Guardian Interview: Richard Clarke
Tuesday 23 March 2004
Julian Borger in Washington talks to former White House insider Richard Clarke about US's vulnerability to al-Qaida before the September 11 attack.
JB: Condoleezza Rice wrote today in response to your book - that the Bush administration did have a strategy for eliminating al-Qaida and that the administration worked on it in the spring and summer of 2001? Is that true?
RC: We developed that strategy in the last several months of the Clinton administration and it was basically an update on that strategy. We briefed Condi on that strategy. The point is that it was done before they came to office and she never held a meeting on it. It was done before she asked for it.
JB: What about the claim that the administration did work hard on the issue?
RC: Its not true. I asked - on January 24 in writing to Condi - urgently for a meeting on cabinet level - the principal's committee - to review the plan and I was told I can't have that. It had to go to the deputies. They had a principals meeting on September 4. Contrast that with the principal's meeting on Iraq, on February 1. So what was urgent for them was Iraq. Al-Qaida was not important to them.
JB: In the plan developed under the Clinton administration, was the potential use of ground forces included?
RC: That option was included in the plan, and the Clinton people had never rejected it. Yes it was there. But when they finally did the ground invasion they kind of botched it, because all they did initially was send special forces with the northern alliance. They did not insert special forces to go in after Bin Laden. They let Bin Laden escape. They only went in two months after.
JB: So were there any principals meetings about al-Qaida in all this time?
RC: It didn't come up in the principal's meetings. Between April and July only four of the 30 or 35 deputy principal meetings touched on al-Qaida. But three of those were mainly about US-Pakistan relations, or US-Afghan relations or South Asian policy, and al-Qaida was just one of the points. One of the meetings looked at the overall plan. It was the July one. April was an initial discussion of terrorism policy writ large and at that meeting I said we had to talk about al-Qaida. And because it was terrorism policy writ large [Paul] Wolfowitz said we have to talk about Iraqi terrorism and I said that's interesting because there hasn't been any Iraqi terrorism against the United States. There hasn't been any for 8 years. And he said something derisive about how I shouldn't believe the CIA and FBI, that they've been wrong. And I said if you know more than I know tell me what it is, because I've been doing this for 8 years and I don't know about any Iraqi-sponsored terrorism against the US since 1993. When I said let's start talking about Bin Laden, he said Bin Laden couldn't possibly have attacked the World Trade Centre in '93. One little terrorist group like that couldn't possibly have staged that operation. It must have been Iraq.
JB: So what were all the principal's meetings about then?
RC: There were a lot of meetings on 'Star Wars'. We had a lot of meetings about Russia policy, because Condi is a Russian specialist. There were a lot of meetings on China.
JB: And after the February meeting any more on Iraq?
RC: Yes there were many more, it was central. The buzz in national security staff administration wanted to go after Iraq.
JB: Do you think they came into office with that as a plan?
RC: If you look at the so-called Vulcans group [Bush's pre-election foreign policy advisors] talked about publicly in seminars in Washington. They clearly wanted to go after Iraq and they clearly wanted to do this reshaping of the middle east and they used the tragedy of 9/11 as an excuse to test their theories.
JB: Do you think President Bush was already on board when he came to office.
RC: I think he was. He got his international education from the Vulcans group the previous year. They were people like Richard Perle, Jim Woolsey, Paul Wolfowitz. They were all espousing this stuff. So he probably had been persuaded. He certainly wasn't hearing any contrary view during this education process.
JB: If there had been meetings on terrorism in that first eight months, do you think it would have made a difference?
RC: Well let me ask you: Contrast December '99 with June and July and August 2001. In December '99 we get similar kinds of evidence that al-Qaida was planning a similar kind of attack. President Clinton asks the national security advisor to hold daily meetings with attorney-general, the CIA, FBI. They go back to their departments from the White House and shake the departments out to the field offices to find out everything they can find. It becomes the number one priority of those agencies. When the head of the FBI and CIA have to go to the White House every day, things happen and by the way, we prevented the attack. Contrast that with June, July, August 2001 when the president is being briefed virtually every day in his morning intelligence briefing that something is about to happen, and he never chairs a meeting and he never asks Condi rice to chair a meeting about what we're doing about stopping the attacks. She didn't hold one meeting during all those three months. Now, it turns out that buried in the FBI and CIA, there was information about two of these al-Qaida terrorists who turned out to be hijackers [Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhazmi]. We didn't know that. The leadership of the FBI didn't know that, but if the leadership had to report on a daily basis to the White House, he would have shaken the trees and he would have found out those two guys were there. We would have put their pictures on the front page of every newspaper and we probably would have caught them. Now would that have stopped 9/11? I don't know. It would have stopped those two guys, and knowing the FBI the way they can take a thread and pull on it, they would probably have found others.
