Counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke

Counter-terrorism expert and former White House advisor Richard Clarke discusses U.S. reaction to bin Laden’s death and today’s decision not to release photos.

Richard Clarke has advised four presidents—from Reagan to George W. Bush—on national security and was the first counter-terrorism czar of the U.S. After criticizing the Bush administration's 9/11 response, the internationally recognized expert left federal service. He teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School, is an ABC News contributor (including World News Tonight and Good Morning America) and chairs Good Harbor Consulting. He's also a best-selling author, whose books include novels and the nonfiction Cyber War—the first text about the war of the future.


Tavis: Richard Clarke is the former adviser for counter-terrorism under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  He’s also, of course, a best-selling author of books like “Against All Enemies” and a teacher at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  He joins us tonight from Arlington, Virginia.  Richard Clarke, good to have you back on this program, sir.

Richard A. Clarke: Great to be back, Tavis.

Tavis: We knew it would come to this.  I’m surprised it took a few days to get to it.  The question tonight – to release or not to release.  President Obama said today we are not going to release.  He will be on “60 Minutes,” I’m told, this Sunday night.

What he will say on “60 Minutes” is that we do not need to spike the football.  There’s nothing to be gained by spiking the football.  Is the president right to not release these photos, or should they be released for a skeptical America?

Clarke: Well, it’s a skeptical Middle East, I think, that was the concern.  Tavis, if you think there are conspiracy theories in the United States, you’ve seen nothing until you go to the Middle East.  The Middle East has a conspiracy theory about everything, and fairly senior people believe these conspiracy theories.  It’s just part of the culture and tradition.

But releasing the pictures would not have helped.  People who want to believe he’s alive and want to believe Elvis is alive will continue to want to believe that, and the pictures would not have persuaded them.  The pictures would have just added fuel to a controversy.

They would have started analyzing the pictures and finding things wrong with the pictures, and more importantly it would have disgusted and perhaps enraged a lot of people because they have to be pretty grisly pictures.  This guy took a 7.62 round above his left eye.  That’s not going to be a pretty picture.

Tavis: Let me play devil’s advocate just for the point of getting you to go a little deeper for me.  When these planes hit the towers in New York, we see that picture over and over and over and over. That photo, that picture, rather, is etched in our heads.  The U.S. news media showed us those pictures over and over again.  Here we now are approaching the 10th anniversary.  It is literally etched in our brains.

Why is it, how is it, that we should be able to see that, forced to look at that repeatedly, and the person who caused that, we can’t see photos of him in his demise?

Clarke: There are pictures from 9/11 that haven’t been widely disseminated, but they’re out there, of the bodies falling through the air of people who decided to jump out of the window, and I’m glad they haven’t been widely disseminated.

I don’t think the United States should revel in murder or death.  I don’t think we should get down in the gutter with the terrorists who do this.  The terrorists do videotapes like this all the time.  They do the beheadings of their hostages and then they run it on the Internet.

I don’t want to be like them.  I want us to show that there’s a difference in sensitivity, in sensibility, in culture between us and them.  In terms of just persuading people, those who need to be persuaded are already persuaded.  Al Qaeda knows he’s dead, and the people who we will never persuade are not going to be affected by the pictures.

But we could run the risk of stimulating a response from people because they’re disgusted, because this motivates them just that little extra bit more.  In terms of Americans finding some closure in it, I think Americans have already found the closure they need.  Surprisingly, for some of us, it didn’t really feel like that much closure; it took so long to get here.

Tavis: To your point now about how long it took to get there, you said a few minutes ago that you don’t want to be like the terrorists, you don’t want to stoop to their level.  Again, another devil’s advocate question – one could argue that we did stoop to their level by taking 10 years to hunt him down, track him down and shoot him like a dog.  That’s exactly what he did to those in the Twin Towers.

For those who would argue that we have already stooped to their level, tracking him down and shooting him in the head, and then taking to the streets, waving flags and cheering as if that’s the right image we want to send to the world.  Defend the point that we have already stooped to that level of acting and behaving like them.

Clarke: Well, on the going to the streets and waving flags, I think that was regrettable.  I saw the people who were doing it in Washington and I know some of them.  They’re 19 and 20 years old, they were in grammar school, in elementary school, when 9/11 happened.  I think we can excuse that kind of response and understand that kind of response.

Now, in terms of hunting him down and shooting him in the head instead of arresting him and bringing him on trial, it was a very dangerous mission for those guys that went in there to get him.   They didn’t know whether there were other guards coming to defend him.  They didn’t know whether he had the place booby-trapped and was going to explode the entire building.

