Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Correct Me If I'm Wrong...

...but I can't remember any current high-ranking member of the Bush Administration ever saying anything like what Richard Clarke said today:

Mr. Clarke began his testimony before the bipartisan, 10-member panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, with an apology to relatives of the 3,000 people killed on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Your government failed you," he said, his voice close to breaking. "Those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you."

"We tried hard," Mr. Clarke went on, "but that doesn't matter, because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask -- once all the facts are out -- for your understanding and your forgiveness."

If the President, any member of his Cabinet, or any other high-ranking political appointee of his has apologized for allowing the 9/11 attacks to take place on their watch, I'd like to know about it.


They didn't. Nobody did. But show me one politician in the USA, or even in "New" or "Old" Europe who has or had the personal grandeur to confess his failures. Politics antagonize in both directions. In so far: "Chapeau" for Mr. Clarke!

I find the "apology" more than a little creepy. The underlying logic behind the phrase "your government failed you" is that government belongs to you in the same way that your parents belong to you, and this time mom and dad let the bad men into the house. And they're really sensitive people, so they're sorry.
That is not an appropriate statement to make to a free people, who create and control their own government.

There are already too many people in DC with Messiah complexes (Bush included). Let's not encourage more.

Roland's implicit assertion is easily disprovable:

Trent Lott
George Bush
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Howard Dean

Can you argue as to whether these apologies and others like them were sincere? Of course you can. I myself might argue with the sincerity of them. But the apologies were made.

Boo, I'm trying to make sense of your comment, but I can't.

In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln referred to a "government of the people, by the people, for the people". In other words, the people of the US created a government, its leaders selected from among the people, to serve the people who selected them. If the US government does not belong to the citizens of the US, them to whom does it belong? If the US government is not charged to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, [and] provide for the common defence," then who is?

Clarke's apology was perfectly stated. Our government failed us -- failed to protect us from a horrific attack. And as one of the people charged with the task of protecting US citizens from such attack, it's appropriate for Clarke to apologize. What's awful is that it took so long for such an apology to be issued.

Let me approach it differently. Sorry I'm not making myself clear.

First, Mr. Clarke is employing a cheap rhetorical trick: blaming himself in a way that allows him to accuse the administration of negligence and therefore complicance in the deaths of thousands. So it wasn't an apology at all, it's an accusation in the shell of an apology.

If Clarke wants to accuse the administration of negligence, more power to him, but he should be honest about it so people can respond without having to remove the protective rhetorical shell first.

Second, it is not clear, Mr. Clarke's assertions notwithstanding, that the government could have stopped the attack, any more than the government could have stopped Pearl Harbor (and I don't expect US apologies for Pearl Harbor either, by the way).

To prevent this kind of attack would require a government with a kind of omnipotent omnipresence and all-knowing wisdom, populated by super-beings, much as I saw my parents when I was 5 years old. Maybe that's a healthy attitude when you're five years old, but it's worrying when people transfer that kind of hero-worship to the government, especially when the government is a democracy.

Good article in Slate about the testimony.

perhaps it doesn't take an omnipotent, omnipresent, all-knowing and wise government to prevent such an attack. people in our government were (and presumably are) specifically tasked with identifying potential terrorist threats. people in our government are (and presumably are) tasked with protecting the lives of civilians, sometimes even at the cost of their own (lives).

we can spin in circles all day long about whether "such an attack was preventable" - and you can draw the circles wider and wider until you include all of recorded human history ("well, y'know.... if america hadn't won world war 2 and then pushed for the creation of the united nations, and if the united nations didn't exist to back the first gulf war, and if the first gulf war wasn't an overwhelming success, then then maybe that would've prevented the september 11 attacks...")

... and it's not that politicans never apologize; politicians apologize all the time. clarke is not a politician, he is not an elected official in a job that requires him to appease or please enough of his constituents to get [re]elected.

it doesn't matter how big you draw the circles or where in the bureaucracy the statement originates . what's unique about this is that someone from within the government - someone who was specifically working to address this threat - has stepped forward and said "i failed you."

from there, you can draw whatever motivations your personal political spin dictates. for me, it's refreshing to see someone from inside the bureaucracy step forward and say "i failed you." i don't expect my government to be perfect or omnipotent. we have such low expectations of government (consider all the baggage that comes with the phrase "good enough for government work"), and such low expectations of accountability within government that it's a big deal to me that anyone steps up and assume some personal responsibility.

