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Senior Council Official Says Bush Administration’s Perception of Terrorism 'Is Mistaken'

Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
March 29, 2004


James M. Lindsay, who worked at the National Security Council (NSC) in 1996-97 where he was a colleague of Richard A. Clarke, says the Bush administration overemphasized the role of “rogue” states in promoting terrorism. The argument Clarke made in testimony last week before the 9/11 commission and in his new book, “Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror,” is that al Qaeda is not connected to any state. Lindsay shares that view: “The administration’s diagnosis on the war on terrorism is mistaken,” he says. “And I think, using Clarke’s argument, that the way the administration has approached it has actually made our battle against al Qaeda more difficult.”

Lindsay is vice president, Maurice R. Greenberg chair, and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the co-author of “America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy,” which received the 2003 Lionel Gelber Prize. He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on March 29, 2004.

There have been charges back and forth in the 9/11 commission last week, in the new book by Richard A. Clarke, and from the White House. What should the public think about all this?

There are two separate questions. One is the question of what was new that we learned last week. The answer is, not much. Most of what Dick Clarke attested to before the 9/11 commission was already in the public domain. It had been reported, among other places, in The New York Times and The Washington Post and, interestingly enough, in the Bob Woodward book, “Bush at War.” In that book, Bush confirms much of what Dick Clarke said, particularly on the question of the relative priority his administration gave to al Qaeda before September 11. Bush’s own statement was that he knew it was an issue, he knew they were a menace, but it wasn’t “boiling in his blood.”

The second question is, what should Americans take away from the work of the 9/11 commission at this point? I think the broadest lesson is that before September 11, there wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm in the American political system for taking aggressive actions against al Qaeda. In the Clinton administration, for which al Qaeda was a priority— there is ample evidence that the administration mobilized at various times when it feared that an attack was about to be mounted— there was an inhibition as to how much it could do. There was only so much that the political environment would tolerate, in terms of what the president could do. And indeed, Sandy Berger [Clinton’s national security adviser] was accused of being too aggressive on terrorism issues.

Berger testified that the CIA was authorized to kill Osama bin Laden and the CIA interpreted it more cautiously to mean that it could kill him only in the course of an operation to capture him.

The reality was that everyone felt constrained in what they could do, that they didn’t have an open license to go out and hunt down bin Laden. If you go back over time, there were reports of incidents when the United States thought it might have bin Laden, but in terms of capturing bin Laden, there was always the constraint of not wanting to have collateral damage [caused by the capture mission]. That would be unacceptable, in part because not everybody was yet convinced that bin Laden was a serious threat.

And indeed, Dick Clarke, before September 11, particularly during the latter part of the Clinton administration, was often depicted by his critics in the press as being obsessed with what they charged was not a real threat; that this was all part of his trying to build up the credibility of the Clinton administration, that it was part of his trying to justify his own empire within the NSC. Of course, once you had 9/11, what had previously looked like overly aggressive anti-terrorist efforts all of a sudden looked like too little, too late.

Roberta Wohlstetter, in “Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision,” makes the point that in hindsight, there were clear signals that the Japanese were going to bomb Pearl Harbor, but in fact the “static” of false reports was so heavy that you couldn’t put it together soon enough.

Here the problem is a different one. People like Dick Clarke knew we had a very serious problem, and that aggressive action was required. At the political level, however, the country as a whole— Democrats and Republicans— was not prepared to run the cost of mounting an all-out attack on bin Laden. Let’s go back to August 1998 when we had the attacks on the American embassies in Dar es Salaam and in Nairobi. Several weeks later, President Clinton ordered retaliatory strikes. The criticism was considerable from Republicans. It was not that we should have done much more, but that [the attacks were] clearly an effort to divert attention from the president’s own legal troubles [related to his extramarital relationship with Monica Lewinsky]. This was a “Wag the Dog” scenario [based on a popular movie in which a president goes to war to cover up a scandal].

