When Richard Clarke appeared before the 9/11 commission last week, Republican panelist James Thompson abruptly challenged him to reconcile his damning book with a contradictory pro--Bush Administration statement. "We have your book, and we have your press briefing ... Which is true?" Is Clarke, terrorism czar for the past two Administrations, a truth teller or a lying opportunist?
Clarke's timing is indeed convenient. Against All Enemies came out the week he testified before the commission. If he receives a typical royalty rate, he would make at least $1.8 million from sales. But Clarke is not easily caricatured. He just ended a 30-year stint for the Federal Government in which work, not money, was his life. He never married. He lives, according to his book, in an "old Sears-catalog house." He has served three Presidents. Until he retired last year, he spent holidays holed up in command centers, worrying about Americans' safety. Every footprint Clarke has left leads back to his obsession with terrorism--not money.
Nor does the claim that Clarke is partisan satisfy. He voted for Republican Senator John McCain in the 2000 presidential primary, he told Salon. He promised the 9/11 commission he would not take a job with a John Kerry administration, if there is one. "He is very smart. He is abrasively aggressive, and he is wholly self-centered," says a senior Republican who has worked with Clarke. But, he adds, "he is not partisan."
The charge that sticks is that Clarke has been hypocritical. Back in August 2002, when he still worked for Bush, Clarke said on the record in a TIME story that the Bush Administration's al-Qaeda policy review had moved "as fast as could be expected." He then gave the much publicized briefing to reporters on background, insisting the White House had "vigorously" pursued the Clinton Administration's policy on al-Qaeda. He said no new "plan" or "strategy" to take action against al-Qaeda had been developed under Clinton. In his book, Clarke says the opposite. He describes this plan in detail and castigates the Bush Administration for letting it languish. "My view was that this Administration, while it listened to me, didn't either believe me that there was an urgent problem, or was unprepared to act as though there were an urgent problem," he told the commission. Before Sept. 11, the Bush White House made terrorism "an important issue but not an urgent issue."
Clarke's dual personality makes no sense--unless you work in Washington. Aides passionately defend their boss one day, and after they resign, recall a very different story. Bob Kerrey, a 9/11 panel member and former Democratic Senator, says with a dose of sarcasm, "He's got everybody in positions of power trying to undermine him--by saying what? That when he was sent by his boss to say nice things about him, he did? Yeah, God, there's a crime. That's unusual in Washington." Clarke told the commission that when the White House asked him to do the briefing, he had three choices: resign, lie or "put the best face" he could on the facts. Clarke said he chose the last option. "I don't think it's a question of morality," he added. "I think it's a question of politics."