Sunday, April 18, 2004

Who's Partisan Now?

With conservative pundits stepping all over each other this past week to decry the 9-11 Commission as partisan, a look back at the Richard Clarke testimony seems in order. You may be less than shocked to discover some hefty partisanship on the part of republican commission members James Thompson and Fred Fielding, as they attempt to discredit Clarke.

Take a look at Thompson first, who bypasses opening remarks if favor of going right after Clarke's credibility.

JAMES THOMPSON, COMMISSION MEMBER: Mr. Clarke, as we sit here this afternoon, we have your book and we have your press briefing of August 2002. Which is true?

CLARKE: Well, I think the question is a little misleading.

The press briefing you're referring to comes in the following context: Time magazine had published a cover story article highlighting what your staff briefing talks about. They had learned that, as your staff briefing notes, that there was a strategy or a plan and a series of additional options that were presented to the national security adviser and the new Bush team when they came into office.

Time magazine ran a somewhat sensational story that implied that the Bush administration hadn't worked on that plan. And this, of course, coming after 9/11 caused the Bush White House a great deal of concern.

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. And so I did.

Now, we can get into semantic games of whether it was a strategy, or whether it was a plan, or whether it was a series of options to be decided upon. I think the facts are as they were outlined in your staff briefing.

THOMPSON: Well, let's take a look, then, at your press briefing, because I don't want to engage in semantic games. You said, the Bush administration decided, then, you know, mid-January -- that's mid- January, 2001 -- to do 2 things: one, vigorously pursue the existing the policy -- that would be the Clinton policy -- including all of the lethal covert action findings which we've now made public to some extent. Is that so? Did they decide in January of 2001 to vigorously pursue the existing Clinton policy?

CLARKE: They decided that the existing covert action findings would remain in effect.

THOMPSON: OK. The second thing the administration decided to do is to initiate a process to look at those issues which had been on the table for a couple of years and get them decided. Now, that seems to indicate to me that proposals had been sitting on the table in the Clinton administration for a couple of years, but that the Bush administration was going to get them done. Is that a correct assumption?

CLARKE: Well, that was my hope at the time. It turned out not to be the case.

THOMPSON: Well, then why in August of 2002, over a year later, did you say that it was the case?

CLARKE: I was asked to make that case to the press. I was a special assistant to the president, and I made the case I was asked to make.

THOMPSON: Are you saying to be you were asked to make an untrue case to the press and the public, and that you went ahead and did it?

CLARKE: No, sir. 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.

Later in the hearing, Fred Fielding tries to advance the same line of spin: Richard Clarke is contradicting himself.

FRED FIELDING, COMMISSION MEMBER: Mr. Clarke, thank you for being here.

I shared John's feelings when I read your interviews with the staff as well, because it gave a perspective of something that bridged different administrations and really had a chance to see it. And of course, you were looking at it from different level than some of the other people we had interviewed.

And likewise, I was a little taken back when I saw the hoopla and the promotion for the book and when I saw this transcript that just came forward today.

But what's bothering me now is that not only did you interview with us, but you also spent more than six hours with the congressional joint inquiry. And I've read your information, and, I mean, that's a very serious body and very serious inquiry -- not that we're not. But I can't believe over six hours you never expressed any concern to them that the Bush administration didn't act with sufficient urgency to address these horrible potential problems if you felt that way.

Did you ever list for the joint inquiry any of the measures that you thought should have been taken that weren't?

CLARKE: I think all the measures that I thought should have been taken were in the plan that I presented in January of 2001 and were in the NSPD that the principals approved in September, September 4th, 2001. There were no additional measures that I had in mind other than those that I presented. And as I did explain, both to the commission and to the joint inquiry, those proposals, which ultimately were adopted by the principals committee, took a very, very, very long time to make it through the policy development process.

FIELDING: Well, I understand that, but I think the charges that you've made are much more -- I think they're much deeper than that.

Let me ask you a question, because it's been bothering me as well. You've been involved intimately in PDD-39 and in PDD-62. The latter certainly very much implicates your own position. How long did it take for those to be developed and signed?

CLARKE: I'm not sure I could recollect that answer. Perhaps the staff could find that.

To your general answer about how long does it take PDDs to be signed, I've seen them signed in a day and I've seen them take three years.

FIELDING: Well, of course. I mean, we've all seen that. But these were -- obviously 62 was a very important one, but obviously the one that we're talking about that was developed was an extremely important one, and it was one that you put a lot into yourself. And it was in the beginning of a new administration. Anyway...

CLARKE: Sir, if I may?


