[an error occurred while processing this directive]

 

Richard Clarke Terrorizes the White House

By Joe Conason

In a provocative Salon interview, the former terrorism czar fires back at the Bush administration, blasting its "big lie" strategy and "attack dog" Dick Cheney.

 

After more than 30 years of dedicated service, including stints as the National Security Council's counterterrorism chief under Presidents Clinton and Bush, Richard A. Clarke has delivered a scathing assessment of Bush administration policy and personnel in his new memoir, "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror." Clarke portrays the president and his top aides as arrogant, insular and uninformed about the changed world they faced when they entered the White House in January 2001. They did little about the growing peril from al-Qaida, despite urgent briefings from the outgoing Clinton national security team, and remained willfully ignorant despite repeated, even obsessive warnings from Clarke and CIA director George Tenet.

For almost nine months, according to Clarke, he sought approval from top Bush officials for an aggressive strategy against Osama bin Laden. Clarke writes that he could not convince National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to schedule meetings to advance an action plan against al-Qaida. Instead, George W. Bush and his most powerful officials -- Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz -- pursued an obsession with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. When the Sept. 11 attacks took place, their first instinct was to bomb Iraq -- even though Clarke and other experts had long assured them that there was no intelligence connecting Iraq to any recent acts of terrorism against the United States. On Sept. 12, Bush pulled Clarke aside to demand that he search for evidence of Saddam's involvement, which never existed.

Since Clarke's debut on CBS's "60 Minutes" on Sunday, administration officials have been bombarding him with personal calumny and abuse. They have called him an embittered job-seeker, a publicity-seeking author, a fabricator, a Democratic partisan and, perhaps worst of all, a friend of a friend of John Kerry. On Tuesday Bush himself responded to Clarke's charges, insisting "had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on 9/11, we would have acted."

Clarke, an expert on surprise attacks, is not shocked by the ferocity of the White House response. During an interview with Salon on Tuesday, March 23, on the eve of his scheduled public testimony before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission), Clarke blasted Cheney as an "attack dog" and described the administration's attacks on his credibility as another example of the "big lie" strategy it has pursued since winning the White House. While he is critical of all four of the presidents he served, Clarke draws sharp contrasts between the records of the Clinton and Bush administrations. He compares Clinton's understanding of terrorism as the most significant threat to U.S. and international security and his efforts to combat it to the neglect and illusions of Bush.

You said on "60 Minutes" that you expected "their dogs" to be set on you when your book was published, but did you think that the attacks would be so personal?

Oh yeah, absolutely, for two reasons. For one, the Bush White House assumes that everyone who works for them is part of a personal loyalty network, rather than part of the government. And that their first loyalty is to Bush rather than to the people. When you cross that line or violate that trust, they get very upset. That's the first reason. But the second reason is that I think they're trying to bait me -- and people who agree with me -- into talking about all the trivial little things that they are raising, rather than talking about the big issues in the book.

Why did you write the book now? That's a question they raise. Did it occur to you that this would be an election year and it would be especially controversial because of that, and that these commission hearings were coming up?

I wanted the book to come out much earlier, but the White House has a policy of reviewing the text of all books written by former White House personnel -- to review them for security reasons. And they actually took a very long time to do that. This book could have come out much earlier. It's the White House that decided when it would be published, not me. I turned it in toward the end of last year, and even though there was nothing in it that was not already obviously unclassified, they took a very, very long time.

Were you seeking to make a political impact, in the way that the White House spokesmen have accused you of trying to do?

I was seeking to create a debate about how we should have, in the past, and how we should, in the future, deal with the war on terrorism. When they say it's an election year, and therefore you're creating not just a debate but a political debate, what are they suggesting? That I should have waited until November to publish it, waited until after the election? I don't see why we have to delay that debate, just because there's an election.

Vice President Cheney told Rush Limbaugh that you were not "in the loop," and that you're angry because you were passed over by Condi Rice for greater authority. And in fact you were dropped from Cabinet-level position to something less than that. How do you respond to what the Vice President said?

