Clarke, Richard

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Richard Clarke

1951 • Dorchester, Massachusetts

Counterterrorism expert, author

For thirty years Richard Clarke was a central figure in the U.S. federal government, serving seven presidential administrations and acting as a key advisor on national security issues to four presidents: Ronald Reagan (1911–2004), George H. W. Bush (1924–), Bill Clinton (1946–), and George W. Bush (1946–). He was especially integral during the George W. Bush administration when, because of his expertise, he was appointed special assistant to the president following the terrorist attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York City on September 11, 2001. Despite being such a high-profile figure in Washington, D.C., Clarke maintained a low personal profile. In fact, few outsiders had ever heard of the civil servant. That changed in March of 2004 when Clarke released a tell-all book called Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror. In the book, in subsequent interviews, and in testimony before the 9-11 Commission Clarke openly blasted President Bush for his mismanagement of the investigation of the September 11 attacks. Overnight, Clarke became a media celebrity; he also became the target of criticism. The American public wondered if Richard Clarke was a heroic whistle-blower or a disgruntled government official who was simply clouding the facts.

Begins lifelong government service

Richard A. Clarke was born in 1951, the son of a chocolate factory worker and a nurse. After his parents divorced, he was raised in Boston, Massachusetts, by his mother. Clarke studied briefly at the Boston Latin School, and then in 1972 received a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1973 he took his first job with the federal government, working for the Department of Defense as an analyst on European security issues. Except for a brief period in 1978 when he took time off to earn a management degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Clarke held a number of high-ranking government positions until 2003.

"Your government failed you. Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you."

By 1985, Clarke was working in the Department of State, serving as the Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence. Essentially he was the second-ranked intelligence officer in the State Department. Known even then as an aggressive worker with a fierce focus, in 1986 Clarke was given the task of dismantling the government of Libya, which was headed by President Muammar al-Qadhafi (1942–), a dictator known for his terrorist activities in the Middle East. Clarke's strategy involved the use of psychological warfare. For example, the United States planned to fly spy planes over Libya that would emit sonic booms (shock waves caused by aircraft traveling at immense speeds, sometimes causing damage to structures on the ground and often audible as loud explosive sounds). The hope was that Libyan citizens would believe there was an actual military strike, and as a result they would turn on Qadhafi and overthrow him. Clarke's plan was never actually implemented, but he got his first taste of scandal. The media found out that the Reagan administration was going to publish a false report claiming Libyan officials were advocates of terrorism. It was Clarke's job to face the press and handle the media deal with the situation.

Clarke stayed with the State Department until 1992, when he left because of another controversy; this time he was the one accused of wrongdoing. Clarke allegedly ignored the fact that Israel was transferring American military technology to China. In his defense, the intelligence officer claimed that his department had looked into the matter; that one instance of technology transfer had been intercepted; and that it had been dealt with. Regardless, in 1993, following the investigation, Clarke took a position with the U.S. National Security Council (NSC).

Clinton's right-hand man

Clarke moved to the National Security Council at the beginning of the Clinton administration. As the 1990s progressed, it was also a time of increased terrorist activities aimed at the United States. For example, in 1996 there was a terrorist attack on military personnel housed in Saudi Arabia, and U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed in 1998. Clarke was right in the thick of things, and he soon became known as an expert in counterterrorism. As a result, he became a special confidante of the president, with Clinton frequently relying on Clarke for briefings. According to Newsweek, "[Clinton] got his intelligence from Clarke, who collected it from the various spy agencies. Clarke was not a 'principal' on the National Security Council, but he might as well have been, wandering into top-level meetings and even the Oval Office."

In 1998, as part of his commitment to fight terrorism, President Clinton created the Office of the National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism. He had so much faith in his right-hand man's abilities that Clarke became the first executive to hold the position. Among his duties, Clarke was responsible for overseeing policies and programs involving national security and chairing several agencies, including the Counterterrorism Sub-Group, which coordinates U.S. response to terrorist attacks. One of the key policies that Clarke enacted was the National Plan for Information Systems Protection, designed to protect cyberspace security. The plan's goal was to prevent computer hackers from basically shutting down U.S. information systems during emergency situations.

When George W. Bush took over the presidency in 2001 Clarke retained his position of national coordinator, but much of his power was deflated and his access to the Oval Office was diminished. President Bush was a by-the-books boss who followed the rules. This meant that, like past presidents, he received his morning briefings from the director of the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) and not Clarke. Clarke was ordered to report directly to the National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice (1954–). To make matters worse, the former insider was asked to vacate his maze of offices in the White House to make room for other NSC staffers.

