ABCNEWS Interview: Former Counterterrorism Aide

President Bush's former head of counterterrorism, Richard Clarke, says in a new book that the White House underestimated the threat from al Qaeda prior to Sept. 11

Clarke appeared on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America for a live interview about his claims.

The following is an unedited, uncorrected transcript of Clarke's interview with ABCNEWS' Charles Gibson on Monday, March 22, 2004.

CHARLES GIBSON: We're going to turn now to our exclusive live interview with President Bush's former top terrorism adviser, Richard Clarke. His new book is called Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror. Clarke resigned last March and became an ABC News consultant, and he joins us now. Dick, good to have you back with us.

FORMER TERRORISM RICHARD CLARKE: Good morning, Charlie.

GIBSON: Let me start right on September 11th, 2001. You knew from the get-go it was al Qaeda?

CLARKE: I knew when the second tower was hit. When the first tower was hit it seemed like an anomaly, maybe it was an airplane accident. When the second tower was hit we knew immediately it was Al Qaeda.

GIBSON: So you deal with the exigencies of the day on September 11th. You come in September 12th ready to plot what response we take to al Qaeda. Let me talk about the response that you got from top administration officials. On that day, what did the president say to you?

CLARKE: Well, the president wanted us to look to see if Iraq was involved.

Now, the White House is trying to say he very calmly asked me to do due diligence and see who might have done it, to look at all the possibilities. That wasn't it. The White House is also saying maybe the meeting didn't take place, and there are witnesses who have said the meeting took place.

The president, in a very intimidating way, left us, me and my staff, with the clear indication that he wanted us to come back with the word that there was an Iraqi hand behind 9/11 because they had been planning to do something about Iraq from before the time they came into office. GIBSON: Did he ask about any other nations other than Iraq?

CLARKE: No, no, no. Not at all. It was, "Iraq, Saddam. Find out, get back to me."

GIBSON: And were his questions more about Iraq than al Qaeda?

CLARKE: Absolutely. Absolutely.

He didn't ask me about al Qaeda. I think they had an idee fixe, a plan from day one that they wanted to do something about Iraq. And while the World Trade Center was still smoldering, while they were still digging bodies out, people in the White House were thinking, "Ah, this gives us the opportunity we've been looking for to go after Iraq."

GIBSON: And the reaction you got that day from the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, from his assistant, Paul Wolfowitz?

CLARKE: Well, Don Rumsfeld said -- when we talked about bombing the al Qaeda infrastructure in Afghanistan, he said, "There are no good targets in Afghanistan; let's bomb Iraq." And we said, "But Iraq had nothing to do with this," and that didn't seem to make much difference.

GIBSON: But the administration has made the point that their response immediately was to go into Afghanistan.

CLARKE: Their response that week -- they debated Iraq versus Afghanistan for a week. And their response that week was, "Let's do Afghanistan first," with the clear implication that there was a second.

And the reason they had to do Afghanistan first was it was obvious that al Qaeda had attacked us and it was obvious that al Qaeda was in Afghanistan. The American people wouldn't have stood by if we had done nothing on Afghanistan.

But what they did was slow and small. They put only 11,000 troops into Afghanistan. There are more police here in Manhattan -- more police here in Manhattan than there are U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

GIBSON: You write in the book, "No doubt that the United States could have brought true stability to Afghanistan with a larger force, could have made the return of the Taliban and the terrorists virtually impossible. Instead, the larger force was held back for Iraq."

CLARKE: That's right. And to this day, Afghanistan is not stable. To this day we are hunting down Osama bin Laden. We should have put U.S. special forces in immediately; not many weeks later. U.S. special forces didn't get into the area where bin Laden was for two months and we tried to have the Afghans do it.

Basically, the president botched the response to 9/11. He should have gone right after Afghanistan, right after bin Laden. And then he made the whole war on terrorism so much worse by invading Iraq.

GIBSON: Do you think we could have eliminated or rendered ineffective al Qaeda at that point?

CLARKE: I think we could have had a good chance to get bin Laden, to get the leadership and wipe the whole organization out if we had gone in immediately and gone after him.

GIBSON: You said the president on the 12th didn't ask about Al Qaeda, but did ask about Iraq. In all the period of time after that, was there any evidence presented to the president, any evidence at all that Iraq was linked to 9/11?

CLARKE: No. And what evidence does exist says that some people in Iraq might have talked to some people in al Qaeda. Well, of course, that goes on. But there was no support from Iraq. There was no money, there was no direction. There was no relationship of any serious kind.

