President Bush’s former counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke, blasted the Bush administration Wednesday during the 9/11 hearings for not considering terrorism to be an urgent issue before the Sept. 11 attacks. Clarke also accused Bush of undermining the war on terror by invading Iraq. We play extended excerpts of his testimony. [Includes transcript]
The Commission investigating the September 11th attacks has wrapped up its 2 days of hearings in Washington. And with a few exceptions, the hearings brought little new to the surface. Largely, the questioning was tame and friendly. The biggest buzz of the day surrounded the testimony of former Counterterrorism Chief Richard Clarke.
Before Clarke testified, the commission heard from CIA director George Tenet and President Clinton’s National Security Adviser Sandy Berger.
Noticeably absent from the hearings was National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Throughout the two days of hearings, commissioners publicly reiterated their request that Rice testify under oath. She has refused, citing separation powers. To testify in her place, the White House dispatched Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage. While his testimony produced some interesting discussion about Rice’s absence, it was Richard Clarke’s testimony that made news.
His testimony comes amidst a political firestorm over the publication this week of his book “Against All Enemies.” The book accuses the White House of ignoring the threat posed by al Qaeda leading up to 9-11 and that Bush wanted to strike Iraq immediately after the attacks, despite no evidence that Baghdad was involved.
Clarke is widely viewed as a leading figure in national security circles. He held top posts under every president since Reagan and served as both President Clinton and President Bush’s top anti-terrorism official.
With family members of victims of the World Trade Center attacks sitting behind him, Clarke began his testimony: TRANSCRIPT
RICHARD CLARKE: Because I have submitted a written statement today, and I’ve previously testified before this commission for 15 hours, and before the Senate-House Joint Inquiry Committee for six hours, I have only a very brief opening statement.
I welcome these hearings because of the opportunity that they provide to the American people to better understand why the tragedy of 9/11 happened and what we must do to prevent a reoccurance.
I also welcome the hearings because it is finally a forum where I can apologize to the loved ones of the victims of 9/11.
To them who are here in the room, to those who are watching on television, your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you and I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn’t matter because we failed.
And for that failure, I would ask — once all the facts are out — for your understanding and for your forgiveness.
With that, Mr. Chairman, I’ll be glad to take your questions.
THOMAS KEAN, COMMISSION CHAIRMAN: The questioning will be led by Senator Gorton.
Are you leading off, or Commissioner Roemer?
SLADE GORTON, COMMISSION MEMBER: Tim is.
KEAN: Commissioner Roemer?
TIMOTHY ROEMER, COMMISSION MEMBER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Welcome, Mr. Clarke. I want to thank you, as I start my questions, for your 30 years of public service to the American people. I want to thank you for your sworn testimony before the 9/11 commission: over 15 hours.
And I really want to say, Mr. Clarke, that there are a lot of distractions out there today. The books, a lot of news media, a lot of accusations flying back and forth.
I want you to concentrate, to the degree you can, on the memos, on the e-mail, on the strategy papers and on the time that we’re tasked to looking at on this 9/11 commission, between 1998 and September the 11th.
ROEMER: You coordinated counterterrorism policy in both the Clinton and the Bush administrations. I want to know, first of all: Was fighting Al Qaida a top priority for the Clinton administration from 1998 to the year 2001? How high a priority was it in that Clinton administration during that time period?
CLARKE: My impression was that fighting terrorism, in general, and fighting Al Qaida, in particular, were an extraordinarily high priority in the Clinton administration — certainly no higher priority. There were priorities probably of equal importance such as the Middle East peace process, but I certainly don’t know of one that was any higher in the priority of that administration.
ROEMER: With respect to the Bush administration, from the time they took office until September 11th, 2001, you had much to deal with: Russia, China, G-8, Middle East. How high a priority was fighting Al Qaida in the Bush administration?
CLARKE: I believe the Bush administration in the first eight months considered terrorism an important issue, but not an urgent issue.
Well, president Bush himself says as much in his interview with Bob Woodward in the book “Bush at War.” He said, “I didn’t feel a sense of urgency.”
George Tenet and I tried very hard to create a sense of urgency by seeing to it that intelligence reports on the Al Qaida threat were frequently given to the president and other high-level officials. And there was a process under way to address Al Qaida. But although I continued to say it was an urgent problem, I don’t think it was ever treated that way.
ROEMER: You have said in many ways — you’ve issued some blistering attacks on the Bush administration. But you’ve not held those criticisms from the Clinton administration, either. We heard from Mr. Berger earlier that you were critical of the Clinton administration on two areas: not providing aid to the Northern Alliance, and not going after the human conveyor belts of jihadists coming out of the sanctuaries in Afghanistan.
Are there more in the Clinton administration years — the USS Cole, the response there?
CLARKE: Well, I think first of all, Mr. Berger is right to say that almost everything I ever asked for in the way of support from him or from president Clinton, I got. We did enormously increase the counterterrorism budget of the federal government, initiated many programs, including one that is now called Homeland Security.