Crass way to sell a book! =(

seriously, I don't want to live in a land so-safe,so-afraid of everything that the extreme act of 9/11 could have been anticipated/prevented. sorry. Violence in America is our tiller, our sounding horn, our safeguard, as our government tries to lessen the gap between Justice and law. The Amendments are about achieving better government in-spite of a government run by people. Chaos and Freedom are but two sides of the same coin. Ask yourself what such a government, able to anticipate/prevent such a novel event, would be unable to anticipate? Would you be able to even ask this?

This is the great risk of the new world order, that the lack of frontier is a fatal flaw.

Ed, I know that we in the Western world are too obsessed with safety. We of the OECD countries live in the safest, longest-lived, most comfortable societies in history, and yet we obsess over the most trivial threats. I'm fully aware of this. And I'm a strong believer in Benjamin Franklin's dictum, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

But this is not about trivial issues of safety -- clearly 9/11 was anything but trivial. And it's not about giving up essential liberties -- I want to see the PATRIOT Act allowed to die the death it deserves.

No, this is about whether, given the information available to it from a variety of sources, the Federal government should have been able to do a better job of anticipating 9/11. FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley wrote a famous memo to FBI detailing obstruction by FBI employees that prevented field agents from doing their jobs and putting two and two together. Former FBI translator Sibel Edwards testified under oath that the FBI had detailed information prior to 9/11 that terrorists were planning to attack the US with airplanes. Richard Clarke has written and testified to the mistakes made by both the Clinton and Bush administrations in combating Al Qaeda. To the best of my knowledge, none of this information has been discredited. No one disputed the facts of Coleen Rowley's memo. No one has said that Sibel Edwards is a liar. And the Bush team has been busy assaulting Clarke's character while pointedly not refuting the specifics of his charges.

Yes, violence is a fact of life in the modern world.

No, I don't want to live in a paranoid world, with metal detectors and barricades everywhere I turn.

But if the Federal government had information that could have reasonably been pieced together, and that pieced together would have led them to stop 9/11 (even if it wasn't fully understood what was being planned), then we need to know that so that it doesn't happen again. I can't imagine that anyone could possibly argue with that... could they?

You may be interested to see that the UN has apologised for not preventing genocide in Rwanda. Kofi Annan was in charge of the UN forces there in some way, and I saw him on television apologising for not having done more to prevent the genocide. He admitted that he personally should have done more to stop the genocide.

Of course, he only has to reason with (pretty intelligent and rational) people in the UN. Bush is trying to get elected, which calls for creating appeal that is not necessarily rational, and in an electorate that isn't necessarily intelligent.

(Just to restate the comment above, not all American voters are smart, just like anywhere, likewise some voters in any country will vote with their hearts as well as their heads - that's why admitting mistakes can be bad in an election. I didn't mean to say that Americans are all stupid and irrational.)

I'm curious as to how many folks here have actually read Clarke's book. I also wonder how many of the folks attacking him have read the book. I've read it twice. Most of its contents are being ignored both online and in other press.

"not all American voters are smart".

I think I read somewhere that about half of the american population is of below-average intelligence...

I do think the apology was a nice touch. A sincere one would have been great, but that might be asking a little too much.

The fact is the government (all governments) fail the people all the time. It's part of life. Every program does not live up to it's greatest potential. There is always wasted resources. Anything short of perfection is to some degree a failure. I mean when was the last time you did something 100% as good as you could do it?

Semantics aside, who Should apologize for 9/11? Should Bush? He could have put police on every plane in the United States 9 month after being innagurated. He could have completely reorganized the entire air travel industry within 6 months of taking office. (of course taxes would have hd to be raised a few thousand percent to initiate so much change in so short a time). Still, it is not impossible that he could have stopped the attack, so therefore he should shoulder the blame?

Or Maybe Clinton should. After all he was preisdent for 8 years prior to the attack. He could have bolstered the CIA and NSA giving greater control to police authorities to detain and question suspects. He could have oreder the assasination of OBL when we knew where he was. Could have withdrawn troops from Saudi Arabia, the primary cause of tension between the US and OBL. In fact he could have locked the US border altogether preventing the terrorists from entering the county, and banned all foreign nationals from attending schools and revoked all student visas, the easiest way for terrorists to enter the country.

