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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 July, 2004, 09:31 GMT 10:31 UK
Clinton revealed
On Sunday, 18 July 2004, Sir David Frost interviewed Former U.S. President, William Jefferson Clinton

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Bill Clinton
Former U.S. President, William Jefferson Clinton

DAVID FROST: Mr President, one of the most absorbing parts of "My Life" is the story of negotiations which eventually failed with Arafat and so on, on the Middle East, and you write:

"Right before I left office, Arafat thanked me for all my efforts and told me what a great man I was.

Mr Chairman, I replied, I am not a great man, I am a failure and you have made me a failure."

BILL CLINTON: Yeah, I didn't mean that I was a failure all round but I meant that I had failed to get them to make a conference of peace.

And I thought Arafat was making a terrible mistake. I didn't know for sure, then, and frankly I don't know for sure today, why he turned down the, the plan that I outlined. Because about a year after I left office he said he wanted it.

And by then he had a Prime Minister who wouldn't give it to him in Israel and a government and a public in Israel that didn't trust him any more.

DAVID FROST: But do you think he, he basically couldn't give up being a revolutionary?

BILL CLINTON: I think that he psychologically found it very difficult to transfer from being a, the leader of the world's great cause, being the world's great victim, to running a state, a small state at that, and trying to solve the problems that were inherent in that, to join the Israelis and all the other Arab states in fighting regional terror, in trying to build a whole different future, a different mindset.

I think that is a lot of it. I know that there are a number of people on this team who wanted to do the agreement and I, I believe to this day that it gave them 97 per cent or more of what they wanted and would have been, on balance, a huge advance for the Palestinian people. DAVID FROST: (OVERLAPS) Do you think Israel is responsible for using too much, too much force? Do you think, for instance, that Sharon has made the right response to the International Court of Justice, saying that this wall is illegal?

BILL CLINTON: Well it's very difficult for him ... when the overwhelming majority of Israelis want it because it's worked in Gaza. I mean if you look at where they've had the fence in Gaza, deaths from terror have gone down. So, you know, the way the Israelis hear that is because it's going to be unfair to some Palestinian property owners and it seems to prejudge a final territorial settlement, you must continue to die. Your civilians must continue to die. That's the way this is being heard in Israel.

The court decision, it's like saying we want you to continue to be more exposed to terror, and it's unfortunate that more of you will have to die but that's the way we feel. Now that's the way it's heard in Israel. And I say this as someone who is very much in favour of a Palestinian state, who believes that the Palestinians have been horribly mistreated in the past, not just by occasional Israeli governments but by other Arab states who have ignored their plight or used them. The thing I regret about the wall is different.

I think that any continued building the wall ought to be coupled with the withdrawal from Gaza of Israel. Second, I think the Israelis ought to make it clear that they are more than willing to negotiate a final settlement, including turning the West Bank back to the Palestinians, and that whether there would be such a wall along the final border of Israel would depend upon a mutual agreement and the capacity of the Israelis and the new Palestinian state to contain terror. But, you know, I think the wall built on its own will not satisfy the Israelis desire for peace and security. By just leaving the wall down, when they evidence in Gaza that it works to keep civilians alive, it's a pretty hard argument to make to the Israelis.

DAVID FROST: Tell me Mr President, you said to Bob Woodward, I would have preferred to have been president during the Second World War - what was your thought in saying that?

BILL CLINTON: Well I always thought of myself as sort of a World War II person. You know, great causes, and things were black and white, and it was a simpler time where people knew politics mattered. But in my book I say in the epilogue something I came to believe very strongly, that I was very well suited by background experience and by psychology, it's the way I think and feel, to be president when I was. I have always been able to take apparently disparate events and put them together, and I get along well with all kinds of people.

So, I said that to Woodward, I think in the beginning, because I always, I love the World War II period, and I love the idea of being involved in a great endeavour. But I think on balance I served when I should have served because I was well suited for it. Just like Theodore Roosevelt complained that he didn't have the Civil War like Abraham Lincoln, but Theodore Roosevelt was quite wrong, he served us well when he did, he was the first President of the industrial age and he told us we were going to have to be a world power. So he did a great thing, even though he didn't understand it or appreciate his own presidency at the time for how important it was.

DAVID FROST: And also, as you hinted at there, it's difficult to be remembered as a great president if you haven't had to cope with a war.

