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richard clarke

photo of Richard Clarke

A counterterrorism expert, Richard Clarke was a member of the White House National Security Council in both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and is the author of Against all Enemies, an insider account of the Bush administration's policy-making in the war on terror. As an intelligence analyst in his early career, and later, a high-level policy maker, Clarke offers insights into the interplay between the two worlds and shares some thoughts on the heated intelligence wars during the lead-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 23, 2006.

It's the early period of the Bush administration. I believe the first NSC [National Security Council] meeting is about Iraq at the time. Tell me about that Iraq preoccupation.

Well, I think the Bush administration people, when they had been in government eight years earlier, they were working on Iraq and on the Soviet Union and arms control. It was as though they had taken up where they left off. They wanted immediately to talk about Iraq again and about Russia now, and arms control.

Did you have the sense from the vice president [Dick Cheney] at that first meeting what his politics were? He populated a lot of the government horizontally -- not only with [then-counsel to Cheney and current Chief of Staff David] Addington and [then-Cheney Chief of Staff Lewis "Scooter"] Libby, but [then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz, [then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas] Feith, others.

The vice president populated the national security establishment to the extent he could with the people who had worked with him in the Pentagon during the first Bush administration. ... It's pretty normal practice; I think anybody would do it. You turn to the people who used to work with you, and who had worked well with you, when you had the job before.

Many of those people share a kind of worldview that comes to be known as neoconservatism. Would you assume that the vice president shared those politics as well?

It was clear that Dick Cheney, in the Bush 41 administration, was preoccupied with Iraq because we were fighting a war which we should have been fighting. It was a good war, justified war.

I worked with him closely. Two days or three days after Kuwait was invaded, the administration decided to send then-Secretary of Defense Cheney off to Saudi Arabia to see if we could persuade the Saudis to deploy troops there. ... I was the senior State Department person on that delegation. He seemed to me admirably in control of details, not flappable, very persuasive. I worked with him throughout that war, and I admired him.

Was it different by the time he came back into power in a new Bush administration?

He didn't seem at all different during the first several months of the administration. In fact, this idea that Dick Cheney has changed from the Bush 41 administration to the current administration I think really dates from around 9/11.

��you have this wiring diagram that we all know of about national security. But now there's a new line on it; a line from the vice president directly to the secretary of defense, and it's as though there's a private line between those two.

That spring period of '01, there is that meeting where everybody's talking about Iraq, and my memory of things as I've read it is at this meeting, Wolfowitz talks about Laurie Mylroie, [author of Study of Revenge: The First World Trade Center Attack and Saddam Hussein's War Against America].

That's right. By the time we'd eventually had a meeting on terrorism, in the late February, early March timeframe -- I don't think the vice president was at it, but Paul Wolfowitz was representing the Defense Department, and Wolfowitz started saying, "Well, if you want to talk about terrorism, fine; let's talk about Iraq, not Al Qaeda," to which my reaction was, "Why Iraq?" Iraq, as far as we know, has absolutely nothing to do with terrorism directed against the United States, and hasn't since late 1992, early 1993.

This is the time when Wolfowitz spouted that "All of what you say is Al Qaeda must actually be state-sponsored, because no terrorist organization could do that without a nation helping them. And the nation must be Iraq, and we know this from reading the writings of this woman, Laurie Mylroie," whom we had known about and checked out several times. She kept writing things that essentially said Iraq was behind the 1993 attempt to blow up the World Trade Center. Despite all of the facts being the opposite, she continued to say this.

Here was the number two person in the Pentagon saying that he agreed with her and disagreed with CIA, with FBI, disagreed with all the massive evidence that Al Qaeda had attacked the World Trade Center in '93, not Iraq. Why anybody as sophisticated as a Wolfowitz or the others would attach themselves to that sort of stuff, I didn't know.

The vice president, after you brief him, does a fairly unusual thing of going over to the Central Intelligence Agency and receiving a briefing on the matter.

I encouraged him to go out to CIA and get the briefing on terrorism so that he would know this isn't just me; this is the entire intelligence community that believes Al Qaeda is an imminent threat. He did go out, and received essentially the same briefing from them that he had received from me.

