March 24, 2004
By The Plaid Adder
Last Sunday former terrorism czar Richard Clarke appeared on "60 Minutes" and told Leslie Stahl that the Bush administration has been doing "a terrible job" in the war against terrorism.
Among other things, he charged that the Bush administration ignored or downplayed the threat posed by Al-Qaeda in the months before 9/11; that Rumsfeld's immediate response to the 9/11 attacks was to start looking for reasons to attack Iraq because "there aren't any good targets in Afghanistan and there are lots of good targets in Iraq;" that Bush himself took him aside and ordered him to "find out if Iraq did this," and refused to believe anyone who told him that the possibility of an Iraq-Al Qaeda link had already been investigated and discounted; and that when Clarke submitted a report concluding as much that had the endorsement of the FBI and the CIA, it was 'bounced' with the message "Wrong answer... Do it again."
In Clarke's depiction, the Bush administration decided almost before it took office that they would invade Iraq, and simply turned everything that happened afterward - including and especially the September 11 attacks - into a justification for doing it.
Meanwhile, Clarke's characterization of Bush in the excerpts made available to the media goes beyond O'Neill's portrait of Bush as "disengaged" to present him almost as the administration mascot, a neglected puppy that Clarke finds "wandering alone around the situation room" on the night after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks looking "like he wanted something to do." (www.nytimes.com, Excerpts from Against All Enemies).
There's something almost poignant about the dialogue Clarke assigns to Bush, the way he seems apologetic about interrupting the grown-ups, knowing they're all too busy with their important work to spare any time for his needs: "I know you have a lot to do and all... but I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this. See if he's linked in any way." But the poignance is gone when a few lines later Bush descends to childish petulance: "'Look into Iraq, Saddam,' the president testily said, and left us." (www.nytimes.com, Excerpts from Against All Enemies).
In his CBS interview, Clarke suggests that even after he dutifully sat down and wrote a report that would address Bush's concerns - albeit one that came to the conclusion that Iraq had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or September 11 - Bush probably never even saw either the original or the "do-over." "Frankly I don't think the people around the president show him memos like that. I don't think he sees memos that he doesn't - wouldn't like the answer." (www.cbsnews.com, "Clarke's Take On Terror").
All of these charges are serious, substantive, and quite frankly terrifying. If Clarke's portrayal is accurate, what we have in the Bush administration is an out-of-his-depth, manipulated president who is being intentionally kept ignorant by a group of people who are not just not very good at protecting us from Al Qaeda, but incapable of recognizing and responding to any emerging threat that cannot be integrated into their pre-set, outdated, and excurciatingly rigid world view.
The last thing we need at a time like this is a government made up of people who cannot learn; and that is exactly what has emerged so far from Clarke's portrait. Rather than adapt to a new adversary, they went to war against their favorite old one. No doubt kicking Saddam's ass was satifying for them; but as far as Al Qaeda is concerned, the war in Iraq appears to have been a positive boon. If Clarke is right, then instead of protecting America against terrorism, the Bush adminstration's refusal to challenge their own shared prejudices has actually made the threat worse.
Faced with these indications of something seriously wrong at the heart of their administration that could potentially be exposing this country and the rest of the world to further terrorist attacks, the Bush administration has responded in a manner befitting their collective integrity and responsibility: by trying to kill the messenger.
Yes, instead of actually considering whether recent events might indicate that Clarke has a point when he suggests that the Bush administration was, uh, wrong about responding to an Al Qaeda attack by invading a country that had nothing to do with it, Bush's handlers and their henchmen are scurrying around the talk shows depicting Clarke as, in the words of one Washington Post headline, "Disgruntled, Partisan."
Clarke denies being partisan - after all, he worked for two Republican administrations before working for Clinton, and stayed on to work for Bush II - but freely admits disgruntlement. On "60 Minutes," Stahl asked Clarke what he felt on 9/11. Clarke replied that one of the emotions he felt was tremendous anger at the U.S. government for not having done everything it could to prevent this attack. Stahl said, as if she were chiding Clarke for something very shocking, "I'll tell you, a lot of that anger is in this book." Clarke's response was, "Well, it should be."
This is one of the charges that the corporation always makes against the whistleblower: well, he's angry, he hates the company, he has a grudge. The implication is that anything said in anger cannot possibly be true. But what we have to realize is that in today's America, it is impossible to tell the truth without being angry.
