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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 March, 2004, 13:37 GMT
Richard Clarke
Richard Clarke
George Bush underestimated the threat of international terrorism, wilfully misread the intelligence to suit his political prejudices and has made the world a more dangerous place.

The accusations would be damaging from any quarter. But coming, as they do, from the man who was the White House Head of Counter Terrorism, they're devastating.

Richard Clarke spent twenty years tracking terrorism, is reckoned to know more about al-Qaeda than any other American, and was George Bush's crisis manager on 11 September.

Jeremy Paxman spoke to Richard Clarke in his only British television interview and asked him how well prepared he considered the Bush Administration to be to the threat posed by al-Qaeda, in the months running up to 11 September.

RICHARD A CLARKE:
No, I don't think anyone in the national security team including the President had any idea of the threat posed by Al-Qaeda and terrorism in general.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
Condoleezza Rice says they did understand the threat from Al-Qaeda and one of the difficulties was that you gave them no plan to deal with it?

RICHARD A CLARKE:
In fact we gave them a plan even before the President was inaugurated because we have been developing a plan, or should I say updating a plan, during October, November, December. So they had a plan on day one, and on day three of the administration I asked for an urgent meeting to review the plan.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
What response did you get?

RICHARD A CLARKE:
Well, after a long time, I was told that the Cabinet-level group could not meet on it until it had been reviewed and gone through a policy development process with lower-level people, and we didn't actually have that Cabinet-level meeting until September 4th.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
Do you believe that, had there been a greater sense of urgency, the attacks of September 11th might have been prevented?

RICHARD A CLARKE:
Well, I think that's facile to say that, but I will contrast for you the period December 1999, when we had similar information that an Al-Qaeda terrorist attack was going to take place, and President Clinton ordered his national security adviser to have meetings almost every day with the head of the FBI, head of the CIA, the Attorney-General. They would then go back to their departments and shake the trees and find out every little detail, and we succeeded in stopping three planned attacks that were going to take place around the Millennium. Contrast that with June and July of 2001, when we had similar information that something was about to happen, but the President did not ask the national security adviser to run any meetings. She did not run any meetings with the Attorney-General and the head of the FBI and the head of the CIA, and the defence department, to try to stop the attacks. I did what I could at my level, but there is a big difference between having the national security adviser holding meetings every other day at the request of the President, and having me do it.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
You are making a very serious allegation against George Bush and his administration here?

RICHARD A CLARKE:
Well, I think the President has gotten a free ride because of his own propaganda that he is a great anti-terrorist. In fact I think he ignored terrorism prior to 9/11, and after 9/11 I think he did some things that were obvious, didn't do some of them well, took too long to go after Bin Laden in Afghanistan and let him slip away, and then did something that really hurt the war on terrorism, and that was invade Iraq.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
What was his reaction after the attacks on New York and Washington?

RICHARD A CLARKE:
Well, he was obviously outraged, as were we all, but the next day he was asking me, in a very intimidating manner, to see if there was any Iraqi hand in it. The White House is now trying to say that all the President was doing was asking me to do due diligence, and to look for any possible hand by anyone, saying that I shouldn't just assume it was Al-Qaeda. In fact that's not what happened. He didn't ask me to look for anyone's involvement - he asked me to look for Iraqi involvement - and he did it in a way that heavily implied he wanted me to find Iraqi involvement. The White House originally said this meeting didn't take place. When they were informed that there were three eyewitnesses, they have now allowed that maybe it took place.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
You are a big fellow, not easily intimidated by the President of the United States saying to you, "Is Saddam Hussein behind this?" Are you?

RICHARD A CLARKE:
I have had to stand up to people in the past, never to a president, but I believe there are certain lines that you don't cross, and one of them is you don't make up intelligence and you don't cherry pick intelligence to suit your political agenda.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
Are you saying that he made it up?

RICHARD A CLARKE:
I am saying that the President and his administration have given an impression that Al-Qaeda was involved with Iraq in a serious way, and that perhaps Iraq had something to do with 9/11.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
By implication, you are saying that the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries were misled into the war with Iraq?

RICHARD A CLARKE:
Well, I think they were certainly misled on the charge of Iraqi involvement in 9/11.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
Who, then, was promoting the idea of going to war with Iraq?

RICHARD A CLARKE:
Well, President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, the Pentagon and Paul Wolfowitz. They were all thinking about it before 9/11.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
What was Tony Blair saying?

RICHARD A CLARKE:
I don't know. I certainly wasn't privy to any communications from the Prime Minister, but my assumption was that Tony Blair saw where the American administration was going, and thought that he could have some influence on it if he were inside the tent, inside the coalition. And he did have some influence. I think he caused the United States to spend more time at the United Nations, until the Vice-President and others thought we had spent enough time. I think Tony Blair probably caused President Bush to say things about our interest in an Arab-Israeli peace which he might not otherwise have said. Unfortunately, they haven't put much momentum behind those words. In short, I think Tony Blair got something out of being in the coalition, and you all have to be the judge in your country as to whether it was worth it.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
You know what the administration are saying about you, don't you, Mr Clarke? You are saying you are a politically motivated and bitter man who is hell bent on doing the utmost damage to George Bush and his administration in the hope of furthering the Democratic cause?

RICHARD A CLARKE:
Let me be clear, I do not seek and I will not accept a high level position in the John Kerry administration. I have served a number of years as a senior civil servant and that's quite enough. I will not go back to government. I am trying to get the facts out so that the American people can judge for themselves. I am not endorsing John Kerry, I am not part of his campaign, but I do think that the record was somewhat not imbalanced - that the full story hadn't gotten out.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
Would you like to see George Bush removed from the White House?

RICHARD A CLARKE:
I am not going to endorse George Bush or John Kerry. I am going to make sure the American people have the facts that I don't think they fully had before and they can make the appropriate decision.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
Thank you.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.



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