BILL CLINTON: I think in future times, you know these things they go through incarnations, the way we're all evaluated. When I was president there were two new biographies of General Grant, Lincoln's commander in the Civil War, who was great, rated always a great commander and a horrible president. And these two new biographies sort of wrote him up as a president.

So, I think, you know, a hundred years from now, we may come to value the peacemakers more. We may come to value the peacemakers more even sooner. And we may, someday, come to give people credit for the bad things they stopped from happening, as well as the messes they cleaned up after they occur.

DAVID FROST: And if you had your time over again as president, you list in the book a number of triumphs and a number of a failures, but if there was one incident that you could rewrite or handle differently, what would that one be?

BILL CLINTON: Well, if I could I would like to mention one at home, one abroad. I wish I had moved in Rwanda quickly. I wish I had gone in there quicker, not just waited 'til the camps were set up. We, we might have been able to save, probably not even half those who were lost but still a large number of people.

I really regret that. I care a lot about Africa and I don't think that these ... wars are inevitable and these kinds of murders are inevitable. And I've spent a good deal of time in the last ten years trying to make it up to Africa in general and the Rwandans in particular - so I regret that deeply.

DAVID FROST: Actually in fact in terms of Aids too is something else where you and Africa are closely intertwined.

BILL CLINTON: Yes - well

DAVID FROST: And the fact, the fact that drug companies have reduced their prices, and so on, seems a bit of a miracle.

BILL CLINTON: Yeah it's a great thing, you know, we're now having, as we do this interview, they're having the International Aids Conference in Thailand. Two years ago, at that conference, I was asked by a number of countries, in the Caribbean and Africa, to help bring in medical teams to set up health care delivery networks. So I agreed to do that. And we're now working in 13 Caribbean, four African countries and in China.

Then it occurred to me that a lot of these countries, they have per capita incomes of about a dollar a day. Back then the generic Aids medicine was selling for around 500 dollars a year, as opposed to 11,000 in America. So we negotiated the price down to 140 dollars a year - we cut the price by 70 per cent - and the World Health Organisation is supporting us, the Global fund on Aids, T.B and Malaria is supporting us, we now have about 20 other countries buying medicine off this contract.

We could, if we could get it out there in a hurry, we could save a couple of million lives over the next few years. It's a huge, huge deal, and I'm gratified that one of the countries I'm trying to help is Rwanda.

DAVID FROST: It comes full circle, yes. In fact we didn't get your incident you would rewrite at home ...

BILL CLINTON: The biggest change I think I would make is in my first two years. I think we lost the Congress in 1994 because I made more change and took on more tough decisions in a shorter amount of time than could be digested by the electorate. And so I'd made all these interest groups mad and the economy hadn't had time to get better so the public, the American people gave the Congress to the Republicans. And that, I think, was not good for America.

I got a lot done with the Republican Congress and we often worked closely together but I think I, if I had not lost the Congress, we might have been able to get health care reform and we might have been able to get social security reform so that when the baby-boomers retire they won't be worried about imposing a big burden on their children, who should in turn be supporting their grandchildren instead of their parents.

DAVID FROST: Well talking of events that maybe could have gone differently and so on, I hope you won't be disappointed when I tell you that I'm only planning to ask a couple of questions on the subject of Monica Lewinsky because I feel you must be pretty talked out on it and -

BILL CLINTON: Well that's the thing that I -

DAVID FROST: - our audience, our audience is probably heard out on it, as it were.

BILL CLINTON: Yeah.

DAVID FROST: So I just wanted ... you know one thing that's come up since your book came out. Monica Lewinsky was quoted for almost the first time saying that you'd destroyed her life, that she had spent the last several years trying so hard to move on ... and she'd be a wife and a mother - do you think you destroyed her life?

BILL CLINTON: No. I think it's terrible what happened to her but no I don't. I think it's terrible the publicity she got, it's terrible what Kenneth Starr did to her, it's terrible that Kenneth Starr interrogated her mother but those, those things that were done to her were not done by me. And I take responsibility for the mistakes I made but others have to take responsibility for mistakes they made. And I think, you know, what, what I hope for her is that she will be able to escape this.

I mean it's crazy, it's like as Andy Warhol would say, "we all get our 15 minutes of fame", but we have to decide whether that will define our lives or not. And she has to make a different decision, she's a smart good person and she can have a good life.

And, and, you know, she's suffered a lot because she talked a lot about what happened to Linda Trip, and Linda Trip betrayed and Kenneth Starr abused her and the press played it up. And, you know, then they all use it against me. But they have to take responsibility for that, all them.