How would you describe the manner in which he exercises power?

I thought his style was always very quiet. He never seemed to lose his temper; he never seemed to be really angry; he was always very even-tempered -- prior to 9/11. After 9/11, I think the record speaks for itself: He does not deal with things deftly; he is no longer persuasive. He, in fact, gets to be something of a caricature. ....

One of the things some people seemed happy about was that Cheney was elected with George W. Bush -- a grownup was there and potentially in charge. Was 9/11 such a moment?

I thought so. I thought, here was a man who knew how the Pentagon worked and knew what we had to do with it that day. There are lots of other people who I've worked with who would have gotten very agitated that day, and they would have been running around, sweating, screaming, yelling. He wasn't. He was very firm, calm, cool, making decisions clearly.

And [then-National Security Adviser] Ms. [Condoleezza] Rice?

The same. Very early on when I said to her, "Do you want to run this crisis group?," she said: "No, that's your job. You've been trained to do it; you've done it before. This should not be the place where you break in a new crisis manager. You do it. I'll stay with the vice president."

Tell me the story about the post-Gulf War discovery and the vice president --

During the course of the first Gulf War, one of the things I did at the request of the secretary of state [James Baker] was to plan for what became the U.N. Special Commission that would go into Iraq after the war and look for weapons of mass destruction. In the first few months of that commission, it was filled with American and British special forces and intelligence officers dressed up in civilian clothes and carrying the U.N. flag.

One of the early operations we planned was a raid on what was the Agricultural Ministry but we had reason to believe was actually something else. And it was a surprise. We went there, broke down doors, blew off locks, got into the sanctum sanctorum. The Iraqis immediately reacted, surrounded the facility and prevented the U.N. inspectors from getting out.

We thought that might happen, too, so we had given them satellite telephones. They translated the nuclear reports on site into English from the Arabic and read them to us over the satellite telephones. My secretary stayed up all night transcribing these reports from Baghdad. What they said, very clearly, was there was a massive nuclear weapons development program that was probably nine to 18 months away from having its first nuclear weapons detonation and that CIA had totally missed it; we had bombed everything we could bomb in Iraq, but missed an enormous nuclear weapons development facility. Didn't know it was there; never dropped one bomb on it.

We prepared this report so that when the secretary of defense [Cheney] and the secretary of state arrived in the morning, it was on their desk. I know that Dick Cheney that morning looked at that report and said, "Here's what the Iraqis themselves are saying: that there's this huge facility that was never hit during the war; that they were very close to making a nuclear bomb, and CIA didn't know it." I'm sure he said to himself, "I can never trust CIA again to tell me when a country is about to make a nuclear bomb."

So he's probably carrying that bone in his throat for eight years out of government.

There's no doubt that the Dick Cheney who comes back into office nine years later has that as one of the things burnt into his memory: that Iraq wants a nuclear weapon; Iraq was that close to getting a nuclear weapon; and CIA hadn't a clue.

The CIA under [former Director George] Tenet, was it a better place? Did you see him more often then? Did you know him previously at NSC?

I talked to George Tenet when he was at the White House and when he was CIA deputy director and when he was CIA director. I talked to him about every day. Everyone liked George Tenet, and he managed to do something that no one had done before, which was to really improve the morale of CIA. He went out there to run an organization that [Clinton's Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright compared to a battered child. It had just been smacked around by the Congress and by past administrations, and directors had come and gone with great regularity, and they were not feeling loved. They didn't have a lot of self-respect as an organization.

Instead of going out there and battering them around some more, he went out there and gave them a big hug. You can argue about whether or not that was the right thing to do; I think in retrospect it might have been right to clean out some dead wood and give what was left a big hug. But in any event, Tenet greatly improved the morale.

What was the nature of the Bush-Tenet relationship on an interpersonal level? ...

George Tenet is a remarkably likable fellow and can figure somebody out very quickly, and figure out how to interact with them so as to have personal rapport. He did that with President Bush right away, and I think they established a personal rapport.

Did Tenet get it about Al Qaeda? Did you ever brief him about it?