Indeed, if you track through the campaign of 2000, terrorism was not a prominent issue. The third presidential debate [on October 17, 2000] occurred shortly after the bombing of the USS Cole [on October 12, 2000], but it did not figure in the debate. It was not an issue for Al Gore or for George Bush. And so in a sense Dick Clarke was sort of a Cassandra, because he was always talking about this issue and was dedicated to, if not obsessed by, destroying al Qaeda. He had reason to be so. The reason was that if you go through 1998, 1999, and 2000, [U.S. authorities] had been successful in foiling plots by al Qaeda on American soil. They were afraid something was going to happen in connection with the millennium and had been on high alert and had spent a lot of energy, with meetings almost daily, to find out what was going on. That points to a problem you always have in any government, Democratic or Republican. Terrorists have the advantage of picking the time, the place, and manner of their attack. So you’re left trying to discern, out of 1,000 different modes of attack, what the most likely one is so you can be prepared for it.

Part of the problem must have been that the Bush administration came into office in 2001 not wanting to take too seriously anything that went on in the Clinton administration. Why did the Bush administration keep Clarke on its team?

You will have to ask [Bush National Security Adviser] Condoleezza Rice why he was kept. I would imagine that what Dick had going for him was a reputation for being a very accomplished bureaucratic player who could get things done and who was nonpartisan. He had worked on the NSC staff for George H.W. Bush. Indeed, I think Dick holds the record for having the longest tenure on the NSC staff of anyone.

Was he on the NSC staff during the Reagan administration, too?

He was in the State Department as a career civil servant and he worked on a number of issues. Looking at the Bush administration, I think three things happened. One was that, for the administration, terrorism was not a top-tier issue. It simply wasn’t. The president’s famous phrase during the campaign was “madmen with missiles.” It was not “terrorists with car bombs.” So part of it was ideological. Part of it was that the administration positively had other issues it wanted to tackle, particularly missile defense and great power relations. And the third thing that happened was that the administration, like any administration, got off to a relatively slow start because it did not have all of its people in place. I would put the greatest weight on ideology. They simply did not see this as a major issue.

In part, this was because what Dick had been warning against was the potential for spectacular or catastrophic terrorism. For most people, this was more the stuff of Hollywood movies than it was a real national security threat that would endanger many, many lives. What had happened through most of the 1980s and 1990s was that the attacks were relatively small and most of them occurred offshore. I think that tended to lull people into a sense of complacency.

Why did Clarke, a supposedly bipartisan career official, feel compelled to publish a book at this time? Have you asked him?

I never asked Dick why he wrote the book. Only Dick ultimately knows why. It is fair to say that Dick was frustrated in the Bush administration, trying to get it to understand how great a terrorism threat we faced and that more urgent action was necessary. And he was unable to persuade them before September 11. So when he turned to the relatives of the victims at the commission hearings and apologized and asked for forgiveness, I think that came from the soul of the man. I think that Dick Clarke was a guy who literally worked seven days a week, 16-hour days. This was something he was dedicated to and, almost to a point, obsessed by.

It is hard to understand why he could not get more attention in the government.

He did get attention. The problem was that, if you look at the Clinton administration, he got a lot of attention, but at the end of the day, for any president, no issue should be the sole issue. For Clinton, it was, “Okay, this is an issue, we’ll do it, but there are a lot of other things we have to worry about,” and in some sense, there were constraints on what the president was willing to do. In the Bush administration, this was just not an issue that fit high up in the list of priorities, given how officials saw the world. Indeed, Dick relates the story of when he talked to [Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz about bin Laden and Wolfowitz’s response was: “Why are we spending so much time worrying about one man?” This was an administration that came to office with a number of people convinced about the importance of states, and so terrorism, nonstate actors, did not fit into that framework.

You are referring to Iraq?

Iraq was high on the priority list, but all of the rogue states were high— Iran, North Korea, for instance— because the administration was concerned about states. Even now, it looks at terrorism as something that is related to state support. If there is something new that occurred last week it is that Dick Clarke drew attention to the question of the diagnosis of the problem of terrorism. The Bush administration has argued and conceived the word terrorism as being intimately tied up to the effort to unseat rogue states. It’s “terrorists, tyrants, and technology,” with the emphasis on tyrants. What Dick suggested was that this has nothing to do with rogue states, this is not about groups that can only exist with state support. The war against al Qaeda is against a nonstate organization that can operate without the help of other governments, and that’s the great danger in Clarke’s argument to the Bush approach. Clarke is saying, in essence, that the Bush administration misdiagnosed the situation.

