Just a few minutes after 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, with the bombs still falling on Pearl Harbor, Pacific Fleet intelligence officer Lt. Cmdr. Edwin Layton, who'd been predicting a Japanese attack for that very weekend, was scurrying through fleet headquarters when two of his superiors stopped him. "Here is the young man we should have listened to," said Capt. Willard Kitts, the fleet gunnery officer. "If it's any satisfaction to you," added Capt. Charles "Soc" McMorris, the fleet war plans officer, "you were right and we were wrong."
You can read any number of accounts of our latter Day of Infamy, Sept. 11, 2001, without coming across any equivalent verbal acknowledgments addressed to Richard Clarke, the chief of counterterrorism in the Clinton and second Bush administrations, who'd been predicting a major al Qaeda attack on the United States to the point that some colleagues thought him obsessed. But, then, an assault from al Qaeda did not fit into the Bush administration's view of the world. Just one day later, the president was directing Clarke's attention to Iraq, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was all but insisting that the proper response to al Qaeda's murder of thousands of Americans was to bulldoze Baghdad. Acknowledging that Clarke had been right might mean that there was more to heaven and earth than the neocons had dreamt of in their philosophies.
But Clarke did receive a huge if unspoken acknowledgment on the morning of Sept. 11: National security adviser Condoleezza Rice declined to run the so-called principals meeting in the White House Situation Room, choosing Clarke instead to coordinate the urgent information-gathering and to formulate the security responses to put before the president. Rice repaired, with Dick Cheney, to the White House basement's bomb shelter. A hijacked plane over Pennsylvania was headed toward Washington, and the rest of the White House evacuated at full sprint -- with the exception of Clarke and a handful of security professionals, who remained in the West Wing to continue their work.
But the security professionals who stayed at their station on Sept. 11 soon found they had philosophical differences with the neos in the shelter. They were empiricists: They took in as much information as they could and derived their conclusions on that basis. And, as Clarke and many of his fellow professionals were soon to discover, this has been a tough administration for empiricists.
Step back a minute and look at who has left this administration or blown the whistle on it, and why. Clarke enumerates a half-dozen counterterrorism staffers, three of whom were with him in the Situation Room on Sept. 11, who left because they felt the White House was placing too much emphasis on the enemy who didn't attack us, Iraq, and far too little on the enemy who did.
But that only begins the list. There's Paul O'Neill, whose recent memoir recounts his ongoing and unavailing battle to get the president to take the skyrocketing deficit seriously. There's Christie Todd Whitman, who appears in O'Neill's memoir recalling her own unsuccessful struggles to get the White House to acknowledge the scientific data on environmental problems. There's Eric Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff, who told Congress that it would take hundreds of thousands of American soldiers to adequately secure postwar Iraq. There's Richard Foster, the Medicare accountant, who was forbidden by his superiors from giving Congress an accurate assessment of the cost of the administration's new program. All but Foster are now gone, and Foster's sole insurance policy is that Republican as well as Democratic members of Congress were burnt by his muzzling.
In the Bush administration, you're an empiricist at your own peril. Plainly, this has placed any number of conscientious civil servants -- from Foster, who totaled the costs on Medicare, to Clarke, who charted the al Qaeda leads before Sept. 11 -- at risk. In a White House where ideology trumps information time and again, you run the numbers at your own risk. Nothing so attests to the fundamental radicalism of this administration as the disaffection of professionals such as Foster and Clarke, each of whom had served presidents of both parties.
The revolt of the professionals poses a huge problem for the Bush presidency precisely because it is not coming from its ideological antagonists. Clarke concludes his book making a qualified case for establishing a security sub-agency within the FBI that would be much like Britain's MI5 -- a suggestion clearly not on the ACLU's wish list. O'Neill wants a return to traditional Republican budget-balancing. The common indictment that these critics are leveling at the administration is that it is impervious to facts. That's a more devastating election year charge than anything John Kerry could come up with.
Harold Meyerson is Editor-at-Large of The American Prospect. This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.
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