TOPICS > Politics

Secretary of State Colin Powell

March 26, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, welcome.


JIM LEHRER: Former counterterrorism director Richard Clarke told the families and the 9/11 victims the other day that their government failed them, he failed them.

As secretary of State, do you share any feeling of failure about 9/11?

SECRETARY POWELL: I have the deepest regret about 9/11. Sept. 11, 2001, was one of the most difficult days I’ve ever had. I was in Lima, Peru, and had to fly back eight hours not knowing what happened in my own country, knowing thousands of my fellow citizens had died. So I was very sad, and I regretted it. And in the years that have gone by since then, I have reviewed what the department was doing during that period, I reviewed what I was doing during that period, and we were responding to the threat information we had.

We were giving warnings to our embassies overseas and our people overseas, which is our responsibility. So we were doing our job. But I wish we had been able to discover that these individuals were in our country and they were planning to conduct such horrible attacks against us.

And so I’m deeply regretful.

I don’t know that there is anything we failed on. I can’t yet find whether there was information that was there that connected, that we should have seen connected, which would have given us some indication that this was about to happen.

I’m glad that this commission is now working hard to help us understand all of the data points that were out there to see if we should have been able to connect the dots, and I hope the commission will also point the way to improvements in the future. That’s what I’m hoping for.

JIM LEHRER: As you probably know, both the chairman and the vice chairman, former Governor Kean and former Congressman Hamilton, have also used the word “failure” in terms of looking back on what happened. You don’t, you don’t have a problem with that as a premise, right?

SECRETARY POWELL: They can say there was a failure. I mean, we did get attacked on 9/11. There’s no doubt about it. Nineteen people got into this country. They got into this country without being stopped. We did not know that they were in this country for that purpose, and so it was — was it a failure that they got in the country? I can’t say that because they presented themselves as citizens without any record that would have tripped any of our data bases.

They came into a country that is a welcoming, open country, and I hope we never lose that aspect of our, of our American experience. Nevertheless, they got in, and if there were failures that allowed them to get in and allowed them to do their work undetected, I want to know about those failures, and I want to see what we should do to make sure no such failures ever occur in the future.

But I don’t yet know exactly what the connection is between these various data points that were out there that would suggest the government failed in not recognizing this and recognizing it for what it was: an attack that was coming against the United States.

JIM LEHRER: Clarke has said that the Bush administration did not give an urgent priority to fighting al-Qaida. Now, you disagree with that, right?

SECRETARY POWELL: We knew that al-Qaida was a threat to our country. We knew that the Clinton administration understood this and was working against al-Qaida We did not ignore al-Qaida. We spent a lot of our time thinking about terrorism, what should we do about it. A lot of the work in my department had to do with understanding that threat to our interests overseas, which is what my responsibility is.

I have testified that I met with Mr. Clarke four days after I was named to be the secretary of State. I met with him, I met with my counterterrorism experts, I met with my intelligence people, I had the FBI in here all together. And so in response to what I knew the president’s priority was, we were working on terrorism and trying to understand it.

Now, Mr. Clarke has said it was important, but not urgent, and I’m not sure what he means by that or what urgency he thinks we should have attributed to it that we didn’t. The director of Central Intelligence briefed President Bush on a regular basis, if not every day himself — something quite different than the previous administration. And in a large percentage or a large number of those briefings — I don’t know the percentage — the director was presenting terrorist information, and we were assembling it, analyzing it, and trying to see what it meant.

The director of Central Intelligence, through my intelligence operation, called INR here in the department, made me we aware of a heightened level of reporting that something was going to happen throughout the spring and summer. I got that information. I responded to it, I acted on it, my department acted on it, the president acted on it by giving instructions to our embassies and giving warnings, in some cases closing our embassies for periods of time, doing whatever is necessary to give alerts to our traveling public, Americans who are living and traveling abroad.

But we didn’t know that the threat really wasn’t an overseas threat, that it was an internal threat in the United States. But it’s not as if we were ignoring it. We were watching all of these indicators. Director Tenet was telling us daily that something was up, but we never came to the realization that what was up was an attack of the kind that hit us on 9/11.

JIM LEHRER: Clarke also says in his book that you argued strongly against the pushes by Secretaries Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz to, in addition to attacking Afghanistan, but attacking Iraq almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks; is that true?

SECRETARY POWELL: I recommended to the president that our focus had to be on al-Qaida, the Taliban and Afghanistan. Those were the ones who attacked the United States of America on 9/11.

We all recognized that there was a threat in Iraq, a violation of 12 years’ worth of resolutions and all kinds of other problems, but the first thing we had to deal with was Afghanistan, and that’s exactly what the president decided to do.

