In 1992, when Richard Clarke assumed the counterterrorism portfolio in the White House, terrorism was not a serious problem. Libya’s downing of Pan Am 103 four years before had been the last major attack on a U.S. target. Yet when Clarke left his post in October 2001, terrorism had become the single-greatest threat to America. Clarke would have us believe this happened because of events beyond anyone’s ability to control. He argues, moreover, that the Bush administration has adopted a fatally wrong approach to the war on terror by including states, particularly Iraq, in its response to the 9/11 attacks.
Clarke’s tenure as America’s top counterterrorism official is essentially contemporaneous with the Clinton administration. Bill Clinton took what had been considered a national-security issue, in which the U.S. focused on punishing and deterring terrorist states, and turned it into a law-enforcement issue, focused on arresting and convicting individual perpetrators. That was certainly an easier response, but it was completely ineffectual. In fact, it had created a very serious vulnerability long before September 11, 2001. Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies is, essentially, an attempt to blame the Bush administration for 9/11, while exonerating Clinton (and therefore Clarke). The reality is quite the reverse.
CLARKE VS. ME
An audacious series of terrorist attacks began in the 1990’s, starting with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center–one month into Clinton’s first term in office. New York FBI was the lead investigative agency, and senior officials there, including director Jim Fox, believed Iraq was involved. As Fox wrote, “Although we are unable to say with certainty the Iraqis were behind the bombing, that is certainly the theory accepted by most of the veteran investigators” (italics added).
Clarke vehemently rejects this view, calling it “the totally discredited Laurie Mylroie theory.” While this theory is indeed the central thesis of my book, Study of Revenge, one wonders why Clarke would not attribute it to Fox and the other FBI agents who did the hard work to uncover the evidence of Iraq’s role. Gil Childers, lead prosecutor in the first World Trade Center bombing trial, was considered by other U.S. officials the expert on that attack. Childers described Study of Revenge as “work the U.S. government should have done.”
Clarke’s office was obliged to review the book in the spring of 2001. He dismissed it then, as he does now. He systematically ignores or distorts the information suggesting an Iraqi link to the 1993 bombing, including the critical question of the identity of its mastermind, Ramzi Yousef; as well as the identity of Yousef’s “uncle,” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks; along with the identities of other key terrorists in that remarkable “family.”
Clarke maliciously misrepresents my argument on these points. After stating the obvious–that Yousef is indeed the terrorist the government says he is, Clarke writes: “That did not stop author Laurie Mylroie from asserting that the real Ramzi Yousef was not in the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Manhattan, but lounging at the right hand of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.”
Yet that is not my position: “Ramzi Yousef was arrested and returned to the United States on February 7, 1995″ (Study of Revenge, p. 212). This very serious dispute relates instead to Yousef’s real identity. Former CIA Director James Woolsey has observed, “For Clarke to say something like that is like the 13th chime of the clock. Not only is it bizarre in and of itself, it calls into question…everything from the same source.”
But while Clarke totally rejects the possibility that Iraq was behind the first attack on the Trade Center, he nevertheless entertains the possibility of a foreign dimension to the Oklahoma City bombing: “Ramzi Yousef and [Terry] Nichols had been in the city of Cebu on the same days…. Could the al Qaeda explosives expert have been introduced to the angry American?… We do know that Nichols’s bombs did not work before his Philippine stay and were deadly when he returned. We also know that Nichols continued to call Cebu long after his wife returned to the United States.”
Clarke might have added that Nichols met his (underage) wife, Marife, on an Asian sex tour. He insisted on marrying her, although Marife did not want to marry him. She had a boyfriend, Jo-Jo, but her parents, believing they would gain a rich American son-in-law, pushed her into the marriage. After the wedding, Nichols remained only a week in Cebu, leaving Marife with some money to see her through her lengthy wait for her U.S. visa. She ran off with Jo-Jo, became pregnant, and sent Nichols a letter asking for a divorce. Yet he still insisted on marrying her–even though he scarcely knew her. FBI agents involved in the investigation speculated in their reports about whether this marriage might be a cover for conspiratorial activities. The regular ongoing phone calls to Cebu certainly underline that possibility.
Intelligence analysts need to have a reasonably good memory, but Clarke’s book is riddled with errors. Libya bombed Pan Am 103 in 1988, during the Reagan administration, not in 1989 under Bush 41, as Clarke claims; El Sayyid Nosair murdered Meir Kahane in 1990, not 1992; the Khobar bombing was after April 1996 (in June), not before. The 1982 U.S. intervention in Lebanon was not prompted by events related to Iran: Israel had invaded Lebanon to expel the PLO, and the U.S. then intervened to oversee the PLO’s evacuation to Tunisia and otherwise to help establish a new government in Beirut.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has protested that Clarke quotes him speaking at a meeting he did not attend. Clarke claims that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz rejected his view that Osama bin Laden’s threats should be taken with the same seriousness as those of Adolph Hitler. Wolfowitz, however, disputes that characterization, asserting that he himself agrees that Hitler is the prime example of why such figures cannot be ignored.
To bolster his claim after 9/11 that he had vigorously pursued the possibility of Iraq’s involvement in the first attack on the Trade Center, Clarke wrote a memo stating that “[W]hen the bombing happened,” he “focused on Iraq as the possible culprit because of Iraqi involvement in the attempted assassination of President Bush in Kuwait in the same month.” But as Wolfowitz noted during the 9/11 Commission hearings, Iraq’s attempted assassination of Bush was two months after the Trade Center bombing.
One person who worked with Clarke in government explains that he was never very good with facts. Facts slow you down and otherwise got in the way of his hard-charging style. Perhaps for that reason, Clarke was also prone to making things up.
Most egregiously, Clarke maintains that when Clinton hit Iraqi intelligence headquarters in June 1993, that attack ended Iraq’s involvement in terrorism. But if the 1991 Gulf War did not do so, why should one cruise-missile strike achieve that goal?
Clinton was aware at the time of New York FBI’s suspicions that Iraq was behind the Trade Center bombing. Although Clinton said publicly that his strike on Iraqi intelligence headquarters was punishment for the attempted assassination of Bush, he also meant it to answer for the terrorism in New York, just in case New York FBI was correct. Clinton believed, as Clarke writes, that that strike would deter Saddam from all future acts of terrorism. By not telling the public that it seemed Saddam may have tried to topple New York’s tallest tower onto its twin, Clinton avoided the risk (from his perspective) of a public demand that he take much more vigorous action.
That initial decision to deal surreptitiously with suspicions of Iraq’s involvement in a major terrorist attack was reinforced by the ad hoc, all-purpose explanation for such assaults against the U.S. that emerged: Such activity was the work of loose networks, not supported by any state. This theory represented a 180-degree revision of the previous understanding of terrorism, and it provided a cover not only for U.S. inaction but also for terrorist activity on the part of hostile governments, particularly Iraq.
This was the flawed analysis that led ultimately to the attacks of 9/11. This, almost certainly, explains Clarke’s over-the-top denunciations of those who have argued that Iraq was involved in the first attack on the Trade Center, as well as his repeated assertions that he searched for such evidence, but it was just not there. At stake is the question of who was responsible for our vulnerability on that terrible day. Clarke apparently believes that the best defense is a good offense.
–Laurie Mylroie was adviser on Iraq to the 1992 Clinton campaign. She is author of Bush vs. the Beltway: How the CIA and the State Department Tried to Stop the War on Terrorism. She can be reached through www.benadorassociates.com.