I didn't have to brief Tenet about Al Qaeda; Tenet totally understood the nature of the Al Qaeda threat. In fact, what we would do frequently is talk about how Tenet could use his morning meetings with the president to convince the president that there was a big Al Qaeda threat. George Bush was briefed 40 or 50 times in the first nine months of his administration, in those morning briefings, about Al Qaeda.

On that Saturday after 9/11, the meeting at Camp David, it's not a big surprise that we're going for Afghanistan. Are you at that meeting?

I'm not at that meeting, but there were lots of meetings in the White House during those days leading up to Camp David. And the whole issue of "Are we going after Iraq, or are we going after Afghanistan?" was discussed and fairly well worked out before the Camp David meeting. The way it was worked out was to say: "We're going after Afghanistan. That's where the attack came from; that's where Al Qaeda is. No one will understand if we don't go after Al Qaeda, so we're going after Afghanistan. And we're leaving open the issue, for later discussion, about what to do with Iraq."

Sunday the 16th [of September], the vice president goes on NBC's Meet the Press show and says: "Americans need to understand we're going to the dark side. There's going to be things they don't know about, or don't want to know about, but trust me, we're going there." When you hear it, what do you think he's talking about?

The problem that they were grappling with was, they thought the American people wanted to go to war because we'd been attacked. And you want, therefore, to see U.S. troops marching and taking things over -- something like a World War II response to Pearl Harbor. And yet the enemy is not a country; the enemy is a shadowy terrorist network.

The president starts saying things like: "This is a different kind of war. You're not going to see our victories. Our victories are going to occur in dark alleys as our intelligence forces and law enforcement forces go after this threat."

That's, I think, what Cheney is talking about in that interview, when he talks about the "dark side." What he's really saying is the dark corners of the world where terrorists hang out. That's where this war is going to be fought, because it's a different kind of war.

At the Counterterroris[t] Center [CTC] at the CIA, [then-Director] Cofer Black and all are ready to go. After 9/11, this is their moment. What are the things they were thinking they could now do?

Most of it had already been authorized or had already been done, or was waiting in that package that had been written prior to 9/11, waiting to go to the president. We had a plan. Most of what was done was in that plan, so no one really had to come up with a lot of new ideas after 9/11 about what to do.

How long did you think Afghanistan was going to take, breaking up the Taliban and getting [Osama] bin Laden? Did you think it would be easy?

I thought it would be relatively easy. I was surprised that it took us so long to get troops on the ground. We inserted some small numbers of special forces very early on, but regular U.S. military units, infantry units, Marine units took about seven or eight weeks to get there, and then didn't go after bin Laden. It was as though they got the order "Take Afghanistan," and therefore they thought, well, you take Afghanistan by going after the government and the capital, and the capital is Kabul, and the government is over here. That wasn't what we were supposed to be doing. We were supposed to be going after the terrorists first, but somehow that got lost in the transition from the White House to the Pentagon to Central Command [CENTCOM].

Unlike in previous administrations, where people like me at the White House or State Department would see the war plan in great detail before it happened and say, "Wait a minute, this isn't right!" -- I got to do that a lot in the State Department and in the White House in earlier administrations -- this was given to Rumsfeld, Rumsfeld gave it to CENTCOM, and there was very little opportunity for any people, experts in the White House or in the State Department, to say, "Wait a minute; you've got that wrong."

We've talked to [former CIA agent] Gary Schroen and others who ran the CIA side of the war in Afghanistan. They were the first guys on the ground, and they believed they were chasing bin Laden up into Tora Bora. Their level of frustration was ... they didn't seem to be able to get [CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy] Franks' attention for what was necessary. What happened?

The president and Gen. Franks have been very sensitive about this criticism that they let bin Laden escape at Tora Bora. Sometimes they've said, "We don't really know if he was there or not," and "We did all the right things, and this is Monday morning quarterbacking."

That's all wrong. We knew from day one the likely places that bin Laden would flee to. There had been lots of work done before 9/11 on where did he hang out, statistical analysis even. We knew Tora Bora was the place where he would be likely to go. People in CIA knew that; people in the counterterrorism community knew about it. We knew that what you should have done was to insert special forces -- Rangers, that sort of thing -- up into that area as soon as possible.

