An Obscure Chief in U.S. War on Terror

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday , April 2, 2000 ; A01

Richard Clarke witnessed the dawn of the millennium in a top-secret government communications vault, monitoring intelligence traffic for any sign of activity by Islamic terrorist groups loyal to Osama bin Laden. It was not until midnight in California--3 a.m. Washington time--that the Clinton administration's counterterrorism chief finally permitted himself a celebratory sip of champagne.

Four weeks before, Clarke had sketched out a plan on the whiteboard in his office at the National Security Council for neutralizing the latest threat from the Afghanistan-based Saudi exile. Approved by President Clinton and his top foreign policy advisers, Clarke's plan became the basis of administration efforts to prevent bin Laden supporters from ringing in the New Year with what officials believed could be dozens, perhaps hundreds, of American deaths in a series of simultaneous attacks from the Middle East to the West Coast.

Central to Clarke's strategy was a major disruption effort, orchestrated by the CIA and implemented by friendly intelligence agencies around the world, aimed at harassing members of bin Laden's al Qaeda organization and forcing them onto the defensive. Other moves included putting the FBI on a heightened state of alert, dispatching counterterrorism teams to Europe and having the State Department issue an informal ultimatum to Afghanistan to keep bin Laden under control.

U.S. officials credit these countermeasures--and what many acknowledge was sheer "good luck"--with a peaceful start to the new year. But the millennium alert--initially triggered by reports of a plan to attack American and Israeli tourists in Jordan--also underlined the influence of one of the least known but most controversial members of Clinton's national security team.

Operating from an Old Executive Office Building suite once inhabited by Col. Oliver North, Clarke has played a key role both in defining the new post-Cold War security threats to the United States and coming up with a response. But he also has come to personify what some critics, particularly abroad, view as an unhealthy American obsession with high-tech threats and a "Fortress America" approach to dealing with them.

As the national coordinator for infrastructure protection and counterterrorism, Clarke has presided over a huge increase in counterterrorism budgets over the past five years to meet a wide array of new--and some would argue, still hypothetical--challenges, such as cyber warfare or chemical or biological attacks in New York or Washington. Last month, the administration submitted an $11.1 billion request to Congress to strengthen "domestic preparedness" against a terrorist attack. In the meantime, by contrast, security assistance to the former Soviet Union to tackle proliferation problems has been stuck in the region of $800 million a year.

"In America, there is a morbid fascination with greater-than-life technological threats, which you don't see in other countries," says Ehud Sprinzak, a terrorism expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "Clarke has an ax to grind. It makes him big. If nobody talked about catastrophic terrorism, what would people like Dick Clarke be doing?"

Such talk irritates national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, Clarke's direct supervisor, who insists that the threat of large-scale terrorist attacks on U.S. soil is "a reality, not a perception." "We would be irresponsible if we did not take this seriously," he says. "I hope that in 10 years' time, they will say we did too much, not too little."

Clarke's warnings about America's vulnerability to new kinds of terrorist attack have found a receptive ear in Clinton. With little fanfare, the president has begun to articulate a new national security doctrine in which terrorists and other "enemies of the nation-state" are coming to occupy the position once filled by a monolithic communist superpower. In January, he departed from the prepared text of his State of the Union address to predict that terrorists and organized criminals "with increasing access to ever more sophisticated chemical and biological weapons" will pose "the major security threat" to the United States in 10 to 20 years.

"We should have a very low barrier in terms of acting when there is a threat of weapons of mass destruction being used against American citizens," says Clarke, brushing aside suggestions that a preoccupation with bin Laden has caused errors in judgment, such as the decision to retaliate for the attack on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 by bombing a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, suspected of producing chemical agents. "We should not have a barrier of evidence that can be used in a court of law," Clarke says.

