The Man Who Protects America From Terrorism
February 1, 1999 - The New York Times - Tim Weiner
[See highlighted paragraphs below.]
Richard A. Clarke is the White House terrorism czar. His stock in trade is the stuff of techno-thrillers -- biological bombs in the Wall Street subway, chemical clouds of death in the Pentagon parking lot, cyberwar attacks crippling the nation's computers.
Pale as skim milk, his once-red hair gone white at 48, he works long days and nights in Oliver North's old office at the National Security Council, keeping a profile so low that almost no one outside his top-secret world knows he exists.
As chairman of the Government's chief counter-terrorism group for the last seven years, he has become what John le Carre calls an "intellocrat" -- a gray baron who seems to command nothing more than his desk, yet waves a wand and sends soldiers, guns, money and spies around the world.
Mr. Clarke inspires ferocious loyalty from friends and fierce enmity from foes inside the Government. He wins praise for getting things done in secret -- and criticism for exactly the same. At the National Security Council, where he landed in 1992 after losing his State Department job in a bitter battle over Israel's misuse of American military technology, he can operate without outside oversight so long as he has President Clinton's confidence.
He has it. The President recently selected him as the nation's counter-terrorism coordinator, a new and powerful post. He has to try to coordinate everything from the Pentagon and its evolving plans to defend the United States against terrorists down to local police and fire departments. Despite years of effort to pull it all together, this has never been accomplished. There is no 911 number for the nation.
The mission of protecting Americans from attack, whether by states or rogue groups, is "almost the primary responsibility of the Government," Mr. Clarke says. He is trying to raise the fear of terrorism in the United States to the right level -- higher, not too high -- as he girds the nation against the possibility of an assault from nerve gas, bacteria and viruses, and from what he calls "an electronic Pearl Harbor."
He has to walk a fine line. "You want people to understand the peril without panicking," said Anthony Lake, his boss at the National Security Council from 1993 to 1996.
Mr. Clarke has a reserved seat when Cabinet officers gather at the White House on national security issues. "My name is on the table next to Madeleine Albright and Bill Cohen," the secretaries of State and Defense, Mr. Clarke said. His vote carries the weight of those cast by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of Central Intelligence.
He helped drive the decision to fire cruise missiles at Afghanistan and Sudan in August, trying to strike at Osama bin Laden, overpowering dissenters at the State Department and the C.I.A. Now he is helping to steer secret operations aimed at capturing the Saudi exile, who is accused of bombing two American embassies.
Mr. Clarke also has written at least four classified Presidential directives on terrorism. They helped expand the Government's counter-terrorism cadres into the $11 billion-a-year enterprise he now coordinates, stifling some protests at the Justice Department and the Pentagon, which saw him as a competitor for money and power.
In his office, where a small sign reads "Think Globally/Act Globally," he spoke passionately about the threat of cyberwar, invisible attacks on the nation's computers, a terror so insidious, so arcane he has trouble convincing corporate chieftains and political commissars that it is real. But it is out there, he says, even if he can't prove it.
"There is a problem convincing people that there is a threat," he said. "There is disbelief and resistance. Most people don't understand. C.E.O.'s of big corporations don't even know what I'm talking about. They think I'm talking about a 14-year-old hacking into their Web sites.
"I'm talking about people shutting down a city's electricity," he said, "shutting down 911 systems, shutting down telephone networks and transportation systems. You black out a city, people die. Black out lots of cities, lots of people die. It's as bad as being attacked by bombs.
"An attack on American cyberspace is an attack on the United States, just as much as a landing on New Jersey," he said. "The notion that we could respond with military force against a cyber-attack has to be accepted."
Why would anyone want to mount such an attack? "To extort us," he said. "To intimidate us. To get us to abandon our foreign policy -- 'Abandon Israel or else!'
"Imagine a few years from now: A President goes forth and orders troops to move. The lights go out, the phones don't ring, the trains don't move. That's what we mean by an electronic Pearl Harbor."
Enemies and allies alike say Mr. Clarke wins battles by working longer hours and twisting more arms. "I like Dick so much for the same reason that some people have not liked him: He has a passion for getting things done," said Mr. Lake. "That can be abrasive."
When thorny questions entangle political, military, diplomatic and intelligence issues, Mr. Clarke cuts the knot. Are there human rights concerns over sending helicopters to Colombia's army? Send the choppers. Does the State Department want to reopen its embassy in the Sudan, after reports of terrorist threats proved empty? Keep it shuttered.
"He's a hammer," said Leslie Gelb, who gave him his first job at the State Department 20 years ago.
"If there is something to slam through, that's his task -- to get people to do things they don't want to do," said Mr. Gelb, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and formerly a reporter and columnist for The New York Times. "You don't expect the highest quotient of political sensibility from Dick. They didn't hire him for that."
Under President Reagan, Mr. Clarke was the second-ranking intelligence officer at the State Department. His boss was Morton Abramowitz. "Dick is aggressive," Mr. Abramowitz said, "a man with strong views, with a great ability to tell people what the issues are without spending 10 years doing it. He's a low-profile guy. He has mixed feelings about having a profile at all."
Mr. Clarke's profile first surfaced in 1986. He was an intellectual author of a plan to use psychological warfare against the Libyan leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi. Under his plan, flights of SR-71 spy planes set off "sonic booms over his head, to tell him his air defenses couldn't stop us," and mysterious American rafts floated up on the shores of Tripoli, Mr. Clarke said. The operation backfired when the Reagan White House was caught planting a false report in The Wall Street Journal about Libya's support of terrorism.
Under President Bush, Mr. Clarke served as Assistant Secretary of State for political and military affairs. In 1992, he was accused by the State Department's Inspector General of looking the other way as Israel transferred American military technology to China.
"There was an allegation that we hadn't investigated a huge body of evidence that the Israelis were involved in technology transfers," Mr. Clarke said. "In fact, we had investigated it. I knew more about it than anyone. We found one instance where it was true. The Israelis had taken aerial refueling technology we sold them and sold it to a Latin American country. We caught them, and they admitted they had done it."
He added: "The Administration wanted to put heat on the Israeli Government to create an atmosphere in which the incumbent Government might lose an election. The bottom line was I wasn't going to lie. I wasn't going to go along with an Administration strategy to pressure the Israeli Government."
Sherman Funk, the Inspector General who accused Mr. Clarke, remembered the case differently.
"He's wrong," said Mr. Funk, the State Department's Inspector General from 1987 to 1994. "He's being very disingenuous. Dick Clarke was unilaterally adopting a policy that was counter to the law and counter to the avowed policy of the Government. It was not up to him to make that determination. Almost all the people in his own office disagreed with him. In the end, he had to leave the State Department."
Mr. Clarke joined the National Security Council staff under President Bush. He was one of the only holdovers embraced by the Clinton Administration. After seven years, he has placed proteges in key diplomatic and intelligence positions, creating a network of loyalty and solidifying his power.
Return to Wen Ho Lee Page