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A conversation with Bill Clinton

Former President Bill Clinton talks to Tom Brokaw about the campaign, Iraq, the war on terror, and other issues of the day

Before the start of the Democratic National Convention, former President Bill Clinton sat down with NBC's Tom Brokaw in Boston.  This is the transcript of their conversation.

Tom Brokaw:  Mr. President, when you ran successfully in 1992, the mantra of the campaign famously was, "It's the economy, stupid."  In this campaign, is it likely to be, "It's the 9/11 report stupid"?  Is this going to become the defining issue of this campaign?

President Bill Clinton:  I don't think so.  But I do believe it'll be a major issue.  That is I think there will be two great issues in this campaign.  One is — "What should the federal government be doing at home?  Are our policies right or wrong?  Are we moving in the right direction or not?"

And the second is the 9/11 report.  "What's the best way to promote the national security and defy terror and weapons of mass destruction?"  So I think there'll be two.  And I think if either side can claim the high ground on both — then that candidate will win.  If they're divided, then it's likely to be a very close race.

Brokaw:  From a political point of view, have you been surprised by how both sides have not rushed to find common ground on this 9/11 report?  Not said that this goes beyond partisan politics, "We've got to work together on this"?

President Clinton:  Well, I think that to be fair, they make some very sweeping recommendations.  And it — look how thick the book is.  They made a lot of findings, some of which were released in advance.  But I think the members of Congress rightly want to have time to review it.

What I was concerned about is that they would delay this until after the election, which I think would be an error.  And now it appears that they are going to take up the report and begin work on it before the election.  I think that's good.

I'd be surprised if we don't find a lot of common ground in the end in Congress.  I think that these commissioners plainly decided that they would bend over backwards to avoid making any findings that could be used one way or the other in this election.

And I think they did it because they wanted Congress to focus on what's going to happen in the future.  And that's probably alright.  Because you know no American president would knowingly let a 9/11 occur if he or she knew what to do to stop it.

Brokaw:  This report says that there was more inaction than action across the board, across both administrations.  You've defended your missile attacks.  But looking back now, were we playing by our rules, and al-Qaida and the terrorists were playing by a whole new set of rules?  And are we gonna have to change and play by their rules?

President Clinton:  Well, I think we didn't have all the tools we needed to fight.  That is, we had intelligence, law enforcement, and military.  But what we needed was a different sort of intelligence, that is the ability to permeate their cells.

And we needed paramilitary capacity.  I remember once — the CIA thought it could mount a paramilitary action against bin Laden and decided they didn't have the capacity to do it.  And so we began to contract with the Afghan tribals.  Then every time I talked about bringing in the special forces, the Pentagon was strongly opposed to it.

It's obvious that we need to develop that special forces capacity.  And we need to be able to put it in play even if we don't have perfect intelligence.  But the American people are going to have to be patient with that.  Essentially, there's a gap between the law enforcement strategy, which has worked very well by the way.  We took down about 20 al-Qaida cells in my term.  And then since 9/11 — in this administration, they've taken about 20 cells down.

We prevented a lot of attacks.  But the problem with terror is you don't get credit for saves.  It's not baseball.  You can prevent — we prevented attacks on the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, the LA airport, lots of other attacks planned for America.  And blowing up airplanes -- American planes coming from Philippines to Los Angeles.  But in the end, you know it's hard to be 100 percent successful.

But you have to be more and more successful.  And in the end you have to be able to go after the source.  So I think the problem was that even though the law enforcement strategies worked very well, the military strategy is of limited utility.  Now if you take Afghanistan, where we have 15,000 troops, apparently the only time we had to get bin Laden arguably was at Tora Bora, when we decided instead to send in surrogates.

That had not worked in my tenure.  And this — it didn't work this time.  So if we wanted to follow a military strategy, we'd have to have more or less the same number of troops in Afghanistan that we do in Iraq.  Because bin Laden has a lot of hiding places.

Brokaw:  A lot of people are going to wonder if not you personally, your White House staff wasn't distracted somewhat, or at least responding to the politics of impeachment which were going on at the same time.

