TOPICS > Nation


March 29, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: The Bush administration switched the subject to NATO, the economy and other matters today in the wake of the political and media firestorm generated by Richard Clarke, who served in four administrations as a top counterterrorism official. Clarke appeared yesterday on NBC’s Meet the Press, repeating his assertion that the administration ignored his strategy suggestions about the war on terror prior to Sept. 11.

RICHARD CLARKE on NBC’s Meet the Press: I think they deserve a failing grade for what they did before, because frankly they didn’t do — they never got around to doing anything. They held interim meetings, but they never actually decided anything before Sept. 11.

TERENCE SMITH: Administration officials remained on the defensive as they, too, took to the airwaves. Secretary of State Colin Powell was on Face the Nation on CBS.

COLIN POWELL on CBS’ Face the Nation: My very first briefing to get ready to become secretary of state was from Mr. Clarke and all the other counterterrorism experts at the CIA, the FBI and in my own new Department of State. And we talked about terrorism, we talked about al-Qaida. So this wasn’t a lack of interest on my part.

TERENCE SMITH: At the center of the controversy is National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice who has been making the rounds of television news talk shows but has refused to testify publicly and under oath before the 9/11 Commission. Last night, she appeared on CBS’ 60 Minutes disputing Clarke’s testimony about the administration’s pre-9/11 view of the al-Qaida threat.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE on CBS’ 60 Minutes: Of course, it was an urgent problem. I would very much like to know what more could have been done given that it was an urgent problem. We were looking for a more comprehensive plan to eliminate al-Qaida, but we weren’t sitting still while that plan was developing.

TERENCE SMITH: Responding to pressure from the families of 9/11 victims, Rice explained why she won’t testify.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Nothing would be better from my point of view than to be able to testify. I would really like to do that. But there’s an important principle involved here. It is a long-standing principle that sitting national security advisors do not testify before the Congress.

TERENCE SMITH: Clarke’s contentions, including that the administration inadvertently strengthened al-Qaida by diverting assets to the war on Iraq, seem to have resonated with the American people.

A Newsweek poll released Saturday found that public approval of bush’s handling of terrorism and homeland security had eroded, with his approval rating on those issues dropping from 65 percent to 57 percent in a little over a month.

TERENCE SMITH: And for a sampling of editorial opinion from across the country on this issue, we are joined by four editorial page editors: Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Bruce Dold of the Chicago Tribune; Frank Burgos of the Philadelphia Daily News; and Robert Kittle of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Welcome to you all.

I’d like to get a little sense of your reaction from outside the Washington beltway to this story that has so absorbed this capital. Cynthia Tucker, you first, please. What’s your reaction to both Richard Clarke’s charges, his creditability, and the White House counter offensive?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, Terry, Richard Clarke’s testimony rings very very true to me. In part because it dovetails so nicely with what several other experts and observers close in observers of the administration have been saying for months now. He is very credible, he’s a long standing expert on terror. And he is certainly not the only person who has said that the invasion of Iraq diverted us from the real war on terror which involved Afghanistan. A professor with the army war college said that at the end of the year in the December report.

So there is nothing new in what Richard Clarke has said. He’s persuasive, he’s credible, and the Bush administration’s response has fallen far short of that. I think that they are spinning, they are attacking him personally, rather than really responding to the charges. And I think the administration’s response has been far short of persuasive.

TERENCE SMITH: Bruce Dold, your reaction to the charge and countercharge?

BRUCE DOLD: I think Clarke is making two essential points that the administration wasn’t paying close enough attention before Sept. 11 and that it was somehow preoccupied with Iraq and the aftermath of Sept. 11. To the latter one, I think the Bush administration ought to be right out front and saying, look, the country was in crisis. They responded and they responded well, the president showed leadership at that time. They made the case for who had carried out this attack. They made the case for military intervention in Afghanistan and they carried out a very difficult operation. The idea that they were somehow preoccupied with Iraq at the time just seems like sheer nonsense to me.