DAVID FROST: Did you love her?

BILL CLINTON: No. I don't think that's what that was about - on either side. But I liked her very much. I liked her very much. I thought she was really a good-hearted, intelligent person and I wanted her to have a good life and I think that's the one reason I continued to see her long after our, the improperness of the relationship was over.

DAVID FROST: Tell me about the Senate Intelligence Committee and the findings that the CIA, in particular, was so wrong on the Iraq war. It said it went back longer than, longer than just the Bush administration, that there had been these intelligence failings earlier, I wonder have you been thinking were there things on which I was ill-served by intelligence - as you look back - anything perhaps that you got blamed for maybe but that, or that you didn't get the intelligence perhaps you should have done?

BILL CLINTON: Well I'm - let me just mention two things. First of all, I obviously have no way of knowing what the CIA did or didn't say to President Bush after I left office. But what they said to me about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction was far more limited than the case that was made to the American people. I read those intelligence reports faithfully every day, I read a lot of other back-up intelligence, I had exhaustive conversations with George Tenet on a regular basis.

What I was told was that there were unaccounted for stocks of chemical and biological weapons - that is, after the first Gulf War in '91 was over, ... certified a volume of potential chemical and biological weapons, a few missiles, a few warheads, some nuclear laboratory capacity, nowhere near a bomb. Then, from that time forward, with the inspections process, every time we found something and destroyed, or took it away, we subtracted that from the original list. Far more weapons of mass destruction were destroyed in the inspection process than in the first Gulf War.

Now in 1998, Saddam Hussein, trying to force the sanctions to be lifted, kicked the UN inspectors out. Prime Minister Blair and I then ordered four days of bombing attacks - you may remember. We did it on all the suspected sites. Then we didn't get back in. So all I knew, and what the in, what the reports were, we could have destroyed everything there, we could have destroyed half, we could have destroyed nothing - we had no way of knowing.

We just knew there was unreported, there were still unaccounted for - that's the proper word - unaccounted for stocks of biological and chemical agents, a few missiles, a couple, a few warheads, and that could be weaponised with chemical or biological agents, and some laboratory capacity. That's all I knew. So I don't know that I should blame them about that. The place that I was most frustrated was that after we had this first attack in 1998 on Osama Bin Laden's training camps - do you remember and we -

DAVID FROST: Yeah.

BILL CLINTON: - uh sent the missiles in there, we were attempting to kill him and his top aides, there were three other occasions in which we were ready to strike. And I was also prepared to order special forces in there if we had intelligence which would justify the risks.

And the Pentagon strongly felt we never had enough intelligence to justify sending in the special forces. And the three other times we were going to attack, in the end the attacks were called off because the CIA said the intelligence wasn't good enough.

DAVID FROST: What about the findings that you read about now? I mean when you read that the CIA has been very mistaken and so on, do you blame, do you blame the intelligence service or do you blame the people who read the intelligence? Or is it unfair to blame a president for something -

BILL CLINTON: (OVERLAPS) No - well first - no -

DAVID FROST: - he doesn't know?

BILL CLINTON: First of all I think the, I think after the Cold War was over, we had a very efficient Cold War intelligence service. As we all know the United States and the Soviet Union and our allies were all penetrated by our various spies.

DAVID FROST: Mm.

BILL CLINTON: And in a bizarre way, even though it seemed to be a life or death thing, the ... was probably to help avoid another nuclear war, because we knew a lot about each other's doctrines and intents. And then the Cold War is over, and you have this massive, highly expensive intelligence apparatus, all geared to do a certain thing, full of people who speak certain languages and who know certain things and understand certain threats, and you have to turn it around to meet a whole different set of threats in the world, and speak a lot of different kinds of languages.

Look, you know, there's a lot of difference. You and I, for example, could walk up and down the streets in Warsaw in 1979 and if we were in the right kind of suits nobody would know that you were English and I was American, and if we spoke good Polish we might be able to do all right. But I'm not so sure we'd last very long in Afghanistan, no matter what kind of outfit we had on. And, you see, it's a whole different deal.