Insider tells all

A bitter Clarke felt that he had been demoted, and he quickly earned a reputation for sparring with his superiors, especially Rice. He refused to attend team meetings and wrote openly in e-mails to colleagues about his hostility for Rice. But Clarke remained dedicated to his job, and in the fall of 2001 he was tapped to head the newly formed Office of Cyberspace Security. On September 11, 2001, however, government priorities changed when Islamic suicide hijackers crashed planes into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. (a third crashed into a rural section of Pennsylvania). Rice immediately put Clarke in charge of handling the fallout from this act of terrorism. He responded by closing the nation's borders, grounding all commercial flights, and putting the military on high alert. Clarke spent the next year serving as special advisor to the president on national security issues.

In January 2003, after thirty years with the federal government, Clarke retired to work on a book about his many experiences. When Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror was released in March 2004, it sent ripples of outrage throughout Washington. Although Clarke may have been viewed as brusque, stubborn, and sometimes strict, he had always been fiercely loyal. But his tell-all book was filled with harsh criticism. Clarke made accusations that past and current administrations had made disastrous decisions when handling terrorist activities. The bulk of the book, however, was a scathing attack of President George W. Bush. According to a BBC News profile, Clarke accused President Bush of "doing a terrible job fighting terrorism, ignoring the al-Qaeda threat before September 11, 2001, and distorting it afterward." (Al-Qaeda, who claimed responsibility for the 9-11 attacks, is a militant network of Islamic organizations that is headed by the Saudi Arabian revolutionary Osama bin Laden [1957–]).

In Against All Enemies, Clarke claims that since the beginning of his administration President Bush and his team ignored warnings that al-Qaeda and bin Laden were serious threats. In fact, he asserts that before leaving office Sandy Berger (1945–), the National Security Advisor under Bill Clinton, specifically briefed Condoleezza Rice that bin Laden had to be carefully watched. In January 2001 Clarke presented a briefing to Rice outlining a strategy to "deter, defeat, and respond vigorously" to al-Qaeda, but it was dismissed. In the summer of 2001, Clarke claims that he continued to file numerous intelligence reports predicting an imminent attack by bin Laden, but the reports were never acted upon. Basically, according to Newsweek, Clarke charged the Bush administration of being "half-asleep when the terrorist threats began spiking."

Perhaps the most controversial section of Clarke's book is where the former security advisor discusses President Bush's reaction after the 9-11 attacks. Clarke asserts that instead of focusing on al-Qaeda, Bush was obsessed with proving that Saddam Hussein (1937–), the radical leader of Iraq, was behind the hijackings. Supposedly on September 12, 2001, Clarke was called in to a private meeting with the president, who ordered him to "go over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this." A stunned Clarke responded, "Al Qaeda did this." "I know, I know," President Bush purportedly answered, "but see if Saddam was involved."

Accusations escalate

The day after Against All Enemies was published, Clarke gave an exclusive televised interview to Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes. He revisited many of the same issues he brought up in his book, but members of the press criticized him for dramatically embellishing the facts. For example, when Clarke discussed his private meeting with President Bush on September 12, he described it in very graphic terms: "The president dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door, and said 'I want you to find whether Iraq did this.' Now he never said, 'Make it up.' But the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said Iraq did this." Clarke further claimed that he felt pressured and very intimidated.

Clarke also pushed the point that the Bush administration never took the al-Qaeda threat seriously and that they could have perhaps prevented the events of 9-11. "Frankly," he told Stahl, "I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9-11. Maybe. We'll never know." White House officials vehemently disagreed with Clarke's accusations, and when Stahl contacted them for a statement, a note from the Pentagon read: "Any suggestion that the president did anything other than act aggressively, quickly and effectively to address the al-Qaeda and Taliban threat is absurd." (The Taliban is an Afghanistan-based Islamic military movement similar to, and with connections to, al-Qaeda.)

But the controversial Clarke was not finished talking. From March 24 through March 25 he provided nearly twenty hours of testimony before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. The group, also known as the 9-11 Commission, was composed of ten government officials charged with investigating the events of September 11, 2001, including how well the U.S. government prepared for and responded to the attacks. They were also asked to make recommendations on how to better guard against future attacks.

Again, in no uncertain terms, Clarke accused the federal government of failing to protect American citizens against terrorism. According to U.S. News & World Report, his testimony was "one of the most riveting episodes of political theater in recent years." Clarke's opening statement, in particular, "sent chills throughout the room." The families of victims of 9-11 were present, and when Clarke addressed them he poignantly declared: "Your government failed you. Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask, once all the facts are out, for your understanding and for your forgiveness."

Hero or not?

