March 23, 2004,
Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism czar in four successive administrations, testifies in front of the 9/11 Commission on Wednesday. But what should have been a serious inquiry into how a loosely knit gang of Islamic fanatics could rise to become one of history's most lethal and effective global terrorist organizations now promises to become a political spectacle.
At the height of the presidential campaign season, Clarke has made irresponsible and untrue allegations that the Bush White House was indifferent to the threat posed by al Qaeda in the months leading up to the 9/11 attacks. Whether his charges are the result of a momentary lapse in judgment in an otherwise distinguished civil-service career, or the hallmark of personal ego and greed in trying to sell a book while settling scores with a Bush White House that demoted him, the 9/11 commissioners cannot be deterred in their task to find out the truth about what happened on his watch to America's counterterrorism efforts.
The 9/11 commissioners have a thankless job of asking tough questions that nobody wants to ask. There will be a broad set of questions asked Tuesday and Wednesday of the various witnesses who appear. But when Clarke goes under oath, there will be a need to get down to specifics because the devil of understanding how 9/11 became possible is in the details of what Clarke did or did not do.
If I were a 9/11 commissioner, there are seven very pointed areas of inquiry I would enter into with Clarke to understand exactly how the intelligence failures and policy missteps evolved:
1. Sudan's offer to hand over Osama bin Laden. Mr. Clarke, we know from news reports and the testimony of a former U.S. ambassador that a meeting took place at an Alexandria, Virginia, hotel in February 1996 between Sudan's minister of defense, El Fatih Erwa, Ambassador Timothy Carney, a career State Department officer, and a CIA official with oversight responsibility for African affairs. During that meeting, Erwa offered to have Osama bin Laden extradited to Saudi Arabia (an offer which President Clinton has admitted to and also said that the Saudi government declined when asked), and barring that, to have Sudan essentially baby-sit him with U.S. guidance (which we also turned down). Is it true that a second meeting took place a few weeks later in which Erwa and the CIA officer met alone? What can you tell us about that meeting? Did Erwa make an offer, however vague or oblique, to permit the United States to have access to bin Laden in a manner similar to the capture of Carlos the Jackal that Sudan orchestrated with France? If the CIA case officer received this offer, did he pass it up the chain of command and did you at the NSC see or review any notes of that meeting? If he did not, was this a result of the poor state of relations between CIA and the White House or just a bureaucratic snafu? How do you assess President Clinton's own view that the administration chose not to bring bin Laden to the United States because there were insufficient legal grounds for doing so? Why would he make such a claim if there were never any offer in the first place?
2. Sudan's counterterrorism offer. Mr. Clarke, in April 1997, a private U.S. citizen brought an unconditional offer from Sudan's president to cooperate on the intelligence data about various terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, to the vice chairman of this commission, the Honorable Lee Hamilton. On September 28, 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced after a five-month interagency review that the U.S. was sending a high-level team of diplomats back to Sudan to pressure the Islamist government there to stop harboring terrorists, and to have a look at Sudan's intelligence files on those terrorists it had harbored in previous years, including several of the 9/11 hijackers and several of the planners for the 1998 U.S.-embassy bombings. That decision was overturned on October 1, 1997. What role did you play in the reversal of that decision? Were you ever approached by Susan E. Rice, the former director of African affairs at the National Security Council and assistant secretary of state for East Africa, to assist her in making a case to Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger in overturning the Albright decision? If so, what were her reasons, and why did you agree with her assessment, if you did? Please tell us whether any officials other than you, Mr. Berger, and Ms. Rice were involved in that decision.
3. Iraq and al Qaeda the Sudan connection. Mr. Clarke, are you aware of a February 1998 correspondence from Sudan's intelligence chief to FBI Regional Director for East Africa David Williams in which again an offer to share terrorism data was made by Sudan without conditions? Are you aware that bin Laden's chief deputy in Sudan made a trip to Baghdad to visit with Iraqi intelligence officials at about the same time in February 1998? If not, why not? How do you reconcile your categorical statement in a recent 60 Minutes interview that there was no relationship between al Qaeda and Iraq ever, I believe is how you put it with the fact that bin Laden's chief deputy was visiting Baghdad at the same time you were receiving repeated offers to explore Sudan's intelligence files?