President Clinton:  Well, if they read the report, they made a finding that that did not deter me, it didn't affect me at all.  It didn't have anything to do with the decisions I made.  And I made it utterly clear to everybody that came in personal contact with me that they should go after bin Laden, try to take down al-Qaida, and let me worry about the politics.  They should just totally disregard it.  And as far as I know, that's what we did.

Brokaw:  Did you have confidence in the CIA when you were president?

President Clinton:  I did.  I thought George Tenet did a particularly good job in the Middle East when we were working for peace.  That on more than occasion, that both the Israelis and the Palestinians wanted George to both draw up and monitor the security plans that would enable the peace process to go forward.

I think what happened with the intelligence here was — understandable.  But I think it's important not to ask them to take too much of a fall.  My big problem is more of a lack of coordination between the FBI and the CIA, information sharing, and working together.

But in terms of the CIA, what happened is as you well know, is we had an intelligence operation organized for the Cold War.  And we had a lot of guys (laughter) that looked good in gray suits, speaking Russian, who had contacts with people in the Soviet Union and the other Communist countries.

So all of a sudden, poof, it's over in 1989.  And we had to turn on a dime.  Now we need people who can walk the streets of Tehran, who can walk the streets of Baghdad, who can get into the rural areas of Afghanistan, who can speak these languages.  And we just simply weren't organized for that.  And it takes awhile to reorient the human intelligence that way.

So there's no question that we had deficiencies of intelligence.  But I think that is a function of the difficulty of recruiting, training — teaching languages, doing all that.  That it's unfortunate that the rise of terror occurred before the CIA had reoriented itself.  But I don't think that means they were necessarily as derelict as somehow they've been portrayed.  I think the bigger problem is that they did have a heck of a lot of information.

And the FBI had a heck of a lot of information.  And they didn't share it well enough.  And in the case of the FBI, they didn't follow-up on the two agents calling in saying, "These guys are up here flying these planes, not taking off and landing."

Brokaw:  And as this report says, "There was an absence of imagination or lack of it on the part of everyone."

President Clinton:  Well I — one of the things that bothers me about it — and let me tell you the extent to which I agree with that.  And I don't agree with it entirely.  Because as I said, because 9/11 happened and it was so horrible, none of these people get any credit for their saves.

But every day there are hundreds of people no Americans know out there working on this, trying to keep us safe.  And a lot of 'em were there when I was there and are there now.  So if they take down 20 cells, we don't know it, if they — as they did when I was President.

They take down 20 more after 9/11, we don't know it.  So I think they're quite clever and innovative in some ways.  They were intercepting a lot of bin Laden's telephone conversations at one time.  And then somebody foolishly leaked it to the Washington Times.  And then all of a sudden our adversaries started using these throw away cell phones — make a couple of calls and throw 'em away.

I think the lack of imagination from my point of view is quite specific.  I think that we need — as much as we need an overall coordinator, I think we need the best minds from all these intelligence services working together — in a lab where they start thinking about what they're going to do next and how to prevent it.

Instead of how to react if it happens or how to prevent when you pick up a lead, how to stop this crime from being committed.  You know it's like you — we — they basically — let's think of it as an armed robbery.  They got people out there that want to stop this armed robbery.

But I also think they should be thinking about what the next thing they're going to do.  They blew up the African embassies because they knew the African countries had Muslims who would be sympathetic, had embassies near the street, and were too poor to have huge security forces to protect.  So we began to fix the embassies.

So then they blew up the Cole, because they knew — they know we couldn't have blown that little boat up that came up with the bomb, that Americans weren't going to do that in a little harbor.  It's no way to make friends and influence people.  So we fixed that.  We took the ships back out of narrow harbors.  So while we're fixing that, then they do 9/11, which essentially was jet airplanes turned into chemical weapons.

So we fixed that.  You can't hijack a plane with a razorblade anymore.  But that's not what they're going to do next time.  They'll be thinking about something else.  So my view is, in terms of imagination we need to have the best people in all these intelligence agencies thinking just like they do, thinking of all the most likely scenarios and then blocking them.  So far as they can.  And I think they are doing much more of that now.

