NEW YORK — Richard Clarke, President Bush’s former chief counterterrorism adviser, said Wednesday it was possible that he and his team could have prevented the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks if the Bush administration had paid more attention to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terror network.
Clarke’s comments, in an hourlong interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” were a departure from the testimony he gave last week before the independent commission investigating the attacks, when he answered no to whether there was “the remotest chance that it would have prevented 9-11” even if everything he had called for had been implemented.
But Clarke told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on Wednesday that he hoped he and his team would have been able to take action to quash the attacks, which killed about 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, had the CIA and the FBI sufficiently coordinated the bits and pieces of information they had about the 19 Saudis who hijacked four planes and crashed them in the worst attack on U.S. soil.
“The people in the FBI and CIA dropped the ball or we would have known those facts,” said Clarke, adding, “If that information had bubbled up — if the system had worked in FBI, if the system had worked in CIA — I think we probably could have” made a difference.
Acknowledging that he was indulging in “20/20 hindsight,” Clarke said, “I would like to think I would have gone on battle stations.”
Bush and Iraq
Clarke told the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States last week that Bush and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, ignored al-Qaida before the attacks. He said his access to senior officials was cut off by the new Bush administration, which he said did not consider terrorism to be an “urgent problem.” In contrast, he said, the Clinton administration gave the terrorist threat its “highest priority.”
Clarke has said the president then rushed to blame Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Clarke’s testimony was considered so damaging that the White House agreed Monday to allow the commission to question Rice in public and under oath , reversing course after insisting that she should not have to do so to protect the president’s executive privilege.
Wednesday, Clarke blasted Bush for going to war with Iraq, saying the president’s decision was “my chief motivation” in writing his best-selling book criticizing the White House. He said Bush’s obsession with Saddam had short-circuited the larger war against terrorism.
“We had a window of opportunity after 9-11 to really root out terrorism,” Clarke said. “Instead, we took this excursion, going into Iraq, which had the exact opposite effect. It strengthened terrorism.”
He said he feared that U.S. invasions of Iran or Syria could be in the offing “if the same people are around. ... I fear that they haven’t learned from their mistake.”
‘Vulcans’ in charge
Clarke said the group of hard-line conservatives Bush put in charge of his defense and security structure had taken over the administration’s foreign policy, and “they all had Iraq on the mind from the day they came into office.”
The officials — a group Clarke said called itself “the Vulcans” — were led by Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, Clarke said, adding that their fervor to remove Saddam clouded their judgment about the consequences.
“I think they did a bad job of analysis,” Clarke said. “... My guess — and this is really sad — is that they never sat around and said, ‘What will the effect be on the recruitment of al-Qaida, on the empowerment of al-Qaida? What’s the negative, downside of going into Iraq?’”
But “the president has to have the ultimate responsibility,” Clarke said, accusing Bush of primarily being “interested in finishing the old man’s business” by ousting Saddam after his father ended the first Gulf War without changing the Iraqi government in 1991. Saddam was later accused of trying to assassinate the first President Bush.
Clarke lodged much the same charge against Cheney, who was defense secretary during the first Gulf War. Cheney, he said, “was interested in cleaning up a mistake that he made” when he recommended ending the ground war after only 100 days.
Clarke has clashed sharply with Rice over their assessments of the administration’s grip on the threat from al-Qaida, but he said Wednesday that he was confident that Rice would tell the truth when she testifies next week.
“Dr. Rice is a very honorable woman who served her country very admirably, and I don’t see any reason to impugn her veracity,” who characterized his disagreements with her as “a matter of opinion, rather than fact.”
After Republicans intimated that Clarke may have committed perjury by contradicting testimony he gave before Congress two years ago, Clarke said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he had nothing to hide and would “welcome” an attempt to declassify his comments.
He said Rice’s earlier private testimony before the commission should also be declassified, as well as e-mails, memos and all other correspondence between Rice and Clarke.
Rice may testify next week
Rice’s new testimony is expected by the end of next week. The commission’s Democratic vice chairman, former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, said the panel’s staff was reviewing previous statements by Clarke and Rice to help identify discrepancies.
Bush and Cheney have agreed to meet with all 10 members in private, but no date has been set. They will appear together, allowing them to reinforce each other’s recollections, a privilege Clarke noted Wednesday that he had not had.
“I guess when you’re president you get special treatment,” he told Matthews.
The commission is scheduled to release its final report by July 26. It is to resume its full public hearings April 13, focusing on the legal and intelligence communities. Scheduled witnesses include Attorney General John Ashcroft and his predecessor, Janet Reno; CIA Director George Tenet; and FBI Director Bob Mueller and his predecessor, Louis Freeh.
Clarke’s book and his comments in recent interviews enraged the White House, which launched a furious assault on his credibility. A variety of administration officials, from Cheney on down, denounced Clarke as a disgruntled political opportunist intent on salvaging his reputation and selling his book. The administration took the extraordinary step of issuing a long, point-by-point written rebuttal of the claims made in the book.
Bush told reporters that he would have acted more quickly against al-Qaida if he had had information before Sept. 11 that an attack on the U.S. homeland was imminent.
The issue has taken on increasing importance in an election year in which Bush’s re-election hopes appear in large part to rest on public trust in his ability to protect the nation. Confidence in his ability to handle security matters, which was high after the terrorist attacks, increased again during the war in Iraq. But the percentage of people who trust Bush has fallen below 50 percent in some polls since the war.
By MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson. MSNBC-TV’s Doug Pasternak contributed to this report.