Robert O. Boorstin
Robert O. Boorstin

In his new book, "Against All Enemies," Dick Clarke – the former national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection and counterterrorism – gives the straight story about what was going on in the Bush White House before and after Sept. 11, 2001. It is not a pretty picture.

Clarke takes us inside a White House that was deaf to the threat posed by al Qaeda, a White House that took eight months to schedule a principals meeting to address the problem – the meetings where the president and the Cabinet make the most important decisions about national security.

Clarke gives us a look into a White House and an administration populated by officials who were blinded by an obsession with Iraq. He offers us a glimpse into the Situation Room, where President Bush repeatedly asked Clarke and his staff to look for proof that Saddam Hussein had taken down the World Trade Center immediately after the attacks.

And he takes us into a White House where officials who dissented from the official line chose to be mute rather than protest when they thought things were moving down the wrong track.

Clarke's conclusion is tough, direct and on point: the Bush administration "failed to act prior to September 11 on the threat from al Qaeda despite repeated warnings." It launched "an unnecessary and costly war in Iraq that strengthened the fundamentalist, radical Islamic terrorist movement worldwide."

This is strong stuff at any time. But this is particularly damning at a time when Karl Rove and his money machine are engaged in an all-out offensive to convince the American people that we can rest easy at night with George W. Bush in the White House.

Already the attacks have begun and the administration's shills are hard at work. They are casting aspersions on his motives; dissecting Clarke's observations about the facial expressions of Condoleezza Rice; making creative excuses for their lack of follow-through and reductions in counter-terrorism funding; and calling him a partisan. Underneath their orchestrated rebuttals lies a chilling assertion – that legitimate criticism of the administration's approach to terrorism is unwarranted and will not be tolerated.

Of course, the most predictable spin by the right wing on Clarke's actions is that he is part of a vast Democratic conspiracy. They point out that Clarke is teaching a course at Harvard with Rand Beers, his colleague of more than two decades and the man who now heads the national security policy shop for presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry. Naturally, they neglect to mention that Clarke was a registered Republican at the time of the 2000 election.

These attacks should come as no surprise.

After all, this is the White House that – in one of the most serious breaches of national security on record – exposed a CIA agent whose husband dared to challenge the president's version of the truth. A grand jury investigation is ongoing.

This is the administration that threatened to prosecute former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill for exposing documents he used in his recently released memoir, "The Price of Loyalty" – unclassified documents that the Treasury Department released to him. Meanwhile, there has been no investigation into the president's decision to openly discuss highly classified national security meetings and directives with Bob Woodward for his largely favorable book, "Bush at War."

And this is the administration that summarily fired economics adviser Larry Lindsay when he estimated that the war in Iraq could cost up to $200 billion. Well, we're at $170 billion and counting and Iraq is far from stable or secure.

Full disclosure. I worked with Clarke in the White House in 1994-1995, when I was national security speechwriter for President Clinton. Clarke is not a quiet man and he has ruffled his share of feathers. He can be rightly accused of stubbornness and a no-nonsense approach when it comes to pursuing his missions – tracking down al Qaeda, preventing an attack on our nation's computer systems, or making sure our nation's emergency response systems are the best they can be.

But Clarke is, above all, a patriot. He has spent more than 30 years of his life working to protect the people of the United States. He was hired by Ronald Reagan and worked for four presidents – three Republicans and one Democrat. Dick worked for governments, not political parties. And for years he was the canary in the coal mine, warning about the grave threat posed by al Qaeda.

Bush's top officials, it turns out, were not willing to listen. Perhaps it was because Clarke, like CIA director George Tenet, was a holdover from the Clinton administration. And the Bush administration national security doctrine on taking office was rooted in the fundamental premise that everything Clinton did was wrong. Perhaps it was because although Clarke criticized the Clinton administration, he was even more critical of George W. Bush's tenure.

The efforts to defame Clarke for telling the truth are ultimately both pathetic and damaging. Pathetic because attacking people's character is the only route left for a White House that has been marked by delusion and deception. Damaging because the White House has no good response to the bottom line: the American people today are less safe than we otherwise might have been.

Only history will judge the wisdom of the Bush administration's failures in its first nine months in office to deal with al Qaeda and its obsession with Iraq to the exclusion of other, more important threats. But Dick Clarke has given us the first draft of that history – and it's a scary read.

Robert O. Boorstin is the senior vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress.

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