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Clarke: 'White House is papering over facts'

Richard Clarke

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CNN's Bill Hemmer talks with Richard Clarke about his assertions that Bush ignored the al Qaeda threat.

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Richard Clarke
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke will testify Wednesday before a commission investigating the attacks of September 11, 2001. Clarke claims in a new book, "Against All Enemies," that President Bush ignored the terrorist threat before September 11, 2001. Administration officials called Clarke's assertions "flat-out wrong."

CNN anchor Bill Hemmer spoke Tuesday with Clarke, who also says Bush asked him on September 12, 2001, to look for links between al Qaeda and Iraq.

HEMMER: You paint a picture of a White House obsessed with Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Why do you believe that was the case?

CLARKE: Because I was there and I saw it. You know, the White House is papering over facts, such as, in the weeks immediately after 9/11, the president signed a national security directive instructing the Pentagon to prepare for the invasion of Iraq. Even though they knew at the time from me, from the FBI, from the CIA that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

HEMMER: The White House says that before they even arrived at the White House, the previous administration was obsessed with nothing. I want you to look at a picture that we saw last week from NBC News -- an Al Qaeda terrorist training camp outside of Kandahar, Afghanistan. They allege, at the time, why wasn't anything done to take al Qaeda out. This was August of 2000. ( Full story)

CLARKE: Well, a great deal was done. The administration stopped the al Qaeda attacks in the United States and around the world at the millennium period, they stopped al Qaeda in Bosnia, they stopped al Qaeda from blowing up embassies around the world, they authorized covert lethal action by the CIA against al Qaeda, they retaliated with cruise missile strikes into Afghanistan, they got sanctions against Afghanistan from the United Nations. There was a great deal the administration did, even though at the time, prior to 9/11, al Qaeda had arguably not done a great deal to the United States.

If you look at the eight years of the Clinton administration, al Qaeda was responsible for the deaths of fewer than 50 Americans over those eight years. Contrast that with Ronald Reagan, where 300 Americans were killed in Lebanon and there was no retaliation. Contrast that with the first Bush administration where 260 Americans were killed on Pan-Am 103 and there was no retaliation.

I would argue that for what had actually happened prior to 9/11, the Clinton administration was doing a great deal. In fact, so much that when the Bush people came into office they thought I was a little crazy, a little obsessed with this "little terrorist" [Osama] bin Laden. Why wasn't I focused on Iraqi-sponsored terrorism.

HEMMER: It seems like this could go for pit for pat, almost a ping-pong match. [I'd like to] show you a couple of images of the USS Cole bombing in October 2000, a few weeks before the election that saw George Bush take the White House. Prior to that, August 1998 in Tanzania and Kenya, the U.S. Embassy bombings there. If you want to go back to Beirut, Lebanon, the early 1980's, the White House is now saying go back to 1998, back to the fall of 2000.

CLARKE: Right, and what happened after 1998? There was a military retaliation against al Qaeda and the covert action program was launched, the U.N. sanctions were obtained. The administration did an all-out effort compared to what the Bush administration did. The Bush administration did virtually nothing during the first months of the administration, prior to 9/11.

President Bush himself said in a book when he gave an interview to Bob Woodward, he said "I didn't feel a sense of urgency about al Qaeda. It was not my focus, it was the focus of my team." He is saying that. President Bush said that to Bob Woodward. I'm not the first one to say this.

HEMMER: In part, what the White House would come back and say, the reason why they suggest that statement, is because of what was stated yesterday in the Washington Post. [National Security Adviser] Condoleezza Rice wrote in part, "No al Qaeda plan was turned over to the new administration." Is she wrong?

CLARKE: Yes, it's counter factual. We presented the plan to her, told her the plan, told her the strategy. We presented it to her before she was even sworn into office. There are lots of witnesses.

It's just, you know, they're trying to divert attention from the truth here. They're trying to get me involved in personal vendettas around all sorts of attacks on my personality and they've got all sorts of people on the taxpayers' rolls going around attacking me and attacking the book and writing talking points and distributing them to radio talk shows and what not around the country.

Now, let's just look at the facts. The administration had done nothing about al Qaeda prior to 9/11, despite the fact that the CIA director was telling them virtually every day that there was a major threat.

HEMMER: I am hearing from some families of the victims from 9/11, they're saying if it was such an urgent matter, if you truly believed the White House botched the war on terror beginning on September 12, why now on such a critical national, international issue do you write the book in March of 2004?

CLARKE: I wrote the book as soon as I retired from government. It was finished last fall and it sat in the White House for months, because as a former White House official my book has to be reviewed by the White House for security purposes. This book could have come out a long time ago, months and months ago if the White House hadn't sat on it.

HEMMER: The White House is saying they only check the facts when it comes to the book itself and whether or not they are sacrificing national security.

CLARKE: They took months and months to do it. They're saying, why is the book coming out at the beginning of the election? I didn't want it to come out at the beginning of the election. I wanted it to come out last year. They're the reason, because they took so long to clear it.

HEMMER: I want to go back to Condoleezza Rice yesterday on CNN's "American Morning." This is how she phrased this alleged conversation [between Clarke and Bush] that happened on September 12, 2001.


Rice: I can't recollect such a conversation, but it's not surprising that the president wanted to know if we were going to retaliate, against whom are we going the retaliate. Of course, Iraq, given our history and the fact that they tried to kill a former president was a likely suspect.


HEMMER: There are now questions about this conversation, what happened what did not happen. On CBS's "60 minutes" Sunday night, you said, "Well, there's a lot of blame to go around and I probably deserve some blame, too." How do you blame yourself?

CLARKE: Well, I don't blame myself for making up the conversation. I didn't hallucinate it. There are four eyewitnesses to the conversation that the president had with me. It's very convenient that Dr. Rice and the president are now having a memory lapse, a senior moment. The four eyewitnesses recall vividly what happened and agree with my interpretation.

This is not the president saying do everything, look at everybody, look at Iran, look at Hezbollah. This is the president in a very intimidating way, finger in my face saying, I want a paper on Iraq and this attack. Everyone in the room got the same impression and everyone in the room recalls it vividly. So I'm not making it up. I don't have to make it up. It's part of a pattern that this administration -- even before they came into office -- was out to get Iraq even though Iraq was not threatening the United States.

HEMMER: Tomorrow you will be publicly testifying on Capitol Hill before the 9/11 commission. What is your message to them, that we will hear tomorrow?

CLARKE: I think the message is that the United States mechanisms -- the FBI, CIA, DOD, the White House -- failed during both the Clinton administration and during the Bush administration.

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