terrorizes the White House
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.
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By Joe Conason
March 24, 2004
| NEW YORK
-- 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, 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
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
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?
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
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
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.style='font-family:"Times New Roman"'>
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
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 ; 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
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
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
Did you see the PDB for Aug.
6, 2001 [which reportedly contained references to an impending attack by
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
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
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
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
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.