News & Politics

The Meaning of Clarke


WASHINGTON, D.C. – It’s not just because Richard Clarke turned on Bush that conservatives detest him. They especially despise him because Clarke is a career federal civil servant, a species the right-wingers loathe above all. Clarke has served on the National Security Council staffs of Bush, father and son, along with Clinton. He began federal service in 1973 in the Defense Department as an analyst on nuclear weapons, and he served as an assistant secretary of state under both Reagan and Bush senior.

Ever since the Reagan revolution took off in the early ’80s, conservatives have struggled to get rid of the civil service and all it stands for. To them its nonpolitical nature represents the socialistic ideals of Franklin Roosevelt as enlarged by Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, a more or less permanent, dedicated, and talented workforce that has proved over the years able to absorb the ideological changes pursued by right-wingers and remain independent. There are 2.7 million federal workers, more than a third of them organized in unions.

Many conservatives, often so driven by ideology that they have a hard time governing, can’t and won’t tolerate an independence that threatens to block their own agenda. Their revolution is straightforward: to diminish the power of the federal government under the guise of returning power to the states. And where the federal government can’t be done away with, as in the military, then it can be privatized. Thus the appearance of Halliburton functioning as a private logistics arm of the military. It is the most conspicuous example of privatization. But there is a growing list of others, from the provisioning of fresh drinking water to privately run schools, prisons, and tax collection.

Come hell or high water, the political executives put in charge of government bureaus by conservatives must stay on message. In the heady early days of the New Right, the Heritage Foundation, then as now the central think tank for conservative politics, had this to say in its 1984 “Mandate for Leadership” guidebook for reforming the federal government: “Since the public sector does not have a simple measuring device like profits or sales in the private sector, the political agenda serves this purpose. The political executive constantly must compare daily operations of his organization to the agenda in order to guide his decisions. Successful political executives know that the political agenda is the most important part of their operations; every action, every activity measures against how it advances the accomplishments of the agenda.”

The fear today is that if Clarke can hold his own, others may stand up inside the government and do the same. These civil servants, in reality, hold Bush’s future in their hands.

To cite but one recent example: Sibel Edmonds, a former FBI translator with a top secret clearance, said in an interview last week with Salon that the FBI had information that an attack using airplanes was being planned before September 11. Edmonds dismissed Condoleezza Rice’s assertion in a Washington Post op-ed piece that the White House had no specific information on a domestic threat or one involving planes as “an outrageous lie. And documents can prove it’s a lie.” Edmonds, a Turkish American, has been a citizen for 10 years and speaks Farsi, Turkish, and Arabic. The FBI assigned her to translate documents seized by agents in its post-9-11 probe.

“President Bush said they had no specific information about Sept. 11, and that’s accurate,” says Edmonds. “But there was specific information about use of airplanes, that an attack was on the way two or three months beforehand and that several people were already in the country by May of 2001. They should’ve alerted the people to the threat we were facing.”

Additional reporting: Phoebe St John, Alicia Ng, and Ashley Glacel

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