He compares the current threat of global terrorism with the situation faced by Western democracies in the period leading up to World War II, when appeasement carried the day. Imagine what would have happened, he says, had Winston Churchill come to power in Britain five years earlier and "aggressively gone after" Nazi Germany. Hitler would have been stopped, but in all likelihood, Clarke says, Churchill would have gone down in history "as a hawk, as someone who exaggerated the threat, who saber-rattled and did needless things."

Which is precisely what some of Clarke's critics have said about him.

A New Breed of Terrorist

On the door outside Clarke's third-floor office, someone has pinned a newspaper picture of four men dressed in chemical suits and gas masks tramping across a desolate landscape. The leader of the men is labeled "Clarke." A headline above the photograph reads: "Defenders of the Free World."

In the hothouse world that Clarke inhabits--a world of secure telephones, 16-hour workdays and a constant stream of top-secret intelligence--it is easy to conclude that the ends justify the means. Everybody agrees that Clarke is a rare example of a bureaucrat who thrives on getting things done. He has served both Republican and Democratic administrations with distinction. At the same time, he has made numerous enemies and has been involved in some of the most contentious foreign policy decisions of the Clinton presidency, including the 1998 bombing of the El Shifa plant in Khartoum and the failed hunt in 1993 for Somalian warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed.

"He is a bureaucratic bully of the first order, in both the good and the bad sense," says a former NSC colleague. Another official says Clarke can be "very abusive" to other NSC bureaus, firing off e-mails (often in a trademark red font) drawing attention to a rival's alleged incompetence.

On the other hand, he also wins high marks for effectiveness. "He is a pivotal figure," says Jonathan Winer, who previously fought international crime at the State Department and now works for the law firm of Alston & Bird. "There are times when he irritates people because he takes on institutional inertia. But he is thinking outside the box every single day, rather than just processing the paper."

A 49-year-old bachelor whose once-vigorous red hair has turned a dull gray, Clarke has used his bureaucratic skills to position himself at the center of a continuing debate about national security interests in the post-Cold War world.

He has used such incidents as the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York by Islamic radicals in 1993 and the sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway in 1995 to argue that the United States should be doing much more to defend itself from the threat of terrorism. Most recently, he has been at the forefront of the administration's attempts to create a "partnership" with private industry to protect the nation's computer systems from attack.

Key to Clarke's thinking is the idea that a new breed of global terrorist--embodied by bin Laden--has developed the ruthlessness and resources to carry its war to American soil. He said in an interview that America's new enemies are certainly not going to repeat Saddam Hussein's mistake of lining "his tanks up in the desert" for U.S. forces to destroy. "They will come after our weakness, our Achilles heel, which is largely here in the United States."

The latest administration request for $11.1 billion in counterterrorism funds--compared with $5.7 billion in 1996--includes $1.5 billion for defense against weapons of mass destruction and almost $2 billion for protection of computer networks, utility systems and other "critical infrastructure." The figures do not include intelligence spending, which remains classified.

For the most part, Congress has gone along with such requests, despite occasional complaints from the General Accounting Office about the lack of an "analytically sound threat and risk assessment" to guide spending.

The last five years have seen the birth of dozens of new counterterrorism programs, from the training of "first responders" in 120 cities for defense against chemical or biological attack and the stockpiling of vaccines to the creation of a specialized 350-person U.S. Marine Chemical Biological Incident Response Force and research into human genes. Virtually every government department, from Health and Human Services to Agriculture, now has its own counterterrorism budget.

Clarke's authority derives in large measure from the fact that Clinton shares his area of interest. According to aides, the president is a voracious reader of popular books on terrorism, most recently "Biohazard" by the former Soviet biowarfare expert Ken Alibek. Before that, he read Richard Preston's "The Cobra Event," about a fictional terrorist biological attack on New York.

Many independent experts believe that manufacturing a large-scale chemical or biological weapon is beyond the capabilities of most terrorist organizations. "I am a trained biochemist and have written on biological warfare for 30 years, but I would have no idea how to build a biological weapon," says Milton Leitenberg of the University of Maryland.

