Five days before the war began in Iraq, as
President Bush prepared to raise the terrorism
threat level to orange, a top White House
counterterrorism adviser unlocked the steel
door to his office, an intelligence vault
secured by an electronic keypad, a combination
lock and an alarm. He sat down and turned
to his inbox.
Beers on the Bush White House "Things were
dicey," said Rand Beers, recalling the stack
of classified reports about plots to shoot,
bomb, burn and poison Americans. He stared
at the color-coded threats for five minutes.
Then he called his wife: I'm quitting.
Beers's resignation surprised Washington,
but what he did next was even more astounding.
Eight weeks after leaving the Bush White House,
he volunteered as national security adviser
for Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), a Democratic
candidate for president, in a campaign to
oust his former boss. All of which points
to a question: What does this intelligence
"The administration wasn't matching its deeds
to its words in the war on terrorism. They're
making us less secure, not more secure," said
Beers, who until now has remained largely
silent about leaving his National Security
Council job as special assistant to the president
for combating terrorism. "As an insider, I
saw the things that weren't being done. And
the longer I sat and watched, the more concerned
I became, until I got up and walked out."
single issue has defined the Bush presidency
more than fighting terrorism. And no issue
has both animated and intimidated Democrats.
Into this tricky intersection of terrorism,
policy and politics steps Beers, a lifelong
bureaucrat, unassuming and tight-lipped until
now. He is an unlikely insurgent. He served
on the NSC under Presidents Ronald Reagan,
George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and the current
Bush. The oath of office hangs on the wall
by his bed; he tears up when he watches "The
West Wing." Yet Beers decided that he wanted
out, and he is offering a rare glimpse in.
"Counterterrorism is like a team sport. The
game is deadly. There has to be offense and
defense," Beers said. "The Bush administration
is primarily offense, and not into teamwork."
In a series of interviews, Beers, 60, critiqued
Bush's war on terrorism. He is a man in transition,
alternately reluctant about and empowered
by his criticism of the government. After
35 years of issuing measured statements from
inside intelligence circles, he speaks more
like a public servant than a public figure.
Much of what he knows is classified and cannot
be discussed. Nevertheless, Beers will say
that the administration is "underestimating
the enemy." It has failed to address the root
causes of terror, he said. "The difficult,
long-term issues both at home and abroad have
been avoided, neglected or shortchanged and
The focus on Iraq has robbed domestic security
of manpower, brainpower and money, he said.
The Iraq war created fissures in the United
States' counterterrorism alliances, he said,
and could breed a new generation of al Qaeda
recruits. Many of his government colleagues,
he said, thought Iraq was an "ill-conceived
and poorly executed strategy."
"I continue to be puzzled by it," said Beers,
who did not oppose the war but thought it
should have been fought with a broader coalition.
"Why was it such a policy priority?" The official
rationale was the search for weapons of mass
destruction, he said, "although the evidence
was pretty qualified, if you listened carefully."
is like a team sport. . . . There has to be
offense and defense," says Rand Beers. "The
Bush administration is primarily offense."
(WP Photo/Jahi Chikwendiu)
He thinks the war in Afghanistan was a job
begun, then abandoned. Rather than destroying
al Qaeda terrorists, the fighting only dispersed
them. The flow of aid has been slow and the
U.S. military presence is too small, he said.
"Terrorists move around the country with ease.
We don't even know what's going on. Osama
bin Laden could be almost anywhere in Afghanistan,"
for the Saudis, he said, the administration
has not pushed them hard enough to address
their own problem with terrorism. Even last
September, he said, "attacks in Saudi Arabia
sounded like they were going to happen imminently."
Within U.S. borders, homeland security is
suffering from "policy constipation. Nothing
gets done," Beers said. "Fixing an agency
management problem doesn't make headlines
or produce voter support. So if you're looking
at things from a political perspective, it's
easier to go to war."
The Immigration and Naturalization Service,
he said, needs further reorganization. The
Homeland Security Department is underfunded.
There has been little, if any, follow-through
on cybersecurity, port security, infrastructure
protection and immigration management. Authorities
don't know where the sleeper cells are, he
said. Vulnerable segments of the economy,
such as the chemical industry, "cry out for
"We are asking our firemen, policemen, Customs
and Coast Guard to do far more with far less
than we ever ask of our military," he said.
Abroad, the CIA has done a good job in targeting
the al Qaeda leadership.
But domestically, the antiterrorism effort
is one of talk, not action: "a rhetorical
policy. What else can you say -- 'We don't
care about 3,000 people dying in New York
City and Washington?' "
asked about Beers, Sean McCormack, an NSC
spokesman, said, "At the time he submitted
his resignation, he said he had decided to
leave government. We thanked him for his three
decades of government service." McCormack
declined to comment further.
it was viewed inside the administration, onlookers
saw it as a rare Washington event. "I can't
think of a single example in the last 30 years
of a person who has done something so extreme,"
said Paul C. Light, a scholar with the Brookings
Institution. "He's not just declaring that
he's a Democrat. He's declaring that he's
a Kerry Democrat, and the way he wants to
make a difference in the world is to get his
former boss out of office."
Although Beers has worked in three Republican
administrations, he is a registered Democrat.
