Richard Clarke, from an ethical perspective

For those concerned with moral philosophy and ethics, this is the most interesting part of yesterday’s historic testimony:

JAMES R. THOMPSON, COMMISSION MEMBER: Mr. Clarke, in this background briefing, as Senator Kerrey has now described it, for the press in August of 2002, you intended to mislead the press, did you not?

RICHARD CLARKE, FORMER NATIONAL COORDINATOR FOR COUNTERTERRORISM: No. I think there is a very fine line that anyone who’s been in the White House, in any administration, can tell you about. And that is when you are special assistant to the president and you’re asked to explain something that is potentially embarrassing to the administration, because the administration didn’t do enough or didn’t do it in a timely manner and is taking political heat for it, as was the case there, you have a choice. Actually, I think you have three choices. You can resign rather than do it. I chose not to do that. Second choice is…

THOMPSON: Why was that, Mr. Clarke? You finally resigned because you were frustrated.

CLARKE: I was, at that time, at the request of the president, preparing a national strategy to defend America’s cyberspace, something which I thought then and think now is vitally important. I thought that completing that strategy was a lot more important than whether or not I had to provide emphasis in one place or other while discussing the facts on this particular news story. The second choice one has, Governor, is whether or not to say things that are untruthful. And no one in the Bush White House asked me to say things that were untruthful, and I would not have said them. In any event, the third choice that one has is to put the best face you can for the administration on the facts as they were, and that is what I did. I think that is what most people in the White House in any administration do when they’re asked to explain something that is embarrassing to the administration.

THOMPSON: But you will admit that what you said in August of 2002 is inconsistent with what you say in your book?

CLARKE: No, I don’t think it’s inconsistent at all. I think, as I said in your last round of questioning, Governor, that it’s really a matter here of emphasis and tone. I mean, what you’re suggesting, perhaps, is that as special assistant to the president of the United States when asked to give a press backgrounder I should spend my time in that press backgrounder criticizing him. I think that’s somewhat of an unrealistic thing to expect.

THOMPSON: Well, what it suggests to me is that there is one standard of candor and morality for White House special assistants and another standard of candor and morality for the rest of America.

CLARKE: I don’t get that.

CLARKE: I don’t think it’s a question of morality at all. I think it’s a question of politics.

THOMPSON: Well, I… (APPLAUSE [apparently for CLARKE])

THOMPSON: I’m not a Washington insider. I’ve never been a special assistant in the White House. I’m from the Midwest. So I think I’ll leave it there.

In my opinion, what Clarke said in August 2002 was intended to mislead the press, because it contradicts what he is now saying under oath. Moreover, the choice between spinning a news story for your employer and resigning your job is certainly a “moral” one, just as Gov. Thompson claims. However, …


it is not necessarily an easy moral choice. Under particular circumstances, it could be the right thing to do to make somewhat misleading public statements in order to retain one’s job and to push for better policies. Officials need to take into consideration all of the consequences of their actions, weighing the value of candor against other values.

We can simplify the moral complexity of our lives by staying out of institutions that require us to be less than fully candid. Indeed, I doubt that I would ever want to serve in the executive branch, especially in agencies concerned with national security, because they require constant moral compromise. However, we do need such institutions, and we need good people to serve in them.

Richard Clarke provids a good example of a legitimate moral compromise when he decribes his reluctance to wait until Al Qaida had been proved guilty before bombing its bases: “If people wanted to further study who was guilty of attacking the Cole, …. I thought fine. If you want to have that kind standard and you want to have that kind of process, fine. Then let’s separate that and let’s bomb Afghanistan anyway and not tie the two together.” This is a glimpse of Realpolitik, and who can complain about it?

Service in an institution precludes moral purity, but it definitely requires moral judgment. When Clarke calls his decision to spin the news “political” and not “moral,” he may mean that he made a moral decision to continue serving in the Bush Administration, and that role required him to compromise his morals in other ways. Gov. Thompson tries to depict this choice as alien to Midwestern values. In Illinois, he implies, a person’s word is his word. I agree that the moral balancing required of a bureaucrat is alien to most Americans (including many who live inside the Capital Beltway). But that is because most Americans, unfortunately, are not in the position to make political decisions. All who do possess public power–including governors of Illinois, by the way–face similar dilemmas.

None of what I have written here exonerates Richard Clarke. For one thing, in his 2002 comments, he may have gone beyond merely putting the “emphasis” in the wrong place; he may have lied. There are actions that cannot be justified just because they promote good ends–and outright lying is usually one. Furthermore, Clarke may have made the wrong choice in continuing in the White House; and his reasons may have been less honorable than he claims. (Instead of choosing to remain in the government because of the importance of the cybersecurity issue, he may have held onto his job because it was exciting and powerful.) So my point is not to defend this man, but to suggest that the moral evaluation of officials is a complex matter.

In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt writes, “For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same.” Clarke supported the incumbent government of the United States, so he was responsible for what it did. Yet the government of the United States deserves support, and support sometimes requires obedience–at least the provisional obedience of people inside the administration itself. Politics is not a nursery; it’s strictly for grown-ups. I thought Clarke’s apology yesterday fully acknowledged that that’s what he is–a responsible adult in a complex moral role, accountable for the totality of his actions.

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