A recent study by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., concludes that terrorist use of chemical and biological warfare agents is likely to remain "tactical and relatively small-scale" within the foreseeable future. "We need a realistic assessment of the likely threat," argues the institute's Washington director, John Parachini. "If we base ourselves on vulnerabilities, we would all need gas masks."

Such criticism does not impress Clarke. "The notion that this is an analytical problem and one can quantify the threat is naive. This is not the Cold War." Having devoted much of his government service to counting Soviet nuclear missiles and calculating the relative strength of the two superpowers, he concludes: "You can't do that with these [new] kind of threats. We don't know how many bio labs there are out there, how many tons of chemical agents. Frankly, it will only take one."

Bureaucratic Boxing

Consciously or not, Richard Alan Clarke has been preparing for his present role for most of his adult life. The son of a chocolate factory worker, Clarke was educated at the Boston Latin School and the University of Pennsylvania. He has spent virtually his entire career within the military-security establishment, first at the Pentagon and then at the State Department and NSC.

A career civil servant, Clarke was appointed deputy assistant secretary of state for intelligence in 1985, at age 34. He attracted public attention in 1986 with an abortive plan to unnerve Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi by setting off sonic booms above Tripoli and spreading rumors of imminent military action. Three years later, he was appointed assistant secretary for political-military affairs.

His State Department career ended abruptly in 1992 following accusations that he failed to inform Congress about Israeli transfers of U.S. military technology to China and other countries. "He is very intelligent and quick on his feet, but in this one case he was dead wrong," says former State Department inspector general Sherman Funk. Clarke says he ran afoul of an anti-Israel lobby that had seized on misleading intelligence to make the case for a get-tough policy. "I was not about to lie against a good ally like Israel for somebody else's political agenda."

Exiled from State, Clarke joined the NSC, and is now its longest-serving member (and only Bush administration holdover). As head of the office of global issues, he helped implement the decision to use U.S. troops in Somalia to hunt down Aideed, but managed to avoid blame for the subsequent deaths of 18 U.S. Army Rangers at the hands of Somali militiamen.

While he dealt with such issues as Haiti, Rwanda and the U.S. campaign to deny a second term to U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Clarke gravitated toward counterterrorism work. He gained a reputation as "a gunslinger" who sometimes had to be reined in by superiors. After the bombing of the Khobar Towers apartment buildings used by U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia in June 1996, associates say, Clarke prepared a memo for Clinton arguing that Iran was behind the attack. Much to his annoyance, then-national security adviser Anthony Lake quashed the memo on the grounds that the case against Iran was circumstantial at best. (Evidence subsequently provided by the Saudis has convinced many U.S. intelligence officials that Clarke's instincts were right.)

Sometimes, the fight against terrorists seems almost personal. According to former officials, one of the reasons why the Clinton administration made the controversial decision to retaliate against Sudan in August 1998 following the embassy bombings was a belief that the Sudanese had targeted Lake earlier. At one point, Lake was forced to live in a safe house and travel in an armored limousine.

Clarke's great strength, say associates, is his intimate knowledge of the budgetary process and his ability to seize the moment to push through favored programs. Officials still speak with awe about the occasions in 1996 when he came up with a $100 million assistance package for Israel, virtually overnight, following a series of suicide bombings, or the $1.1 billion plan for enhanced airport security following the explosion of TWA Flight 800. (The subsequent investigation showed the plane was probably not brought down by a bomb.)

But Clarke's reputation as a bureaucratic infighter has also provoked opposition from government agencies such as the Pentagon and the FBI, who are wary of a power grab by the NSC. Fear of the NSC "going operational" has been deeply ingrained ever since the Reagan administration's Oliver North attempted to implement an arms-for-hostages deal with Iran.

According to several inside accounts, a fight erupted in the government over the extent of Clarke's powers in the period leading up to May 1998, when Clinton signed Presidential Decision Directive 62, which set up the post of national coordinator for counterterrorism.