He wanted to leave the NSC quietly, so when
he resigned, he said it was for "personal
reasons." His friends called, worried: "Are
When Beers joined the White House counterterrorism
team last August, the unit had suffered several
abrupt departures. People had warned him the
job was impossible, but Beers was upbeat.
On Reagan's NSC staff, he had replaced Oliver
North as director for counterterrorism and
counternarcotics, known as the "office of
drugs and thugs."
your model government worker," said Wendy
Chamberlin, a U.S. Agency for International
Development administrator for Iraq, who worked
with Beers on counterterrorism on the NSC
of the first Bush administration. "He works
for the common good of the American people.
He's fair, balanced, honest. No one ever gets
hurt feelings hearing the truth from Randy."
The first thing Beers noticed when he walked
into his new office was the pile of intelligence
reports. The "threat stuff," as Beers calls
it, was 10 times thicker than it had been
before the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings.
He was in a job that would grind down anyone.
Every day, 500 to 1,000 pieces of threat information
crossed his desk. The typical mix included
suspicious surveillance at a U.S. embassy;
surveillance of a nuclear power plant or a
bridge; a person caught by airport security
with a weapon, or an airplane flying too close
to the CIA; a tanker truck, which might contain
a bomb, crossing the border and heading for
a city; an intercepted phone call between
suspected terrorists. Most of the top-secret
reports -- pumped into his office from the
White House Situation Room -- didn't pan out.
Often they came from a disgruntled employee
or a spouse.
When the chemical agent ricin surfaced in
the London subway, "we were worried it might
manifest here," he said. The challenge was:
"Who do we alert? How do you tell them to
time the government raises an alarm, it costs
time and money. "There's less filtering now
because people don't want to make the mistake
of not warning," he said. Before Sept. 11,
2001, the office met three times a week to
discuss intelligence. Now, twice a day, at
7 a.m. and 3 p.m., it holds "threat matrix
meetings," tracking the threats on CIA spreadsheets.
It was Beers's task to evaluate the warnings
and to act on them. "It's a monstrous responsibility,"
said William Wechsler, director for transnational
threats on Clinton's NSC staff. "You sit around
every day, thinking about how people want
to kill thousands of Americans."
Simon, director for counterterrorism in the
Clinton White House, said, "When we read a
piece of intelligence, we'd apply the old
The government's first counterterrorism czar,
Richard Clarke, who left his White House job
in February after more than 10 years, said
officials judged the human intelligence based
on two factors: Would the source have access
to the information? How reliable was his previous
reporting? They scored access to information,
12345; previous reporting, abcd. "A score
of D5, you don't believe. A1 -- you do," Clarke
said. "It's like a jolt of espresso, and you
feel like -- whoop -- it pumps you up, and
wakes you up."
It's easier to raise the threat level -- from
code yellow to code orange, for example --
than to lower it, Beers said: "It's easier
to see the increase in intelligence suggesting
something's going to happen. What do you say
when we're coming back down? Does nothing
happening mean it's not going to happen? It's
still out there."
After spending all day wrestling with global
jihad, Beers would go home to his Adams Morgan
townhouse. "You knew not to get the phone
in the middle of the night, because it was
for Dad," said his son Benjamin, 28. When
the Situation Room called, Beers would switch
to a black, secure phone that scrambled the
signal, after fishing the key out of his sock
drawer. There were times he would throw on
sweats over his pajamas and drive downtown.
"The first day, I came in fresh and eager,"
he said. "On the last day, I came home tired
and burned out. And it only took seven months."
Part of that stemmed from his frustration
with the culture of the White House. He was
loath to discuss it. His wife, Bonnie, a school
administrator, was not: "It's a very closed,
small, controlled group. This is an administration
that determines what it thinks and then sets
about to prove it. There's almost a religious
kind of certainty. There's no curiosity about
opposing points of view. It's very scary.
There's kind of a ghost agenda."
In the end, Beers was arriving at work each
day with knots in his stomach. He did not
want to abandon his colleagues at such a critical,
dangerous time. When he finally decided to
quit, he drove to a friend's house in Arlington.
Clarke, his old counterterrorism pal, took
one look at the haggard man on his stoop and
opened a bottle of Russian River Pinot Noir.
Then he opened another bottle. Clarke toasted
Beers, saying: You can still fight the fight.
Shortly after that, Beers joined the Kerry
campaign. He had briefly considered a think
tank or an academic job but realized that
he "never felt so strongly about something
in my life" than he did about changing current
U.S. policies. Of the Democratic candidates,
Kerry offered the greatest expertise in foreign
affairs and security issues, he decided. Like
Beers, Kerry had served in Vietnam. As a civil
servant, Beers liked Kerry's emphasis on national
On a recent hot night, at 10 o'clock, Beers
sat by an open bedroom window, wearing a T-shirt,
his bare feet propped on a table.
Beers was on a three-hour conference call,
the weekly Monday night foreign policy briefing
for the campaign. The black, secure phone
by his bedside was gone. Instead, there was
a red, white and blue bumper sticker: "John
Kerry -- President." The buzz of helicopters
blew through the window. Since Sept. 11, 2001,
it seemed, there were more helicopters circling
"And we need to return to that kind of diplomatic
effort . . . ," Beers was saying, over the
droning sound. His war goes on.
© 2003 The
Boston Globe Company
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