CNN and the Associated Press reported without challenge Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's misleading response to former President Bill Clinton's recent assertion that the Bush administration failed to adequately address the growing terrorism threat during the eight months prior to September 11, 2001.
In a September 25 discussion with the New York Post editorial board, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice purported to debunk former President Bill Clinton's recent assertion that the Bush administration failed to adequately address the growing terrorism threat during the eight months prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But Rice's counter-arguments -- that the Bush White House "was at least as aggressive as" the Clinton administration, that counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke was not demoted, and that the White House did not receive a comprehensive anti-terrorism strategy from the outgoing Clinton national security team -- do not stand up to scrutiny. Nonetheless, news outlets such as the Associated Press and CNN have reported her remarks without challenge.
On the September 24 edition of Fox News Sunday, Fox Broadcasting Co. aired a taped interview between host Chris Wallace and Clinton, which included a contentious exchange regarding his administration's record on terrorism. During this discussion, Clinton conceded that he "tried and failed" to stop Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but noted that the Bush administration "had eight months to try; they did not try." Clinton further stated, "When I failed, I left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy and the best guy in the country, Dick Clarke, who got demoted."
In a September 26 article, New York Post correspondent Ian Bishop recounted Rice's comments to the newspaper the previous day:
"The notion somehow for eight months the Bush administration sat there and didn't do that is just flatly false -- and I think the 9/11 commission understood that," Rice said during a wide-ranging meeting with Post editors and reporters.
"What we did in the eight months was at least as aggressive as what the Clinton administration did in the preceding years," Rice added.
The secretary of state also sharply disputed Clinton's claim that he "left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy" for the incoming Bush team during the presidential transition in 2001.
"We were not left a comprehensive strategy to fight al Qaeda," Rice responded during the hourlong session.
"I would just suggest that you go back and read the 9/11 commission report on the efforts of the Bush administration in the eight months -- things like working to get an armed Predator [drone] that actually turned out to be extraordinarily important," Rice added.
She also said Clinton's claims that Richard Clarke -- the White House anti-terror guru hyped by Clinton as the country's "best guy" -- had been demoted by Bush were bogus.
"Richard Clarke was the counterterrorism czar when 9/11 happened. And he left when he did not become deputy director of homeland security, some several months later," she said.
Rice cited the final 9/11 commission report to substantiate her claims, while Clinton relied on Clarke's book as the basis for many of his rehashing the events leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I think this is not a very fruitful discussion. We've been through it. The 9/11 commission has turned over every rock and we know exactly what they said," she added.
But Rice's claim that the Bush administration's efforts "in the eight months was a least as aggressive as what the Clinton administration did in the preceding years" is rebutted by the 9-11 Commission report -- the document she cited as the basis for her rebuttal. Indeed, as the weblog Think Progress noted, the report details how the Bush White House failed to react forcefully upon receipt of the now-famous August 6, 2001, CIA memo titled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S." The memo stated that, although the FBI had "not been able to corroborate" a 1998 report that bin Laden was seeking to "hijack a U.S. aircraft," "FBI information since that time indicate[d] patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York." The 9-11 Commission stated that it "found no indication of any further discussion before September 11 among the President and his top advisers of the possibility of a threat of an al Qaeda attack in the United States" -- this despite the fact that "[m]ost of the intelligence community recognized in the summer of 2001 that the number and severity of threat reports were unprecedented."
By contrast, the 9-11 Commission report recounted the Clinton administration's far more aggressive response to a similar CIA memo received in 1998, titled "Bin Ladin Preparing to Hijack US Aircraft and Other Attacks." From the report:
The same day, Clarke convened a meeting of his CSG [Counterterrorism Security Group] to discuss both the hijacking concern and the antiaircraft missile threat. To address the hijacking warning, the group agreed that New York airports should go to maximum security starting that weekend. They agreed to boost security at other East coast airports. The CIA agreed to distribute versions of the report to the FBI and FAA to pass to the New York Police Department and the airlines. The FAA issued a security directive on December 8, with specific requirements for more intensive air carrier screening of passengers and more oversight of the screening process, at all three New York area airports.
Rice's subsequent claim that, contrary to Clinton's assertion, Clarke was not demoted by the Bush administration is simply false. While her statement that Clarke retained his post as counterterrorism czar until after 9-11 is technically true, it ignores entirely the fact that Rice herself "downgraded" that position upon taking office, as Clarke explained in his book, Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror (Free Press, 2004), and as Media Matters for America noted. According to Clarke, in January 2001, Rice stripped him of principal status, a move that excluded him from the National Security Council Principals Committee. From the book:
Rice decided that the position of National Coordinator for Counterterrorism would also be downgraded. No longer would the Coordinator be a member of the Principals Committee. No longer would the CSG [Counterterrorism Security Group] report to the Principals, but instead to a committee of Deputy Secretaries. No longer would the National Coordinator be supported by two NSC Senior Directors or have the budget review mechanism with the Associate Director of OMB [Office of Management and Budget]. [Page 230]
Clarke's exclusion from the Principals Committee had significant consequences. No longer a "principal" himself, Clarke had to lobby Rice and others in order to organize a meeting of the committee on the Al Qaeda threat. While he first requested the meeting on January 25, 2001, nearly eight months passed before it finally occurred -- a week before 9-11.