Clarke believes, after all, that Bush's advisors have a) failed to recognize the importance of responding to Al Qaeda in time to prevent the 9/11 attacks; b) begun a hugely expensive and destructive war that was gratuitous to begin with and is now actually making the problem worse by providing Al Qaeda with a wonderful new recruiting tool and a new maelstrom of chaos and hatred in which to foment their agenda; and c) refused to ever consider adopting any other course of action that might actually protect Americans from attempts to kill them. Of course he's angry. What would Stahl consider an appropriate response? "Ah well, shit happens"?
The charge that we're "too angry" to be credible is something that has always been used against the left, often very effectively. Months ago when criticism of the Iraq war started to heat up there was a time when it seemed like every mainstream pundit in America was decrying us all as "Bush haters" who were blinded by our own rage. The double standard in effect was duly pointed out: it is after all the right wing who has spent the past 20 years cashing in on rage and hatred, from Rush Limbaugh to Sean Hannity to Ann Coulter.
The difference between acceptable anger and unacceptable anger is, of course, the nature of the target. We're angry with the powerful, instead of with the powerless; and that's why our anger is dangerous while theirs is righteous. After all, anger fuels resistance; and resistance might actually produce change.
But equally important, perhaps, is the assumption on the part of the American media consumer that objectivity must necessarily go hand in hand with neutrality. The concept of "bias" that most Americans use to evaluate the trustworthiness of any particular news outlet presumes that if the writer betrays any kind of emotional investment in the material, then his report cannot be trusted. Ideological investment, because it is often represented through silent omissions and distortions or built into the piece's structure rather than advertised in its content, can often get by unnoticed; but one thing that Americans do insist on is that their news not contain any obvious traces of the reporter's personality. As long as a piece adopts the neutral, depersonalized, "even-handed" tone to which Americans have long become accustomed, it can get away with all kinds of subtler manipulations.
One of the things that I have been trying to do, in the year since the Iraq war started, is to make the case that emotions can play a constructive role in political debate; and especially that anger does not have to be purely destructive. This is a hard thing for the left to come to terms with. Since we are generally about peace and tolerance and all that kind of thing, many of us are uncomfortable with anger simply because we see it as leading to aggression, hatred, and violence. It's even harder for women, who are discouraged from the cradle to the grave from ever expressing anger directly. I personally have had a terrible time learning to recognize and feel my own anger instead of shoving it underground and then watching it erupt in strange forms at surprising distances after working itself through subterranean tunnels whose extent I could never measure.
What I eventually learned is that it is possible to express anger in a way that won't hurt yourself or other people, and that in fact articulating your anger is the first step toward addressing the problem that generated it. If you are so worried about admitting your anger that you have to deny and disavow it, you end up denying and disavowing everything that produced it.
Anger is not necessarily born out of hatred, selfishness, and aggression. It is also born out of our better natures - out of love and compassion for those who are being hurt, out of despair and grief in the face of suffering that is unjust and unnecessary, or in Clarke's case out of a sincere commitment to the country he believes his superiors have betrayed. Anger does not have to be brought into the world as blood and poison. It generates light as well as heat; it can be a beacon instead of a blowtorch.
That burning sensation we feel as we look at the damage these people have done keeps us from getting comfortable with it, from accepting corruption and destruction as simply the way the world goes. Anger keeps us faithful to the memory of missed opportunities, and alive to the possibility of other futures. Anger is what reminds us - what keeps reminding us after hope and faith have fallen silent - that it does not have to be this way. As we are constantly bombarded with the message that this or that outrageous betrayal is no big deal, it's not worth crying over, and we should get over it and move on, anger is one of the few things we have that keeps telling us the truth.
I still don't like being angry. It doesn't feel any better, to me, than being sad; and in fact the two things have always been pretty closely connected for me, as they are for a lot of women. But I have come to understand anger just something that comes with my hatred of suffering and injustice, and worked to make it inspiring instead of disabling. And that's what all the Bush whistleblowers have done: taken the anger that built up in them as they realized that they were trapped in the gears of an increasingly corrupt and dangerous system, and done something useful with it.
So yes. Richard Clarke is angry. Karen Kwiatowski is angry. Paul O'Neill is angry. The next Bush whistleblower will be angry; and so will the next, and the next, and the next. They have a right to be angry; they have a need to be angry. We need to be angry too.
The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at the Adder's Lair.