration’s Record on Fighting Terrorism'

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Richard Clarke, who was counterterrorism “tsar” in the run-up to 9/11, briefs the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry about counterterrorism before the attacks.
Clarke's Status - Normally, a White House official such as Clarke would not be allowed to testify before Congress, but the administration makes an exception for him, although the testimony is behind closed doors and is classified. In addition, Clarke is not placed under oath and is not even considered a witness before the inquiry, just a briefer. Clarke’s boss, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, will not testify before the inquiry, and it is unable to obtain access to National Security Council files, which are privileged as they relate to advice given to the president.
Content of Briefing - House Intelligence Committee member Tim Roemer will say that Clarke is riveting during the six-hour briefing. According to author Philip Shenon, Roemer thinks that Clarke is “intelligent, articulate, seemingly candid in discussing his own failings as White House counterterrorism [‘tsar’].” Clarke will later be extremely critical of President George Bush and Rice (see March 21, 2004 and March 24, 2004), but now he is “coy about certain questions—especially about President Bush and Condoleezza Rice.” Shenon will add: “[I]f anyone knew whether Bush and Rice had reacted appropriately to the threats reaching the Oval office before 9/11, it was Clarke. Yet in front of these lawmakers, Clarke seemed unwilling to make any judgments about the president and Rice. He was certainly volunteering little about his bosses. He was still on the [National Security Council’s] payroll. Perhaps it was understandable that Clarke would want to hold his tongue for now.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 195-196]
Later Positive Briefing about Administration's Record - Two months later, Clarke will give journalists a positive briefing about the Bush administration’s record on terrorism (see August 22, 2002).

Entity Tags: Richard A. Clarke, 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, Philip Shenon, Tim Roemer

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Although he will later come to prominence for accusing it of failing to adequately address the al-Qaeda threat before 9/11 (see March 21, 2004), in a background briefing to reporters, former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke appears to praise the Bush administration for aggressively pursuing al-Qaeda from the outset. [CNN, 3/24/2004]
'Rapid Elimination' - During the briefing, Clarke says that when the Bush administration came into office in January 2001, it had “decided then” to “vigorously pursue the existing policy” on al-Qaeda, “including all of the lethal covert action findings.” He says that in the first week of February 2001, the administration decided in principle “to add to the existing Clinton strategy and to increase CIA resources, for example, for covert action, five-fold, to go after al-Qaeda.” He says the strategy was changed “from one of rollback with al-Qaeda over the course of five years, which it had been, to a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination of al-Qaeda.”
Response to Time Magazine - Clarke responds to a recent Time magazine article that suggested the Bush administration was unwilling to adopt suggestions made in the Clinton administration because of a general animus against its foreign policy. He says: “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, uh, the previous team to me.” He is asked, “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 five-fold?” Clarke replies, “All of that’s correct.”
No Plan, No Delay - One reporter asks about an alleged Clinton administration plan against al-Qaeda, to which Clarke responds, “There was never a plan.” Regarding problems the Clinton administration faced in dealing with the al-Qaeda threat, a reporter asks, “And none of that really changed until we were attacked [on 9/11]?” Clarke says: “No, that’s not true. In the spring, the Bush administration changed—began to change Pakistani policy, um, by a dialogue that said we would be willing to lift sanctions.… So that’s really how it started.” He is asked, “[W]hat you’re saying is that… 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 [Bush] administration came into office?” Clarke replies: “You got it. That’s right.” [Fox News, 3/24/2004]
Comments Published - In March 2004, the White House will violate a long-standing confidentiality policy by authorizing Fox News to publish these comments that Clarke has made off the record (see March 24, 2004). [Columbia Journalism Review, 3/25/2004; FindLaw, 4/9/2004]
Clarke's Explanation - Around that time, when Clarke appears before the 9/11 Commission (see March 24, 2004), Commissioner James Thompson will ask him about the apparent discrepancies between his comments during this briefing and the criticisms he makes of the Bush administration in his book Against All Enemies. Clarke will explain that his briefing was in the context of Time magazine’s critical story. He will say, “So 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 in a way that minimized criticism of the administration.” He will add, “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.” [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004] Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will defend Clarke, writing, “The truth is that the background briefing simply does not conflict with anything Clarke says openly, if more bluntly, in his book.” [FindLaw, 4/9/2004]
Previous Briefing for 9/11 Congressional Inquiry - Two months before this, Clarke had briefed the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry on the Bush administration’s counterterrorism record and had been largely uncritical of its policies (see June 11, 2002).