We were organised to do X and we've got to reorganise to do Y and we're not there yet. Now, let me say one other thing. You know, from, when I was there, I thought the CIA did a lot of good work and gave me a lot of good information, and they were, I felt that George Tenet was always honest with me when they didn't know. Let me just say one other thing - now this doesn't apply to England, to the UK, it applies to America. There is no evidence that the CIA in America told the President or the White House that Saddam Hussein had gotten uranium yellow cake from Niger, or was close to having a nuclear weapon, a representation that was made.

Now the intelligence in the UK may have told Prime Minister Blair but the evidence is to the contrary in America. And there is no evidence that the CIA ever said that Saddam Hussein was tied to al-Qaeda and could have had anything to do with September 11th directly or indirectly, a representation that's been made by our government in America. So I think it's important to look to the future, to try to figure out how we can organise the intelligence services properly, how we can have the proper relationship between the policymakers and intelligence. But it's important not to blame them for things that they either didn't do or that were perfectly predictable while they were trying to adjust to a new security environment.

DAVID FROST: The intelligence community got it wrong, in America, and seems to have got it wrong here, and the president and the Prime Minister both received that information and went ahead with it, who is, who is to blame? I mean John Kerry says Bush decisions cost lives but who is to blame when faulty intelligence comes in? The person who delivers it or the person who receives and accepts it?

BILL CLINTON: ... I think certainly if the person who delivers it gives false intelligence that he should have known was false or by a reasonable effort could have known was false, he is to blame. If the person who receives it and acts on it fails to ask questions which a reasonable person would ask, which would have shown up the holes in the intelligence, then he has to share the responsibility. But it depends on how that intelligence came to them and whether it came from a source that had been reliable in the past.

You know just not very long ago Vice-President Cheney was still representing that, that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11 and was somehow tied to the al-Qaeda, so that's not George Tenet's fault, that's not the CIA's fault, so it's important to unpack this. The larger problem is nobody ever wants to admit they're not very good at something. You don't and I don't. Nobody does.

DAVID FROST: As we come towards the end of this interview, one question. What would you put on your gravestone if you were the man writing it? What would you like to see there?

BILL CLINTON: (long pause) He loved his family, his friends and his country. He left them and the

world better than he found them. DAVID FROST: And in making that world better, do you plan to take on in the future here any major, major assignments of your own, apart from becoming first husband?

BILL CLINTON: Well I, I'm very proud of Hillary and I'm glad to support her political career, I have no political designs of my own. When I finish the book tour, I'm going to do what I can for Senator Kerry, whom I strongly support and believe would be an excellent president.

DAVID FROST: You don't think you'll overshadow him?

BILL CLINTON: No. No. He's the main event now, starting in late July, he'll be our nominee. But I'll do whatever he wants, if he wants me to stay home and play golf, I'll do that too. But what I'm, but anyway, in any case when this, when my book tour is over and when the election is over, I intend to be a full time public servant again, so I'm going to go back - I'm a long way from finishing this Aids project.

You know we, I'm going to work through that, I have education projects and religious and racial reconciliation projects in the Middle East and Africa and India, economic projects. So I'm going to do a lot of the work that I did as president where I can still have an impact, through my foundation. And the longer and harder I work, the more things I will try to add to that and the more - but I believe that I should just be a private citizen doing what I can.

I think Jimmy Carter's been a great former president and I think that there's a lot of evidence that what he's done for 20 years and what I've done for three that can make a difference - that's what I intend to do.

DAVID FROST: And to use a phrase from report cards and so on, if you were asked the question how many marks out of ten would you give yourself as a president?

BILL CLINTON: I wouldn't answer.

DAVID FROST: (LAUGHS)

BILL CLINTON: I wouldn't answer because it's better for me to let history judge and I think that it will be judged over and over. But I will say this, the way I kept score was by considering everyone's life a story, just like mine was.

And I wanted more people to have better stories when I stopped than when I started. I don't think there's any question that a lot of them did. I kept score by the over 22 million new jobs, more than ten million more people with college aid, five million more kids with health insurance, 43 million more young people breathing clean air. I could go on. 35 million with a family leave law.

We had safer streets, we a cleaner environment, and around the world the people in Bosnia and Kosovo had better stories, the people in Northern Ireland had better stories, the people in the Middle East made seven years of progress towards peace and in '98 we had the only year in the history of the state of Israel where no-one died in a terrorist attack. So you know we reconciled with Russia, with China, we built these international organisations.

I think a lot of people had better stories. And that the only way I know. I wouldn't give myself stars or historical rankings. All I know is the way I kept score is that I wanted more people to have better stories, and a lot of them did


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.


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