JIM LEHRER: So is it fair and accurate to say you won the argument?

SECRETARY POWELL: It’s fair and accurate to say that we both presented, all of us presented our arguments to the president, and he made a decision, which I think was the correct decision.

JIM LEHRER: Is it correct to say that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were pushing for attacks on Iraq?

SECRETARY POWELL: It’s correct to say that everybody at Camp David that weekend expressed their views and, as is well-known, Mr. Wolfowitz wanted to make sure that the president considered Iraq as a potential source of trouble that had to be dealt with respect to our interests around the world and with respect to terrorism.

But the president listened to it all. He understood all of the arguments presented to him, and he made a decision that said we would go after al-Qaida, we would give the Taliban an ultimatum that they either turned over al-Qaida or suffer the consequences. He gave the world fair warning. He gave the Taliban fair warning, and when they didn’t respond to that warning, the Pentagon prepared plans, and we went in and took out the Taliban and pretty much put al-Qaida on the run — not destroyed it — but destroyed a number of their leaders and put them on the run.

JIM LEHRER: In general terms, Mr. Secretary, what kind of guidance would you give to the American people as to how to judge what Richard Clarke is saying, both in his book, and in his testimony, and in his interviews. It’s become a big thing, as you know. What guidance would you give the American people?

SECRETARY POWELL: I would say to the American people that, rather than follow the daily back-and-forth between Mr. Clarke and all of the others who are commenting one way or the other, let’s let the commission do its work. I was with Lee Hamilton last night at a dinner, and I thanked him, as the vice chairman of this committee, and through him the other members of the committee, for their willingness to look into all of this.

And I am confident that, under the steady hand of people such as Governor Kean and Mr. Hamilton, the American people will know the full truth. And that’s the only thing the president wants to see come out of this commission hearing. It’s the only thing I want to see come out of this commission hearing — what actually took place during that period that might have given us a clue as to what was about to strike us and what did we miss. Was there something in there that we should have seen that we missed?

Obviously, something was missed, but could we have anticipated it. Could we have seen it? Could we have connected it? That’s what I want this commission to do, and what I want the American people to do is to read all of they wish to, with respect to newspaper articles and with respect to Mr. Clarke’s book, but wait until the commission finishes its work.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think the White House should continue to make these attacks on Mr. Clarke’s credibility?

SECRETARY POWELL: Mr. Clarke has been attacking the White House and members of the president’s administration, and I think that some defense is appropriate.

JIM LEHRER: Do you find him credible?

SECRETARY POWELL: I know Mr. Clarke. I have known him for many, many years. He is a very smart guy. He served his nation very, very well. He’s an expert in these matters. He is very aggressive in pursuing his ideas and pursuing his points of view, and the book is the book, and you can read it and make your own judgment as to whether it’s accurate or not, but I would say it is not the complete story.

I’d say it is important for the commission to listen to all of the witnesses and not just focus on one witness who has written a book that happened to come out right now. I’m not attributing any bad motives to it. I’m just saying his book and his point of view is one point of view.

JIM LEHRER: Have you been recruited, directly or indirectly, to join in the campaign against Mr. Clarke?

SECRETARY POWELL: I’m not aware of a campaign against Mr. Clarke, and I am not a member. It is essentially people who are being attacked by Mr. Clarke rather directly responding, Dr. Rice most directly by Mr. Clarke. They worked with each other for a period of months. Condi was as committed as the rest of us to pursuing the president’s agenda, and that agenda included dealing with terrorism as a major threat against the United States.

When the president gave his overall foreign policy speech during the campaign, it was at the Citadel, and at the Citadel he singled out terrorism as one of the challenges we’d be facing. Now, some have suggested, well, because you were worrying about Iraq or China or Russia, you ignored terrorism. Well, you know, when you come into office in a new administration, there are many things on your agenda. Yes, Russia; yes, China; yes, NATO and our relations with our friends in all parts of the world; and, yes, also terrorism. And it was not put on a back burner, it was not excluded from our consideration because we were so consumed with thinking about Iraq.

You know what we did with Iraq for most of the first eight or so months of the administration, I had the major responsibility to try to do something to fix the sanctions policy that was falling apart. That’s what we were focusing on in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you on Condoleezza Rice. You’re a former national security adviser yourself, but as secretary of State, you testified in public, under oath, before this commission. She has refused to do so. Do you think she’s right?

SECRETARY POWELL: There is a difference between being a Senate-confirmed official in the government. We are supposed to be answerable to the Congress, as well as working for the president, advice and consent of the Congress. We all understand that.

