So, as I may have mentioned before, I picked up a copy of Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies a couple of weeks ago. I did this out of annoyance, mainly–it seemed like the book had inspired a lot of noise, even before its official release, nearly all of which failed to address what I perceived to be the substance of Clarke’s argument. It seemed to me that most of Clarke’s critics hadn’t bothered to read Against All Enemies…but then, neither had I.

It’s a fairly quick read–291 pages–and, minus a first chapter that reads like something Tom Clancy would write in a drunken stupor (”Bursting in on the Vice President and Condi alone in Cheney’s office, I caught my breath”), is pretty informative and entertaining. Predictably, it isn’t quite the polemic Clarke’s enemies have made it out to be. Clarke devotes the bulk of the book to his time spent serving under Presidents Reagan, Bush 1, and Clinton, and treats each administration fairly. Reagan is praised for strengthening relations with Israel, and criticized for his policy decisions relating to U.S. intervention in the Afghan-Soviet war. Bush 1 is praised for his masterful coalition-building efforts leading up to the first Gulf War, and criticized for quickly and completely pulling out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Clinton is praised for taking a staggered approach to the terrorism problem, and building support for anti-terrorism programs in Washington; he’s criticized for blindly following the Pentagon’s advice during the Somalia conflict. So on and so forth. George W. Bush’s presidency only takes up something like 70 pages of the book. He’s a target, to be sure–he was inaccessible in ways his predecessors were not, and, in Clarke’s eyes, inattentive to al Qaeda–but a nominal target.

Clarke focuses most of his attention on the intelligence community. He has a very low opinion of the FBI and CIA, which is repeatedly borne out in the book–if they aren’t bungling an operation, they’re claiming things can’t be done, or making money disappear. Imagine the Keystone Kops with billions of dollars to spend, and you’ll have an idea.

Where he really takes Bush to task is after September 11, 2001. He saves his most passionate rhetoric for the “liberation” of Iraq. In a final chapter titled Right War, Wrong War, identifies each of the stated reasons for our invasion, then punctures all of them clearly and convincingly. The invasion, Clarke argues, has destabilized the Middle East, and–far from making America safer–has exposed us to a greater threat:

There were no longer any excuses after September 11 for failing to eliminate the threat posed by al Qaeda and its clones, for failing to reduce America’s vulnerabilities to attack. Instead of addressing that threat with all the necessary attention it required, we went off on a tangent, off after Iraq, off on a path that weakened us and strengthened the next generation of al Qaedas. For even as we have been attriting the core al Qaeda organization, it has metastasized. It was like a Hydra, growing new heads. There have been far more major terrorist attacks by al Qaeda and its regional clones in the thirty months since September 11 than there were in the thirty months prior to that momentous event.

I wonder if bin Laden and his deputies actually planned for September 11 to be like smashing a pod of seeds that spread around the world, allowing them to step back out of the picture and have the regional organizations they created take their generation-long struggle to the next level.

The guy isn’t a bleeding-heart liberal. He has kind words for the Patriot Act, for one thing. He blames Ashcroft for not doing enough to convince the American public that a “necessary” law was not “the beginnings of fascism”–doing the opposite, in fact, by engaging in an unnecessary power struggle with American librarians.

In sum, it’s a far more balanced attack than the anti-Clarke brigade would have you believe. I’d urge you to seek out a copy of the book–if not at a bookstore, then your local library–and read it for yourself. If nothing else, it makes for a compelling illustration of the way complex, nuanced messages are distorted and drowned out by ad hominem attacks and a lazy media.

I finished the book the day Condi Rice gave her sworn testimony in front of the 9/11 Commission; with Clarke’s words fresh in my mind, I found myself astounded by some of the post-testimony “analysis” I read and saw. The consensus seemed to be that she held up well under questioning, that she bravely fought off a series of rude, unnecessarily tough questions from the Commissioners, that she laid to rest questions about wholesale intelligence failures.

To listen to her talk, first of all, you’d never know Rice and Clarke were at odds–she credited him with passing on valuable information (the presence of al Qaeda cells in the United States), referred to him as a “very, very fine terrorism expert,” and in response to one of Clarke’s more explosive accusations (that Bush was pressing his advisors to find a link between the September 11 attacks and Iraq as soon as they happened), she could only say that she does not “personally recall” the conversation he writes about in Against All Enemies.

As far as the rest of her testimony, she put on a filibustering clinic. Several times, she refused to give basic answers to basic questions. She tried to fill up each Commissioner’s allotted ten minutes with maximum ‘background’ and ‘context,’ minimum information–a brilliant strategy for limiting access she never wanted to grant anyway:

Commissioner Ben-Veniste: I am asking you whether it is not the case that you learned in the PDB memo of August 6 that the FBI was saying that it had information suggesting that preparations — not historically, but ongoing, along with these numerous full field investigations against al Qaeda cells, that preparations were being made consistent with hijackings within the United States?

