Clarke’s rehabilitation

Pincus and Milbank report that Richard Clarke was mostly telling the truth.

I was thinking just today (though I can’t produce the documents to prove it) that the White House might have made a timing error in its Clarke-bashing campaign, or rather had one of its reasonable-at-the-time decisions converted into a timing error by the flow of events.

Here’s the reasoning:

When Clarke’s charges came out two weeks ago, they were getting heavy press and damaging the President. A short-term, full-strength, kitchen-sink counterattack seemed reasonable tactially. The alternative was to just take a pounding, cycle after cycle, as Clarke’s celebrity grew toward the 9-11 Commission appearance Thursday.

If by then the press was still treating Clarke as a very smart expert in an excellent position to know what he was talking about, Clarke’s message would really sink in. So it was necessary to blacken his reputation by Thursday, even if the blackening had to be based mostly on lies.

The risk was small: if the story only lasted a few cycles there wouldn’t be time to refute the charges effectively. A cycle of charge, a cycle of denial, a cycle of reiteration, a cycle of re-denial: at that point, the voters should have been confused, Clarke’s credibility damaged at the crucial moment, and the reporters ready to go on to the next story.

Or there might happen what actually did happen: the story stuck around long enough for the multiple pinpricks of the counterattack to start to take effect, and for the press, bored with The Story as “Clark shows Bush to be a Miserable Failure,” to switch to The Story being “Bush Shows Clarke to be a Liar.”

My reflection, though, was that the story had now passed through that second phase and might now be ready for another shift in focus, yet a third definition of The Story. If we were a little closer to next Thursday, that next phase might have been (or a fourth phase still might be) the Story of Condi as St. Joan, confronting and refuting the Inquisitors.

But right now, with public attention still focused on Clarke’s claims, there’s a lull in event-driven news, so the press has space to publish (and by now has had time to report) stories based on events it makes itself — interviews, discovery of documents — on The Story “Clarke was Right After All and has Been Unjustly Traduced.” That had already started to happen with the discovery of Rice’s immortal Undelivered Address and the Chalabi revelation in the LA Times.

If that got to be The Story, the fact that the anti-Clarke campaign was 90% Big Lie might start to make a difference in the coverage.

Well, it turns out I was predicting the present. (That’s called “prophetic insight,” fans. Did I mention that God really, really wants you to send me envelopes full of engraved portraits of Revolutionary and Civil War-period American statesmen?)

Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank are as solid a pair of Washington reporters as could be found. Their story in Sunday’s Washington Post pretty much tells The Story as I had understood it from Drezner and Drum: Clarke, as Huck Finn says of Mark Twain’s conduct in writing Tom Sawyer, “… told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

Pincus and Milbank report:

The most sweeping challenge to Clarke’s account has come from two Bush allies, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Fred F. Fielding, a member of investigative panel. They have suggested that sworn testimony Clarke gave in 2002 to a joint congressional committee that probed intelligence failures was at odds with his sworn testimony last month. Frist said Clarke may have “lied under oath to the United States Congress.”

But the broad outline of Clarke’s criticism has been corroborated by a number of other former officials, congressional and commission investigators, and by Bush’s admission in the 2003 Bob Woodward book “Bush at War” that he “didn’t feel that sense of urgency” about Osama bin Laden before the attacks occurred.

In addition, a review of dozens of declassified citations from Clarke’s 2002 testimony provides no evidence of contradiction, and White House officials familiar with the testimony agree that any differences are matters of emphasis, not fact. Indeed, the declassified 838-page report of the 2002 congressional inquiry includes many passages that appear to bolster the arguments Clarke has made.

Thanks to Atrios for the pointer. Atrios alludes to the fact that, if Clarke stays in the center of the public eye until the perjury charges against him have been thoroughly discredited, Bill Frist is gon’ have some ‘splainin’ to do. He was counting on the controversy fading before his mendacity could be revealed.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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