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4.7.04 Richard Clarke As Icon for Our Age

I'm thinking about Richard Clarke again and wondering if he he will become a symbol of our complicated times.

Sometimes he is sneeringly referred to as a mere "bureaucrat" or "civil servant." So you could say he's a working stiff, like so many of us. But he is a brilliant specialist, with enough political savvy to work his way to the top. In fact, he worked his way to the best possible job for someone who has become an expert on terrorism -- serving President after President of the United States.

But he is so devoted to his work that it makes him a bit of a freak. He was a man with a mission, married to his work. A bureaucrat with a mission -- not a good place. You can be crazy but you can't exactly be Captain Ahab leading your crew into an all-out hunt for the white whale because you aren't really in charge. Mostly, you just drive other people crazy with your singular vision of a terrible danger.

Not at all a good place -- full of knowledge and in command of the facts trying to get politicians to listen to you. As a class politicians have an ideological agenda they are pursuing. It's really disgusting how few elected officials are actually interested in figuring out and doing the right thing.

It's no surprise to learn that Clarke was somewhat of a malcontent, never satisfied with what his bosses were doing about al Qaeda. But he felt the subject was important enough that he kept plugging away at it.

Apparently, the Clinton administration gave him enough of a hearing that he felt somewhat effective, even if he was not entirely satisfied. Al Qaeda was not neutralized but plans were intercepted and attacks avoided.

However, the Bush administration condemned him to the role of Cassandra, the prophet who would never be believed. All he saw were wrong-headed plans for missile defense systems and other ways to make private defense contractors and old cronies rich. And he saw the administration veering toward a grudge match with Saddam Hussein. The pursuit of science and knowledge were replaced by certainty and secrecy.

So here is Clarke, in the job he prepared a lifetime for -- the best possible match for his skills, watching in horror as his bosses redirect massive resources to Iraq and Halliburton.

How many other people nowadays are caught in the same place? A person has a good paying job working for government or a mission-driven not-for-profit. It fits her perfectly, but -- either slowly or abruptly -- she realizes her bosses are corrupt. Maybe they aren't corrupt enough to call the FBI or state Attorney General. Maybe they are just venal, secretive, self-serving, and willing to undermine the mission of the organization for their own advancement. What choices does she have?

It would make a great story, though someone like John Grisham must have already done it.

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