Brokaw:  Mr. President, they did give us a lot of signals.  They drove us out of Somalia.  And they took great pride in that.  They went after the embassies in Africa.  They went after the USS Cole.  We launched some missiles against them.  But there was never a time in either party or in your White House in which someone stood up and said, "Look, we're at war with terrorism now.  And we're going to have to do something that may not be entirely comfortable for the American public and for you to give orders to the Pentagon."  Did that ever occur to you?  That you're...

President Clinton:  Oh, absolutely...

Brokaw:  ...going to have to take it to a different level?

President Clinton:  Absolutely.  But let's go through the facts here.  First of all, at the time of Somalia, no one had any idea that bin Laden and al Qaida were involved in any way with what happened in Somalia.  At the time it occurred, insofar as anybody had any knowledge of bin Laden, they thought he was a financier of terrorism and not an operative.

So I think you have to take that one off the board.  'Cause that's something that was found out way later.  Now after the African embassy bombings, we bombed sites of the camps and killed a couple of dozen of his operatives when we thought he was gonna be there.  I asked the Pentagon to draw up various plans.  Then when the Cole happened — I thought we had to go in with a military response.

But it was October of 2000.  I had three months left to go.  And the FBI and the CIA had not jointly certified bin Laden's responsibility until I left office.  Had I been there then, I would've ordered military action of some kind.  Because I don't think there was any option to do that.  And I've been talking about this for years as you know.  And way back in '96, I said that this would be the great scourge of our time, the whole terrorism threat and their efforts to get weapons of mass destruction.

So, it would've been my judgment that, if I'd been sitting there and they said, "Okay, they did it and we finally can certify it," I think I would've had no choice but to order some sort of military action.

Brokaw:  Mr. President, plainly Iraq is going to be a big issue in this campaign.  The new interim government now is at a very delicate place.  The insurgency is coming right after them.  Do Democrats have to be careful that they don't give the impression that they're walking away from Iraq during the course of the campaign?

President Clinton:  Well, let me say it a different way.  I think that whether you agree or disagree with the president's decision to morph 9/11 and the al-Qaida threat into the threat of Iraq, in the 9/11 commission, I think it's very important they made a very clear finding that there was no operational connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and that al-Qaida had more contacts through Iran and Pakistan than they ever did with Iraq.

So the two things are unrelated.  Therefore, I think it was error to attack before the U.N. inspectors finished their work.  However, we are where we are.  The president has now gone back to the U.N. and given them jurisdiction with the U.N. resolution.  The U.N. has assumed jurisdiction over Iraq.  The Iraqis have their sovereignty.

And we're there trying to help 'em make it work.  It seems to me that we — now whatever we think about what happened before, if we can make this work, that is if we can have a pluralistic, safe, secure environment in Iraq, we would all be better off.  So I think that when we Democrats — we're on solid ground if we want to say that — the president should not have interrupted the U.N. inspections.

But we — the most important thing in every job is, "What are you going to do tomorrow?"  And I just think we have to be careful about that.  I would hate to see having lost over 900 American lives — 77-some percent of them after the mission was declared accomplished — I'd hate to see us walk away from it if there's a reasonable chance to make it work.

Because I think that this integration there would make the region more vulnerable to terror.  And, so I think we do have to be careful about that.

Brokaw:  Anyone who goes to the Middle East knows that in that part of the world, they say, "Look it's not about Iraq.  It's really about the Palestinians and the...

President Clinton:  Of course...

Brokaw:  ...Israelis."  That's the root cause...

President Clinton:  Absolutely.

Brokaw:  ...of terrorism.  Do you think that that conflict, which has been going on for so long, can be resolved given the principals who are now at each other — Sharon for the Israelis and Arafat for the Palestinians?

