War on Terror: Richard Clarke
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MARGARET WARNER: Richard Clarke, the long-time White House counterterrorism coordinator until early last year, has touched off the latest furor with an explosive new book, “Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror.”
In the book, and last night on 60 Minutes, Clarke charged that the Bush administration badly underestimated the al-Qaida threat before 9/11 and was obsessed with retaliating against Iraq afterwards.
Clarke is due to testify Wednesday before a presidential commission investigating the 9/11 attacks, and he joins us now. Welcome, Mr. Clarke.
RICHARD CLARKE: Good evening.
MARGARET WARNER: Last night, last night you said, speaking of the president, you said he ignored terrorism for months when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11. That’s a serious charge.
RICHARD CLARKE: Well, it is, but if you look at what happened, when the Bush administration came into office, they were told by the outgoing Clinton administration, they were told by the CIA director, George Tenet, that al-Qaida needed to be their number one national security issue, and they didn’t make it their number one national security issue.
They appreciated that it must be important, but they didn’t understand that it was urgent, even though I was telling them that, George Tenet was telling them that and the outgoing Clinton administration had told them that.
MARGARET WARNER: But now, as you know, Condoleezza Rice and others have been coming out and talking about this today. They say you’re just dead wrong, that they were well aware of the threat, that they were working on a plan this eight months to try to eliminate al-Qaida, and that they were fully apprised of the threat. What is your evidence that they weren’t taking it seriously enough?
RICHARD CLARKE: Well, let’s just look at the facts. Within days, within three days of the administration beginning, I wrote to Condoleezza Rice asking for an urgent — underlined “urgent” — meeting of the so-called Principals Committee. Now, that’s the Cabinet-level members of the NSC: secretary of defense, secretary of state, CIA director, attorney general.
Instead of having that meeting, they had a meeting on February 1st on Iraq. And, in fact, I wasn’t given a Cabinet-level NSC Principals meeting on terrorism until September 4th. Now, contrast that to December 1999, when we had similar intelligence that there was an impending al-Qaida attack, and President Clinton ordered his national security adviser to meet every day or every other day with the attorney general, the FBI director, and the secretary of defense, all of whom left those meetings every day, went back to their departments and shook the departments to do anything and everything they could to stop the al-Qaida attacks.
And those attacks around the Millennium were stopped, despite the fact the CIA director said repeatedly to the president and the national security adviser that there was an impending al-Qaida attack. Neither the president ordered such meetings nor did Condoleezza Rice on her own hold such meetings to try to stop the attacks.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Ms. Rice wrote a piece in The Washington Post today, and she said, “You know, we didn’t need a meeting. We needed a plan,” and she put some of the responsibility for the lack of a plan on your shoulders. She essentially said your shop had some ideas that were kind of warmed over from 1998. They did institute a few of those having to do with terrorist financing and stepping up activities in Uzbekistan, but that, in fact, you didn’t have a plan.
RICHARD CLARKE: That’s ironic because, even before President Bush was inaugurated, we briefed her on what we considered a plan or a strategy, and we can get lost in the words of is it a plan or is it a strategy, but we briefed her even before the inauguration. And what they did after 9/11, what the president signed and what the president did after 9/11 was essentially that plan or that strategy which we showed them before they were even inaugurated.
MARGARET WARNER: They also say that you and, in fact, most of U.S. intelligence were focused, during this phase of the summer of 2001, there was all of this chatter, and the belief was that the attack would occur on American interests overseas not here at home and that you did not have any kind of proposals or plan for really making the homeland more secure.
RICHARD CLARKE: Actually, the opposite is true there as well. The CIA did say that they thought the attack would come in either Saudi Arabia or Israel, but I wasn’t sure that it might not take place here. So I asked the FBI, the FAA, the Customs Service, the Immigration Service, the Coast Guard, and 18,000 local police departments — state and local police departments — as well as all of the aircraft owners, all of the airlines, all of the airports to go on alert.
I held a series of meetings with all of those domestic security organizations, and well before I was asked to do so by Dr. Rice, began that process of sending out alerts to domestic security organizations.
MARGARET WARNER: So what more could the president have done if he was paying the kind of attention you feel he should have that might have thwarted the 9/11 attacks?
