Rejecting temporary insanity as an excuse

REJECTING TEMPORARY INSANITY AS AN EXCUSE…. Richard Clarke has been listening to Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and other leading Bush administration officials, offer excuses for their national security policies, pointing to the terrorism crisis. Today, Clarke has a Washington Post op-ed, explaining why he’s sick of what he called the “White House 9/11 trauma defense.”

Rice has said those of outside the administration “cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas” the president’s team faced “unless you were there, in a position of responsibility after September 11.” Clarke was there — in his office at the White House compound, a gas mask on his desk — and he doesn’t think Rice knows what she’s talking about.

[L]istening to Cheney and Rice, it seems that they want to be excused for the measures they authorized after the attacks on the grounds that 9/11 was traumatic…. I have little sympathy for this argument. Yes, we went for days with little sleep, and we all assumed that more attacks were coming. But the decisions that Bush officials made in the following months and years — on Iraq, on detentions, on interrogations, on wiretapping — were not appropriate. Careful analysis could have replaced the impulse to break all the rules, even more so because the Sept. 11 attacks, though horrifying, should not have surprised senior officials. Cheney’s admission that 9/11 caused him to reassess the threats to the nation only underscores how, for months, top officials had ignored warnings from the CIA and the NSC staff that urgent action was needed to preempt a major al-Qaeda attack.

Thus, when Bush’s inner circle first really came to grips with the threat of terrorism, they did so in a state of shock — a bad state in which to develop a coherent response. Fearful of new attacks, they authorized the most extreme measures available, without assessing whether they were really a good idea. […]

Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice may have been surprised by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — but it was because they had not listened. And their surprise led them to adopt extreme counterterrorism techniques — but it was because they rejected, without analysis, the tactics the Clinton administration had used. The measures they uncritically adopted, which they simply assumed were the best available, were in fact unnecessary and counterproductive.

I’d just add, though, that I might find the “White House 9/11 trauma defense” more compelling if the Bushies were explicit about it. The debate, such as it is, about the Bush administration’s “excesses” might be more productive if more leading officials simply came forward to say, “Look, there was a panic and we crossed lines we shouldn’t have. Cooler heads should have prevailed, but didn’t. For a short while, we lost our heads, but we eventually got back on track. It was a regrettable lapse of judgment, but our intentions were good, and we’ve all learned valuable lessons about what should and shouldn’t be done during a crisis.” The idea would be something akin to “temporary insanity.”

But what we’re actually hearing is something in between. As Clarke noted, folks like Cheney and Rice want to emphasize the “trauma defense” to rationalize wrongdoing. But in the next breath, these same top officials say every decision they made was sound, legal, justified. They want sympathy for decisions made in the midst of trauma, and they want credit for not crossing any lines despite the trauma.

To be sure, like Clarke, I’m not buying the “temporary insanity” argument anyway. But Bushies trying to have it both ways only makes the larger argument impossible to take seriously.