Great Editorial By The WaPo

The 9/11 Debate (washingtonpost.com)
This editorial manages to cut through all of the nonsense, give Dick Clarke some credit, and expose him for being dishonest and opportunistic in other instances. That sounds about right.

The editorial also faults both the Clinton and Bush Administrations for underestimating the threat of al Qaeda, though they credit the Bush Administration for agreeing to a more aggressive plan to handle al Qaeda that came around too late to help with 9/11. This seems about right as well.

THE PARTISAN furor that has erupted this week over the Bush administration’s handling of terrorism before and after Sept. 11 is inevitable and maybe even useful during a presidential election campaign. But it shouldn’t obscure the central finding that has emerged from the various official investigations of the past several years, including that of the independent federal commission holding public hearings this week: that before Sept. 11, 2001, both the Bush and Clinton administrations failed to take adequate measures against the al Qaeda network or to fully appreciate the menace that it posed. As a commission staff report issued yesterday concluded, the Clinton administration had identified Osama bin Laden as a threat by 1995, but years of efforts to kill or extradite him failed, while a debate over what to do about his base in Afghanistan “continued inconclusively throughout the last year and a half of the Clinton administration.” The Bush team, initially focused on other priorities, eventually agreed on a more aggressive policy — but only days before Sept. 11, 2001. Few officials in either administration saw al Qaeda as the most important emerging threat to U.S. security.

One person who did get it was Richard A. Clarke, a bureaucratic veteran who served President Bill Clinton as a “counterterrorism czar” and was retained by the Bush administration, although in a diminished role. By his own account, Mr. Clarke was a principal actor in a White House that “could not get the CIA, the Pentagon and the FBI to act sufficiently to deal with the [terrorism] threat.” He might well have devoted the bulk of the book he published this week to this disappointing eight-year record. Instead he chose to use his memoir, and a series of high-profile television appearances, to launch a blistering critique of President Bush’s first eight months in office. Mr. Bush, he charged, failed to take steps that might have stopped Sept. 11, then wasted American resources and lives on an unrelated and unnecessary war in Iraq.

Mr. Clarke has succeeded in provoking a typically hyperaggressive counteroffensive from the Bush camp, which is portraying him as a grudge-wielding partisan of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). But whatever his motives, Mr. Clarke’s charges deserve a debate on the merits. His first claim, that Mr. Bush “ignored terrorism for months when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11,” is true at least in part — but it ignores the context that the new administration’s sluggishness didn’t distinguish it much from the previous team, or the rest of the world. In that sense, Mr. Clarke’s claim that the Bush inner circle was blinded by an obsession with Iraq rings false. Moreover, even a laserlike focus might not have helped. Although the CIA warned of an al Qaeda attack in the summer of 2001, most of the intelligence was about targets in foreign countries. No one anticipated the kinds of strikes that took place in New York and at the Pentagon.

Mr. Clarke describes Mr. Bush’s questions about a possible Iraqi role on the day after the Sept. 11 attacks as irrational; in fact, they were entirely reasonable. Iraq was an indisputable threat when Mr. Bush took office — one, like al Qaeda, that the Clinton administration had aptly described but failed to counter. Moreover, within days of asking those questions, Mr. Bush put Saddam Hussein on a back burner and ordered a U.S. military operation against al Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan — a tough decision that Mr. Clarke wrongly takes for granted.

What the former czar really objects to is the president’s move, some six months later, to expand the war on terrorism to Iraq and other rogue states capable of supplying terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Clarke, like Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and some others in the Democratic Party, argue for a narrower war, focused on al Qaeda. We disagree with that view, but it represents a legitimate alternative to Bush administration policy. Does Mr. Kerry support it? There — more than in the what-ifs about decisions made before Sept. 11 — lie the makings of an important debate.

And that gets to the heart of the matter: do we handle terrorism by dismantling state sponsors and having a credible threat of force or do we focus exclusively on al Qaeda? That would make for a good debate.

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