The vice president is becoming an attack dog, on a personal level, which should be beneath him but evidently is not.

I was in the same meetings that Dick Cheney was in, during the days after 9/11. Condi Rice and Dick Cheney appointed me as co-chairman of the interagency committee called the "Campaign Committee" -- the "campaign" being the war on terrorism. So I was co-chairing the interagency process to fight the war on terrorism after 9/11. I don't think I was "out of the loop."

The vice president commented that there was "no great success in dealing with terrorists" during the 1990s, when you were serving under President Clinton. He asked, "What were they doing?"

It's possible that the vice president has spent so little time studying the terrorist phenomenon that he doesn't know about the successes in the 1990s. There were many. The Clinton administration stopped Iraqi terrorism against the United States, through military intervention. It stopped Iranian terrorism against the United States, through covert action. It stopped the al-Qaida attempt to have a dominant influence in Bosnia. It stopped the terrorist attacks at the millennium. It stopped many other terrorist attacks, including on the U.S. embassy in Albania. And it began a lethal covert action program against al-Qaida; it also launched military strikes against al-Qaida. Maybe the vice president was so busy running Halliburton at the time that he didn't notice.

Did Cheney ever ask you a question of that kind when you were in the White House with him?

No.

Why did they keep you on, if they were so uninterested in what you were focused on? And then why did they downgrade your position?

They said, in so many words, at the time, that they didn't have anyone in their Republican coterie of people that came in with Bush, who had an expertise in this [counterterrorism] area [and] who wanted the job. And they actually said they found the job a little strange -- since it wasn't there when they had been in power before.

Dr. Rice said that.

Yes, Dr. Rice said that. And the first thing they asked was for me to look at taking some of the responsibilities, with regard to domestic security and cyber-security, and spinning them off so that they were no longer part of the National Security Council.

Why do you think Cheney -- and the Bush administration in general -- ignored the warnings that were put to them by [former national security advisor] Sandy Berger, by you, by George Tenet, who is apparently somebody they hold in great esteem?

They had a preconceived set of national security priorities: Star Wars, Iraq, Russia. And they were not going to change those preconceived notions based on people from the Clinton administration telling them that was the wrong set of priorities. They also looked at the statistics and saw that during eight years of the Clinton administration, al-Qaida killed fewer than 50 Americans. And that's relatively few, compared to the 300 dead during the Reagan administration at the hands of terrorists in Beirut -- and by the way, there was no military retaliation for that from Reagan. It was relatively few compared to the 259 dead on Pan Am 103 in the first Bush administration, and there was no military retaliation for that. So looking at the low number of American fatalities at the hands of al-Qaida, they might have thought that it wasn't a big threat.

Dr. Rice now says that your plans to "roll back" al-Qaida were not aggressive enough for the Bush administration. How do you answer that, in light of what we know about what they did and didn't do?

I just think it's funny that they can engage in this sort of "big lie" approach to things. The plan that they adopted after Sept. 11 was the plan that I had proposed in January [2001]. If my plan wasn't aggressive enough, I suppose theirs wasn't either.

Is it true that you're a registered Republican, as someone told me yesterday?

Well, I vote in Virginia, and you can't register as a Republican or a Democrat in Virginia. The only way that anybody ever knows your party affiliation in Virginia is when you vote in a primary, because you have to ask for either a Republican or a Democratic ballot. And in the year 2000, I voted in the Republican presidential primary. That's the only record in the state of Virginia of my interest or allegiance.

Will you tell me whom you voted for in the Republican presidential primary in Virginia in 2000?

Yeah, I voted for John McCain.

[Bush press secretary] Scott McClellan said he was deeply offended that you suggested the Sept. 11 attacks could have been prevented, but I didn't hear you say that.

I didn't say it. I said we'll never know, and I've said that over and over again. We will never know. There were certainly some steps that, had they been taken, would have perhaps resulted in the arrest of two of the hijackers. But we'll never know whether that would have led to the arrests of the others.

