March 22, 2004 -- 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 interviewwith President Bush's former top terrorism adviser, Richard Clarke.His new book is called Against All Enemies: Inside America's War onTerror. 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 knewfrom the get-go it was al Qaeda?
CLARKE: I knew when the second tower was hit. When the firsttower was hit it seemed like an anomaly, maybe it was an airplaneaccident. When the second tower was hit we knew immediately it was AlQaeda.
GIBSON: So you deal with the exigencies of the day on September11th. You come in September 12th ready to plot what response we taketo al Qaeda. Let me talk about the response that you got from topadministration officials. On that day, what did the president say toyou?
CLARKE: Well, the president wanted us to look to see if Iraq wasinvolved.
Now, the White House is trying to say he very calmly asked me todo due diligence and see who might have done it, to look at all thepossibilities. That wasn't it. The White House is also saying maybethe meeting didn't take place, and there are witnesses who have saidthe meeting took place.
The president, in a very intimidating way, left us, me and mystaff, with the clear indication that he wanted us to come back withthe word that there was an Iraqi hand behind 9/11 because they hadbeen planning to do something about Iraq from before the time theycame into office. GIBSON: Did he ask about any other nations other than Iraq?
CLARKE: No, no, no. Not at all. It was, "Iraq, Saddam. Findout, 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. Andwhile the World Trade Center was still smoldering, while they werestill digging bodies out, people in the White House were thinking,"Ah, this gives us the opportunity we've been looking for to go afterIraq."
GIBSON: And the reaction you got that day from the defensesecretary, Donald Rumsfeld, from his assistant, Paul Wolfowitz?
CLARKE: Well, Don Rumsfeld said -- when we talked about bombingthe al Qaeda infrastructure in Afghanistan, he said, "There are nogood targets in Afghanistan; let's bomb Iraq." And we said, "But Iraqhad nothing to do with this," and that didn't seem to make muchdifference.
GIBSON: But the administration has made the point that theirresponse immediately was to go into Afghanistan.
CLARKE: Their response that week -- they debated Iraq versusAfghanistan for a week. And their response that week was, "Let's doAfghanistan first," with the clear implication that there was asecond.
And the reason they had to do Afghanistan first was it wasobvious that al Qaeda had attacked us and it was obvious that al Qaedawas in Afghanistan. The American people wouldn't have stood by if wehad done nothing on Afghanistan.
But what they did was slow and small. They put only 11,000troops into Afghanistan. There are more police here in Manhattan --more police here in Manhattan than there are U.S. troops inAfghanistan.
GIBSON: You write in the book, "No doubt that the United Statescould have brought true stability to Afghanistan with a larger force,could have made the return of the Taliban and the terrorists virtuallyimpossible. Instead, the larger force was held back for Iraq."
CLARKE: That's right. And to this day, Afghanistan is notstable. To this day we are hunting down Osama bin Laden. We shouldhave 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 fortwo months and we tried to have the Afghans do it.
Basically, the president botched the response to 9/11. Heshould have gone right after Afghanistan, right after bin Laden. Andthen he made the whole war on terrorism so much worse by invadingIraq.
GIBSON: Do you think we could have eliminated or renderedineffective al Qaeda at that point?
CLARKE: I think we could have had a good chance to get binLaden, to get the leadership and wipe the whole organization out if wehad gone in immediately and gone after him.
GIBSON: You said the president on the 12th didn't ask about AlQaeda, but did ask about Iraq. In all the period of time after that,was there any evidence presented to the president, any evidence at allthat Iraq was linked to 9/11?
CLARKE: No. And what evidence does exist says that some peoplein Iraq might have talked to some people in al Qaeda. Well, ofcourse, that goes on. But there was no support from Iraq. There wasno money, there was no direction. There was no relationship of anyserious kind.
GIBSON: You point out in the book that 70 percent of the peoplein this country believe that Iraq in some way was behind the attack on9/11. Did the administration ever lie to the public about Iraqiresponsibility?