But the president’s personal staff has a unique role. They’re his intimate personal advisers, and the tradition and the precedent has been, even when I was national security adviser, that people in that position do not testify before the Congress. They talk to the Congress. They have meetings with the Congress.

Dr. Rice has spent hours with the commission. They know what she knows. She has been forthcoming. She has indicated the willingness to spend more time with the commission. But in terms of going up in a public hearing, that is not the precedent.

JIM LEHRER: But the precedents aside, do you think she should do it?

SECRETARY POWELL: I think that she would like to do it. I know she would like to do it. She wants to tell the story, but she has to consider the precedent that would be created by this, and that is where we are.

JIM LEHRER: One more question on accountability and responsibility post-9/11. Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The president, you and many other people said there were weapons of mass destruction. None have been found, and yet none of you seem to be terribly upset about that. Nobody’s been fired. There hasn’t been any, you know, outrage from you or anybody else. Why not? Why has that been? Why is that?

SECRETARY POWELL: We believe, from everything we have been told by the intelligence community, by 12 years of history with Iraq, by the experience of the U.N. inspectors and by other intelligence agencies in other countries that Saddam Hussein had the intention to develop weapons of mass destruction and to have such weapons, and that was a sound judgment which I still believe to this day because he had had them in the past, he’d used them in the past.

Second, he had the capability to have such weapons. He had the intellectual infrastructure. He had the dual-use facilities that could be used to develop these kinds of weapons. We also believed, because the intelligence community thought it was a sound belief, that he had stockpiles of these weapons.

Well, we have not found the stockpiles of these weapons. I’m surprised, Dr. Kay was surprised, Director Tenet is surprised, the United Kingdom and the Australians are surprised. We thought they were there. We’re still looking. Charlie Duelfer now heads our effort up there.

But I don’t think that takes away from the reality that this was an individual who had used them in the past, had the intention, had an intention, if ever relieved from sanctions, to rebuild his, his stockpiles, if they were no longer there at the time of the war, and he kept the capability to do so, and he is now gone, and we don’t have to worry about this possibility any more.

JIM LEHRER: So you’re not the least bit upset —


JIM LEHRER: — that you, say, made public statements — and it turned out not to be the case?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, what turned out to be the case is that he was what we said he was. What has turned out not to be the case is we haven’t found the stockpiles, and that was a great surprise to me. It’s a surprise to all of us. But it’s not as if we invented the information that he had these stockpiles.

We had solid reason to believe, and when I sat out at the CIA for four days getting ready for the presentation that I was to make at the United Nations, I didn’t just take what was shoved at me. We had an intense debate for all of those days to make sure that I was comfortable, and the director was again comfortable with the holdings, if I can put it that way, of the intelligence community. It was the same information that was presented to the Congress in a National Intelligence Estimate earlier. That was the belief of the intelligence community, and they had a sound basis for that belief.

And it was also the belief of Dr. Kay, who subsequently said there are no stockpiles. He went in there thinking there were stockpiles. He also believed that because of Saddam Hussein’s intention, and the inherent capability in that regime, that he thinks we did the right thing, and I think we did the right thing.

JIM LEHRER: So nobody in government, in other words, made a mistake. Nobody did — made a bad judgment or said anything —

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, obviously there is, there is something that is amiss, when our intelligence community tells us we’re going to find these stockpiles, and we do not find these stockpiles.

Now, what we have to do is take another look at what information we had, what gaps we had in that information, what flaws were there in the analysis. And Director Tenet has launched an investigation to look at this, committees of Congress are looking at it, and we’ve got to see if we missed something or what happened that we were so sure about this, and it turned out, so far, not to be the case.

JIM LEHRER: My point I guess is do you personally feel this is an important thing to find out?


JIM LEHRER: In other words, you want to know why —

SECRETARY POWELL: I want to know. Look, we base almost all of our policy decisions, in matters of economics, matters of war and peace, on information and intelligence. That’s what we live on.

And when you have an intelligence gap with respect to an issue such as stockpiles, then you want to find out why was that, why was there that gap? What was faulty in our collection or in our analysis.

But at the same time, while we’re trying to analyze why we haven’t found stockpiles yet — and maybe they weren’t there at all, maybe they were destroyed. I don’t know the answer — let’s not use that gap to, in any way, suggest that we were dealing with an individual who did not have the intention or the willingness to use such weapons.

And I assure you, and I assure your audience, that if the sanctions had broken down, if the United States had not acted, if he had escaped international pressure, once again, anybody who thinks that he wouldn’t have smiled, wiped his brow clean and gone back to developing weapons of mass destruction that we might have seen in stockpiles later, I think that is an incorrect conclusion.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.