CLARKE: Mr. Berger is also right to note that I wanted a covert action program to aid Afghan factions to fight the Taliban, and that was not accomplished. He’s also right to note that on several occasions, including after the attack on the Cole, I suggested that we bomb all of the Taliban and Al Qaida infrastructure, whether or not it would succeed in killing bin Laden. I thought that was the wrong way of looking at the problem. I think the answer is essentially Mr. Berger got it right.
ROEMER: OK. With my 15 minutes, let’s move into the Bush administration.
On January 25th, we’ve seen a memo that you’ve written to Dr. Rice urgently asking for a principals’ review of Al Qaida. You include helping the Northern Alliance, covert aid, significant new ’02 budget authority to help fight Al Qaida and a response to the USS Cole. You attach to this document both the Delenda Plan of 1998 and a strategy paper from December 2000.
Do you get a response to this urgent request for a principals meeting on these? And how does this affect your time frame for dealing with these important issues?
CLARKE: I did get a response, and the response was that in the Bush administration I should, and my committee, counterterrorism security group, should report to the deputies committee, which is a sub-Cabinet level committee, and not to the principals and that, therefore, it was inappropriate for me to be asking for a principals’ meeting. Instead, there would be a deputies meeting.
ROEMER: So does this slow the process down to go to the deputies rather than to the principals or a small group as you had previously done?
CLARKE: It slowed it down enormously, by months. First of all, the deputies committee didn’t meet urgently in January or February.
Then when the deputies committee did meet, it took the issue of Al Qaida as part of a cluster of policy issues, including nuclear proliferation in South Asia, democratization in Pakistan, how to treat the various problems, including narcotics and other problems in Afghanistan, and launched on a series of deputies meetings extending over several months to address Al Qaida in the context of all of those inter-related issues.
CLARKE: That process probably ended, I think in July of 2001. So we were ready for a principals meeting in July. But the principals calendar was full and then they went on vacation, many of them in August, so we couldn’t meet in August, and therefore the principals met in September.
ROEMER: So as the Bush administration is carefully considering from bottom up a full review of fighting terrorism, what happens to these individual items like a response to the USS Cole, flying the Predator? Why aren’t these decided in a shorter time frame as they’re also going through a larger policy review of how this policy affects Pakistan and other countries — important considerations, but why can’t you do both?
CLARKE: The deputies committee, its chairman, Mr. Hadley, and others thought that all these issues were sufficiently inter-related, that they should be taken up as a set of issues, and pieces of them should not be broken off.
ROEMER: Did you agree with that?
CLARKE: No, I didn’t agree with much of that.
ROEMER: Were you frustrated by this process?
CLARKE: I was sufficiently frustrated that I asked to be reassigned.
ROEMER: When was this?
CLARKE: Probably May or June. Certainly no later than June.
And there was agreement in that time frame, in the May or June time frame, that my request would be honored and I would be reassigned on the 1st of October to a new position to deal with cybersecurity, a position that I requested be created.
ROEMER: So you’re saying that the frustration got to a high enough level that it wasn’t your portfolio, it wasn’t doing a lot of things at the same time, it was that you weren’t getting fast enough action on what you were requesting?
CLARKE: That’s right.
My view was that this administration, while it listened to me, didn’t either believe me that there was an urgent problem or was unprepared to act as though there were an urgent problem.
And I thought, if the administration doesn’t believe its national coordinator for counterterrorism when he says there’s an urgent problem and if it’s unprepared to act as though there’s an urgent problem, then probably I should get another job.
I thought cybersecurity was and I still think cyber security is an extraordinary important issue for which this country is very underprepared. And I thought perhaps I could make a contribution if I worked full time on that issue.
ROEMER: You then wrote a memo on September 4th to Dr. Rice expressing some of these frustrations several months later, if you say the time frame is May or June when you decided to resign. A memo comes out that we have seen on September the 4th. You are blunt in blasting DOD for not willingly using the force and the power. You blast the CIA for blocking Predator. You urge policy-makers to imagine a day after hundreds of Americans lay dead at home or abroad after a terrorist attack and ask themselves what else they could have done. You write this on September the 4th, seven days before September 11th.
CLARKE: That’s right.
ROEMER: What else could have been done, Mr. Clarke?
CLARKE: Well, all of the things that we recommended in the plan or strategy — there’s a lot of debate about whether it’s a plan or a strategy or a series of options.
CLARKE: But all of the things we recommended back in January were those things on the table in September. They were done. They were done after September 11th. They were all done. I didn’t really understand why they couldn’t have been done in February.
ROEMER: Well, let’s say, Mr. Clarke — I think this is a fair question — let’s say that you asked to brief the president of the United States on counterterrorism.
ROEMER: Did you ask that?
CLARKE: I asked for a series of briefings on the issues in my portfolio, including counterterrorism and cybersecurity.
ROEMER: Did you get that request?
CLARKE: I did. I was given an opportunity to brief on cybersecurity in June. I was told I could brief the president on terrorism after this policy development process was complete and we had the principals meeting and the draft national security policy decision that had been approved by the deputies committee.