Skip to content

To Understand Clarke’s Impact, We Must Review Post-9/11 Polls

To understand how much impact former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke’s or National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s testimony is likely to have on public opinion, it’s important to return to the polls conducted after Sept. 11, 2001. [IMGCAP(1)]

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, a handful of pollsters asked Americans whether the attacks represented a failure of U.S. intelligence systems, and separately whether a commission should be appointed or a Congressional investigation undertaken to review intelligence lapses.

In mid-September 2001, 49 percent of respondents told NBC News/Wall Street Journal interviewers the attacks were “beyond what was reasonable to expect the American intelligence and security systems to uncover,” while 45 percent said the attacks represented a failure of those systems. Fifty-four percent in a Sept. 11-12 CBS News/New York Times poll said the attacks were something that government intelligence agencies should have been able to discover, but 36 percent said they were not. Thirty-one percent told ABC News/Washington Post interviewers on Sept. 13 that the government did all it reasonably could to try to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks; 53 percent said the government could have done more.

At that time, people did not appear to be in a mood to assign blame. In separate Gallup/CNN/USA Today questions right after the attacks, only16 percent gave the Clinton administration a great deal of blame, 9 percent the Bush administration, 22 percent the CIA and 18 percent the FBI. But opinions have changed over time. In a March 30-April 1, 2004, CBS News poll, 71 percent said the Clinton administration could have done more to prevent the attacks, 67 percent the Bush administration could have, and 79 percent the FBI and CIA.

The polls in 2001 and 2002 provided mixed signals about the desirability of an investigation, with question wording influencing responses. Sixty-eight percent in a May 2002 Princeton Survey Research Associates/Newsweek poll said it was in the national interest to have Congress investigate intelligence failures, and 24 percent said it was not. A CBS question from roughly the same time found that 36 percent said Congress should hold hearings; 41 percent said it was not necessary. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken at the same time, 36 percent said there should be a full-scale intelligence investigation; 58 percent said it would be unproductive and too political.

Turning to recent developments, two new polls have shown that majorities believe Clarke is politically motivated. Fifty-eight percent told Los Angeles Times interviewers in March 27-30 polling that his book was “politically motivated and released at this time to impact the president election”; only 27 percent disagreed. In a late-March PSRA/ Newsweek poll, 25 percent said Clarke was a dedicated public servant; 50 percent said he was motivated to speak out for personal and political reasons. Just 28 percent in the Times poll, however, thought he was attacking the Bush administration because he was turned down for the job of deputy secretary of Homeland Security (42 percent disagreed).

In the new Times poll, 56 approved of the job President Bush was doing handling the war on terror, and 39 percent disapproved. That’s basically unchanged from its last reading in November (59 percent to 35 percent). Two other polls show a drop in more recent ratings. PSRA/Newsweek had Bush at 65 percent on handling terrorism in mid-February and 57 percent today. In the Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, 58 percent approved of Bush on this score and 39 percent disapproved. Their last poll on this subject was in early December, after Bush’s Thanksgiving visit to Iraq. At that time, 65 percent approved. Both PSRA and Gallup also showed a drop in the same time span in the president’s handling of the economy.

A March 22-24 PSRA/Pew Research Center survey found that 42 percent said they had heard a lot about Clarke’s claim that the president ignored serious warnings about terror prior to Sept. 11. In a differently worded question asked by PSRA/Newsweek just days later, a quarter said they were paying a lot of attention to his testimony and 25 percent some.

Perhaps most important, 65 percent in the PSRA/Newsweek poll said that what Clarke said about Bush had not made much difference either way in their thinking about the president; 10 percent said they were more favorable to him, and 17 percent less.

Boring or Interesting: The Campaign Thus Far. In the March 18-21 Pew Research Center poll, 49 percent said the presidential election thus far had been “interesting,” and 48 percent “boring.”

Karlyn Bowman is a resident fellow specializing opinion polls at the American Enterprise Institute.

Recent Stories

Photos of the week ending May 24, 2024

Getting down on the Senate floor — Congressional Hits and Misses

US-China tech race will determine values that shape the future

What’s at stake in Texas runoff elections on Tuesday

Democrats decry ‘very, very harmful’ riders in Legislative Branch bill

Biden welcomes Kenya’s Ruto with talk of business deals and 1,000 candles