Rice:The fact is that this August 6 PDB was in response to the president’s questions about whether or not something might happen or something might be planned by al Qaeda inside the United States. He asked because all of the threat reporting or the threat reporting that was actionable was about the threats abroad, not about the United States. This particular PDB had a long section on what bin Laden had wanted to do — speculative, much of it — in ‘97, ‘98; that he had, in fact, liked the results of the 1993 bombing. It had a number of discussions of — it had a discussion of whether or not they might use hijacking to try and free a prisoner who was being held in the United States — Ressam. It reported that the FBI had full field investigations under way. And we checked on the issue of whether or not there was something going on with surveillance of buildings, and we were told, I believe, that the issue was the courthouse in which this might take place. Commissioner, this was not a warning. This was a historic memo — historical memo prepared by the agency because the president was asking questions about what we knew about the inside.

Did the PDB suggest that “preparations were being made consistent with hijackings within the United States”? Yes. Of course. Duh. Did she say so? No. Under oath, she avoided the truth. We didn’t know this at the time of her testimony, because the PDB was still under wraps. But since the Bush Administration has finally declassified it–after a two-year struggle, late on a Saturday night, when the press corps is literally instead of only figuratively sleeping–the truth is out.

Rice was instrumental in the White House’s long battle to smother the infamous PDB, which has been going on since the PDB was identified by CBS News’ David Martin in May 2002. Without access to the briefing, Martin only referred to it in a single sentence, and since he didn’t know its title (the snazzy Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US), he didn’t call it by name. But coming, as it did, on the heels of the “Phoenix Memo” and the Zacarias Moussaoui case, Martin’s report sparked a mini-furor in the media. The Bush Administration did what it does best: Stonewall. Rice held a press briefing shortly after Martin’s report was released, during which she referred to the PDB as “not a warning” and dismissed it as an “analytic report…[that] talked about what [bin Laden] had done historically.” She didn’t mention the title, of course, nor did she volunteer the part of the briefing that discussed “a support structure that could aid attacks.”

Later in 2002, when the joint House/Senate 9/11 inquiry requested access to briefings received by Clinton and Bush, they were denied. In fact, according to the inquiry’s final report, “CIA personnel were not allowed to be interviewed regarding the…process by which the PDB is prepared.” The best the inquiry could do was interview people who were aware of the briefing’s contents. This was enough to convince the committees, in their final report, to state that “senior government officials” had been informed of the domestic al Qaeda support structure, and of bin Laden’s desire to stage attacks within United States borders. Unfortunately, as it was based on partial information, the report couldn’t provide a clear picture of the briefing’s contents–or its title, which would have been a pretty decent indication.

When the independent Commission, at long last, obtained a copy of the Clinton and Bush PDBs, it was only under certain conditions: Two people were allowed to look at them, and their notes had to be reviewed by the White House. This arrangement, unsurprisingly, was unsatisfactory to not a few of the parties involved, not least because one of the people approved to look at the PDBs was Philip Zelikow, who:

Served with Rice in the first Bush Administration
Co-wrote a book with Rice
Worked on the George W. Bush transition team with Rice
Was appointed by W. Bush to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board

Back to the August 6th PDB. In the White House’s estimation, its de-classification “should clear up the myth…that somehow the President was warned about September 11th.” Which, in typical George W. Bush fashion, makes a point by missing the point completely. The point is not that Bush was warned specifically about 9/11. The point is what he knew, and what he did about that information. In response to the question of whether he was satisfied that the intelligence community had done everything it could before 9/11, Bush said:

I’m satisfied that I never saw any intelligence that indicated there was going to be an attack on American at a time and a place of an attack.

One the one hand, it’s inane gobbledygook. On the other, it’s brilliant. Faced with a question you don’t want to answer? Come up with an answer to a question nobody asked.

This has been the Bush standard line about 9/11 lately, and it’s based on the ridiculous notion that there was nothing that could be done without a warning that mentioned a particular time, a date, and a place. Does the American public really believe this is how intelligence works? That the CIA and FBI are in the practice of delivering this kind of specific information? That the President, when given warnings, has no responsibility to…you know…exert some leadership?

These are the kinds of questions one would have hoped for during Bush’s press conference Monday night, but alas. We got more of the same scripted (with one notable exception) pabulum we’ve come to expect from George W. It was useful, however, as a window into the current mindset of our Commander-In-Chief. I thought some of the comments he made were ridiculous, some were telling, and some were…well, worrisome. The high points:

Violence in Iraq has nothing to do with nationalist responses to foreign occupation; rather, “Terrorists from other countries” are responsible.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary in Iraq and Afghanistan, “If additional resources are needed, we will provide them” to our men and women in combat.

