Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Clarke vs. Administration credibility: Clarke comes out ahead. . Still, it's possible he may have exaggerated Condi Rice's ignorance about Al Qaeda, and contradicted an earlier interview he gave The Washington Post in 2002 about their first meeting -- even if he was burnishing Rice's image at the time. But on virtually all counts, the various contradictions and hard-to-believe anti-Clarke claims of Adminstration smear-mongers fall flat, as compiled by the Center for American Progress. Fred Kaplan at Slate also has a readable overview making the case for the veracity of Clarke's claims.

But Clarke's claim that Condoleezza Rice never heard of Al-Qaeda somehow doesn't ring true. Yet given this Administration's irresponsibility, who knows? Here's what Clarke wrote: "As I briefed Rice on Al Qaeda, her facial expression gave me the impression that she had never heard of the term before, so I added, `Most people think of it as Osama bin Laden's group, but it's much more than that. It's a network of affiliated terrorist organizations with cells in over 50 countries, including the U.S.'"

A more objective account, "A Strategy's Cautious Evolution," that uses Clarke as a source, appeared in the Washington Post in January,2002, with no mention of Rice being an ignoramus about Al Qaeda:

"At 1:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, two weeks after receiving the nod as Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice walked into a room whose maps and charts only partly obscured the peeling of pale yellow paint. Room 302 of the Old Executive Office Building had become the unlikely seat of a bureaucratic empire built by Richard Clarke and Roger Cressey, his chief of staff.

"Clarke's white crew cut imparts a military demeanor, but he actually came to government by way of Boston Latin School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Under Clinton, he had combined modest authority with immodest infighting skills to become the government's main engine of policy on terrorism. In this first meeting with Rice, on Jan. 3, he won a prompt invitation to keep the job.

"`The focus was on al Qaeda -- who is al Qaeda, what is al Qaeda and why is it an existential threat?'" Clarke recalled in an interview.

"Rice told him first, he said, that the dangers appeared to be greater than she had known.

"`Her second reaction was 'What are you going to do about it?' " Clarke said. "`I don't think we actually got a tasking at that meeting, but it was clear that she wanted an organized strategy review. She didn't just passively take this information.'"

Update: While Clarke portrays her as asking questions about Al Qaeda, this account doesn't portray her as an idiot who never heard of the group before. Of course, there's an alternative explanation: Clarke didn't leave the White House until February, 2003, so, while still employed there, he may have been pulling his punches in describing the meeting to the Washington Post. So it's possible she was just as ignorant about Al Qaeda as he says in his book.

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