Agency heads interpreted early drafts of the directive as an attempt by Clarke to run counterterrorism operations from the White House.

At the insistence of the agency heads, Clarke agreed to add a clause to the directive stating that the national coordinator would not have "executive authority" over the agencies. "He tried to get operational control, but we would not permit it," said an FBI source.

Clarke maintains that he never had any intention of grabbing power from the agencies and that the idea of him emulating North is ridiculous. "I have no interest in making the NSC operational, beyond the fact that it is physically impossible to be operational with five or six people, no money and no assets."

While Clarke does not have direct authority over agencies such as the FBI or CIA, his position puts him at the center of the action when there is a terrorist alert. He chairs half a dozen agency groups including the powerful Counterterrorism Sub-Group (CSG), which coordinates the U.S. government response to terrorist incidents.

During the millennium alert, the CSG was in almost daily session, coordinating intelligence information and getting constant updates on the hunt for suspected terrorists, both in America and abroad. "At the end of the day, somebody had to pull it all together," says Lisa Gordon-Haggerty, Clarke's director for chemical and biological terrorism, "and that person was Dick Clarke."

As the millennium countdown continued, the Clarke team moved its operations to the Y2K Center at 1800 G St. NW, where they set up a secure communications facility. Most of the team was dressed informally, but Clarke wore a tuxedo. Shortly after midnight, he received a congratulatory phone call from Sandy Berger, who was at the Lincoln Memorial with Clinton. "It's still too early to celebrate," Clarke told Berger, referring to fears that the terrorist cell linked to an Algerian arrested near Seattle in mid-December, Ahmed Ressam, might still be planning an attack on the West Coast.

It was too early to celebrate in a larger sense as well. "It's not enough to be in a cat-and-mouse game, warning about his plots," Clarke says, referring to bin Laden. "If we keep that up, we will someday fail. We need to seriously think about doing more. Our goal should be to so erode his network of organizations that they no longer pose a serious threat."

The Rising Cost of Fighting Terrorists

The U.S. budget to fight terrorism has grown by more than 90 percent over the past six years in response to a series of terror attacks at home and abroad. New programs have been launched to counter the threat of terrorists using nuclear, chemical or biological agents. But critics question how dangerous the threat remains.

1993: No budget figures for counterterrorism programs available

1994: No budget figures for counterterrorism programs available

1995: $5.7 billion (GAO estimate)

1996: $6.7 billion

1997: $7.7 billion

1998: $10.2 billion

1999: $10.1 billion

2000: $11.1 billion

Feb. 26, 1993: Bomb explodes under the World Trade Center in New York City, killing six people.

March 20, 1995: Tokyo subway gas attack (below left).

April 19, 1995: Oklahoma City bombing.

June 21, 1995: President Clinton directs government agencies to reduce vulnerabilities through "expanded program of counterterrorism."

March 3, 1996: Fourth of a series of bombings in Israel.

March 13, 1996: Anti-terrorism summit in Sharm el Sheikh.

June 26, 1996: Truck bombing of Khobar Towers U.S. military housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia (right).

July 17, 1996: TWA flight 800 crashes. First believed to be a terrorist attack, crash is later attributed to mechanical failure.

May 22, 1998: Clinton directs government agencies to defend against a possible "cyber-attack." President names Richard Clarke to newly created post of counterterrorism coordinator.

Aug. 7, 1998: U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya (right), and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, bombed.

Aug. 30, 1998: U.S. planes bomb Sudanese factory suspected of producing chemical weapons.

Dec. 14, 1999: Terrorism suspect arrested at Canadian border.

How domestic counterterrorism funds are being spent this year

* $6.8 billion on government security programs including protection of buildings

* $1.8 billion on defense against nuclear, chemical and biological weapons

* $1.5 billion on defense of computer systems

SOURCES: NSC, GAO, Monterey Institute

Research assistance by Robert Thomason