WASHINGTON — There is something disconcerting about the way a single disaffected public official can upset the best-laid plans of his superiors, up to and including the president of the United States.
You will have guessed that I'm referring to Richard Clarke, antiterrorism coordinator for 10 years under four presidents, who exploded like a time bomb under the Bush White House with his charges that the administration, obsessed with Saddam Hussein, had done too little before Sept. 11, 2001, to counter the machinations of Al Qaeda.
But before Mr. Clarke there were others who blew shrill whistles on their superiors. There was, for example, Coleen Rowley, counsel to the FBI field office in Minneapolis, who disclosed the bureau's failure to pursue the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui.
A generation ago there was former White House counsel John Dean, who started President Nixon down the road to ruin by testifying about the Watergate coverup and how he had warned Nixon of "a cancer on the presidency." (Mr. Dean seems ready to try to bring down another president. He charges manifold abuse of power in his new book, "Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.")
President Reagan fired Secretary of State Al Haig, budget director David Stockman, and chief of staff Donald Regan. And all three wrote books unflattering to their former boss.Mr. Regan, for example, revealed that Nancy Reagan had allowed White House scheduling to be guided by an astrologer.
Before President Bush had the Clarke problem, he had the Paul O'Neill problem. The Treasury secretary, fired in a dispute over fiscal policy, wrote a book that described the president as fixated on Iraq and acting in cabinet meetings "like a blind man in a room full of deaf people."
Then came Clarke with his assertions, backed by documentation, that White House officials had simply not taken the terrorist threat seriously enough before Sept. 11. Testifying before the 9/11 commission, Clarke asserted that, by invading Iraq, "the president of the United States has undermined the war on terrorism."
Thrown on the defensive, the White House backed down on its refusal to allow National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify before the commission in public and under oath.
The end is not yet.
Not since John Dean has a single ex-official, disenchanted if not disgruntled, had such a powerful impact on the fortunes of a president.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.