In her remarks to the Post, Rice further claimed that the Clinton national security team did not pass on a "comprehensive anti-terror strategy," as Clinton had asserted in the Fox interview. But again, the 9-11 Commission report contradicts Rice's claim. According to the report, near the end of 2000, the CIA and the National Security Council drew up policy papers that laid out anti-terrorism strategies for the succeeding administration. While the report said that the CIA/NSC memo, known as the "Blue Sky memo" was not "discussed during the transition with incoming top Bush administration officials," its ideas were nonetheless presented as options by the CIA to the Bush administration. Clarke and his staff also drafted a counterterrorism strategy memo in the waning days of the Clinton administration, which the 9-11 Commission described as "the first such comprehensive effort since the Delenda plan" -- a paper written by Clarke in 1998 laying out a strategy to "immediately eliminate any significant threat to Americans" from the "Bin Ladin network." The commission wrote that the policy paper produced by Clarke in 2000 -- titled "Strategy for Eliminating the Threat from the Jihadist Networks of al Qida [sic]: Status and Prospects" -- "reviewed the threat and the record to date, incorporated the CIA's new ideas from the Blue Sky memo, and posed several near-term policy options."
Clarke, the report noted, presented his policy paper to Rice and other senior national security staffers when he requested the principals committee meeting on Al Qaeda:
Within the first few days after Bush's inauguration, Clarke approached Rice in an effort to get her -- and the new President -- to give terrorism very high priority and to act on the agenda that he had pushed during the last few months of the previous administration. After Rice requested that all senior staff identify desirable major policy reviews or initiatives, Clarke submitted an elaborate memorandum on January 25, 2001. He attached to it his 1998 Delenda Plan and the December 2000 strategy paper. "We urgently need ... a Principals level review on the al Qida network," Clarke wrote.
Despite these clear flaws undermining Rice's rebuttal, the Post reported her comments without challenge. In turn, the Associated Press reported her claims in a September 26 article headlined "Rice Challenges Clinton on Terror Fight":
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice challenged former President Clinton's claim that he did more than many of his conservative critics to pursue al-Qaida, saying in an interview published Tuesday that the Bush administration aggressively pursued the group even before the 9/11 attacks.
"What we did in the eight months was at least as aggressive as what the Clinton administration did in the preceding years," Rice said during a meeting with editors and reporters at the New York Post.
"The notion somehow for eight months the Bush administration sat there and didn't do that is just flatly false and I think the 9/11 commission understood that," she said.
Rice also took exception to Clinton's statement that he "left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy" for incoming officials when he left office.
"We were not left a comprehensive strategy to fight al-Qaida," she told the newspaper, which is owned by News Corp., the same company that owns Fox News Channel.
In the interview, Clinton accused host Chris Wallace of a "conservative hit job" and asked: "I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you asked, 'Why didn't you do anything about the Cole?' I want to know how many people you asked, 'Why did you fire Dick Clarke?'"
Rice portrayed the departure of former White House anti-terrorism chief Richard A. Clarke differently, saying he "left when he did not become deputy director of homeland security."
Like the Post, the AP article failed entirely to check Rice's claims against the 9-11 Commission's actual findings. Furthermore, the article included no Democratic response beyond a quote from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) saying, "I just think that my husband did a great job in demonstrating that Democrats are not going to take this."
Similarly, CNN correspondent Carol Costello uncritically reported Rice's rebuttal on the September 26 edition of American Morning.
From the September 26 edition of CNN's American Morning:
COSTELLO: It is turning into quite a juicy battle of words. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice interviewed by The New York Post editorial board in New York, and boy, did she fire back at Bill Clinton, calling his interview on Fox "passionate." And while she didn't call Mr. Clinton a liar, she certainly intimated he wasn't telling it like it was.
For example, President Clinton told Fox his administration had left a detailed plan about what to do about Al Qaeda. Secretary Rice fires back. Quote, she says, "What the Bush administration did in the eight months was at least as aggressive as what the Clinton administration did in the preceding years. We were not left a comprehensive strategy to fight Al Qaeda. The notion that somehow for eight months the Bush administration sat there and didn't do that is just flatly false."
Question from the New York Post: "So you're saying Bill Clinton is a liar?"
Secretary Rice: "No, I'm just saying that, look, there was a lot of passion in that interview and I'm not going to -- I would just suggest that you go back and read the 9-11 Commission report on the efforts of the Bush administration in that eight months."
About former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, whom President Clinton cited a number of times, Secretary Rice says he was not fired, he left on his own accord when he was not promoted to deputy director of Homeland Security.
You can see the entire interview, of course, in the New York Post online.