Richard Clarke, March 2002 Frontline Interview. He is talking about John O'Neill, the former FBI counterterrorism head who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11:
Q: Was he, were you, listened to [about the Al Qaeda threat]?
CLARKE: Yes, slowly. Certainly after the embassy bombing in Africa in 1998, it was very obvious that what John was saying, what I was saying, was right: that this was more than a nuisance; that this was a real threat. But I don't think everyone came to the understanding that it was an existential threat. The question was, "This group is more than a nuisance, but are they worth going to war with? After all, they've only attacked two embassies. Maybe that's a cost of doing business. This kind of thing happens. Yes, we should spend some time some energy trying to get them, but it's not the number one priority we have."
Clarke, March 2004, before the 9/11 Commission:
CLARKE: My impression was that fighting terrorism, in general, and fighting Al Qaida, in particular, were an extraordinarily high priority in the Clinton administration -- certainly no higher priority. There were priorities probably of equal importance such as the Middle East peace process, but I certainly don't know of one that was any higher in the priority of that administration.
And, on the sense of urgency in the summer of 2001, we extract this:
Q: 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?
Clarke: 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.
Charles Krauthammer is all over this.
On obsessing, and the link to Iraq:
Q: 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?
CLARKE: 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.
Q: 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."
Clarke: 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.
Uhh, is it still OK for the President to ask his NSC expert to go beyond his assumptions and look around? Dick Clarke thought so in his book, at least.