The Bush administration fears voters will believe Richard Clarke's allegations, writes Philip James
Friday March 26, 2004
The swiftness and ferocity of the Bush White House's attack on Richard Clarke tells you two things: his story may be largely true, and the Bush administration is terrified that the American people will believe it.
The central allegation - that Mr Bush was so obsessed with going after Saddam Hussein that he openly challenged his counter-terrorism adviser to find a link between September 11 and Iraq the day after the attacks took place - is serious.
It threatens the fundamental platform of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign: that you are safer with them than you are with the Democrats.
The White House did not let a single news cycle go by before questioning that the alleged encounter between the president and Clarke had ever taken place, assigning dark motives to a man who has served four presidents, three of them Republicans.
But you don't have to be Bob Woodward to check Clarke's story out. There were other witnesses to this meeting, one of whom spoke to me.
"The conversation absolutely took place. I was there, but you can't name me," the witness said. "I was one of several people present. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that the president had Iraq on his mind, first and foremost."
This former national security council official was too terrified to go on the record - he knows how vengeful this administration can be.
He remembers the late night phone call former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill received just before he published The Price of Loyalty, his account of how the Bush White House set its sights on Iraq from day one. He was about to discover the price of disloyalty to this administration.
It was Donald Rumsfeld on the line, a man more used to authorising deadly force on the grandest scale, gently advising him that it might not be in his best interests to go public.
When O'Neill ignored him, he instantly became the target of an investigation by his former department, which claimed that he had revealed state secrets.
Bush's mantra to the international community during his inexorable march to war in 2002-2003 - you are either with us or against us - applies, with equal force, to all who serve him.
His inner circle has used fear and intimidation to keep the White House airtight. But the cracks are opening up, and those pesky facts keep resurfacing like unsightly flotsam, evidence that supports Richard Clarke's revelations.
The fact that the Pentagon pulled the fighting force most equipped for hunting down Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan in March 2002 in order to pre- position it for Iraq cannot be denied.
Fifth Group Special Forces were a rare breed in the US military: they spoke Arabic, Pastun and Dari. They had been in Afghanistan for half a year, had developed a network of local sources and alliances, and believed that they were closing in on bin Laden.
Without warning, they were then given the task of tracking down Saddam. "We were going nuts on the ground about that decision," one of them recalls.
"In spite of the fact that it had taken five months to establish trust, suddenly there were two days to hand over to people who spoke no Dari, Pastun or Arabic, and had no rapport."
Along with the redeployment of human assets came a reallocation of sophisticated hardware. The US air force has only two specially-equipped RC135 U spy planes. They had successfully vectored in on al-Qaida leadership radio transmissions and cellphone calls, but they would no longer circle over the mountains of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.
The Bush White House has banked on all who were privy to these details keeping the code of silence. But too many people outside the White House sphere of influence are too well informed, be they commandos on the ground or career civil servants at the state department and CIA.
Some have come forward, risking the ire of the Bushies. Many more are considering it, weighing their conscience alongside their sense of self-preservation. Several who are talking are doing so on the condition of anonymity.
But, as this campaign heats up, some will rethink and go on the record. It is becoming clear their silence might ensure that the Bush White House gets away with the central lie of its tenure - the blanket denial that it abandoned the war on terror to pursue an unrelated, pre-selected Iraq agenda.
The louder the Bush administration proclaims that it is the only qualified protector of national security, the more offensively that rings in the ears of those who know the truth. Sooner or later - and certainly before November - that truth will out.
· Philip James is a former senior Democratic party strategist