As far as the first point, you know, there I think you get into the question of Clarke’s credit it where he says certain things when he was appearing before Congress and talking to the administration, and what he says now that he’s selling a book. You know, again, there will be plenty of blame to go around for what happened in eight years of the Clinton administration and eight months of the Bush administration before Sept. 11. But that gets to the point of are we trying to sell a book here or are we trying to find out how we can prevent the next Sept. 11? We love the blame game in Washington and around the country. I think the focus on that needs to get back on figuring out what happened and how it can be applied to prevent the next attack.

TERENCE SMITH: Frank Burgos, what’s your view?

FRANK BURGOS: I gave Dick Clarke’s book better than a read over the weekend and find his argument very persuasive. I totally agree with Cynthia Tucker, by the way, that allowed what Dick Clarke is saying has been said before. But it comes from the terrorism czar that used to work in the Bush administration and it comes from an incredibly, very incredible source.

You look at the details that he argues with, that he sent a letter to the White House arguing for a principals meeting. You look at the details of his Sept. 12 meeting that the White House initially denied ever happened, that he met with Bush, that Bush asked for — and Clarke feels intimidated him into looking into whether there was a connection between Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks.

All those things Clarke has stood by. But it’s been the bush White House that has been changing its story mid stream. I think at this point, unless Condi Rice plans on taking the fifth, there’s really no excuse for her not to appear before the commission.

TERENCE SMITH: Bob Kittle, I wonder what you think of both what Richard Clarke had to say and the criticisms?

ROBERT KITTLE: Unfortunately, Terry, I think Richard Clarke has become the vehicle by which the 9/11 commission has been hijacked by the presidential campaign. He has thrust this into a partisan battle between John Kerry and President Bush. And that’s most unfortunate. By all of the finger pointing that he has engaged in, by the look backward, I think he has distracted the commission from focusing on the important lessons that need to be learned to prevent this kind of attack in the future.

I think the reality is, it’s a pointless exercise to say who was more to blame, the Clinton administration or the Bush administration? There’s plenty of blame to go around. There were plenty of mistakes made, as George Tenet stressed — the obvious mistake is that we did not prevent the attacks. And I think the work of the commission and the American people would be better served by a debate that focuses on what needs to be done to prevent a recurrence, and not who’s more to blame for the oh obvious failures that resulted in the 9/11 attacks.

TERENCE SMITH: Cynthia Tucker, who do you think, if indeed this has become very partisan, was that originated by Richard Clarke or by members of the commission or both?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, let’s remember that President Bush has long since decided to run his presidential campaign largely around what a successful commander in chief he was in leading the war on terror. So in that sense, the president himself reopened the question about how effective he was in the war on terror.

Now, I have no idea what Richard Clarke’s agenda is here. But I do find his argument very credible. As to whether or not we should be looking forward or looking back, we cannot learn any lessons about the future unless we look back. Unless we look back and figure out what we did wrong. And I agree that there was certainly plenty of blame to go around.

I think that Richard Clark and others certainly the commission itself, the 9/11 Commission in its reports, has been clear that there were certain lapses in the Clinton administration as well. But six years into his presidency, Bill Clinton had become absolutely persuaded that Osama bin Laden represented a grave threat to this nation and he was ready to go after him, he even signed a presidential kill order, a directive saying it was appropriate to assassinate him, if we could find him.

But when the Bush administration came into power, they didn’t accept those conclusions. Six years out maybe President Bush would have also been persuaded that we needed to go after Osama. Unfortunately, we didn’t have six years. So we need to look back to see what went wrong the first time, before we can understand how we prepare and prevent a second attack.

TERENCE SMITH: Bruce Dold, Richard Clarke expressed an apology to the families of the victims of 9/11. I wonder if you think that President Bush and the top people of his administration should do the same, whether you think that’s appropriate?

BRUCE DOLD: I think there was so much show business. I suppose he should apologize, one of the few constant between the Clinton administration and the Bush administration was Richard Clarke. But I don’t know who appointed him to stand up and apologize on behalf of the government. You know, it all gets away from what the real focus ought to be. What happened? Find out what happened and if there are ways to prevent another attack. We can play all sorts of blame games on what happened pre-Sept. 11. But again, if we had known something, certainly if you had been able to pick up the hijackers that would have, you know, greatly helped to prevent something, if we had made a case for going into Afghanistan the world would have said no before Sept. 11. So I’m not sure to what extent our hands were tied before that day. But again we really need, the purpose of the 9/11 commission should to be figure out if the clear sense of exactly what happened and lay that out, not to be involved in the presidential campaign.