And that’s what we have: two competing views on what the al Qaeda threat is about. The Bush argument is that it is intimately tied up with state behavior and that’s why the president says Iraq is a central front in the war on terrorism. Given how he diagnoses the problem and sees the dynamics, he’s right. Dick Clarke’s counter-argument, which is shared by many people outside the administration, is that al Qaeda, at the end of the day, is not about states. Al Qaeda is a nonstate group of like-minded people who operate globally and independently of states. Will they take state support when they can get it? Certainly. But they are not manipulated directly by states and that makes them particularly dangerous.

You agree with Clarke, I assume?

Yes. I co-authored a book [with Ivo H. Daalder, “America Unbound”] that argues that. At the end of the day, the administration’s diagnosis on the war on terrorism is mistaken. And, using Clarke’s argument, the way the administration has approached it has actually made our battle against al Qaeda more difficult.

You would think the Bush administration would recognize that, because it has won the battle in Iraq but terrorism continues and al Qaeda doesn’t appear to be weaker.

This is, in a way, the great unanswered question. How much weaker is al Qaeda? We do know that there have been more al Qaeda attacks in the 30 months since 9/11 than in the 30 months prior to 9/11. However, we haven’t had anything on American soil, let alone anything as large as 9/11. And this is where we get into questions of al Qaeda’s size. We don’t really know.

How many sleeper cells do they have in the United States? We really don’t know. So, is the fact that we haven’t had a repeat of 9/11 the result of our due diligence or al Qaeda’s own weaknesses? Or is it the result of the way al Qaeda [operates], that there can be a very long lead time between attacks?

Perhaps it is no longer about bin Laden and a small group of dedicated people capable of carrying out sophisticated attacks but now, all of a sudden, he has become like the Johnny Appleseed of terrorism, and we’re going to witness over the years to come lots of little amorphous groups that share sympathies and are able to carry out attacks. I think one problem is that some people want us to declare victory early on. I would be cautious about saying we have “solved” the problem just on the basis of the fact that there haven’t been any new attacks on the United States.

I think you can tell that the administration is actually greatly concerned that we will see an attack, perhaps one like [the March 11 train bombings in] Madrid. And again, it is not that difficult, unfortunately, to carry out a truck bombing in the United States. Timothy McVeigh was able to do it with horrific effect in 1995 in Oklahoma City. So we face a great challenge going forward and, again, terrorists have some advantages. They get to pick the time and place and manner of the attack.

Would the administration have been better off not attacking Clarke so robustly?

The administration’s decision to go after Dick Clarke is questionable, largely because much of what Dick had to say was corroborated by the record— and the rest of what he had to say was opinion. The part that is factual is how high a priority this issue was within the administration. All the evidence suggests it was not very high. The president said so himself to Bob Woodward. Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld told the commission he could not think of any counterterrorism issue that engaged him before 9/11. On September 10, the Justice Department released a document listing its top seven top priorities, not one of which was counterterrorism.

The opinion part was Dick Clarke’s saying that the war on Iraq was a bad idea and took us away from the battle on al Qaeda. I think many people in the public relations business would say that the administration should have said, “Of course we wish we could have done more and done things differently to have prevented September 11. The president has already said he wished he had acted differently.” And on the issue of whether the war on Iraq was wise, simply say, “We disagree.” But by attacking Dick’s credibility, they elevated his presence, and I think the options are terrible for the administration in many ways. Whenever you have a lone American citizen sitting before a table with an array of people sitting higher up on a dais going after him, it looks pretty bad.

This is an administration which is very un-Kennedyesque. The [1961] Bay of Pigs debacle led [President John F.] Kennedy to get up before the press corps and say, “Victory has a hundred fathers, defeat is an orphan. But I’ll claim responsibility for the Bay of Pigs.” We haven’t seen that kind of responsibility taken by the administration in part because this is an administration that sees any confession of error as a sign of weakness that encourages further attacks.