At the urging of reporters, the White House often allows bits of “background” information to be put on the record. But it’s rare for it to release an entire background briefing, and virtually unheard of to do it 18 months after the fact and after the briefer has left the administration.
Yet that’s what happened this week when the White House granted a request by a Fox News reporter to identify former national security aide Richard Clarke as the official who briefed reporters on the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism efforts in August 2002.
During that telephone briefing, done at the time on condition that he not be identified, Clarke defended the administration’s anti-terrorism strategy. But in a new book, in interviews and in testimony Wednesday before a bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, Clarke has said the administration did “virtually nothing” about al-Qaeda before 9/11.
Fox White House correspondent Jim Angle broke the briefing story. He said that after watching Clarke on Sunday on CBS’ 60 Minutes and reading the preface to his book, he was struck by “how hard” Clarke was on the Bush White House. He recalled the background briefing, in which Clarke listed anti-terrorism steps that the Bush team had taken. Angle received permission from the administration to release a tape he had made of Clarke’s remarks.
Critics said the timing — during the commission’s televised hearings — underscored the lengths to which the administration is willing to go to undermine Clarke’s credibility.
Angle’s story was denounced by former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey, a Democratic member of the 9/11 investigation commission. “All of us who have provided background briefings for the press before should beware,” Kerrey said. In a twist on Fox News’ motto, Kerrey said, “I mean, Fox should say ‘occasionally fair and balanced’ after putting something like this out, because they violated a serious trust.”
Angle said it’s obvious that it was in the Bush administration’s best interest to release what Clarke had previously said privately: “Of course they wanted it out.”
But he disagreed that he or Fox News was being unfair. Angle said he played by the rules. Although it’s rare for the White House to release an entire backgrounder, Angle said that reporters frequently cajole administration officials to release snippets. “If I was at ABC or (National Public Radio), I would have done exactly the same thing,” said Angle, who has previously reported for both. “And I have no doubt that if any of my colleagues had the tape, they would’ve done the same thing.”
CBS White House correspondent Bill Plante, who was in the briefing, backs Angle in that regard. “If he held on to the tape, God bless him,” Plante said. “I wish my records were that good.”
NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, also there in 2002, said Angle was “right to pursue the story. Whether he played into the White House’s agenda is another story.”
Meanwhile, sales of Clarke’s book are soaring. Publisher Simon & Schuster said that Against All Enemies, released Monday, is already in its fifth printing with 500,000 copies in print, the Associated Press reported. The book was No. 1 on Amazon.com Thursday.