Or every President since World War I. I mean these guys have formed, reformed, and preverted American Foreign policy so many times that most people in the world have no clue what America is, stands for, or believes in. Maybe if we had a long line of monarchs who passed along power through bloodlines could have prodiced a more consistent and less chaotic frame of governance.

And what about you? What did you do to stop 9/11 from happening? I guess I should apologize. I have to admit that I DID NOTHING TO STOP 9/11 from happening. I don't know if I could have done anything in truth, but that doesn't mitigate the fact that I didn't even try.

Threats are everywhere. The US could be attacked by nuclear mini-subs piloted by atlantean fish-people. Is the government ready for it? My lunch is in danger of being stolen from the office refrigerator. Have I taken the necissary precautions? (is the rat poison in the sandwitch or the soup? I can't remember). It's easy for the government to say they are ready for problems that haven't happened yet. It's just as easy to blame people for those same problems in hindsite. What is hard is actually dealing with the problems on a daily basis, taking those risks and living with the consequences.

Kakyou, you're using the Animal House argument, the reductio ad absurdum tactic of blaming ever-widening groups of people so that ultimately no one is responsible. It's not exactly cricket debating technique.

I'm not saying that the US government should have specifically anticipated terrorists using airplanes as weapons against prominent facilities. What I'm saying is that there are reasonable data suggesting that the US government had enough information in its hands, properly processed and reasonably acted upon, to at least investigate one or more of the hijackers for suspicious activities. And had that happened, might the plot have been discovered and foiled? Who can say?

In any case, if it happens on your watch, it's ultimately your responsibility. Bush is the Commander-in-Chief and a former military officer, so he knows that. If the Executive Officer of a USN nuclear submarine hits bottom while the Captain is asleep, the Captain's career is over. If it happens on his first day of command, the Captain's career is still over. That's the way it works. You take over, you take responsibility.

I watched 60 Minutes tonight and was struck by Condoleeza Rice's pointed refusal to apologize for anything. She wormed around the issue by saying that the President had expressed the fact that he was sorry for the victims' loss... but that's not the same, now is it? Perhaps they're waiting for the appropriate moment, when it won't seem forced... but I just can't shake the belief that this Administration doesn't believe in being held accountable for anything.

Good argument Frank, although my idea of Cricket style debate would take several days and always end in a draw ;) Besides, I’m a Red Sox fan if that explains anything.

I’d agree that an apology from Bush, as well as Rice, Mineta, an anyone else who is “in the loop” would be great. At this point it should just be built into all public engagements. But more than anything I’d say that just shows bad speechwriters employed by the administration.

And while there can be a preponderance of evidence that the tragedy could have been avoided, it gets pretty hazy as to why it wasn’t. Yes, if government employee always followed the rules, public officials were always motivated by the public good, and private citizens acted responsibly, there may have never been 9/11, Waco, or Conan the Governor.

On the other side, I wasn’t being facetious when I said we all bear the blame for 9/11. I would welcome an official apology because if anything we should dispel the myth that the government can protect your safety any more that it can protect your rights. I am a firm believer in the ideal of democracy. In such a system, government is merely a tool of the people. While this may not be the truth in the practical world, it does not, I feel, free the people of the obligation to protect themselves as well as their own freedom. We the people bear the ultimate burden of governmental failure.

A great practical democracy would be a country where more people attempt to change the world than just complain about how poorly it is being run.

Brilliant "apology" by Dick Clarke.

Not only did he get to "apologize" to the 9/11 families (making him look good), but he also used that opportunity to call the government (Bush admin officials) "failures" for not preventing 9/11.

Clarke is like an angry "suicide bomber", a Dem pawn who's more than willing to take the whole Bush administration down with him.

Frank, I'm afraid government depends on tombstone engineering to a greater extent than real engineering.

I too wish our "intelligence" agencies would live up to that appellation. I had thought it would be useful if field agents could blog among themselves and vote to promote issues for greater investigation. One would have to entirely ban any manager from ever being able to access the blogs for them to be of any use. Confidentiality and Candor and Shareing? Do you think Clarke knows how badly he has poisoned the well?

But then I remembered it was Washington and was sad. Knowing the terrorists were training to fly and crash [not land] prior to the event and not getting it picked up by Washington is something of a local sadness here in Arizona.

I look forward to the day when one can determine the ethical structure of a system as easily as one can find the degree of normalization for a database.