And yes, we know he absolutely was there. He may have been wounded by a fragment of an American bomb that was dropped up there. And yes, he did escape. And Gen. Franks and the president can deny it until the cows come home, but they made a mistake. They did let him go away.

They let him go? They blew it?

They ignored the advice of the experts in CIA, both in CIA headquarters and on the ground. They didn't allow anyone into the decision-making chamber other than the president and vice president, secretary of defense, and Gen. Franks.

... We could all feel it slipping away as week after week after week went by and the U.S. had no military units on the ground, except a few special forces.

What were you able to do? Were you making phone calls?

Nothing. Couldn't do a thing. No one on the NSC staff was allowed to get involved in any way in this war plan or war execution, because Cheney, who had been secretary of defense -- and presumably didn't like other people telling him what to do when he was secretary of defense -- and Rumsfeld had this very clear view from day one that he was running the Pentagon. He wanted a moat up around it. If the State Department or the White House wanted to talk, they'd talk to him, and he would tell them to go away.

I know from talking to people in the room that when Tenet was offering the CIA's plan in the first few days that you were privy to, Rumsfeld would have looked at [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hugh] Shelton and said, "General, what do we have?" And Shelton says, "Six months -- we've got big problems; it's going to take us a long time to insert, and we want to be able to extract if necessary." So how much of this is just plain old-fashioned bureaucratic firefighting?

Part of it is that Gen. Franks and his command never wanted to go into Afghanistan, and it wasn't just under Gen. Franks, but under his predecessors as well. I mean, Bill Clinton had taken the previous chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Hugh Shelton, aside and said to him, in my earshot, "I think we ought to have U.S. commandos go into Afghanistan, U.S. military units, black ninjas jumping out of helicopters, and go after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan." And Shelton said: "Whoa! I don't think we can do that. I'll talk to Central Command." And of course Central Command came back and said, "Oh no, that's too difficult."

So there was no plan in the safe drawer at Central Command, no plan that they could pull out and say, "Well, just do this; we've planned it; let's go into Afghanistan." There was a plan to go into Iran; there was a plan to go into Iraq; there was a plan, probably, to go into Canada and Mexico. But there was no plan to go into Afghanistan.

At what moment do you know that the war on terror is about to take a turn to Baghdad?

I think we knew prior to 9/11 that there was serious interest in having something happen with Iraq. People would joke around the water cooler in the West Wing Situation Room, that "We're flying all these planes over Iraq every day, blowing up their radar sites. Maybe ... they'll shoot one down, and that will give us the provocation we need to do war."

Beginning on the night of 9/11, we have the secretary of defense and others talking about going to war with Iraq. I think we knew pretty much that week that the probability of finding a justification for going to war with Iraq was high on their agenda.

The president, in fact, talks to you about it.

Well, the president wandered into the Situation Room, totally unscheduled, just to say, "Hi. Keep it up! Good work!"-- raise everybody's morale. [He] saw me and dragged me and a few others into the conference room and started talking about Iraq, and having me go through all the evidence that we had piled up from the weeks and months before to see if there was a connection between what had happened on 9/11 and Iraq.

And he said: "Saddam! Saddam! See if there's a connection to Saddam!" And this wasn't "See if there's a connection with Iran, and while you're at it, do Iraq, and while you're at it, do the Palestinian Islamic group." It wasn't "Do due diligence." It wasn't "Have an exhaustive review." It was "Saddam, Saddam." I read that pretty clearly, that that was the answer he wanted.

I said to him, "We have already done that research prior to the attack" -- in fact, we'd done it a couple of times -- "and there's nothing there." And the facial expression back was, "That wasn't the right answer."

So I said, "Well, but we will do it again." And we asked CIA to do it again. CIA did it again, came up with the same answer. That answer was written up and handed to the president by George Tenet in one of his morning meetings, and it said, "For the third or fourth time, we've gone back to look at the relationship between Al Qaeda and Iraq, and there is no real cooperation between those two."

