Contradicting his current criticism of the Bush administration, one year after the 9-11 attacks former counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke told reporters the outgoing Clinton administration had no plan in response to al-Qaida whereas President Bush began developing one as soon as he took office, which included increasing funding for covert action five-fold.
Fox News published a transcript of the background briefing, which was cleared by the White House today.
Clarke is in a media blitz to promote his new book “Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror,” in which he accuses President Bush of ignoring threats to al-Qaida prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and focusing on Saddam Hussein at the expense of the war on terror.
He told reporters at the August 2002 briefing his main point was “there was no plan on al-Qaida that was passed from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration.”
But the Bush administration, he said, decided in mid-January, just as it was taking office, to “vigorously pursue” issues the Clinton administration had left “on the table” since the 1998 al-Qaida attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa.
Those issues included whether the U.S. should aid the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and change its policies toward Pakistan and Uzbekistan
In contrast to these comments, Clarke said in a widely publicized interview with Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes” Sunday that President Bush has “done a terrible job on the war against terrorism.”
“Frankly,” Clarke told Stahl, “I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he’s done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9-11. Maybe. We’ll never know.”
Clarke told “60 Minutes” the Bush administration was stuck in a time warp, “continuing to work on Cold War issues when they came back in power in 2001.”
“It was as though they were preserved in amber from when they left office eight years earlier,” he said. “They came back. They wanted to work on the same issues right away: Iraq, Star Wars. Not new issues, the new threats that had developed over the preceding eight years.”
Yet, in the August 2002 briefing, Clarke said Bush’s newly appointed counterterrorism deputies came into office in late March and early April of 2001 and by the summer had “changed the strategy from one of rollback with al-Qaida over the course [of] five years, which it had been, to a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination of al-Qaida.”
Clarke said President Bush was briefed throughout the process and received a final document of the plan Sept. 10, 2001, “I think.”
After serving as White House counterterrorism chief, Clarke was named special adviser to the president for cyberspace security in October 2001 then resigned in January 2003. He served President Clinton for eight years and also had positions under President Bush’s father and President Reagan.
In the briefing, Clarke responded to an Aug. 12, 2002, Time magazine article that asserted the Bush administration was unwilling to adopt suggestions made in the Clinton administration because of general animus against its foreign policy
” I think if there was a general animus that clouded their vision, they might not have kept the same guy dealing with terrorism issue,” Clarke stated. “This is the one issue where the National Security Council leadership decided continuity was important and kept the same guy around, the same team in place. That doesn’t sound like animus against, uh, the previous team to me.”
Fox News correspondent Jim Angle, who was at the August 2002 briefing, asked Clarke to clarify: “You’re saying that the Bush administration did not stop anything that the Clinton administration was doing while it was making these decisions, and by the end of the summer had increased money for covert action five-fold. Is that correct?”
Clarke replied: “All of that’s correct.”
Another reporter referred to Clinton’s alleged plan on al-Qaida and was interrupted by Clarke.
“There was never a plan, Andrea,” he said. “What there was was these two things: One, a description of the existing strategy, which included a description of the threat. And two, those things which had been looked at over the course of two years, and which were still on the table.”
Angle then asked Clarke,”Why was it so difficult for the Clinton administration to make decisions on those issues?”
“Because they were tough issues,” he said. “You know, take, for example, aiding the Northern Alliance. Um, people in the Northern Alliance had a, sort of bad track record. There were questions about the government, there were questions about drug-running, there was questions about whether or not in fact they would use the additional aid to go after al-Qaida or not. Uh, and how would you stage a major new push in Uzbekistan or somebody else or Pakistan to cooperate?
“One of the big problems was that Pakistan at the time was aiding the other side, was aiding the Taliban. And so, this would put, if we started aiding the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, this would have put us directly in opposition to the Pakistani government. These are not easy decisions.”
Angle asked for elaboration: “And none of that really changed until we were attacked [Sept. 11, 2001] and then it was … ”
Clarke replied: “No, that’s not true. In the spring, the Bush administration changed – began to change Pakistani policy, um, by a dialogue that said we would be willing to lift sanctions. So we began to offer carrots, which made it possible for the Pakistanis, I think, to begin to realize that they could go down another path, which was to join us and to break away from the Taliban. So that’s really how it started.”
Later, Angle asked Clarke to clarify his main points: “So, just to finish up if we could then, so what you’re saying is that there was no – one, there was no plan; two, there was no delay; and that actually the first changes since October of ’98 were made in the spring months just after the administration came into office?”
“You got it,” Clarke said. “That’s right.”
Clarke has been caught in another apparent contradiction, asserting in the “60 Minutes” interview Saddam Hussein had no connection to al-Qaida, while in 1999 he defended President Clinton’s attack on a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant by revealing the U.S. was “sure” it manufactured chemical warfare materials produced by Iraqi experts in cooperation with Osama bin Laden.
The White House released Clarke’s resignation letter yesterday in which he praised President Bush’s “courage, determination, calm and leadership” on 9-11.
“It has been an enormous privilege to serve you these last 24 months,” said the Jan. 20, 2003, letter from Clarke to Bush. “I will always remember the courage, determination, calm, and leadership you demonstrated on September 11th.”
Clarke testified today before the independent federal commission probing the 9-11 attacks.