President Clinton:  Well, the obvious answer would appear to be yes.  But I have lived with and worked with the Middle East long enough to know that sometimes the obvious is not true.  If Ariel Sharon decides in his late 70s that he wants his lasting legacy not to be what happened in Lebanon over 20 years ago, but a strong peace as Menachem Begin made with Anwar Sadat at Camp David, if he actually brings Shimon Peres back into the government in good faith, if this wall on the West Bank is a temporary thing to keep people alive and not a permanent narrower barrier — if he does withdraw from Gaza, yes, they can make peace.

They can still do it.  But they — the good news is, they know what a final peace looks like.  It looks pretty much like what I proposed.  If you look at what those Israelis and Palestinians agreed to in Geneva in greater detail, they just take — they took my proposal and filled in the blanks.

Second piece of good news is, a lot of Palestinians want peace.  A lot of the younger activists in the PLO want peace.  Third piece of good news is, Arafat said about a year and a half ago, he would actually try to finalize negotiations based on the parameters that I put forward that he rejected when I was president.

So they could still do it.  And it's just a question of how many people are going to die before they do it.  But there's no question 75 percent of the impetus, maybe more in the world for terror would evaporate if that problem were solved.

Brokaw:  What's the big danger for John Kerry as he runs for president against George Bush in the coming months?

President Clinton:  I don't know.  I don't think there's a lot of danger.  I think John Kerry needs to show people who he is.  He needs to close the deal with the American people.  I would say this is likely to be a fairly close election.  But on today's facts, he has the advantage.  And they —need to use this convention to close the deal.

Brokaw:  What does he want you to do in the campaign?

President Clinton:  I don't know.  He wants me to speak tonight. I went out to Nevada for him.  Hillary and I have done a number of things for him.  She appeared before the teachers' forum.  And we've done a lot of fundraisers for him.  I'll do whatever he wants.

But those of us who know him, and believe he would be a good president, should say that and should say why.  That's what I intend to do tomorrow [Monday] night.  Then in the end, you know he'll have his chance with the American people — he and John Edwards.  And they'll have a good — they'll take a long step toward closing the deal.

Then we'll have these debates.  I think the most important thing for him is to be as clear as he can about his plans —on the domestic front and on foreign policy, knowing that no matter who's elected something's going to happen in the next 12 months they didn't anticipate.  Still, the American people like it if you tell 'em what you're going to do.

It makes a huge difference.  And I think John would be a good President.  I think he has all the qualities to succeed.  And I like his policies.  I like his energy policies, his environmental policies, his health care policies, economic policies, his education policies.  And I like his Homeland Security policy.  And his take on Iraq is about where mine is.  So I feel good about that.  I just think he needs to put it out there.

Brokaw:  Does he have to worry about the tone of the language of some of his supporters going after George Bush?

President Clinton:  I think he has to — the most important thing is that he not do — fall into that.

Brokaw:  It's okay for them to do it?

President Clinton:  Well, I don't think he — we — there's nothing we can do about it.  If you look as we do this interview, there was a stunning chart on the front page of the New York Times today [Sunday].  I don't know if you saw it.  Which showed how much more partisan perceptions had gotten since 1980.  That's the year of the rise of the right in America.

Just -- and less than a year ago, Grover North was to convince all the right wing lobbyists in Washington every week, said his great goal was to bring the same the bitter partisanship to every state capitol in America they brought to Washington.  So all you've got now is the inevitable reaction among the Democrats that to — what the Republicans have been doing since the 1980 election.

And to Iraq and to America's withdrawal from all these other international agreements.  I mean we've gotten out of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that every Republican from Eisenhower to Reagan supported.  This administration doesn't support that.  We have an economic policy that gives you and me tax cuts, and kicks poor children — hundreds of thousands of poor children — out of their after school programs.  Our side doesn't like it.

The bitterness is I think also really rooted in the reaction to the 2002 elections, where every Democrat who didn't support the Homeland Security Bill just as it was written was treated as an ally of Saddam Hussein.  Max Cleland left half his body in Vietnam.  And the guys like me who didn't go, runs against him in comparison to Saddam Hussein because he wasn't for President Bush's version of the Homeland Security Bill, which the President himself had opposed for nearly a year.