In that whole year of 2002, while you're over heading up the cyberwar section, the administration is building a public case for "Let's go to war." They had Feith preparing information independent of the Central Intelligence Agency; the CIA is doing plans leading up to the fall NIE [National Intelligence Estimate]. In the process, the vice president is at least a half a dozen times going to visit the CIA. In previous years, you yourself helped devise policy for a while. Are there some frustrations that comes from receiving information from the Central Intelligence Agency at times?

I think the CIA's intelligence analysis product, for the last 10 or 15 years, has been really quite poor. They have missed many things; they have, in some cases, very young, very inexperienced analysts. The management rigor hasn't been as tight as it should be. It wasn't just the vice president who felt he needed to go out there and say: "Are you really working this hard? Are you really doing this the right way? Are you really being thorough and open-minded and professional about this?" I felt that way; a lot of people felt that way.

So when the vice president goes out to Langley, what's he looking for? What are the kinds of exchanges that happen when someone from the White House goes and sits down with CIA analysts?

First of all, he meets the managers at the mid- and low level who are working on Iraq; he meets the analysts who are actually writing the daily reports. I think he wants to know who they are: Are they well trained? Do they have enough resources? Or are they close-minded? Have they already formed a view that causes them to have blinders on, as was probably the case in '91, when they didn't see the Iraqi nuclear program?

He has a series of what we call "raw intelligence reports." That's what the spies or the informants are actually saying. People in the White House get those; they're somewhat filtered. He would say, "Well, how come you don't conclude X when there's this report that says Y?" Now, frequently, the answer was, "Well, Mr. Vice President, if you look at the source for that report, it's someone who we can't trust and can't believe, because they have a history of making things up."

Now, that's not on the report. All the vice president has is "A source" -- and he doesn't know who it is -- briefly described, "says the following." Now, if that were a true and accurate report, the CIA's analysis should be saying something different. He wants to know why there's this difference, and he's told: "Well, because those aren't good reports. Just because it says CIA on the letterhead, just because it says a source told us, that doesn't make it true."

Now, there's a standard desire in the analytical community in the intelligence world not to let policy-makers ever see raw intelligence, because it takes a lot of experience to be able to understand, when you see one intelligence report, when it's right and when it's wrong. You have to see it within the context of all the other relevant reports, and you have to be able to know something about the source. That takes a lot of work and, in some cases, years of experience.

The vice president's visits to CIA headquarters occur around the time when a kind of propaganda war is being mounted -- [9/11 hijacker] Mohamed Atta's alleged meetings with Iraqis, the Niger yellowcake story. What kind of effect, then, might the Cheney visits to Langley have on CIA personnel?

There's a point at which multiple visits by a senior official from the White House -- when he's telling you what he believes over and over and over again, and he's not dissuaded by the evidence that you have to the contrary, and [it's] coming in the context of a public discussion about Iraq -- there's a point at which [it] crosses the line. And you, as an intelligence analyst at CIA, are now thinking, they want me to say X. Whether or not it's true, they want me to say X.

Now, does anyone ever take the analyst aside and say, "To hell with the truth -- write this"? No. It's a little bit more subtle than that, but not a lot more subtle than that.

I remember vividly, in the driveway outside of the West Wing, Scooter Libby, from the vice president's office, grabbing me and saying, "I hear you don't believe this report that Mohamed Atta was talking to Iraqi people in Prague." I said, "I don't believe it because it's not true." And he said: "You're wrong. You know you're wrong. Go back and find out; look at the rest of the reports, and find out that you're wrong." I understood what he was saying, which was: "This is a report that we want to believe, and stop saying it's not true. It's a real problem for the vice president's office that you, the counterterrorism coordinator, are walking around saying that this isn't a true report. Shut up!" That's what I was being told.

I'm somebody who has been in Washington national security for 30 years. I'm not easily intimidated. Imagine if you're an analyst at the CIA who's been there for four or five years.

When somebody like [former CIA analyst] Paul Pillar writes a "white paper," which he's not very proud of now, or manages the writing of an NIE that is filled with error, what does that tell you about the kind of pressure that can be driving things? He's also done 30 years in the intelligence world.