JB: So might they have stopped the September 11 attacks?
RC: I don't want to say they could have stopped the attacks. But there was a chance.
JB: A reasonable chance? A good chance?
RC: There was a chance, and whatever the probability was, they didn't take it.
JB: Condoleezza Rice argued today that when President Bush was asking you to find evidence linking September 11 to Iraq, he was simply showing due diligence, asking you to explore the options.
RC: That's very funny. There are two ways of asking. There's: 'check every possibility - don't assume its al-Qaida look at everybody'. That's due diligence. Then there's the: 'I want you to find every shred of evidence that it was Iraq and Saddam' - and said in a very emphatic and intimidating way, and the other people who were with me got the same impression as I did. This was not due diligence. This was: 'come back with a memo that says it was an Iraqi attack'.
JB: And when you didn't find any evidence, the memo was bounced back?
JB: Stephen Hadley [deputy national security advisor] said he bounced it back saying just update this?
RC: Well as soon as he got it he said update it, even though it was very current. Hadley's a good lawyer, he knows how to cover his ass. He not going to write: 'I don't like the answer'. But when your memo is immediately bounced and its got very current information and its bounced back to you and you're told to do over, its pretty clear what the implication is.
JB: What do you think drove these people on Iraq?
RC: Some are ideologues - they have a superpower vision of us reshaping the Middle East. Changing the historical balance. Condi Rice has this phrase: 'We needed to change the middle east so terrorists would not fly aircrafts into buildings'.
JB: Do you believe they felt they had to finish what Bush's father started?
RC: That's a big part of it. For Wolfowitz and Cheney feels some guilt for having stopped the war, a couple of days early, not that we should have marched on Baghdad but at least we should have gone after the Republican Guard.
JB: Do you believe there were also political motives.
RC: You have to bifurcate the White House team between the national security types and the political types. For the political types like Karl Rove this has been a godsend. They ran on the war in the congressional elections two years ago. They're running on the war now. They're painting this election as a vote on terrorism, a vote against Osama Bin Laden. And they're succeeding to a certain extent because 70 per cent of American people last year thought that Iraq had something to do with 9/11. But the political benefit clearly a secondary benefit.
JB: Do you believe the administration believed the intelligence on Iraqi WMD?
RC: We all believed Saddam had WMD. What I kept saying was: So what?. They said he could give it to terrorists. But I said he's not that stupid. If he gave WMD to terrorists he would lose power. The question was: Is there an imminent threat or had we contained him? And I thought we had successfully contained him. I didn't see it as a first-tier issue.
JB: Did the Pentagon and the office of special plans play an important role in the processing of intelligence?
RC: Certainly. The people in Rumsfeld's office and in Wolfowitz's operation cherry-picked intelligence to select the intelligence to support their views. They never did the due diligence on the intelligence that professional intelligence analysts are trained to do. [The OSP] would go through the intelligence reports including the ones that the CIA was throwing out. They stitched it together they would send it out, send it over to Cheney. All the stuff that a professional would have thrown out. As soon as 9/11 happened people like Rumsfeld saw it was opportunity. During that first week after September 11, the decision was made. It was confirmed by president We should do Afghanistan first. But the resources necessary to do a good job in Afghanistan were withheld. There was not enough to go in fast, to go in enough to secure the country. Troops were held back. There were 11,000 troops in Afghanistan. There were fewer in whole country than police in the borough of Manhattan
JB: The White House is suggesting that this is sour grapes from a Clinton holdover, scoring political points.
RC: I was a Bush [senior] holdover. I'm not a registered Demcrat. I don't want a job in the Kerry admin. What I want to do is to provide the American people with a set of facts and let them draw their own conclusions.
JB: What conclusions did you draw about President Bush's leadership style.
RC: He doesn't like to read a lot - not terribly interested in analysis. He is very interested in getting to the bottom line. Once he's done he puts a lot of strength behind pushing it, but there's not a lot of analysis before the decision.
JB: Do you think Britain had much influence in the run-up to the war?
RC: They would have done it without Britain. I don't think it made a lot of difference. I think the British were able to help Colin Powell to persuade them to go to the UN. It did go to the UN for a period of time, and it may have helped a little. It may also have forced president to issue a statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He went out there and read the words like he was seeing them for the first time. There hasn't been a lot of follow through, and I don't think the Brits got very much. They got the minimum possible out of us. I think Blair tried to influence the decision making and thought he could do better inside, but his influence was small.
JB: What was Cheney's role in all this.
RC: Quite enormous. Huge. Very quietly and behind the scenes he sat in all the national security meetings chaired by Condi Rice, and no vice president had done that before. He would listen and then give his thoughts. But he bought the compromise that it was al-Qaida first, Iraq second.