So the notion of actually going in and arresting him and reading him his Miranda rights and then bringing him back to New York for a trial, I think that would have raised more security problems, both for the arrest team and for wherever we put him on trial.

He was a military commander, and under international law, if you’re at war you can take out the military commander, and I think we did the right thing.

Tavis: You keep saying things that keep raising for me these devil’s advocate questions, Richard Clarke, so let me ask another one.  When you so gently and so kindly and so smoothly suggested that just because they’re 19 and 20, because they’re young, we can excuse them and forgive them for their behavior, jumping on top of cars and waving flags and cheering Osama bin Laden’s death, how do we feel when we see Iraqis and Afghanis dancing in the streets, burning the U.S. flag, cheering the death of U.S. soldiers?  I ask you, sir, is there any hypocrisy in that?

Clarke: No.  I think we have to – when we see young people in the Middle East dancing in the street about Americans dying and burning the U.S. flags – and by the way, we haven’t seen that happen very much since Barack Obama became president – but when we do see it in the past I think we have to get behind it, in the sense of go behind it and ask ourselves why is it happening.

They have a reason for doing it.  We have to understand what those reasons are.  They may be misguided, but they have a reason.  What I’m trying to say in these few days after Bin Laden’s death is it’s not over and it’s not going to be over.  You can’t shoot all of these people.  You have to understand what the motivation is behind this Islamic rage, which has now been thankfully redirected in a lot of countries at their own governments, which is where it should be directed.

But until we solve these problems of the mass youth unemployment out there, of the lack of participation in the governments out there, there’s going to be this rage and it’s going to sometimes be directed at us, which is the wrong place to direct it.

Tavis: I took from your op-ed piece in “The New York Times” that part of what you were suggesting to us, Mr. Clarke, is that just because Bin Laden is dead 10 years later, we’re not necessarily safer.  We can agree that the world has one less thug in it, one less rogue actor in it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re safer.  Did I misread the subtlety of your piece?

Clarke: No, you’re exactly right, and in the near term we’re actually a little bit less safe.  Bin Laden wasn’t running anything by the time we found him.  He was pretty much just hung up there and getting reports and issuing strategic guidance, but he wasn’t running terrorist operations.

But in the very near term now there is the possibility of a spasm response of lone wolves doing something, going into a shopping mall somewhere and shooting people up.  So for a little bit of time here we may be a little bit less safe.

Overall, the terrorist organizations that Bin Laden spawned in Somalia, in Yemen, elsewhere, they’re still there, and they reflect a problem in the Islamic world.  There’s a lot of people out there who are in these groups.  Now, it’s a small minority of the Islamic world, but they’re there and they want to create these 14th-century style caliphates, these religious governments, and they want to kick Westerners out.

They want to create the kind of government that the Taliban created briefly in Afghanistan, and they’re going to still use violence, they’re going to still use terrorism as part of their goal to set up these crazy governments.

Tavis: Speaking of crazy governments or the relations between crazy governments, what’s this going to do to our relationship, the U.S.’s relationship with Pakistan?

Clarke: Well, it’s going to depend a lot on what evidence comes out as to who knew what in Pakistan.  As the head of the CIA, Leon Panetta, has said, it’s really hard to believe that no one in Pakistan, in the Pakistani military or Pakistani intelligence, knew that this guy was sitting in this village, this city, because this city is a military city and it’s right down the street from their version of West Point.  Very hard to believe that somebody didn’t know.

Now, the damage to our relations with Pakistan could be minimal, depending upon the evidence, because our relations are already pretty bad, but the damage could be pretty extreme, too, if we found out that all along, Pakistani intelligence at the highest levels and Pakistani military at the highest levels has been lying to us about Bin Laden.  That’s a big breach – a very big breach between us.

Pakistan has 100 nuclear weapons.  It’s building more at a rapid rate.  Some people think it’ll have 200 nuclear weapons in a couple of years.  Having a country that’s dealing with Bin Laden and al Qaeda that’s also got nuclear weapons is a real problem, so we have to get to the bottom of this and find out who knew what when about Bin Laden’s residency in Pakistan.

Tavis: I’ve got just a tight 20 seconds here.  I wonder whether or not this is going to in any way change our policy in Afghanistan.  Is this going to speed up getting our troops out?

Clarke: It won’t.  I think President Obama is going to announce this summer the first withdrawals from Afghanistan, and we’ve agreed with our NATO allies that they’re going to leave by 2014.  We’ll draw down on a scale to 2014 as well.  This really doesn’t, unfortunately, change the story in Afghanistan.

Tavis: Richard Clarke, always an honor to have you on.  Always appreciate your insights.  Thank you, sir.

Clarke: Thank you.

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Last modified: May 25, 2011 at 4:15 pm