Entity Tags: Richard A. Clarke, Clinton administration, Bush administration (43), John Dean, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Richard Clarke, counterterrorism “tsar” from 1998 until October 2001, ignites a public debate by accusing President Bush of doing a poor job fighting al-Qaeda before 9/11. In a prominent 60 Minutes interview, he says: “I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he’s done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11.… I think he’s done a terrible job on the war against terrorism.” He adds: “We had a terrorist organization that was going after us! Al-Qaeda. That should have been the first item on the agenda. And it was pushed back and back and back for months.” He complains that he was Bush’s chief adviser on terrorism, yet he never got to brief Bush on the subject until after 9/11. [CBS News, 3/21/2004; CBS News, 3/21/2004; Guardian, 3/23/2004; Salon, 3/24/2004] Author Philip Shenon will call the interview “gripping” and comment that Clarke is “made for television.” This is because of his “urgent speaking style” and his “shock of white hair and ghostly pallor,” which makes it look like he has “emerged from years of hiding in sunless back rooms of the West Wing to share the terrible secrets he ha[s] learned.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 277] The next day, his book Against All Enemies is released and becomes a bestseller. [Washington Post, 3/22/2004] He testifies before the 9/11 Commission a few days later (see March 24, 2004).

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Richard A. Clarke, Philip Shenon

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, 2004 Elections

The White House discloses to Fox News that former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke was the anonymous official who gave a background briefing to reporters in August 2002 praising the Bush administration’s record on terrorism (see August 22, 2002). This move, which violates a longstanding confidentiality policy, is made hours before Clarke is to testify to the 9/11 Commission (see March 24, 2004). Clarke recently went public with criticism of the administration (see March 21, 2004) and is being attacked by it (see March 22, 2004 and Shortly After). Author Philip Shenon will comment, “In agreeing to allow Fox News to reveal that Clarke had given the 2002 briefing, the White House was attempting to paint him as a liar—a one-time Bush defender who had become a Bush critic in order to sell a book.” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice says to the media: “There are two very different stories here. These stories can’t be reconciled.” [Fox News, 3/24/2004; Washington Post, 3/25/2004; Washington Post, 3/26/2004; Shenon, 2008, pp. 280-281]
Opposing Spin? - Shenon will add that in the briefing Clarke was “spin[ning] the facts” in order to try to knock down an article unfavorable to the administration published by Time magazine, although “the spin took him perilously close to dishonesty, albeit the sort of dishonesty practiced every day in official Washington.” Philip Zelikow, the 9/11 Commission’s executive director and a long-term opponent of Clarke (see January 3, 2001 and January 27, 2003), is delighted by the story and tells a Commission staffer that it might be enough to end the Clarke “circus,” adding, “Does it get any better than this?” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 280-281] Later trying a similar line of attack, Republican Senate leader Bill Frist will ask “[i]f [Clarke] lied under oath to the United States Congress” in closed testimony in 2002, and also ask if Clarke is attempting to promote his book. According to media critic Frank Rich, Frist’s credibility is undermined by his use of his Senate status to promote his own book, a virtually worthless primer entitled When Every Moment Counts: What You Need to Know About Bioterrorism from the Senate’s Only Doctor. Frist’s accusation that Clarke revealed classified information in his book falls flat when Clarke notes that the White House vetted his book for possible security transgressions before publication. [Washington Post, 3/27/2004; Rich, 2006, pp. 114-119]
No Evidence of Contradiction - A review of declassified citations from Clarke’s 2002 testimony provides no evidence of contradiction, and White House officials familiar with the testimony agree that any differences are matters of emphasis, not fact. [Washington Post, 4/4/2004]

Entity Tags: Philip Shenon, Richard A. Clarke, Condoleezza Rice, Philip Zelikow, Washington Times, Frank Rich, Bill Frist

