Excerpt: 'Your Government Failed You'

Retired U.S. government official and security expert Richard Clarke gives a critical review of the nation's security practices in his latest book, "Your Government Failed You: Breaking the Cycle of National Security Disasters."

Clarke claims the government has proven itself incapable of handling the majority of America's crucial national security issues, citing the 2001 terrorist attacks, the war in Iraq and the government's botched Hurricane Katrina response.

In his book, Clarke argues the problems aren't temporary, but rather indicative of a systematic problem. He looks at why failures have occurred and offers strategies for how the U.S. can succeed against terrorists.


Read an excerpt of this book below.


When I said "Your government failed you" to the families of the victims of 9/11, it seemed to me that I was merely stating the obvious: The government had failed the American people. And I had.

Three thousand people had been murdered in a morning, not on a battlefield, not in their battleships as had happened at Pearl Harbor, but in their offices. They had been killed by a terrorist group that had promised to attack us, and which we had been unable to stop. The CIA had been unable to assassinate its leadership. It had also been unable to tell anyone when the terrorists had shown up in this country, even though it knew they were here. The national leadership had been unwilling to focus on the threat for months, although repeatedly warned to do so. And I had been unable to get either the bureaucracy or the new national leadership to act toward the terrorist network before the big attack in the way they would want to respond after thousands of Americans had been murdered.

The American people had a right to know what the failures were that led to 9/11 and why they occurred. I tried to tell that story as I saw it, stretching over more than two decades, in Against All Enemies, a book I wrote two years after the attack. Then the 9/11 Commission was forced into existence by the victims' families. Its report and staff studies looked at what had happened from a number of perspectives and uncovered new information. Since then several authors and analysts have added further detail.

On that horrific day in September, while trying to make the machinery of government work in the minutes and hours after the attack, I suppressed my anger at al Qaeda, at the U.S. government, at myself. There was an urgent job to be done that day. But in one brief moment of catching my breath, I was consoled by my colleague Roger Cressey, who noted that now, finally, all of our plans to destroy al Qaeda and its network of organizations would be implemented. The nation would deal seriously and competently with the problem. I assumed he was right and got back to work. It turned out he was wrong. Incredibly, after 9/11 our government failed us even more, much more.

"9/11 changed everything." That was the remark we heard over and over again in the years that followed. It was only partially true. 9/11 did not change the Constitution, although some have acted as if it did. Nor did the government's response to the attacks make us more secure. Though a great deal of activity has taken place, al Qaeda the organization and al Qaeda the movement still threaten the United States. We still have significant vulnerabilities at home. And abroad, we have far fewer friends and far more enemies than on 9/12.

By the second anniversary of the attack on America, the United States had invaded and occupied two Islamic nations, created an Orwellian-sounding new bureaucracy, launched a spending spree of unprecedented proportions, and was systematically shredding international law and our own Constitution. Despite our frenzy, or in many cases because of it, the problem we sought to address, violent Islamist extremism, was getting worse. Much of what our government did after 9/11, at home and abroad, departed from our values and identity as a nation. It was also massively counterproductive. Our government failed us before and after 9/11, and it continues to do so today.

Indeed, as this book unfolds you will see how I believe that we have been failing at important national security missions for a long time. Sometimes, as perhaps proved by the end of the Cold War, we succeed despite ourselves, like a student who makes it by even with some failing grades and incompletes. But the failures are piling high and we are not correcting them; in some cases we are making them worse. And there are new challenges that, like al Qaeda before 9/11, we know are coming and are not addressing sufficiently or successfully. Though al Qaeda still exists and is growing stronger, there are new risks in cyberspace and from climate change. What is wrong that we cannot become sufficiently motivated and agreed as a nation to address known threats before they become disasters? Why do we accept costly chronic problems whose cumulative effects are far greater than those of the well-known disasters?