After a while you understand, if you're an intelligence analyst, that unless your boss is coming to you and saying, "I will give you cover. You tell the truth. Ignore what they want you to say. Give me your professional judgment. Document it, prove it, but give me your professional judgment," if that's not happening, you're going to go with the flow.

In the Reagan administration, I worked running an intelligence analysis group at the State Department, and we wrote things about the [Nicaraguan] contras and other administration policies that people didn't like. We were clearly out of step with what the White House wanted. But I had my boss, the assistant secretary for intelligence, saying: "Don't worry about the politics. I'll cover you. You give me the truth, and we'll publish it." I don't think that happened down there in the CIA.

In the end, of course, it all comes to [then-Secretary of State Colin] Powell to deliver.

Powell gets a speech, written by Scooter Libby, sent to him, and he's told, "This is the kind of speech we would like you to give at the U.N." Very strange for the vice president's senior adviser to be writing the speech and saying to the secretary of state, "This is what you should be saying." That speech should have been written by the State Department staff.

But in any event, Powell takes the speech and goes to CIA and goes through line by line, not just with the senior people, but with the analysts, and line by line says: "All right, so the speech says X. How do we know that? What's the proof for that?"

Well, in some cases, he's told things like, "Well, German intelligence provided us that report." And he stops at that point and says, "OK, fine, let's go on to the next line," instead of saying, "German intelligence told us that, but how the hell do they know? Who is their source? What do we know about their source?" Had he done that, he would have learned that the report was probably wrong.

But it's asking a great deal, I think, for the secretary of state to have to go out there and ask that level of detail. And it's also this problem of, "I'm sorry you're not asking the right question, so I won't give you the answer." When he says, "How do we know that?," and they say, "It's German intelligence," and that's all they say, CIA should have come back to him and said, "It's a German intelligence report, but this is the source, and this is what we know about the source." They didn't.

So Powell tried to do due diligence, but he wasn't given all the facts.

In the end, the CIA gets blamed, and everybody points the finger at the administration ... on the weapons-of-mass-destruction mistake. Your attitude toward that?

I think if George Tenet were free to say, or felt free to say, everything about his experience in this administration, he would say that he was very mad that he was hung out to dry for some of the analytical mistakes that were made.

Yes, the intelligence community made mistakes in erring in the direction of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. But the president, the vice president, the national security adviser, they went a lot further in their public remarks than the intelligence analysis had gone.

There's nowhere in the intelligence analysis that says there's imminent threat and that we have to do something right away. Yet the president, the vice president, the national security adviser all tell the public, tell the Congress: "Got to act right away! Something's about to happen!"

The agency that you knew for your entire career clearly no longer resembles, I gather, even faintly, the agency that you once knew.

Well, I'm not sure that the agency that I worked with was all that great. I'm not sure that breaking up the old-boy networks and changing the way things were done at the agency was necessarily a bad idea. But throwing out the old-line management without replacing it with something better was a bad idea. I think they've thrown the baby out with the bathwater in terms of getting rid of the managers of the operations division, and they haven't really replaced them with anybody else who's experienced in the job.

When you say, "We have to double the number of intelligence analysts; we have to double the number of spies that we have," it sounds good until you think about it. We're doubling the number of operators of spies that we have around the world. Well, that means we have to go out and find a lot of people -- a lot of people -- who have never done this stuff and quickly run them through a training mill and throw them out around the world and tell them to go do spy work. That's just going to result in a lot of people bumbling around, not knowing what they're doing, because they're new, young; their bosses are new and young; and we have a lot of them.

I think it was [CIA bin Laden Desk Chief] Michael Scheuer who told us they were going to whack Osama bin Laden, and he says, "We were ready; we had them; we had Afghans on the side of the mountain, and the White House stopped it." It seems he's essentially saying it's politics, politics, politics.

Yeah. What frequently happens in my experience is people come to the White House from CIA or the Pentagon, senior people, for a crisis meeting, and a decision is made not to do something. Then they go back to the Pentagon, or they go back to the CIA, and they say, "Those folks at the White House made the decision" not to do something, rather than admitting to their own troops that when they got to the White House, their advice was "Don't do it."