GIBSON: You point out in the book that 70 percent of the people in this country believe that Iraq in some way was behind the attack on 9/11. Did the administration ever lie to the public about Iraqi responsibility?

CLARKE: I think the administration went right up to the line and intentionally left the impression with the American people, including the soldiers who were going to fight. U.S. soldiers going to fight in Iraq had the impression from the administration that they were going to avenge the deaths of 9/11. U.S. soldiers went to their deaths in Iraq thinking that they were avenging 9/11 when Iraq had nothing do with it.

GIBSON: Which says what? That American soldiers died in vain?

CLARKE: Not that they died in vain. They died for the president's own agenda which had nothing do with war on terrorism.

And in fact, by going into Iraq, the president has made the war on terrorism that much harder. He's diverted resources from protecting our vulnerabilities here at home, like our railroads. He's inflamed the Arab world and created a whole new generation of al Qaeda terrorists.

GIBSON: You write, "The administration squandered the opportunity to eliminate al Qaeda and instead strengthened our enemies by going off on a completely unnecessary tangent, the invasion of Iraq."

The war in Iraq -- completely unnecessary?

CLARKE: Well, there was no threat to the United States.

We have to ask the right question. People are saying was there WMD or not? I thought there was WMD. Everybody did. That's not the right question.

The right question was, was there a threat to the United States? Saddam Hussein had had WMD for 20 years, never used it against the United States.

GIBSON: But, Dick, is the world not safer with Saddam Hussein gone and the Iraqi regime changed?

CLARKE: The United States was neither threatened by Iraq nor in any way was the United States really a target of Iraq. And so the United States -- I think the answer is it's indifferent; it's neither safer nor less safe.

But by making so much of the Arab world our enemy, the United States is less safe. By putting 5,000 U.S. troops in there to be maimed, to lose their limbs -- we have 5,000 casualties in Iraq -- they are less safe. The U.S. troops who are being shot at every day are less safe. And there was no reason to be there.

GIBSON: So it is strengthened -- the Iraqi invasion and the Iraqi war have strengthened the terrorist movement?

CLARKE: It's greatly strengthened the terrorist movement because it has given the Islamic radicals throughout the Middle East a justification for going after the United States. Their recruitment is up. Opinion polls in the Arab world show that 90 percent of the people hate the United States.

It didn't have to be that way, Charlie. We could have done a whole lot of different things after 9/11 to make America safe.

GIBSON: You are about to testify before the commission investigating what happened before 9/11. What will you say to them? Did the administration, in your mind, ignore warnings that this was to come?

CLARKE: I think both the Clinton administration and the Bush administration did much less than they should have. I think the Bush administration -- the president personally received intelligence briefings every morning about the al Qaeda threat and yet he never asked for a meeting, never chaired a meeting on what we were going to do about it. Condoleezza Rice never chaired a meeting on what we were going to do about it.

GIBSON: But the administration says, "Look, you were the guy who was in charge of countering terrorism and the warnings you were giving to them only involved overseas possibilities."

CLARKE: No, that's not true. That's not true.

I told them that, although the CIA thought it was only going happen overseas, that I thought it was going to happen here. And so I convened meetings and I sent out messages to all domestic police agencies, to U.S. airlines, to U.S. airports. But Condoleezza Rice never chaired a meeting despite all of that threat information. George Bush never chaired a meeting despite all that threat information.

Contrast that to what happened in the Clinton administration in December 1999, when we had similar information and the Cabinet-level meetings chaired by the national security adviser were happening virtually every day in December 1999, and stopped the attack.

GIBSON: A couple of other quick questions. The Department of Homeland Security, has it made it safer?

CLARKE: No. I think it was a mistake.

When you're in a war on terrorism, you don't start reorganizing everything in the middle of that war. And it really hasn't come together. We were better off with those parts distributed in their home agencies than we are now.

GIBSON: And the other question, and it's already coming from the White House, "Dick Clarke has a political agenda here, he's out to defeat George W. Bush, the timing of this is no coincidence, the election just beginning."

CLARKE: I'm an independent. I've spent 30 years in the government. They're saying I want a job in the Kerry administration. Let me say right here, Charlie, I will never work in any Kerry administration because I'm not going to work in the government again. I've done 30 years in the government. I've done my public service. Now I want to get the facts out.

GIBSON: But you say at the beginning of the book you don't like people who leave the government and immediately write books criticizing the government they served. Yet that's exactly what you have done.

CLARKE: And it pains me to do it. And it pains me to have Condoleezza Rice and others mad at me. But I think the American people needed to know the facts and they weren't out, and now they are.

GIBSON: All right, Dick Clarke, thanks very much. Good to have you with us.

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