TERENCE SMITH: Frank Burgos, is a presidential apology called for in this case?

FRANK BURGOS: I think so. As Cynthia had argued earlier there was some sort of plan that the Clinton administration had set up that was aimed at getting after Osama bin Laden. It got transferred over to the Bush administration as Dick Clarke I think argues persuasively, was put on the back burner, was put on a shelf somewhere. And for that I think President Bush should apologize to the American people, should apologize to the families who lost loved ones in Washington and New York City and here in Pennsylvania in the field.

TERENCE SMITH: Bob Kittle, what’s your view?

ROBERT KITTLE: I don’t think a presidential apology is needed, Terry. I don’t think there’s any evidence that George Bush had any information that would have made it possible for the government to have prevented 9/11. Our intelligence simply wasn’t that good. For that reason I think the government did, both in the Clinton and Bush administration, everything that was reasonable, while mistakes were made, to try to head off this kind of attack.

This second guessing today reminds me a little of what happened after Pearl Harbor when the theorists went wild saying that FDR knew about the impending attack and allowed it to occur for his own reasons. That’s all a lot of empty speculation, frankly, and we’re going to see a lot of that today, I guess, after Sept. 11, speculation about what President Bush may have known ask when he knew and it why he may not have acted. And I frankly think the evidence that has come forth thus far does not support any notion that the government was irresponsible or lax. Mistakes certainly in hindsight were made. But the government acted responsibly in this matter.

TERENCE SMITH: I wondered, Cynthia Tucker, with or without an apology, should Condoleezza Rice testify publicly before this commission? Or as we mentioned earlier, should she stand on that point of executive privilege?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: No. She should not stand on the point of executive privilege. She absolutely should testify. She keeps arguing that some sort of dangerous precedent would be set. That’s simply not the case. In the past, in fact, national security advisors have testified. Her voluntary testimony, if she goes voluntarily, would set no dangerous precedent at all. It would be a public service for her to come forward and testify under oath — if in fact Richard Clarke is lying, why doesn’t she come forward and give her version of events under oath? As one of the members of the commission said, she’s appeared everywhere but Starbucks. Why doesn’t she take the time then to go and set the record straight under oath before the public?

TERENCE SMITH: Bruce Dold, do you agree with that, would I serve a purpose to do it that way, publicly under oath?

BRUCE DOLD: I think she’d probably mop the floor with Richard Clarke if she did testify, but I do think that she should. She’s one of the ablest members of the Bush administration and I understand the principle that they’re claiming, but I’ve got to think that this is just a really bad political calculation on their part. She ought to be out there, she ought to be explaining herself and I think she’d do a great job if given the chance to do it. So they ought to put her before the commission.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you agree with that, Frank Burgos?

FRANK BURGOS: Oh, yeah. Definitely. I think it’s insulting — the fig leaf that Condoleezza Rice is hiding under — not to go before the commission. I mean, the point of this whole thing is to get to the truth, to get to what really happened before Sept. 11, what could we have done as a nation to have prevented that and what could we do in the future to prevent similar attacks?

Dick Clark has made a cogent argument in saying here’s what we did, what we didn’t do, here’s the kind of urgency we brought to this problem, under the Clinton administration and Bush administration, and we now know that we are at a war that we need to put all our focus on that, and that we need to go back to find out where we made or mistakes so we don’t repeat them. And I just say, tell the truth and shame the devil at this point.

TERENCE SMITH: Bob Kittle, what do you think?

ROBERT KITTLE: I think it’s a mistake for the White House to allow the lawyers in the administration to basically argue that she should not, that Condoleezza Rice should not testify because of the damage it would do to executive privilege. I think there is a legitimate claim about executive privilege here. However, that is far outweighed by the need for the American people to have the truth about this. And I think Condoleezza Rice should testify. I think she would be an excellent spokesman for the administration. She has been one of the most visible spokesmen for the administration on national security matters, and I think it doesn’t make much sense for her to be answering lots of questions from journalists but refusing to answer questions publicly from members of the commission. So I think she should testify.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, at least we have agreement on that among the four of you, thank you all four very much.