CLARKE: There's also the issue that was raised earlier by another member of the commission was to whether all of the pending decisions needed to be rolled up into a national security presidential directive or whether, based on the urgency of the intelligence, some of them couldn't -- like arming the Predator to attack and kill bin Laden -- why did that have to wait until the entire policy was developed?

Weren't there pieces like that that could have been broken off and decided right away? Now I certainly urged that. I urged that beginning in February when I realized that this policy process was going to take forever.

FIELDING: I understand. And I understand your testimony that you did that. What I don't understand is, if you had these deep feelings and deep concerns about the lack of ability and urgency within the Bush administration, that you didn't advise the joint inquiry. And I mean, did you feel it unnecessary to tell them that the Bush administration was too preoccupied with the Cold War issues or Iraq at that point?

CLARKE: I wasn't asked, sir. I think I provided the joint inquiry, as a member of the administration at the time, please recall, I provided the joint inquiry all the facts it needed to make the conclusions which I've made about how long it took and what the development of the policy process was like and the refusal of the administration to spin out for earlier decision things like the armed Predator.

FIELDING: Well, it obviously will be up to the members of the joint inquiry to make that decision and judgment.

But, you must agree that it's not like -- going before a joint inquiry is not like going before a press background briefing. As you said, I think your description was I tried to highlight the positive and play down the negative. But the joint inquiry wasn't asking you to do that, they were asking you to come forward, weren't they?

CLARKE: I answered very fully all of the questions the joint inquiry had asked. They said that themselves in their comments to me, and in their report. I testified for six hours. And I testified as a member of the Bush administration.

And I think, sir, with all of your experience in this city, you understand as well as I do the freedom one has to speak critical of an administration when one is a member of that administration.

FIELDING: I do understand that. But I also understand the integrity with which you have to take your job. But thank you, sir.

CLARKE: Thank you.

During the second round of questioning, Thompson, apparently not satisfied with he and Fielding's attempts to brand Clarke a liar, tries to force the issue again.

THOMPSON: Mr. Clarke, in this background briefing, as Senator Kerrey has now described it, for the press in August of 2002, you intended to mislead the press, did you not?

CLARKE: No. I think there is a very fine line that anyone who's been in the White House, in any administration, can tell you about. And that is when you are special assistant to the president and you're asked to explain something that is potentially embarrassing to the administration, because the administration didn't do enough or didn't do it in a timely manner and is taking political heat for it, as was the case there, you have a choice. Actually, I think you have three choices. You can resign rather than do it. I chose not to do that. Second choice is...

THOMPSON: Why was that, Mr. Clarke? You finally resigned because you were frustrated.

CLARKE: I was, at that time, at the request of the president, preparing a national strategy to defend America's cyberspace, something which I thought then and think now is vitally important. I thought that completing that strategy was a lot more important than whether or not I had to provide emphasis in one place or other while discussing the facts on this particular news story.

The second choice one has, Governor, is whether or not to say things that are untruthful. And no one in the Bush White House asked me to say things that were untruthful, and I would not have said them.

In any event, the third choice that one has is to put the best face you can for the administration on the facts as they were, and that is what I did.

I think that is what most people in the White House in any administration do when they're asked to explain something that is embarrassing to the administration.

THOMPSON: But you will admit that what you said in August of 2002 is inconsistent with what you say in your book?

CLARKE: No, I don't think it's inconsistent at all. I think, as I said in your last round of questioning, Governor, that it's really a matter here of emphasis and tone. I mean, what you're suggesting, perhaps, is that as special assistant to the president of the United States when asked to give a press backgrounder I should spend my time in that press backgrounder criticizing him. I think that's somewhat of an unrealistic thing to expect.

THOMPSON: Well, what it suggests to me is that there is one standard of candor and morality for White House special assistants and another standard of candor and morality for the rest of America.

CLARKE: I don't get that. I don't think it's a question of morality at all. I think it's a question of politics.

CLARKE: Well, I...


THOMPSON: I'm not a Washington insider. I've never been a special assistant in the White House. I'm from the Midwest. So I think I'll leave it there.

Nevermind the fact that, rather than questioning Clarke on improving terrorism prevention, the republican commissioners spent much of their allotted time trying to catch him in a contradiction; the allegations raised by Fielding and Thompson are troublesome because they are blatantly false.

Not only did Clarke say nothing contradictory in the 2002 press briefing, but none other than Sen. Pat Roberts, R-KS, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that Clarke did not contradict himself during the Congressional Joint Inquiry on the September 11 attacks, in July 2002.

Where were the liberal pundits on this one? Partisanship reared it's ugly head long before Condoleezza Rice took the stand.

For more, take a look at the O'Franken Factor blog.