March 29, 2004
A Lost Opportunity
by P.M. Carpenter
For nearly two days last week the eponymous 9/11 Commission did a credible bipartisan job of publicly exposing various jurisdictional screw-ups leading to the tragedy. Members of both parties asked telling questions and often received telling answers. Atypical of past political boards of inquiry, the political rhetoric of feigned indignation and argumentum ad hominem were off the table. The commission seemed to be getting somewhere.
Republican chairman Thomas Kean showed nothing but managerial fairness and Democratic commission members such as former senator Bob Kerry showed a willingness to wield criticism no matter where or on whose partisan head the hammer fell. The commissionís probing was, by and large, even-handed and evenly spread.
Then Richard Clarke appeared and everything went to hell.
Never mind that the former counterterrorism chief criticized Bill Clinton for failing to provide a "covert action program to aid Afghan factions to fight the Taliban" and for rebuffing his suggestion "that we bomb all of the Taliban and al Qaeda infrastructure." Those failures were fair game, as they should be, and not one commissioner asked Clarke how he could be so disloyal in bluntly and publicly criticizing his former presidential employer. There was no perceived wrong in Clarke panning Clinton.
Yet in bluntly and publicly criticizing the Bush administration, Clarke had committed a ghastly sin -- an almost inhuman transgression impossible to overlook. Thus two of the commissionís more congenitally partisan dogs bared their teeth, defended their pup and cast the stain of attack politics on what had been an honorable body possessed of honorable conduct.
John Lehman, Ronald Reaganís Secretary of the Navy, got the partisan ball rolling with a cutesy burlesque designed to discredit anything Clarke had to say before he could say it. This couldn't be "the same Dick Clarke" who had testified before (omitting the difference in previous testimonial focus). "I hope youíre going to tell me," Lehman postured, that what you, Mr. Clarke, have to say "is really the result of your editors and your promoters" -- not "studied judgment."
Greedy handlers and dark motives were at work, for no harsh criticism of George W. Bush could result from "studied judgment." Lehman laid it on thick. He sure didnít want to see Clarke "shoved to one side during a presidential campaign as an active partisan selling a book."
Nothing, of course, would please Lehman more than seeing Clarke politically buried, let alone shoved aside, but we need not belabor the obvious in such transparent "questioning."
Later, in Commissioner Jim Thompson's second round of questioning Mr. Clarke, the former Republican governor tried doing what all the commissioners could have done to every witness had they so chosen: He tried to pin Clarke as a liar. Batting his eyes and cocking his head like an exasperated schoolgirl, Thompson grilled Clarke about a routine, boss-puffing background briefing: "You intended to mislead the press, did you not?"
Thompson charged that as a White House operative, Clarke had even reveled in liberating himself from "standard[s] of candor and morality." My, such refreshing political innocence from a former governor of Illinois, home of graveyard voting and multiple-ballot stuffing.
Thompson never sidetracked and pressed combat-veteran Colin Powell on how he stomached working with a bunch of reactionary chicken hawks, or Donald Rumsfeld on his curious choice of nonbelligerent military targets, or any Bush administration member on the insulting absence of Condoleezza Rice. He reserved outrage for Richard Clarke only -- and the reason was evident to all.
Notwithstanding what some readers are sure to think, I mention these prosecutorial highlights not in the happy pursuit of partisan condemnation myself, but as a lament. The 9/11 Commission appeared to have a real shot at piecing together a "studied judgment" of what went wrong. Many, at least, hoped for that outcome. Messrs. Lehman and Thompson dashed that hope last Wednesday.
otherwise noted, all original