McClellan also said that although you criticize the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in the book, you had attempted to become the No. 2 in that department and were passed over -- and that's yet another reason why you wrote this critical book.

They're trying to bait me, and they're trying to get me to answer all these personal issues. You know, the fact is that Tom Ridge opposed the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. George Bush opposed the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. And then one day, they turned on a dime and supported it. Why?

As I said in the book, the White House legislative affairs people counted votes. Senator [Joseph] Lieberman had proposed the bill to create the Department of Homeland Security -- and the legislative affairs people said Lieberman has the votes; it's going to pass. They said, "You've got the possible situation here, Mr. President, where you're going to have to veto the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. And if you don't support it now, if you don't make it your proposal, not only will it pass but it will be called the Lieberman bill."

The Lieberman-McCain bill.

The Lieberman-McCain bill, in fact. So that there were two outcomes possible. One in which we have this Frankenstein department, created during the middle of the war on terrorism, reorganizing during the middle of a war. That was possible. It was also possible that a second thing would happen, and that was that Lieberman would get credit for it. And therefore the president changed his position overnight, and became a big supporter of the Department of Homeland Security.

Did you see a memo to that effect? I wondered about that when I was reading the book, because you don't say how you know they gave the president that advice.

No, I don't say ... It was from oral conversations in the White House.

In the first chapter of your book, which I must say is gripping, you give your account of your actions on 9/11, when great authority was turned over to you [by Cheney and Rice]. Is there an issue of disloyalty or ingratitude there? To be honest, it seemed to me that you saved their asses that day.

Well, that's for other people to say. As regards my loyalty to President Bush, I was a career civil servant. I wasn't loyal to any particular political machine. When the president makes a big mistake -- like he has in the way that he has fought the war on terrorism by going into Iraq -- I think personal loyalty or party loyalty has got to be put aside.

Did you speak up about the U.S. going into Iraq? Now, one of the more substantive criticisms of you by the White House is that you didn't say anything about it. You let that go, you kept your job and didn't resign in protest -- or according to them, do anything that suggested you were so strongly opposed to their plan for war.

If they were listening, they would have heard me. I started saying on Sept. 11 and Sept. 12 that their idea of responding to the terrorist attacks by going to war with Iraq was not only misplaced but counterproductive.

Before Sept. 11, I was so frustrated with the way they were handling terrorism that I had asked to be reassigned to a different job. And the job I proposed was a job I helped to create -- a job to look at the nation's vulnerability to cyber-attack. So that job was supposed to be one that I went into on Oct. 1 [2001]; the actual transfer was delayed, of course, because Sept. 11 intervened. But it's important to realize that I asked for that transfer out of the counterterrorism job before Sept. 11, out of frustration with the Bush administration's handling of terrorism.

When I was doing the cyber-security job, toward the end of 2001 and into 2002, I wasn't asked for my opinion on Iraq. I wasn't in a position to give my opinion on Iraq. I was carrying a different portfolio. They certainly didn't come and ask me. But I made it very clear to Condi Rice, although she may choose to forget it, that I thought going into Iraq was a mistake. And I thought if you did have to go in -- if the president was determined to do that -- then it had to be done within the United Nations context.

What is your estimation of Dr. Rice, given that you have known and worked with the past seven or eight national security advisors?

I don't want to get involved in personal attacks on her just because she's involved in personal attacks on me. I think she has a great personal relationship with the president, and that's one of the best things a national security advisor can have. I think she has a great understanding of Russia, the former Soviet Union and Central Europe, which was the area of her expertise before she became national security advisor ... She's very, very knowledgeable about that.

You criticize both the Bush and Clinton administrations, although I have to say the press coverage of your discussion of the Clinton administration varies considerably from what is actually in your book ...

I'm glad you noticed.

I did notice that ... How different were the two administrations in their approaches to terrorism?

