The day Richard Clarke told the commission investigating the 11 September 2001 atrocities that the Bush administration should have done more to prevent them, I had dinner with a friend who is a right-wing Bush man; indeed, he played an important role in Washington in the days immediately following 11 September. I expected him to lambaste Clarke, but instead he told me something that amazed me. "I've known Dick Clarke for years," he said. "He's a brilliant man."
Afterwards, I pondered over why my friend was taking such a different line from the one taken by every member of the Bush administration and its supporters. Then I realised why: we had happened to meet well away from Washington, and neither of us were in a Washington frame of mind. He was speaking his mind with no fear that he would be quoted or identified. He would never have described Clarke to me as brilliant had we been dining in Washington, such is the zeitgeist of the place. For over the past fortnight, Washington insiders have been playing CYA - the game of covering your ass in which you make sure you are not blamed for errors - at a fast and furious pace, culminating last Tuesday in the White House finally agreeing that Condoleezza Rice should give evidence to the commission, publicly and under oath.
The stakes, I need hardly point out, remain exceedingly high. The Bush team's sole campaign strategy in this year's presidential election is to depict him as a tough and firm leader in the face of terrorism, and Clarke's outspokenness threatens to leave Bush's campaign in smithereens. "By invading Iraq," said Clarke, in the flurry of soundbites that he has launched at the administration, "George W Bush has greatly undermined the war on terrorism." Again: the Clinton administration "did something [about terrorism] and President Bush did nothing, prior to 9/11". Most damaging of all: Bush received an intelligence briefing on 6 August 2001, suggesting Osama Bin Laden was plotting to hijack US airlines. Even after this warning, Bush went back to his holiday in Texas.
By last Tuesday, polls showed that more than 70 per cent of Americans knew at least something of Clarke's allegations, and the White House's decision that Rice should testify under oath was a breathtaking U-turn. Clarke is a man who knows what he is doing, being the ultimate Washington insider - known to people in the know, but not to the general public. He has been a civil servant for more than 30 years and has served four presidents (three Republican, one Democrat) in a senior capacity - latterly as a national security adviser whose task was to keep administrations apprised of security threats. He describes himself as a Republican, too. In his new book Against All Enemies, he calls himself "the nation's crisis manager" before his resignation from the Bush administration last year.
The book was submitted for security clearance to the White House last autumn, and Clarke says it is a coincidence that it came out during the week the commission was televised; the Bushies claim that Clarke is trying to reap maximum publicity and cash in from the book. Just before its publication he gave a long interview to CBS's 60 Minutes, a news and current affairs programme that is the most watched in the country. A week after his appearance, the book was into its fourth reprint.
A cardinal rule of the CYA game, though, is that if you can hand it out, you have to take back what is hurled at you. Rice endured terrible publicity when it appeared that she would not give testimony under oath, but hit back at Clarke in multiple interviews on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox. Senator Bill Frist, majority leader of the Senate, suggested that Clarke had committed perjury in his earlier evidence - while Dick Cheney ridiculed him by saying he was not "in the loop".
Thus the CYA game continues apace. Rice made a bad mistake when she claimed that the Clinton administration's policies towards al-Qaeda had been analysed and rejected - saying later that, in fact, Bush had acted upon them. The White House released Clarke's resignation letter praising Bush - a big minus for him. Clarke, meanwhile, is contradicting George Tenet, director of General Intelligence, while the FBI is blaming the CIA for not informing it of the presence of two known al-Qaeda operatives. Bush says he would have acted if he had known that terrorists were going to fly planes into the World Trade Center, a feeble CYA statement indeed.
Clarke says he decided at 3am on the day before giving testimony that he wanted to apologise to relatives of victims of 11 September. "Those entrusted with protecting you," he said gravely, "failed you." He then apologised. This infuriated the Bush administration, but there were sobs in the hall. For those victims of the 11 September atrocities, the Washington CYA game is far from being a game. Even my Bushie friend admits that, privately.