Richard A. Clarke on National Security

Commentator: 
Tom Shipka
Audio: 
Transcript: 

Richard A. Clarke served seven presidents in important national security posts from 1973 to 2003. His new book, Your Government Failed You: Breaking the Cycle of National Security Disasters, (1) is two things, an expansion of his earlier criticisms of President George W. Bush's track record in national security and a wide-ranging evaluation of the current state of national security.

Clarke focuses much of his attention on the current war in Iraq. His position is that the war was a mistake from the start, a fool's errand in his words, (2) which provided a recruiting windfall for al Qaeda. Beyond this, he faults both the White House and the Pentagon for poor planning and execution. Specifically he charges that:

  • They sent too few troops.
  • Despite warnings by the CIA and the State Department, they failed to anticipate the insurgency, an unforgivable oversight after the debacle of Vietnam.
  • They failed to equip many of our troops adequately.
  • They filled key positions in the interim government with inexperienced Americans.
  • They used torture in violation of domestic and international law, a tactic that undercut America's moral standing around the world.
  • They failed to provide adequate medical treatment to tens of thousands wounded soldiers when they were sent home for treatment.
  • And, they developed no exit strategy. (3)

Iraq aside, Clarke alleges that the overall security apparatus in the nation today is dysfunctional. (4) On the topic of terrorism, for instance, he cites extensive evidence to show that most of the same vulnerabilities that existed on 9/11 exist today. A major cause of this, Clarke argues, is that we have sixteen distinct federal intelligence agencies which collectively spend $50 billion a year. There is little coordination among these fiefdoms, he says, and they frequently duplicate efforts. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the lack of coordination which he cites is the fact that the CIA knew that two known al Qaeda terrorists were in the United States eighteen months prior to 9/11 but it failed to pass along this information to other intelligence agencies. (5) Clarke reminds us that the most sensible solution to this problem, the appointment of a strong intelligence czar to oversee all intelligence agencies, which the 9/11 Commission recommended, was blocked by Donald Rumsfeld when he was Secretary of Defense. (6)

Does the relatively new Department of Homeland Security offer us any hope? In a word, according to Clarke, no. It is an organizational nightmare, placing twenty-two agencies with fundamentally different missions under one umbrella; it excludes key intelligence agencies such as the FBI and the CIA; it is under-funded; and it has become the prime target of the Beltway Bandits, the private defense and security companies surrounding Washington. (7) Clarke is not alone in this appraisal. The Government Accountability Office issued a virtually identical one in a report in 2007. (8)

Clarke's book, while depressing, deserves serious attention by all of us. To ignore the informed views of one of the most experienced and respected veterans of national intelligence service would be a disservice to ourselves, our children, and our children's children. (9)


  1. RAC Enterprises, 2008
  2. Page 188.
  3. Clarke also offers a critique of the planning and execution of the war in Afghanistan in several parts of the book which includes some of these same points. For instance, see page 51, pages 175-176, and page 199.
  4. Page 137.
  5. Pages 164-165.
  6. Pages 138-140.
  7. See pages 210-235.
  8. Page 225.
  9. While Clarke does not minimize the ongoing dangers of terrorism, he argues that the most serious threat to national security is climate change. See page 263 and pages 272-273.

© 2009 Tom Shipka