I've seen this happen time and time again, where military officers go back to the Pentagon and say, "Oh, those politicians at the White House wouldn't let us use force." That trickles all the way down to the guys on the field, and they're all mad at the White House, when it was actually the general sitting at the table in the White House who said, "Oh, I don't think we ought to do this."

In the case of CIA, it's the same story. On three occasions, CIA, working-level people, thought they knew where bin Laden was, and at the White House's insistence, there were cruise missiles at the ready in submarines underwater off the coast of Pakistan, because the White House wanted to be in the situation where we could get information where bin Laden was and launch cruise missiles.

On those three occasions, I asked for high-level meetings in the White House, and the director of CIA, on those three occasions, came to those high-level meetings and recommended that we do nothing. The word gets back to folks in CIA that "Those politicians in the White House decided to do nothing."

So this would be Tenet.

George Tenet, on three occasions, came to the White House -- and he's admitted this in testimony -- and looked at the evidence about where bin Laden allegedly was at the time, and we have cruise missiles ready to fly, and on all three occasions [he] said that the evidence didn't justify launching the cruise missiles.

And do you remember this specific case?

I remember every one of them. But it was a location that was not a bin Laden camp, according to George Tenet; it was a visiting group of people from Dubai who go there all the time to falcon hunt. And it was Winnebagos and C-130s and satellite dishes -- very fancy little camp. It wasn't a guerrilla camp; it wasn't an Al Qaeda camp. And the director of CIA said -- appropriately, I think -- "Don't bomb that camp; it's not an Al Qaeda camp."

... But the reason they were out there in the first place looking for bin Laden is that we in the White House had gotten the president to sign an order that they could go in -- over the objections, by the way, of CIA leadership. We're on their case daily: "Where is bin Laden? What do we know about it? How many assets do you have in there trying to find him? We need to do more." Massive pressure from the president, the national security adviser and me. That's why they're out there in the first place, looking to find him.

Then on the three occasions when they said they knew where he was, the director of central intelligence and other senior leaders of the CIA said, "Don't fire." Then the rumor gets around in the CIA, "It was the politicians at the White House who said, 'Don't fire.'"

Why would George Tenet and others not do it?

I think on one occasion there was a hospital across the street, and they were afraid of collateral damage. On one occasion it looked like it was visiting people from Dubai; it turned out it was. But on all these occasions, they only had one chain of reporting, what George Tenet told us was "single-threaded reporting," meaning you could be wrong.

Remember, they had been wrong and blown up a Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia. They may have been wrong -- although I don't think so -- about a chemical plant in Sudan which we blew up. They were very careful; they wanted not to be wrong. So they erred on the side of "We don't know enough to pull the trigger."

That's why we insisted on having a Predator [unmanned aircraft] operation, because we said: "Look, if you're afraid of telling us to fire the trigger because you've only got single-threaded reporting from humans, we have the Predator up there. We're going to be able to sit in the Situation Room and see for ourselves what the evidence is." That's why we initiated the Predator program, again over CIA objections.

What is your point of view on this DoD [Policy] Counterterrorism Evaluation Group [PCTEG, headed by Doug Feith]? What's important to understand about it?

I think the secretary of defense, the undersecretary, the deputy secretary wanted to have a staff of people who were looking at all the raw intelligence information, including the open-source information from dissidents and others, trying to make the counter case to CIA's. So they go back to a phenomenon in the Reagan administration called Team B, where there was a dispute about whether or not CIA was doing a good job estimating the Soviet threat. Because they believed that CIA was underestimating the Soviet threat, as an analytical technique they created Team B, a bunch of people who would try, almost as in a debate, to make the other side, to make the other case. Team B made a case that the Soviet Union was much more of a military threat than it turned out to be.

What they were doing with Iraq, with Doug Feith's office, was in effect a Team B -- getting all the information from wherever you could get it and making the best case possible that Iraq was a big threat. Now, the problem is, they weren't an intelligence office. They were not subject to oversight by the intelligence committees; they were not subject to oversight by the director of CIA. They were doing intelligence analysis, but they weren't legally an intelligence analytical office. And they had already decided on the conclusion, and what they were doing was trying to find the evidence to support it.