CLARKE: I think the administration went right up to the line andintentionally left the impression with the American people, includingthe soldiers who were going to fight. U.S. soldiers going to fight inIraq had the impression from the administration that they were goingto avenge the deaths of 9/11. U.S. soldiers went to their deaths inIraq thinking that they were avenging 9/11 when Iraq had nothing dowith it.
GIBSON: Which says what? That American soldiers died in vain?
CLARKE: Not that they died in vain. They died for thepresident's own agenda which had nothing do with war on terrorism.
And in fact, by going into Iraq, the president has made the waron terrorism that much harder. He's diverted resources fromprotecting our vulnerabilities here at home, like our railroads. He'sinflamed the Arab world and created a whole new generation of al Qaedaterrorists.
GIBSON: You write, "The administration squandered theopportunity to eliminate al Qaeda and instead strengthened our enemiesby going off on a completely unnecessary tangent, the invasion ofIraq."
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 thereWMD or not? I thought there was WMD. Everybody did. That's not theright 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 theUnited States.
GIBSON: But, Dick, is the world not safer with Saddam Husseingone and the Iraqi regime changed?
CLARKE: The United States was neither threatened by Iraq nor inany way was the United States really a target of Iraq. And so theUnited States -- I think the answer is it's indifferent; it's neithersafer nor less safe.
But by making so much of the Arab world our enemy, the UnitedStates is less safe. By putting 5,000 U.S. troops in there to bemaimed, 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 dayare less safe. And there was no reason to be there.
GIBSON: So it is strengthened -- the Iraqi invasion and theIraqi war have strengthened the terrorist movement?
CLARKE: It's greatly strengthened the terrorist movement becauseit has given the Islamic radicals throughout the Middle East ajustification for going after the United States. Their recruitment isup. Opinion polls in the Arab world show that 90 percent of thepeople hate the United States.
It didn't have to be that way, Charlie. We could have done awhole lot of different things after 9/11 to make America safe.
GIBSON: You are about to testify before the commissioninvestigating what happened before 9/11. What will you say to them?Did the administration, in your mind, ignore warnings that this was tocome?
CLARKE: I think both the Clinton administration and the Bushadministration did much less than they should have. I think the Bushadministration -- the president personally received intelligencebriefings every morning about the al Qaeda threat and yet he neverasked for a meeting, never chaired a meeting on what we were going todo about it. Condoleezza Rice never chaired a meeting on what we weregoing to do about it.
GIBSON: But the administration says, "Look, you were the guy whowas in charge of countering terrorism and the warnings you were givingto 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 goinghappen overseas, that I thought it was going to happen here. And so Iconvened meetings and I sent out messages to all domestic policeagencies, to U.S. airlines, to U.S. airports. But Condoleezza Ricenever chaired a meeting despite all of that threat information.George Bush never chaired a meeting despite all that threatinformation.
Contrast that to what happened in the Clinton administration inDecember 1999, when we had similar information and the Cabinet-levelmeetings chaired by the national security adviser were happeningvirtually every day in December 1999, and stopped the attack.
GIBSON: A couple of other quick questions. The Department ofHomeland 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 reorganizingeverything in the middle of that war. And it really hasn't cometogether. We were better off with those parts distributed in theirhome agencies than we are now.
GIBSON: And the other question, and it's already coming from theWhite House, "Dick Clarke has a political agenda here, he's out todefeat George W. Bush, the timing of this is no coincidence, theelection just beginning."
CLARKE: I'm an independent. I've spent 30 years in thegovernment. They're saying I want a job in the Kerry administration. Let me say right here, Charlie, I will never work in any Kerryadministration 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 likepeople who leave the government and immediately write bookscriticizing the government they served. Yet that's exactly what youhave done.
CLARKE: And it pains me to do it. And it pains me to haveCondoleezza Rice and others mad at me. But I think the American people needed to know the facts and theyweren't out, and now they are.
GIBSON: All right, Dick Clarke, thanks very much. Good to haveyou with us.