Well, prior to 9/11, the Bush administration didn't have an approach to terrorism. They'd never gotten around to creating an administration policy. It was in the process of doing so, but it hadn't achieved that. And it was clear that the national security advisor didn't like this kind of issue; she didn't have meetings on this issue. The president didn't have meetings on the issue of terrorism.

Now the White House is saying, oh, they had meetings every day. But let's be clear about what those meetings every day were. Every day George Tenet, the CIA director, would do the morning intelligence briefing of the president, and he would raise the al-Qaida threat with great frequency. That's not the same as having a meeting to decide what to do about it. That's not the same as the president shaking the lapels of the FBI director and the attorney general and saying, "You've got to stop the attack."

Apparently on one occasion -- of all these many, many days when George Tenet mentioned the al-Qaida threat -- the president on one occasion said, "I want a strategy. I don't want to swat flies." Well, months or certainly weeks went by after that, and he didn't get his strategy because Condi Rice didn't hold the meeting necessary to approve it and give it to him. And yet George Bush appears not to have asked for it a second time.

In fact, he told Bob Woodward in "Bush at War" that he kind of knew there was a strategy being developed out there, but he didn't know at what stage it was in the process. Well, if he was so focused on it, he would have kept asking where the strategy was. He would have known where it was in the process. He would have demanded that it be brought forward. He had a fleeting interest.

Did you have access to the president's daily briefings?

On a daily basis, no; I did see some of them. There was never any system in place that worked to get them to me every day.

Did you see the PDB for Aug. 6, 2001 [which reportedly contained references to an impending attack by al-Qaida]?

I really can't recall it. I think its importance has been overblown. What happens in the presidential daily briefing is that the president asks questions of the briefer, which is usually Tenet on Monday through Friday. And the briefer then takes notes of the questions and goes back to CIA to get papers written to respond to the questions.

In response to the drumbeat day after day of intelligence that there was going to be an al-Qaida attack, the president apparently said, "Tell me what al-Qaida could do." And in response to that the CIA went off and wrote a paper that listed everything possible that al-Qaida could do. It didn't say we have intelligence that tells us the attack will be here or there, the attack method will be this or that. It was rather a laundry list of possible things they could do.

Do you think it's true that the Saudis gained added influence when the Bush crowd returned to the White House?

The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, had worn out his welcome in the Clinton White House. But he had very, very good ties to the Bush family. His standing, his influence greatly increased when the Bush people came back into power.

Were you aware of the Saudi airlifts of their nationals after 9/11, at the time that they were happening?

What I am aware of is that sometime after 9/11, in the days immediately thereafter, the Saudi embassy requested to evacuate some of its nationals because it feared there would be retribution. That information came to me and I was asked to approve it. I said no, I would not approve it, until the FBI approved it. And I asked the FBI to approve it, to look at the names of people on the flight manifests, and the FBI approved it.

Now, there's a big tempest about this in retrospect. People think the FBI should have done a better job of looking at the names. The FBI could have called me and said they wanted more time, and I would have given it to them. They could have said they want this individual or that individual detained, and I would have said fine. I am still unaware to this day of anyone who left on any of those flights who the FBI now wants.

Were you concerned about your friendship with Rand Beers being used, as it is now, to suggest that you did this in order to help John Kerry in his presidential campaign?

This is the most interesting charge against me -- that I am a friend of Rand Beers, as if that's some terrible thing. Who is Rand Beers? Until a year ago, he was someone who was working for George Bush in the White House. He worked for George Bush's father in the White House. He worked for Ronald Reagan in the White House. But now it's a terrible thing to be a friend of Rand Beers? He and I have been friends for 25 years. I'm not going to disown him because he's working for John Kerry. He's my friend, he's going to stay my friend, we teach a course together [at Harvard]. He works for John Kerry. I don't.


© 2004 Salon.com

Joe Conason writes a twice weekly column for Salon, an online journal. He also writes a weekly column for the New York Observer. His new book, Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth, is now available.