By Paul Magnusson Vice-President Dick Cheney apparently didn't read Richard A. Clarke's new book before dismissing the former White House counterterrorism aide as being "out of the loop." If he had, Cheney might have attacked Clarke for something else -- anything else. But for being uninvolved? No. What's clear from the fascinating and highly detailed Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror (Free Press; $27) is that Clarke has been a presence at all the anti-terrorism battles of the past 12 years.
In fact, on September 11, 2001, with President George W. Bush crisscrossing the skies in Air Force One and Cheney locked down in a bombproof bunker watching CNN, it was Clarke who coordinated the response from the White House situation room, ordering 4,400 commercial aircraft to land, evacuating the White House and all other federal buildings, and diverting Air Force One. Clarke's account of those two days in the White House operations center makes up the gripping first chapter of this memoir of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
News accounts of the dispute between the Bushies and Clarke leave the impression that this book is an anti-Bush screed focused on the President's decision to invade Iraq. While Bush does come in for criticism -- along with former Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush -- a lot more of Clarke's ire is directed at the CIA, the FBI, and the Pentagon.
DUNDERHEAD PATROL. Here, the CIA is less James Bond and more Caspar Milquetoast. Under Director George Tenet, the agency is too squeamish to put agents in such hot spots as Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan, and thus unable to pull off even simple covert actions where they are needed most. Hesitant because of publicity about its past assassination efforts, the CIA blocked the use of its unmanned surveillance aircraft to drop a missile on Osama bin Laden, says Clarke.
Former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh fares even worse. He appears here and there in the narrative as a grandstanding dunderhead, attended by secretive and uncooperative FBI agents. Freeh fingers the wrong culprit for the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics. He's easily duped by the Saudis in their feigned investigation into the unsolved 1996 bombing of U.S. soldiers at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.
And as for Pentagon brass, they either won't take risks or, worse still, ignore intelligence that doesn't precisely fit their worldview. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is particularly singled out for his stubborn refusal to face or accept the evidence that Saddam Hussein and bin Laden hated one another and weren't working together against the U.S. Too often, laments Clarke, America's protectors worry about protecting their own agencies or advancing wrongheaded agendas rather than fighting the terrorists.
COMPLEX CHARACTER. Clarke's heroes are the members of his own interagency counterterrorism group -- a handful of people from various departments united by their growing alarm. They're aided by the contacts Clarke made during his 30 years in government posts at the State Dept. and the National Security Council.
At the center of the web is Clarke himself, calling friends, calling in IOUs, and improvising in a contest with rules that aren't yet written, against opponents who remain mostly unknown. When the military said it couldn't protect the skies over the Olympics in Atlanta, Clarke put Secret Service snipers with .50-caliber rifles in Customs Service helicopters. He borrowed antisubmarine planes to watch for aircraft trying to crash into the site.
Clarke's persona in the book is much like his demeanor in the hearing room of the 9-11 Commission on Mar. 24 -- determined and a touch self-righteous. He's a complex character: a Vietnam War protester turned antiterror hawk. He was angry that the first Gulf war was ended too soon, before the toppling of Saddam or at least the destruction of the Republican Guard.
DISORDERED PRIORITIES. He's angry, too, that the plot to assassinate former President Bush during a 1993 trip to Kuwait prompted only a wimpy U.S. response -- a late-night bombing of Iraqi intelligence agency headquarters. And he's angrier still that the current war in Iraq simply detracts from what he sees as the greatest priority: stopping al Qaeda.
Enemies, the hearings, and the Presidential campaign have put Clarke in the spotlight, where he doesn't always seem comfortable. No doubt his foes are poring over the text for the slightest mistake -- and there may be a few, given its quantity of detail and dialogue. But the book is far more a road map of an ongoing war than a political potboiler. And it's unlikely we've heard the last from Clarke, which should keep top Administration officials in a state of high anxiety. Magnusson is a BusinessWeek correspondent in Washington, D.C.