“A free Iraq will stand as an example to reformers across the Middle East.” This may wind up being true in a way Bush did not intend.
Seconds after providing Afghanistan as an example of how America is “friendly to Muslims who wish to live in peace,” he said–with a straight face, mind you–that “A free Iraq will confirm…that America’s word, once given, can be relied upon, even in the toughest times.”

“The defeat of violence and terror in Iraq is vital to the defeat of violence and terror elsewhere and vital, therefore, to the safety of the American people.” Follow the bouncing ball, folks.

He characterized the “last several decades” of American foreign policy as “concession and retreat” in the Middle East.

He called the Vietnam-Iraq analogy “false,” but never said why exactly this is so, and–of course–said the analogy “sends the wrong message to our troops” and “the enemy.”

“Any time an American President says, ‘If you don’t, we will,’ we better be prepared to.” Nothing, of course, about how any American President who says those words had better have an absolutely airtight reason.

“A country that hides something is a country that is afraid of getting caught.” Excuse me, but how many Freedom of Information Act requests has the Bush Administration denied? What about the Cheney energy policy hearings? What about Bush changing the Freedom of Information Act itself in order to prevent the release of papers from the Reagan Administration? Et tu, you self-righteous gasbag?

Saddam Hussein, once again, was a danger because he “had the ability to produce biological and chemical weapons.”
When asked whether he felt the nation deserved an apology from him for the 9/11 attacks, he said, “The person responsible…was Osama bin Laden.”

After a reporter asked Bush what he thought his biggest mistake has been, and what he’s learned from it, he responded, “I wish you’d have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it.” The idea that Bush would have called on this reporter in the first place unless the question had been provided ahead of time strains credulity; on the other hand, he appeared caught off guard by the question, so you never know. In any case, the answer to the question was a rambling masterpiece, culminating with the priceless “I don’t want to sound like I have made no mistakes. I’m confident I have…maybe I’m not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.”

You read that right.

What was most interesting to me about the press conference (would ‘prepared speech’ be more accurate?), though, was what Bush saved for the end. I missed it the first time around–in fact, I didn’t pick up on it until the second time I read through the transcript. He gives hints in his opening statements, when he refers to “enemies of the civilized world” who are “testing the will of the civilized world.” He gives a few more during his answers to the questions he’s asked, with his periodic references to the “historic moment” before America and the world, the moment when Iraq becomes a free democracy; with his assertion that “free societies are peaceful societies” (what that makes us, he doesn’t say); and with the following, astonishing statement:

Some of the debate really centers around the fact that people don’t believe Iraq can be free; that if you’re Muslim, or perhaps brown-skinned, you can’t be self-governing or free. I’d strongly disagree with that.

Who believes this, exactly? Which debate is this part of? No rational debate, certainly. But don’t worry–he’s just getting warmed up:

One of the interesting things people ask me…is, ‘Can you ever win the war on terror?’ Of course you can. That’s why it’s important to spread freedom throughout the Middle East.

Okay. Nothing wrong with that, by itself. But can you see where he’s going? Here–this might start to give it away:

So long as I’m the President, I will press for freedom. I believe so strongly in the power of freedom. You know why I do? Because I’ve seen freedom work right here in our own country. I also have this belief, strong belief, that freedom is not this country’s gift to the world. Freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the Earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom…That is what we have been called to do, as far as I’m concerned.

Compare that last Bush statement with this one, made by journalist John L. O’Sullivan in 1839:

Yes, we are the nation of progress, of individual freedom, of universal enfranchisement. Equality of rights is the cynosure of our union of States, the grand exemplar of the correlative equality of individuals; and while truth sheds its effulgence, we cannot retrograde, without dissolving the one and subverting the other. We must onward to the fulfilment of our mission — to the entire development of the principle of our organization — freedom of conscience, freedom of person, freedom of trade and business pursuits, universality of freedom and equality. This is our high destiny, and in nature’s eternal, inevitable decree of cause and effect we must accomplish it. All this will be our future history, to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man — the immutable truth and beneficence of God. For this blessed mission to the nations of the world, which are shut out from the life-giving light of truth, has America been chosen; and her high example shall smite unto death the tyranny of kings, hierarchs, and oligarchs, and carry the glad tidings of peace and good will where myriads now endure an existence scarcely more enviable than that of beasts of the field. Who, then, can doubt that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity?

What we’re looking at here is nothing less than ideological support for a return to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. It’s couched in love and God and freedom and all the rest–but then, so was the original.

What’s next?