The fallout from Clarke's testimony was enormous and White House officials scrambled for equal media attention. In Newsweek, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (1952–) accused Clarke of grandstanding in order to sell books. He went on to say that Clarke's testimony was an "act of supreme arrogance and manipulation." In U.S. News & World Report, Vice President Dick Cheney (1941–) went further, claiming that the security advisor "may have a grudge to bear." Leslie Stahl brought up the same issue in her 60 Minutes interview, wondering if perhaps Clarke was bitter over being demoted when President Bush took office. He responded: "If I had been so upset that the National Coordinator for Counterterrorism had been downgraded from a Cabinet-level position to staff-level position, if that had bothered me enough, I would have quit. I didn't quit."

Others contended that Clarke had timed his book release and media appearances just before the presidential elections in order to gain favor with democratic Senator John Kerry (1943–) who was running against the republican President Bush. Clarke denied the charge. He also defended himself against accusations that he was being disloyal to President Bush. During his testimony, Clarke explained that he had three choices: resign, lie, or "put the best face" possible on the facts. He claimed he chose the third option—to be as open and honest as he could. And, as he told Stahl, "When the president starts doing things that risk American lives, then loyalty to him has to be put aside."

Many of Clarke's former colleagues came to his defense, insisting that throughout his government service he had been a dedicated man wholly devoted to his job. In fact, Clarke was a workaholic who never married and frequently spent his holidays holed up in meetings. Clarke advocates also claim that money has never been a priority for the frugal civil servant. In his book, the security expert describes his home as an "old Sears-catalog house." And Amanda Ripley of Time wrote, "Every footprint Clarke has left leads back to his obsession with terrorism—not money." Still, opinions remained mixed. In a Newsweek poll conducted in April 2004, 50 percent of Americans believed that Clarke was "motivated by personal and political reasons."

No rest for Clarke

Whether or not Clarke was motivated by money, following his 60 Minutes interview and 9-11 testimony, sales of Against All Enemies skyrocketed. Within ten days after his CBS appearance more than one hundred seventy thousand copies were sold and the book zoomed to number-one on almost every major bestseller list. Life as an author seemed to agree with Clarke, who signed a deal with Putnam in 2004 to pen a work of fiction titled The Scorpion's Gate. Putnam executives enthusiastically praised Clarke in statements released via PR Newswire. "I'm extremely excited to be publishing Richard Clarke's novel," Putnam Senior Vice President Neil Nyren commented, "The extraordinary wealth of inside knowledge, combined with a swift, sure writing style. It's going to make quite an impact." Described as a geo-political thriller, The Scorpion's Gate was scheduled to be released in October 2005.

Clarke himself continued to make an impact throughout the rest of 2004, appearing on countless news programs, including Larry King Live on CNN and ABC's Good Morning America. He also served as an on-air consultant for ABC News and formed his own security consulting service called Good Harbor. Clarke tackled his new roles with the same ferocity and focus that he exhibited while working for the U.S. government. And he remained unfazed by the many accusations against him. Clarke commented to Romesh Rotnesar of Time, "It pains me to have Condoleezza Rice and the others mad at me, but I think the American people needed to know the facts, and they weren't out. And now they are."

For More Information


Clarke, Richard A. Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror. New York: Free Press, 2004.

Clarke, Richard A. The Scorpion's Gate. New York: Putnam, 2005.


Kaplan, David E. "Clarke: A Man on a Mission." U.S. News & World Report (April 5, 2004): p. 26.

Maryles, Daisy. "Clarke Hits the Mark." Publishers Weekly (April 5, 2004): p. 15.

"Richard A. Clarke, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author and Former Official in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, to Publish Debut Novel With G.P. Putnam's Sons in Fall 2005." PR Newswire (October 4, 2004).

Ripley, Amanda. "How Credible Is Clarke?" Time (April 5, 2004): p. 30.

Thomas, Evan, Michael Isikoff, and Tamara Lipper. "Town Crier." Newsweek (April 5, 2004): p. 20.

Whitelaw, Kevin, David E. Kaplan, Kenneth T. Walsh, and Angie C. Marek. "Seeing Red." U.S. News & World Report (April 5, 2004): p. 20.

Zuckerman, Mortimer P. "The High Price of Hindsight." U.S. News & World Report (April 19, 2004): p. 86.

Web Sites

"Clarke's Take on Terror: Interview." 60 Minutes (March 21, 2004). (accessed on August 23, 2005).

"Profile: Richard Clarke." BBC News: World Edition (March 22, 2004). (accessed on August 23, 2005).

Ratnesar, Romesh. "Richard Clarke, at War with Himself." (March 25, 2004).,8599,604598,00.html (accessed on August 23, 2005).

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