Dick Clarke: The Ultimate Anonymous Source?
Clarke’s Coziness With the Media Might Help Him Win War With Bush
By Harry Jaffe
If you want the real book on Richard Clarke—minus the Bush-administration attacks and Clarke’s self-promotion—read Ghost Wars, Steve Coll’s new book on the CIA in Afghanistan.
“His enemies regarded him as not only mean, but dangerous,” writes Coll, managing editor of the Washington Post. “So palpably did he thrive on an air of sinister mystery,” Coll writes, that Clarke chose Oliver North’s old White House office.
Coll is not the first journalist to detect and use Clarke’s knowledge of the sinister and mysterious. While Clarke was White House terrorism czar, he often showed up in news dispatches as an unnamed source. Interviews with reporters on the terrorism beat suggest that Clarke has always been savvy in using the press.
“He was known to be a source for a select group of journalists,” says one print reporter.
Adds a TV reporter: “There were periods when he was available and periods when he went underground.”
Clarke was mentioned by name in nearly 1,000 stories over the years, and he was the unnamed source for many more. Fox News reporter Jim Angle this week outed Clarke as the source of a White House background interview.
“Over the years he’s been in contact with a lot of journalists in town,” says Coll in an interview on Friday. Coll himself spent many hours with Clarke.
Clarke’s history with journalists does not bode well for his detractors in the Bush White House. As they try to discredit Clarke, they are running into journalists who have known him for years. Most reporters came away trusting Clarke.
“Credible?” asked one reporter. “I think he is.”
Coll portrays Clarke as a gruff bureaucratic infighter who did his best to fight terrorism before terrorism was thought to be a real threat.
Coll’s 695-page tome has set the stage for Clarke’s own book— Against All Enemies —and his explosive testimony before the September 11 panel, in which he contended the Bush administration ignored his pleas to combat terrorism before 9/11.
“Clarke revels in public theater,” Coll said in an interview. “A hearing, in the middle of a presidential campaign—he loved it.”
Coll describes Clarke as “a shadowy member of Washington’s permanent intelligence and bureaucratic classes . . . who seemed to wield enormous power precisely because hardly anyone knew who he was or what exactly he did for a living.”
Coll writes that Clarke sometimes acted as a freelance power broker and trickster abroad. When he was at the State Department, investigators “concluded that Clarke had usurped his superiors, turning himself into a one-man foreign policy czar and arms-trafficking shop.”
Clarke worked his way up to become President Clinton’s terrorism czar in 1998, where he began his crusade: “Clarke declared that America faced a new era of terrorist threats for which it was woefully unprepared.”
In an interview, Coll says Clarke’s status was extraordinary: “He’s an amazing figure in that way. He rose effectively to Cabinet rank.”
From that job, Clarke put Osama bin Laden in his crosshairs and “sometimes pushed harder for action on bin Laden than the CIA’s own officers recommended.”
When the Bush administration took over in 2001 and decided to reduce Clarke’s power, Coll writes what Clarke this week told the 9/11 committee: He tried to warn Bush officials that terrorism was a major threat, but they ignored his pleas.
Now that both books are on the stands and Clarke is on TV, Coll has become a reservoir of information for Post reporters looking for guidance on Clarke. Given Coll’s respect for Clarke, it’s fair to assume that he will get fair if not favorable coverage from the Post.
Coll did come away from watching Clarke’s testimony with one question: “It’s a mystery why he chose to deliver the force of his moment so explicitly against the Bush administration,” he says in an interview. “Clinton’s people were involved as well.”
Some would even call it a sinister mystery.
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