RICHARD CLARKE: Well, two things. First of all, we could have adopted a policy right away, and a strategy, given presidential authorization, presidential decisions and money, to begin the process of eliminating the al-Qaida sanctuary in Afghanistan. And moreover, if we had had those meetings, chaired by Dr. Rice with the attorney general, with the FBI director, every day or every other day after we received the threat information, they would have gone back to the Justice Department and the FBI, shaken the trees, and out of the trees we now know would have fallen information that was in the FBI that two of the hijackers were in the United States.
Margaret, if we had known the names of those two hijackers, we could have put them on the front page of every paper in the country. We could have rounded up those two hijackers, and then the FBI might have been able to pull the string and find the other members of the al-Qaida cell.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, your other very explosive charge has to do with what you described as the administration’s obsession, once 9/11 occurred, with linking it somehow to Iraq. And you say the president himself was fixated on that. Tell us about that.
RICHARD CLARKE: Well, the White House has said that they have no recollection of this meeting, and they’ve said there’s no record of this meeting, and there are three members of my staff who were in the meeting and who have already talked to 60 Minutes and to other media outlets and said that they remember it just as I do.
MARGARET WARNER: But tell us what that was, for people who didn’t see 60 Minutes.
RICHARD CLARKE: What it was, was not a meeting, but the president wandering through the Situation Room, which is an operations center, and then pulling me and my staff into the conference room, shutting the door and saying very explicitly that he wanted me to give him a memo about Iraq and the 9/11 attacks.
Now, the White House says, “No, no, no. It wasn’t that. He was asking look at all possibilities. Look at Iran. Look at Iraq. Look at anybody who might have been linked to it. Do due diligence.”
Margaret, it wasn’t that way. It wasn’t a calm, rational discussion in which he said, “Look under every rock and do due diligence.” It was a very intimidating message which said, “Iraq. Give me a memo about Iraq and 9/11.”
It was very clear what I thought and what all, everyone else in the room thought, was that he wanted to see that there was a connection.
We told him there wasn’t. We told him we’d try to go back and look again with an open mind. When we sent him a memo, which the FBI and CIA had cleared, saying that there was no connection, that memo was bounced. And they can claim it was bounced for this or that reason, but nonetheless the memo was bounced.
MARGARET WARNER: But now Ms. Rice says that it would have been “irresponsible” not to ask a question, when you’re trying to figure out who was behind these attacks –
RICHARD CLARKE: Right.
MARGARET WARNER: You say this occurred on September 12th. That it would have been irresponsible not to ask about a possible Iraq connection –
RICHARD CLARKE: Absolutely.
MARGARET WARNER: That’s all it was.
RICHARD CLARKE: It would have been irresponsible for the president not to come in and say, “Dick, I don’t want you to assume it was al-Qaida. I’d like you to look at every possibility, and I’d like you to look at every possibility to see if maybe it was al-Qaida with somebody else,” in a very calm way, with all possibilities open. That’s not what happened.
What happened was the president, with his finger in my face, saying, “Iraq, a memo on Iraq and al-Qaida, a memo on Iraq and the attacks.” Very vigorous, very intimidating, and in a way that left all of us with the same impression, that he wanted that answer. Well, we couldn’t give him that answer because it wasn’t true.
MARGARET WARNER: Bottom line, you say that he squandered the opportunity to eliminate al-Qaida and actually strengthened our enemies by going off on a tangent. Are you saying that you think actually terrorism is a greater threat to America now than it was prior to 9/11?
RICHARD CLARKE: I think al-Qaida and the network of radical Islamic organizations around the world are stronger now than they were prior to 9/11. There have been more major terrorist attacks by al-Qaida-related organizations since 9/11 than there were before 9/11.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, Mr. Clarke, today the White House has been discrediting you. They’re saying that you are very close to someone in the Kerry campaign. They say that if you felt this strongly, why did you wait until the heat of the presidential campaign to release this. Do you have a political agenda here?
RICHARD CLARKE: No, Margaret, I don’t. I’m not working for the Kerry campaign, and I’ll say this now. If John Kennedy — if John Kerry — gets elected president, and if John Kerry offers me a job, I will not accept it. I don’t want to be part of the Kerry administration. I’ve done 30 years in government. That’s not what this is about.
This book would have come out three months earlier if the White House hadn’t taken three months to clear it. It sat in the White House for three months or else it would have been out earlier.
MARGARET WARNER: Richard Clarke, thank you.