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War on Terror: Dan Bartlett

Ray Suarez gets a response from White House communications director Dan Bartlett.

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    And to Ray Suarez for a White House response.


    And that response comes from White House communications director Dan Bartlett. He joins us from the Old Executive Office Building in Washington.

    Mr. Bartlett, I guess you just heard Richard Clarke talking about the findings that he reports in his book, the ideas he reports in his book, among them that there was a de-emphasis of the offensive against al-Qaida that it was important but not urgent in the early days of the Bush White House. Your response?


    Well, might need to write my own book just to be able to cover all the territory. But let me start there at the first. President Bush did come into office taking the threat of terrorism intelligence and al-Qaida very seriously. In fact that's exactly why he reconstituted the practice of having his intelligence briefings every morning in the Oval Office, with the director of intelligence himself so he could hear firsthand from the person responsible with reporting threats to the United States of America and our other interests overseas.

    He also did another important step and that was to keep Dick Clarke and his counter intelligence team in place for the very reason of having the continuity, institutional knowledge necessary to make sure that there was no effort to drop the ball in the middle of a transition. That's highly unlikely to happen in an administration to keep such a large organization intact in the White House.

    Dick Clarke did talk about a memo that was sent to Condi Rice and this was a memo that he said urgent, underlined and he was calling for a meeting. Well, also he called for a lot of ideas that was focused inside that memo. There were approximately five, it was focusing on increasing counter intelligence budget overseas, increasing funding for Uzbekistan to help put pressure on al-Qaida, arming the Predator — this is something that's used in case there was a high value target you could use the civilian aircraft as a weapon. He also wanted to fund and give weapons to the northern alliance in Afghanistan — another important measure that required a lot of study. All of these measures that Dick Clarke proposed in this memo were being acted upon by the administration. But what the president said and what Dr. Rice and the members of the national security team said was, wait a minute, these are good proposals, but what I want is a strategy that's not going to contain them or roll them back, we want to eliminate al-Qaida.

    Now you would think that this would be music to Dick Clarke's ears to hear a president who wants to get really serious about eliminating al-Qaida, so in the 230 day time frame that we're in office, compared to the eight years in which Dick Clarke work forward the prior administration, this administration was putting a focus on having a comprehensive plan that was going to eliminate al-Qaida.

    Now, another thing that Dick Clarke said which I think is very important to point out — he talked about if we would have just followed the model of the Clinton administration on the eve of the millennium festivities in which there was a high threat level, he said that the Clinton administration went to the battle stations that we had people working around the clock, and that's why we prevented any attacks during the millennium. Well, in fact the history proves a little bit different than that. A customs agent on a border of Canada came across the person who was going to explode the bomb in LAX in California, she was not given my prior information about this, the customs agency in general was not on heightened state of alert, they didn't do that until after they caught this person, so it was just good intelligence work by one individual in the field, not because some people back in Washington were meeting.


    But the memo that you're discussing, Richard Clarke seems to put a lot of emphasis on that request for a meeting that brought together department heads from various agencies of responsibility because he felt, as someone without his own ability to send armies into the field and to change the procedure that was being followed, that he needed the political backing of the White House, that he needed the umpf that comes with having the backing of senior department leaders, that if he had gotten everybody around that table, a meeting he says he didn't get until September of that same year, 2001, that some of the things that people already knew about the coming attacks — perhaps the dots would have been connected sooner.


    Well, Ray, I must disagree with his assessment. And it's important, because I know this can get complicated, to make a distinction between the policy process that was under way, compared to what was being done on a daily basis. We adopted and took over not only the team that was in place by the Clinton administration, but the current strategy. So every day people in the White House, in the agencies, were taking threats very seriously. They were — in fact the battle station really was in the Oval Office. I mean the president himself was meeting with the head of intelligence giving him orders, giving Dr. Rice orders, giving members of his team right there in the Oval Office orders on a daily basis after he learned about the daily intelligence that was coming over the transom.

    Now in addition to this, was a policy process to enhance or make more, a more comprehensive strategy. Now everybody including Dick Clark who was involved in that knew that that strategy that was being developed was a three to five-year strategy. In fact when Sandy Berger for example who testified last year on this very subject, he was asked if he gave over a strategy document to the Clinton administration — to the Bush administration — and he answered that question no.

    But later in that summer of 2001, which is when this was the increased threat alerts — that was happening in June and July, the president was traveling to Genoa for a world economic meeting, there was a lot of concern both in Saudi Arabia and other parts that there was going to be a terrorist attack, everybody was very concerned about it including the president. Dick Clarke at that time did ask for a meeting with the president. He was granted that meeting. You would think it would be about the al-Qaida threat, but in fact he chose to use that time to talk to the president about cybersecurity. So as he cast judgments on the decisions and the actions and the behavior of other members of the administration, I think it's only fair that those look at the actions and the behavior of Dick Clarke himself, who was in charge of counterterrorism for the last decade.


    Onto Iraq and the war that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, first in Afghanistan and then the invasion of Iraq, Richard Clarke says it was in his words an idee fixe — a fixed idea — on the part of the administration that they were going to go after Iraq and they were working really hard to connect the 9/11 attacks to the state of Iraq, in order to justify the invasion.


    Well, it's not true. Now one thing is clear. The Clinton administration was not satisfied with their actions with Iraq, remember the inspectors were kicked out, they used Cruise missile strikes to blow up a training camp or a factory I believe in Iraq. When the president took office, the status quo wasn't acceptable, remember the sanctions regime at the time. He likened it to Swiss cheese because money was still funneled in to Saddam so he could fund his programs and keep his fear over the Iraqi people. We had pilots flying daily into a hostile environment in which they were being shot at to enforce the no-fly zone. We also have the fact that the inspectors them service were no longer in Iraq and had been out for several years, all these things were of grave concern to the president. And we were fashioning a new policy, a new sanctions policy reevaluating the fly zone policy to make sure there was not a better way than to put pilots into harm's way. These were all very important measures that were taken.

    But Dick Clarke now fast forwards to 9/11 and in the hours and days after 9/11, and the president made very clear where his focus was. Now, he did point out that we don't have logs at this meeting but I'm not here to dispute that there wasn't a conversation and the fact that President Bush didn't ask questions about Iraq, I'm sure he did and I'm glad he did, and the fact that Iraq was a sworn enemy of the United States who had tried to assassinate a prior president and gone to war with us, that we not at least ask those questions. I think it would have been irresponsible for him not to. So the president did ask them. Now Dick Clarke says that it was an intimidating meeting, I've worked for President Bush about a decade now and I've never been intimidated in a meeting and I've done plenty wrong for him to come down on me and he's never done that. But we did have a conversation.

    But I think it's also important to understand that it was only 72 hours later, approximately, that the president in Camp David during a national security meeting made the decision, took the information that the Dick Clarkes of the world and the CIA and the FBI, all of them as he said had this information. Well, it was provided to the president, and the president made a very clear decision that the focus of the campaign was going to be on al-Qaida and it was going to be in Afghanistan. You did not hear the president saying that 9/11 was directly linked to Iraq, he's never made that point. The point he has made is that 9/11 had to change the way we conducted foreign policy in America. What it means is we can no longer wait and hope and think that oceans protect us, that we need to confront threats before they fully materialize. And that's why he brought the case to the international community about enforcing demands of the world to remove Saddam Hussein from power if he doesn't elimination his programs of mass destruction. So he is trying to combine those two things and the president was very clear and his efforts in Afghanistan were very successful.


    White House communications director Dan Bartlett, thank for being with us.


    Thanks, Ray.

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