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, 2004 Elections

Richard Clarke sworn in before the 9/11 Commission.Richard Clarke sworn in before the 9/11 Commission. [Source: CBC]Former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke testifies before the 9/11 Commission. Due to publicity generated by the publication of his book and a controversial appearance on 60 Minutes (see March 21, 2004), it is, in the words of author Philip Shenon, a “true Washington spectacle” and “one of those moments in the capital when anyone of importance in the city [is] in front of a television set.” Shenon will add, “It was being compared by reporters to the sort of drama that John Dean’s testimony provided in Watergate or Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North’s testimony offered in the Iran-Contra affair.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 281-282]
Clarke Offers Apology - Clarke’s opening statement consists of little more than an apology to the relatives of the 9/11 victims. He says: “Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you. For that failure, I would ask… for your understanding and forgiveness.” This leads to a moment of silence, then gasps and sobs. Shenon will point out, “It was the first apology that the 9/11 families had heard from anybody of importance in the Bush administration,” adding that it “was the moment of catharsis that many of the wives and husbands and children of the victims had been waiting for.”
Praises Clinton, Criticizes Bush - Under questioning, Clarke praises the Clinton administration, saying, “My impression was that fighting terrorism, in general, and fighting al-Qaeda, in particular, were an extraordinarily high priority in the Clinton administration—certainly no higher priority.” But he is very critical of the Bush administration, stating, “By invading Iraq… the president of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism.” He says that under Bush before 9/11, terrorism was “an important issue, but not an urgent issue.… [CIA Director] George Tenet and I tried very hard to create a sense of urgency by seeing to it that intelligence reports on the al-Qaeda threat were frequently given to the president and other high-level officials. But although I continue to say it was an urgent problem, I don’t think it was ever treated that way.” He points out that he made proposals to fight al-Qaeda in late January 2001. While the gist of them was implemented after 9/11, he complains, “I didn’t really understand why they couldn’t have been done in February [2001].” He says that with a more robust intelligence and covert action program, “we might have been able to nip [the plot] in the bud.”
Republican Commissioners Ask Tough Questions - However, Clarke faces tough questioning from some of the Republican commissioners. Jim Thompson, who had been in contact with the White House before the hearing (see Morning, March 24, 2004), challenges Clarke over a briefing he gave in 2002 (see August 22, 2002 and March 24, 2004), which, according to Thompson, contradicts what Clarke is saying now. In addition, fellow Republican John Lehman confronts Clarke over what he sees as discrepancies between Clarke’s book and his private interviews with the Commission. Clarke replies that the differences arose because the Commission did not ask him about all the issues he covered in his book, such as his opposition to the invasion of Iraq. He adds that he will not accept any position in any administration formed by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
Clarke Approved Saudi Flights - Clarke also clears up a mystery about the departure of Saudi Arabian nationals after the attacks, which has caused some controversy (see September 14-19, 2001), saying that he was the White House official that approved them. He did this after clearing it with the FBI, although he does not know “what degree of review the FBI did over those names.” [Washington Post, 3/24/2004; New York Times, 3/24/2004; 9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004; Shenon, 2008, pp. 282-289]
Testimony 'Arresting' - Author and media critic Frank Rich will later call Clarke’s testimony “arresting.” Rich will write that Clarke’s forceful, confident demeanor—“sonorous voice, secret-agent aura, and vaguely intimidating body language”—serves to brush back antagonistic Republicans such as Lehman and Thompson. Rich will write that the juxtaposition of Clarke’s damning testimony with President Bush’s bizarre comedy routine that same evening (pretending to hunt for Iraqi WMD under the Oval Office furniture—see March 24, 2004) is jarring. [Rich, 2006, pp. 114-119]

Entity Tags: John Lehman, Clinton administration, Richard A. Clarke, Bush administration (43), Frank Rich, 9/11 Commission, James Thompson

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, 2004 Elections

Former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke, lambasted by Bush administration supporters (see March 24, 2004) for his criticism of the administration’s foreign policies (see March 21, 2004 and March 24, 2004), counters some of that criticism by noting that when he resigned from the administration a year earlier, he was highly praised by President Bush (see January 31, 2003).
Differing Characterizations from Administration - On Meet the Press, Clarke reads aloud the handwritten note from Bush that lauds his service, telling host Tim Russert: “This is his writing. This is the president of the United States’ writing. And when they’re engaged in character assassination of me, let’s just remember that on January 31, 2003: ‘Dear Dick, you will be missed. You served our nation with distinction and honor. You have left a positive mark on our government.’ This is not the normal typewritten letter that everybody gets. This is the president’s handwriting. He thinks I served with distinction and honor. The rest of his staff is out there trying to destroy my professional life, trying to destroy my reputation, because I had the temerity to suggest that a policy issue should be discussed. What is the role of the war on terror vis-a-vis the war in Iraq? Did the war in Iraq really hurt the war on terror? Because I suggest we should have a debate on that, I am now being the victim of a taxpayer-paid—because all these people work for the government—character assassination campaign.”
Never Briefed Bush on Terrorism - Clarke also notes that the letter proves he never briefed Bush on terrorism because he was not allowed to provide such a briefing (see Early January 2001). He tells Russert: “You know, they’re saying now that when I was afforded the opportunity to talk to him about cybersecurity, it was my choice. I could have talked about terrorism or cybersecurity. That’s not true. I asked in January to brief him, the president, on terrorism, to give him the same briefing I had given Vice President Cheney, Colin Powell, and [Condoleezza] Rice. And I was told, ‘You can’t do that briefing, Dick, until after the policy development process.’” [MSNBC, 3/28/2004; Salon, 3/29/2004]
Administration Should Declassifiy August 2002 Briefing - Clarke also calls on the administration to declassify “all six hours” of the briefing he gave to top officials in August 2002 about the impending threat of a terrorist attack (see August 22, 2002). The administration has selectively declassified material from that briefing to impugn Clarke’s honesty and integrity. “I would welcome it being declassified,” Clarke says. “But not just a little line here and there—let’s declassify all six hours of my testimony.” He also asks that the administration declassify the strategy reports from 2001 that he authored, and all of his e-mails between January 2001 and September 2001, to prove that the charges laid against him by the administration are false. He calls on the White House to end what he calls the “vicious personal attacks” and “character assassination,” and focus on issues. “The issue is not about me,” he tells a CNN reporter. “The issue is about the president’s performance in the war on terrorism.” [MSNBC, 3/28/2004; CNN, 3/28/2004]

Entity Tags: Colin Powell, George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Bush administration (43), Richard A. Clarke, Tim Russert

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 2004 Elections

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