This book is my attempt to understand what happened after 9/11 and answer the larger question of why the U.S. government, despite all of its resources, performs so poorly at national security. The problems lie in how we as a nation have decided to conduct the process of national security, from problem identification and analysis, through policy development and implementation, to oversight and accountability. We have allowed the role of partisan politics to expand and that of professional public sector management to atrophy. As a result, we repeatedly misdiagnose the problems we face and prescribe the wrong cures. In this volume, to attempt to diagnose the problems accurately, we will sometimes go back in history before 9/11. We will sometimes go forward to see what effects changing technologies and continuing policies will have. I will attempt to suggest what we might do differently to address the unique and cross-cutting problems in a set of related and vital national security disciplines:

The conduct of sustained, large-scale, complex operations, such as Iraq

The collection and analysis of national security information by the "intelligence community"

Dealing with violent Islamist extremism, or "the global war on terrorism"

Domestic security risk management, or "homeland security"

Global climate change and national energy policy including the security effects

The migration of control systems and records into the unsafe environment of networked systems, or "cyberspace security"

This book is, as was Against All Enemies, a personal story, one told by reference to my experiences as I remember them and to the many personalities I have encountered along the way as a Pentagon analyst, a State Department manager, a White House national security official, and now as a private citizen. In the weeks before we invaded Iraq, I left government after thirty years in national security under five Republican and two Democratic presidents. I have since been teaching, writing, and traveling about the country and around the world consulting on security issues. My time in government and since provides me with a special perspective and, no doubt, distinct prejudices. One of those prejudices, which you will soon detect, is that I think that on issues of national security our government can and must work well. Before we begin this analysis of the systemic problems of U.S. national security management, perhaps I should reveal how that belief was shaped and formed.

As a child in the 1950s, I was aware from my parents that government had ended the Great Depression that they had struggled through and in doing so had built infrastructure across the nation. Government had mobilized the entire country, including my parents, to create and arm a military that had simultaneously liberated a captive Europe from Nazi rule and pushed back imperial Japan from its occupation of most of Asia and the Pacific. My father spent four years in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific, while my mother gave up an executive assistant job in the private sector to make artillery in the Watertown Arsenal. Along the way to wartime victory, government had organized the colossal effort that was the Manhattan Project and had given birth to the nuclear age.

In my own lifetime, government had sent the World War II veterans to school, financed their new homes, and linked the country with interstate highways. It had created an entirely new human endeavor, space flight, had laced the skies with satellites, placed humans on the moon, and sent probes to the planets. As an eight-year-old watching the Echo satellite move through the night sky and later following in detail the manned space flight missions, I was thrilled at what thousands of skilled and hardworking Americans, including my older cousins, were doing together, "to go to the moon and do the other things … not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

On that bitterly cold day when John F. Kennedy was sworn in, he appealed to us to "ask what you can do for your country." I was an impressionable ten-year-old who believed that government service was a high calling. The public school I was to attend a few months later led Kennedy's inaugural parade that day, its band tramping down Pennsylvania Avenue in the snow. When I did enroll in Boston Latin School later that year, the headmaster pointed to the names of alumni carved on the frieze above the auditorium: John Hancock, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and on through the years to more recent graduates such as President Kennedy's father, Joseph Kennedy. He told us that we followed in that tradition, to serve the nation. For six formative years in that school, the lesson was repeated that public service was both demanding and a duty.

My last semester at the Latin School, the Tet Offensive made many in my graduating class think that our government was somehow getting something wrong in Vietnam, but we did not know yet how wrong. We had seen the civil rights movement as a way in which government could do the right thing, undo the wrongs of the past. Then, weeks after Tet, Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed and every major American city went up in flames. Our hopes dimmed that America would soon judge people "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." At the hour that my class walked onstage to graduate several weeks later, Robert Kennedy succumbed to wounds from an assassin's gun. It was a bad year: Tet, Martin, Bobby. Our optimism was turning to anger.

As America's experience in Vietnam devolved into debacle and tragedy, my generation saw as none had before that the great resources of the U.S. government could be mismanaged with horrific effect. Good government was not self-executing. Badly run, our government did not just fail, it was a highly lethal weapon capable of spawning disaster on an immense scale, ruining the lives of millions.

But as I marched in the streets of Washington to protest that war, my desire to serve in government did not diminish, it grew. With the conceit and arrogance of youth, I thought that if those of us who had learned from the mistakes of Vietnam joined the government, we could prevent similar follies in the future. How much more effective could we be on the inside helping to shape decisions than on the streets protesting after they were made?

I went to work in the Pentagon in the latter days of Richard Nixon's presidency. There was no better place to see how government functioned. I saw how teams of analysts pored over data, trying to make complex decisions about budgets and weapons system procurements. Other analysts sifted through mountains of intelligence, trying to assess the threats to our nation and its forces. And there were real threats. Although it may now seem like a quaint and distant time, the Cold War brought real peril. The government of the Soviet Union worked hard to undermine the United States and our allies. Nuclear weapons flew through the air every day, only hours from their targets.