We talked about how the vice president is different after 9/11. Is there something specific to how he is? How is he changed afterward?

Well, immediately after 9/11, we began worrying about the decapitation of the American government, because if the airplane had hit the White House that day, and if the president had been in the White House that day, and the vice president was 20 feet away from him in his normal office, we could have had the decapitated government.

We began saying, "That must be their intention, and therefore we need to get the vice president out, put him somewhere else," and have advisers and a government ready to pick up if Al Qaeda comes back and succeeds. And the vice president, very willingly, said he would do that, so he was frequently at the "undisclosed location."

Now, frankly, sitting around in an "undisclosed location" sharpens your instincts and focuses your mind. It's not just another day at the office. You become aware that this is different; this is raw; that this is the extreme end of what could happen.

I think the vice president felt he kind of looked death in the eye on 9/11. Three thousand Americans died. A building that the vice president used to work in blew up, and people died there. A plane that crashed in Pennsylvania could have hit the White House, could have killed him and me and everybody else who was in the White House. This was a cold slap in the face: This is a different world you're living in, and the enemy's still out there, and the enemy could come after you. That does cause you to think [about] things differently.

You've spent your life worrying about states. You get that there's an Al Qaeda, but you really believe, probably deep in your soul, that everything bad, including what was happening with terrorism in the '70s, is roughly state-sponsored in some way. So I suppose we could understand the fixation on Iraq by the vice president and others?

I can understand it. I think he's wrong. I think he didn't catch his breath after 9/11; that he got into this extreme way of thinking about the world, a stark way of thinking about the world. We all were there in the days after 9/11. I don't think the vice president ever came back, caught his breath and got perspective.

Was Rice's leadership at NSC dysfunctional?

I think National Security Adviser Rice had a view about what the national security adviser should do and not do. She had a view that was a lot more like that of Brent Scowcroft, [national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush], who was, after all, her mentor, which is not an activist national security adviser, not someone who looks over the shoulder of the secretary of state and the secretary of defense and tells them what to do; someone who runs a fair process, where everybody can say what they want, and then she goes off and advises the president in private.

Now, you can argue as to whether or not that's the right model. There's another model which is much more "hand on the tiller" -- providing direction, being activist, micromanaging perhaps. Which one is right, which one is wrong, you can argue that. But Dr. Rice had a view of a particular model of the NSC, and she stuck to it.

The Rumsfeld-Cheney relationship -- help me understand it.

The Rumsfeld-Cheney relationship made it very difficult, I think, for the national security adviser, because for one thing, the vice president was sitting in meetings where vice presidents had never been before. So here's the national security adviser, Dr. Rice, who should be the most senior person in the room, chairing the meeting -- and she is chairing the meeting, but sitting right there is the vice president of the United States at the table, inches away, who is more senior than she is. That was difficult.

Then you combine the fact that the vice president is really personally close to the secretary of defense; that they've been working together, playing together for decades. And you have a secretary of defense ignoring the national security adviser -- not taking advice, not taking suggestions, because he talks to the White House at a higher level. That made it difficult for Dr. Rice, too.

And the effect of all of this?

I think the effect of all of this is that you have this wiring diagram that we all know of about national security. But now there's a new line on it; there's a line from the vice president directly to the secretary of defense, and it's as though there's a private line between those two. The secretary of defense, therefore, is insulated. He's given broad instructions: "You go out and solve this problem, and we'll cover you. Don't worry; the national security adviser is not going to micromanage you. Secretary of state's not going to get in your knickers. You're in charge; go take care of it."

And the director of central intelligence? Where does he fall in that circle?

[He] is regarded pretty much as an employee in that circle. He's fine as long as he doesn't say something that is not consistent with what they want to do. He's fine as long as he doesn't try to fight the secretary of defense over the assets that they jointly manage. When he tries to take on the secretary of defense, he's out of line.

And even with his personal relationship with the president, he doesn't have juice in that way?

I think the personal relationship with the president that George Tenet had is still that of an employee. It doesn't begin to touch the decades of working together that Cheney and Rumsfeld had.

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posted june 20, 2006

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