So the next day if you're not for it, once he changes his mind, you're a traitor.  It was absurd.  And there's a lot of venom and anger built up there.  But the President has to be bigger than that.  The President has — always going to have passionate supporters — just as President Bush does on the right.  But if you want to be president, you have to try to bring people together.  And that's what I would counsel Kerry to do.  And that's what I think he will do.

Brokaw:  On the other side, do you worry that you'll become a lightening rod again if you stand up beside John Kerry there will be Republicans out there saying, "Here's a guy who lied to his family, lied under oath, lied to the country, and he's back again"?  Or... do you think the book has put that away?

President Clinton:  Well, I think it was — first of all now, I don't know what the book did.  The book, I think is what it is, the story of my life.  But I — what I think about that is, when I left office, about two-thirds of the American people thought I'd been a good President.  And they thought I was pulling for them.

They thought I'd made a bad mistake and paid for it.  And some of them who thought I was a good president didn't think I was a good man.  I expect that's still the way it is today.  But the American people are not about to vote against John Kerry because of me.  You know that's an insult to the intelligence of the American people that says they would blame somebody else for what I did wrong, and they would vote against their own self-interest.

So that's not going to happen.  People just aren't dumb.  That's not what they do.  (laughter) They're smart.  They'll figure it out.

Brokaw:  Are you going to stand up before this convention hall and think to yourself, "Darn, I'd like to be saying at the end of this speech, 'And so I accept your (laughter) nomination.'"?

President Clinton:  Not really.  I, you know, I was thinking about that today.  I — the last three conventions, I was either the nominee or the president.  But I had a great life in politics.  And now I'm sort of back to being a foot soldier, just like I was.  I — I came...

Brokaw:  A little... wealthier foot soldier...

President Clinton:  Yeah.  I came in '72 and worked in a trailer.  I came in '76 as an onlooker and then ran President Carter's campaign in my state.  I came in 1980 and gave the best speech I could for President Carter even though it didn't work out so well.

I was in the head of my delegation in '84 in San Francisco.  And in '88 I was there.  So most of my life, I've been a foot soldier in the Democratic Party in these campaigns.  And I guess I'm ending up where I started.  And I feel pretty good about it.  I'm perfectly happy to let Hillary be the politician in the family now.

Brokaw:  Let me ask you about your book.  Honest response.  How many times a day do you go to Amazon to see how well you're doing?

President Clinton:  (Laughter) Not at all.  But I used to check once a day to see how the sales are.  Now we're down to checking once a week.  (Laughter) But you know, the most important — I just did a signing in Boston today.

And the nicest thing about doing this, I've signed about 32,000 books now, is having people come up and say specific things that I did that changed their lives — the Family Leave Law, or college aid, or Americorps, or talk about things in the book that they identified with.

Now, more and more people have read it when they come to get it signed.  So we talk about their lives and mine.  And I've loved that.

Brokaw:  Mr. President, one final question.  Have you talked to Sandy Berger about his investigation?

President Clinton:  Yeah.  I've known about this for some months.  I think everybody — the White House knew about it...

Brokaw:  John Kerry didn't know about it, though.

President Clinton:  I didn't know that.  But I did know about it.  And there — there was a reason I knew about it, because we had to change — from Sandy to Bruce Lindsey to going in, you know looking at the documents, so that I could be prepared for 9/11.  So that's how I knew about it.

But I also was well aware that both the Justice Department and the White House knew about it for months and months.  And I had talked about it.  And he told me just what he said to the public.  He said, "You know, I just messed this up."  All I can say is that his story is credible to anyone who ever worked with him.

He has an incredibly disciplined, ordered mind, a logical mind.  But he was always a workaholic.  His desk was always cluttered with papers.  I can — I have found this a credible explanation after spending 10 hours a day, three or four days in a row with all those documents.  I know this — he's a good man.  And he worked hard to protect our country.

And this — apparently this document in question was an after review of our efforts to thwart terrorist attacks in the millennium, which were extremely successful.  So there doesn't seem to be anything suspect to me about it.  And I'm -- you know I'm pulling for him.  He's a good man.

Brokaw:  Thank you, Mr. President.

President Clinton:  Thank you.