Within days of my assignment to the Pentagon's Middle East Task Force in 1973, the Soviet Union began moving nuclear weapons and troops in reaction to the ongoing Arab-Israeli War. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger ordered American forces worldwide to go on full alert. Tens of thousands of nuclear weapons were ready to be used. I asked a Pentagon colleague what we would do if nuclear war began. The young Army major laughingly suggested that we go to Ground Zero, which was what the Pentagon staff called the courtyard hamburger stand, and look up to watch the missiles coming in. (Years later I would work again with that major when he was a four-star general. And later, a hijacked aircraft would turn part of the Pentagon a few feet away from the hamburger stand into a real Ground Zero.)

For much of the following twenty years, I worked on the Cold War, which, despite its seeming unimportance now, was a struggle far greater than what we face today. Many years after that struggle was over, on the day Ronald Reagan died, I was driving into Berlin on the autobahn. When I heard on the radio that he had passed, I changed my destination from the hotel to the Brandenburger Tor, where Reagan had famously said "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." (A few years after that speech, the young people of Berlin tore it down—with their hands.) Getting there just before midnight, I saw young couples walking together, apparently oblivious that a few years before this had been no-man's land, where once American and Soviet tanks had pointed their cannon at one another, where East Germans had been gunned down running for freedom. Ronald Reagan and eight other American presidents, supported by tens of millions of American citizens, had prevailed. Our conduct of the Cold War was certainly imperfect and the Soviets may have lost that struggle more than we won it. Nonetheless, the U.S. government did both prevent nuclear war and contribute to the collapse of the opposing Communist alliance. Doing so was complicated, expensive, and challenging. It required a sustained, multifaceted, and coordinated effort, equal in scale to what government did in World War II. You can see the results today, not only there in Berlin on Unter den Linden, but also on every street in America. Nuclear missiles did not fall. Communism did not take away our freedoms. The American government had worked. In the post–Cold War world, my government career gave me additional windows onto instances of government succeeding. George H. W. Bush created an improbable diplomatic and military coalition of more than sixty nations that liberated Kuwait and reestablished an international security system. When Bill Clinton was in office, the U.S. government–created internet burst forth, creating cyberspace and forever changing the nature of society. His Vice President, Al Gore, sliced through bureaucracies, "reinventing government" and bringing better service with less cost and fewer government employees.

Just as my personal history taught me that government can work, there are many people today whose formative experiences have produced a different conclusion. Few young people today think of government service as a high calling or as something they would want to do. When they do think of government, they envision a wasteful, incompetent, muscle-bound behemoth, damaging all it touches. They envision the calamity we have made of Iraq, the images of Americans demeaned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. They recall the repeated intelligence failures and botched law enforcement efforts. They may recall the ineffective "War on Drugs" or picture our porous borders. They know of the continued growth of the terrorist movement and the contempt with which America is held in much of the world. Something has happened. Government has ceased to work well, not just in the well-known failures but almost across the board in the area of national security. There seems to be an inability to get anything done, to successfully tackle any major issue. Democrats attribute the problems to one cause, the presidency of George W. Bush. But the causes go well beyond the personalities of incumbent officials. There is a pattern of incompetence and a lack of achievement running throughout the components of national security: homeland security, intelligence, defense, foreign policy, federal law enforcement, energy policy, and the "war on terrorism." These failures are important because, despite the exaggeration and hype often used by government officials, there are serious threats and important issues that only the federal government can address. Failure to deal successfully with these issues can mean the deaths of thousands of people and the waste of trillions of dollars, as we have just tragically witnessed.

The United States spends more than a trillion dollars a year on national security, running up a national debt that could, combined with health care and retirement costs, burden the next generation and stifle economic growth in this country. For that amount of money—indeed, for less—the American people should get far better results. Moreover, the culture of mediocrity that is asserting itself in our national security apparatus increases the likelihood of further calamitous failures, with the personal pain and suffering that will mean for Americans and others.

I am not inherently a pessimist; quite the opposite. I know government has worked in these areas in the past, and I believe it can again, if we can identify what has gone wrong in each area and across the board and if we can devise initiatives and programs to overcome the entropy and decay that has set in. This book contains my contribution to thinking about those remedial initiatives and programs. I hope it will stimulate further contributions and debate, as well as increasing the basic recognition that there is a systemic problem in how America conducts national security.

For if we continue to operate as we do now, many more government officials will sit before investigatory panels. Many more will have to say to victims and their loved ones, "Your government failed you."