Tuesday, March 23, 2004

2002 PBS interview: Richard Clarke

There was a PBS frontline special almost two years ago on FBI agent John O'Neill & 9/11. It was titled “The Man Who Knew” (about 9/11) and it aired on October 3, 2002.

PBS includes an extensive interview with the man presently in the news -- Counter-Terrorism expert Richard Clarke. The Clarke interview was conducted on March 20, 2002.

If you have any questions about Clarke's beliefs, motivations or qualifications, go read the entire 2002 interview (its rather lengthy).

Here are some excerpts:

How was [O'Neill]'s view of the potential terrorist threat domestically different than a lot of other folks at the FBI or elsewhere?

Well, I would go around the country to FBI offices and ask, "Is there an Al Qaeda presence in Chicago, in San Francisco, in Boston?" And typically the reaction I would get is, "What's Al Qaeda?"

But not with John. John knew what Al Qaeda was. He was among the first people to see the bin Laden threat. He believed there was a bin Laden network in the United States even if he couldn't prove it. So he was constantly trying to prove it, because of what he understood about the Al Qaeda network and the rest of the world, he said, "It's inconceivable that they're not here."

What did he understand that nobody else understood?

I think he understood, first of all, that Al Qaeda wasn't a nuisance -- that what Al Qaeda said in its documents and bin Laden's speeches was the truth. He said to me once, "You know, it's like Mein Kampf. Hitler wrote Mein Kampf when Hitler was just a jerk. No one took him seriously, so no one read the book, or if they read the book, they didn't believe he would try to do what was in the book. [John] said, "Bin Laden's just like this. When you read what this guy says he's going to do, he's serious. He is going to try to do it in the Middle East, and there are a lot of people who support him. A lot of people are giving this guy money. We have to take him seriously, because what he says he's going to do is to go to war with the United States."

Let's talk about connecting the dots, which he seemed to be very good at. Explain the inability or the ability of some to connect those dots early on.

I think if you ask most terrorism experts in the mid-1990s, "Name the major terrorist organizations that might be a threat to the United States," they would have said Hezbollah, which had a relationship with Iran. They would have said Hamas, which is a Palestinian group. Most people would not have said Al Qaeda. Most people wouldn't have known that there was an Al Qaeda.

If you ask them, "Well, what about this man bin Laden?" most people in the mid-1990s would have said, "Ah, yes, the terrorist financier." What O'Neill said was, "No, this man is not a financier. Yes, he's got some of his own money, and he's very good at raising money from other people. But that's not all he's about. The money is money for a purpose. The purpose is building a worldwide terrorist network based out of Afghanistan, initially based out of Sudan, but then moved to Afghanistan. A worldwide terrorist network, the point of which is going after the United States, after governments friendly to the United States, particularly in the Arab world." So O'Neill did see early on that this was more than just another terrorist group. It was a serious threat it was in the process of building.

When did they recognize that?

By the time 1998 the embassy bombings occurred, I think everyone in the Clinton Cabinet would have said that Al Qaeda is a serious threat. In fact, if you look in retrospect at what the Clinton administration did after those embassy bombings through to the end of that administration -- since now most of it is public knowledge, lot of it was highly classified at the time -- if 9/11 had not happened, most Americans looking at what the Clinton administration did about bin Laden would have said, "What an overreaction. Why were they so preoccupied with bin Laden?"

There was an enormous amount of activity that was carried on if you look at the predicate, prior to the attack on the Cole destroyer in October 2000. The predicate was Americans killed at two embassies in Africa. Yet there was this massive program that was initiated to go after bin Laden. It didn't succeed, but it tried very hard. It did prevent some attacks, and it delayed others. But looked at in vacuum, the Clinton administration activities, 1998 to the end of the administration against bin Laden -- if you look at that without knowing in advance that 9/11 is going to happen, if you can separate that in your mind, the Clinton administration activities against bin Laden were massive.
So the frustration that a lot of us had, that people weren't paying enough attention, largely ended with the 1998 embassy bombings.

Some also say that due to the Lewinsky scandal, more action perhaps was never undertaken. In your eyes?

The interagency group on which I sat and John O'Neill sat -- we never asked for a particular action to be authorized and were refused. We were never refused. Any time we took a proposal to higher authority, with one or two exceptions, it was approved....

You tried to convince him, it has been written, to take your job. Can you tell me a little bit about that what happened?

Shortly after the Bush administration came into office, we were asked to think about how we organized the White House for a number of issues, including cybersecurity, computer security, homeland security, and counterterrorism. I was asked for my advice, and I proposed that the counterterrorism responsibility be broken off be a separate job, and that the cybersecurity job be broken off as a separate job. I said I had done counterterrorism for about a decade, and I wanted to start working on cybersecurity, which I think is terribly important. That was later approved by the president.

So the question came, "Well, who would you recommend to do the terrorism job?" I came up with four or five names. The first name that came to mind was John O'Neill, because he had the right combination of talents. He had an incredible drive. He never took his eye off the ball. He was never satisfied with halfway measures when it meant saving American lives. He would never let people think about this as just another job. He knew the bureaucracy, and he knew how to make things happen. He was incredibly intelligent. I thought he had all the right sets of skills to do the job at the White House.