4. The U.S. embassy bombings. Mr. Clarke, once the U.S. embassies had been attacked in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, Sudan's intelligence chief again contacted the FBI in a handwritten note that has been published, and offered to turn over to U.S. custody two of the key suspects who had taken up residence in an apartment overlooking the U.S. embassy in Khartoum. Why did the United States not pursue their extradition immediately? Were you aware of the offer? If not, why not? If so, why did you not, in your role as counterterrorism coordinator, make sure the FBI was given all support necessary from the White House to gain their extradition?
5. Retaliation: bombing the al-Shifa plant in Khartoum. Mr. Clarke, you then recommended bombing Sudan's al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant as the best response to the embassy attacks. Can you recount the evidence that led you to believe al-Shifa was producing nerve agents, and the evidence you had of its ownership and financing by bin Laden? Can you again help us to rectify your categorical statement now that there was no relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime, ever, when you previously argued that Iraq and Sudan were cooperating on the development of chemical and biological weapons at a pharmaceutical plant you claimed was owned and financed by bin Laden?
6. The United Arab Emirates offers help on capturing bin Laden. Mr. Clarke, press reports indicate that the government of the United Arab Emirates, for its own reasons, was interested in helping the United States get bin Laden out of Afghanistan during the summer of 2000. It is our understanding that you were involved in a similar effort already in late 1999 and that the effort failed for a number of different reasons before a second attempt was made to revive it. First, can you tell us precisely what is the nature of your relationship with the UAE ruling family? Are you aware of any threats that were made against the family by al Qaeda leaders during that period of time? Did you relay any U.S. intelligence on the nature of those threats to UAE officials at that time? Did any UAE official, including members of the ruling family responsible for defense and national-security affairs, make an assessment or an offer to find a way to get bin Laden out of Afghanistan? If so, did it involve the construction of an Afghan Development Fund for the Taliban regime in return for bin Laden's transfer to the UAE? Was onward extradition of bin Laden from the UAE to the United States ever discussed with you? Did you ever make the president aware that such a possibility to get bin Laden out of Afghanistan existed? Was it your view at that time that armed CIA predator drones, which would presumably identify and kill senior al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, were the most efficient tools available to the United States for dealing with the threat posed by al Qaeda?
7. Did al Qaeda get nuclear assistance from Pakistan? A Pakistani national, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, has now admitted to selling nuclear hardware and other materials for the construction of nuclear devices to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. The White House in which you worked was warned about Pakistan's nuclear black-market enterprise in August of 2000, and again in September 2000. You clearly had suspicions about the North Korean relationship very early on. Other troubling aspects of Pakistan's nuclear program were brought to Mr. Berger's attention as early as February 1996. Can you tell us today whether al Qaeda was able to get its hands on sufficient nuclear materials to be able to build a radiological device? Do you believe al Qaeda possesses a functional nuclear device? Did the Clinton administration have sufficient evidence to confront Pakistan's military regime about the illicit nuclear activities of its scientists? Why did you not act on the intelligence you had to stop Dr. Khan's network earlier?
Factual answers to these questions, minus the political bluster and ad-hominem attacks aimed at scoring points with a potential future employer, would go a long way in restoring Richard Clarke's severely damaged credibility as an observer and participant in some of history's most important events. Our future generations deserve better than to watch catfights between grown adults charged with nothing less than providing for their safety and security.
Just tell us the truth, Mr. Clarke.
Mansoor Ijaz is chairman of Crescent Investment Management in New York. He negotiated Sudan's offer of counterterrorism assistance on al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden to the Clinton administration in 1997 and coauthored the blueprint for the ceasefire in Kashmir in the summer of 2000.