Until then, sadness and no apologies.

It was clever of Clarke to apologize on behalf of the then-eight-month-old Bush administration whilst deflecting blame from himself specifically and not mentioning the previous administration's malfisance and body count: two embassies, a high-rise building, a cheap shot at the World Trade Center, and a destroyer with a hole in its side. Clarke was kept around to provide continuity between the administrations, a role in which he served admirably; the "asleep at the switch" approach to terrorism that prevailed during the previous eight years continued after Bush took office.

Perhaps rather than apologizing on behalf of the Administration, (which has a lot to apologize for; it should have looked at Clinton's record vis a vis terrorism and engaged in a wholesale retooling) Clarke should be apologizing for a transparently timed book release cynically coordinated to maximize his profits.


It's interesting how everyone has said how difficult it is to prevent terrorism. I have heard interviews with people that have attended conferences on terrorism, and there seems to be a consensus among Europeans that terrorism is not, in fact, totally preventable.

This contrasts strongly with the view of many Americans that one can prevent it happening, provided enough resources are available, and if the agencies are given a free hand to do whatever is required.

Kakyou said that we could blame ever largening groups of people, up to "every President since World War I. I mean these guys have formed, reformed, and preverted American Foreign policy so many times that most people in the world have no clue what America is, stands for, or believes in. "

I think he hit the nail right on the head with the Amercian presidents, and with the people that elected them.

However, I would say that America is almost unique in the world today in that many people have a certain extremely strong view about what America stands for - namely, itself, and nobody else.

Unfortunately, numerous disasters in US foreign policy have created enemies when the US never had any. Relations were improving between North and South Korea, until the 'Axis of Evil' accusation. Apparently bin Laden was fairly ambivalent to the States until he saw what the US military did in the Sudan. Iran was becoming increasingly liberal until the recent elections, which were no doubt influenced by US military activity and even threats to go to war. Examples could go on...

It took until September 11th for Americans to realise that throwing your weight around offshore can have domestic consequences too.

Dave - It's not surprizing that Europeans don't think that terrorism is preventable. They don't, in general, believe in running around trying to fix things. They just shrug their shoulders, take a bribe, and worry about themselves. "There will always be people starving. The only thing you can do is to try to profit from it."

As for the 'Axis of Evil' accusation poisoning relations with North Korea: first, the Sunshine Policy hadn't really gotten many results (but of course it was just about to....); second, I think the problem was set up in 1994, when we set the precedent of signing treaties with North Korea without including verification. When we learned that North Korea hadn't kept the 1994 treaty, Clinton offered them even more incentives to sign the 1998 treaty, still with no verification. When we found out that they weren't keeping the new treaty, Clinton was negotiating to offer them even more in 2000, on the theory that every problem can be solved by giving away more taxpayer's money (the same theory he tried to use to buy peace in the Middle East).

When Bush first came into office, long before the 'Axis of Evil' accusation, North Korea and its supporters complained bitterly about Bush's hostile attitude and shift of policy, because he said that any new agreements would have to be verifiable. Stating that treaties should include verification would not have been seen as a huge and very hostile change in policy if Clinton hadn't set a bad precedent.

What exactly do you think the world wants from the US? And this is a serious, not a combative, question. I freely admit that we've made many, many mistakes. But should we stay home and ignore everyone? Should we try to fix every problem? If we try to encourage regime change, we're condemned, but if we cooperate with the current regime, we're often condemned. Should we ignore human rights violations, no matter how horrible, or should we interfere? Obviously military interference is unpopular, but even intervening through trade sanctions gets a lot of bad press.

I guess we could take the UN lip service route and periodically say, for the record, "we are, in principal, against most mass murder and torture". Then, like the French, we could focus on making money, unencumbered by any need to do anything. Would that make us popular? France isn't asking for the US to be isolationist - they're asking for us to act as unpaid servants, doing their bidding and paying their bills but never having an opinion.

Should we stop "throwing our weight around" in South Korea and simply bring home our troups and let Asians sort out their own problems? Should we walk away from Taiwan? Sometimes it seems as if we're damned if we do, damned if we don't.

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Richard Clarke has received lots of adulation as a result of his apology to the victims of 9/11. This apology has been advanced as proof of his sincerity and willingness to frankly admit his failures, on the record. “Your government failed you,&#... Read More