But he was not terribly excited about that. I think he either wanted to come to work in headquarters of the FBI again, or he wanted to get out and start making a decent living. He chose to do the latter, I guess, and I respect that. Government servants frequently don't get paid what they get paid on the outside. You can only ask them to sacrifice for so long, because they're not just sacrificing for themselves, they're sacrificing for their families.

Let me ask you about a couple of events. In 1997, he gives the Chicago speech where he says, "We should expect an attack." He's talking in that same period of time about, or a little after, of cells within the country. How common was this belief at FBI and NSA?

In 1997, I think there were only a handful of us who knew that there were Al Qaeda cells in the United States. When my boss, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, would ask the FBI in a formal meeting, "Is there an Al Qaeda presence in the United States?" their formal answer would be, "We don't know of one, and we don't think there is one." But if you asked O'Neill, or you had asked me, a few others, including some people in the CIA, the answer would have been, "We can't prove it yet, but we see the smoke, and where there's smoke, there's fire." Sure, there were cells. We weren't able to prove it at the time.

But what John O'Neill was trying to do was to get a momentum going in the FBI to look seriously for those cells, to look for the connections which, frankly, most FBI offices were not doing. It was not one of the priorities in most FBI field offices.

A lot of people looked at Sept. 11, and said "Massive intelligence failure. Haven't seen an intelligence failure like this since Pearl Harbor." What's your opinion on that allegation?

I think it's a cheap shot. I think when people say, no matter what event it is, they say, "Oh, it was an intelligence failure," they frequently don't know what the intelligence community said prior to the event. In June 2001, the intelligence community issued a warning that a major Al Qaeda terrorist attack would take place in the next many weeks. They said they were unable to find out exactly where it might take place. They said they thought it might take place in Saudi Arabia.

We asked, "Could it take place in the United States?" They said, "We can't rule that out." So in my office in the White House complex, the CIA sat and briefed the domestic U.S. federal law enforcement agencies, Immigration, Federal Aviation, Coast Guard, and Customs. The FBI was there as well, agreeing with the CIA, and told them that we were entering a period when there was a very high probability of a major terrorist attack. Now I don't think that's an intelligence failure. It may be a failure of other parts of the government, but I don't think that was an intelligence failure. . . So I think a lot of the FBI leadership, for the first time, realized that O'Neill was right -- that there probably were Al Qaeda people in the United States. They realized that only after they looked at the results of the investigation of the millennium bombing plot. So by February 2000, I think senior people in the FBI were saying there probably is a network here in the United States, and we have to change the way the FBI goes about finding that network.

The June-July warnings. A lot of things happened at that point. Do we think now that Sept. 11 was in fact what was being talked about?

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Because one of the things that surprises a lot of the public, I think, is that immediately after Sept. 11, the administration knew exactly who had done it. Was that why?

No. On the day of Sept. 11, then the day or two following, we had a very open mind. CIA and FBI were asked, "See if it's Hezbollah. See if it's Hamas. Don't assume it's Al Qaeda. Don't just assume it's Al Qaeda." Frankly, there was absolutely not a shred of evidence that it was anybody else. The evidence that it was Al Qaeda began just to be massive within days after the attack.

Somebody's quoted as saying that they walked into your office and almost immediately afterwards, the first words out of your mouth was "Al Qaeda."

Well, I assumed it was Al Qaeda. No one else had the intention of doing that. No one else that I knew of had the capability of doing that. So yes, as soon as it happened, I assumed it was Al Qaeda.

In January 2001, you wrote a memo where you basically stated there are more attacks coming, [that] Al Qaeda cells are here. What was that memo? What was the reason for it looking back at it now? How right did you get it?

I think the intelligence community, the FBI, were unanimous, certainly throughout the year 2000 into 2001, that there was in fact a very widespread Al Qaeda network around the world in probably between 50-60 countries -- that they had trained thousands, perhaps over 10,000 terrorists at the camps in Afghanistan; that we didn't really know who those people were. We didn't have names for very many of them, and we didn't know where they were; but since bin Laden kept saying the United States was the target, the United States was the enemy, that we had to expect an increasing rate of sophistication of attacks by this large Al Qaeda network against the United States.

As John O'Neill kept saying, there was no reason to think they're always going to go after us in Saudi Arabia or Africa or Yemen. They tried to go after us, O'Neill would say, in 1993, in the first World Trade Center attack. O'Neill was convinced, in retrospect -- and it took the FBI others a long time to realize it, many years actually -- but O'Neill was convinced by the year 2000, certainly probably earlier than that, that the 1993 attack was in fact a bin Laden-led attack. We hadn't heard the phrase Al Qaeda at the time.
We now know, going back through historical documents, that there was an Al Qaeda [back then]. It had just been formed, just been given that name. It was small. But O'Neill would say the attack of 1993 was Al Qaeda. The attempted attack at the millennium in the United States was Al Qaeda.

Posted at 11:27 AM in Politics, War/Defense | Permalink

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