Fox News' Live Desk cluttered with falsehoods on Clinton, Bush terrorism records


In the Fox News premiere of her new show, The Live Desk, host Martha MacCallum advanced several falsehoods regarding the respective anti-terrorism efforts of Presidents Clinton and Bush, while discussing Chris Wallace's recent interview with Clinton. MacCallum falsely claimed that Richard Clarke was demoted by the Bush administration after 9-11 and that the Clinton administration abandoned opportunities to take out Osama bin Laden, despite having him "in their scope."

On the September 25 premiere of the new Fox News program The Live Desk, host Martha MacCallum interviewed Fox News host Chris Wallace about his heated interview with former President Bill Clinton, and later held a roundtable discussion on the topic. But in her coverage of the story, MacCallum advanced several falsehoods regarding the respective anti-terrorism efforts of Clinton and President Bush: MacCallum falsely claimed that former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, an expert on the Al Qaeda threat, was demoted by the Bush administration after September 11, 2001. In fact, his position was "downgraded" immediately after Bush took office. She advanced the baseless allegation that the Clinton administration abandoned opportunities to take out Osama bin Laden, despite having him "in their scope." Further, MacCallum allowed one of her guests to argue that pursuing bin Laden has always been a priority of the Bush White House, while ignoring Bush's contradictory statements on the priority the administration places on capturing him.

Bush demoted Clarke after 9-11

In the interview, which aired on the September 24 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, Clinton conceded that he "tried and failed" to capture or kill bin Laden during his presidency, but added, "When I failed, I left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy and the best guy in the country, Dick Clarke, who got demoted." While discussing the interview with Wallace the following day, MacCallum took issue with Clinton's assertion that the Bush administration demoted Clarke. She said that a "discrepancy" existed "about whether or not Richard Clarke sort of wanted to step aside a little bit into a different area of intelligence." Further, she claimed that the demotion "didn't actually happen until after September 11th."

In making the claim, MacCallum appeared to be confusing Clarke's reassignment in October 2001 -- from counterterrorism czar to cyber security adviser -- with his demotion immediately after Bush took office. Clarke explains in his book, Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror (Free Press, March 2004), that then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice immediately "downgraded" his position in January 2001, excluding him from the regular meetings of the National Security Council's (NSC) Principals Committee. From Clarke's 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]. She did, however, ask me to stay on and to keep my entire staff in place. Rice and [then-deputy national security adviser Stephen] Hadley did not seem to know anyone else whose expertise covered what they regarded as my strange portfolio. At the same time, Rice requested that I develop a reorganization plan to spin out some of the security functions to someplace outside the NSC staff. [p. 230]

No longer a "principal" himself, Clarke had to lobby Rice and others to organize a meeting of the Principals Committee on the Al Qaeda threat. But nearly eight months passed before the meeting finally occurred -- a week before September 11, 2001.

While MacCallum's separate claim that Clarke "sort of wanted to step aside a little bit into a different area of intelligence" is backed up by the book, this desire did not lead to his demotion in January 2001 -- the demotion Clinton was clearly referring to in the interview -- but rather his shift in October 2001 to the position of special adviser to the President for Cyberspace Security.

Clinton administration "had bin Laden in their scope"

At the outset of the panel discussion, MacCallum said of the Clinton administration: "I've heard all kinds of stories -- we all have over the past few years -- about moments when they literally had bin Laden in their scope. ... [A]nd that those people were called off of that mission." She then asked one of the guests, former Drug Enforcement Agency special agent Ann Hayes, to "clarify" these accounts. In response, Hayes noted that "[t]here have been stories that came out that he [Clinton] had every opportunity to take bin Laden and he just refused to do so."

Though both MacCallum and Hayes kept their comments general, they nonetheless advanced the baseless claim that the Clinton administration passed up surefire opportunities to capture or kill bin Laden. These allegations were most recently revived in ABC's controversial miniseries, The Path to 9/11. The film included a scene in which Clinton's senior national security aides aborted at the last second a fully operational mission to attack a compound in Afghanistan where bin Laden was known to be staying. But as Media Matters for America noted, there is no evidence that the Clinton White House ever had bin Laden "in their scope" -- as MacCallum said -- and "called off" an attack.

Indeed, the scene depicted in The Path to 9/11 is directly contradicted by the 9-11 Commission report. The Clinton administration did draw up plans in 1998 to raid the compound in question, but the report describes then-CIA director George Tenet as having aborted the mission weeks before the target date -- not minutes before, as the film suggested. Further, the report notes that both intelligence and military officials had serious doubts about its probability of success.

Catching bin Laden has always been a Bush priority

During the panel discussion, former Rep. John LeBoutillier (R-NY), a columnist for right-wing website, stated that the Bush administration "dropped it" when it came to the hunt for bin Laden. Hayes attempted to rebut LeBoutillier's claim by falsely suggesting that capturing or killing bin Laden has been a long-term priority for the administration. Hayes claimed: "But he [Bush] also said at the very beginning of this that this was a different kind of a war, that getting bin Laden was a priority, that it wasn't something that was going to happen tomorrow or the next day. It could have been years from now that we'd get him." In fact, Bush has contradicted himself numerous times on both the level of importance he attaches to bin Laden, and the steps he would take to capture or eliminate him.

Bush claimed on September 17, 2001, that bin Laden was wanted "dead or alive" and stated, "All I want and America wants him brought to justice." However, on March 13, 2002, Bush told NBC News' Kelly O'Donnell: "So I don't know where he is. You know, I just don't spend that much time on him, Kelly, to be honest with you." As recently as September 11, 2006, however, in his address to the nation commemorating the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Bush said: "Osama bin Laden and other terrorists are still in hiding. Our message to them is clear: No matter how long it takes, America will find you, and we will bring you to justice." But, according to Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes, the very next day, Bush reportedly told a group of conservative journalists, including Barnes, that bin Laden is not "a paramount goal of the war on terror."

Also, as Media Matters has documented, Bush contradicted himself on whether he would order U.S. military forces into Pakistan to kill or capture bin Laden -- where bin Laden is rumored to be hiding. At a September 15 press conference, Bush stated that Pakistan is a "sovereign nation" and that he could not send troops into that country unless "invited." However, during a September 20 interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, when asked by Blitzer whether he would give the order to pursue bin Laden into Pakistan, "[e]ven though the Pakistanis say that's their sovereign territory," Bush replied: "Absolutely. We would take the action necessary to bring them to justice."

From the September 25 edition of Fox News' The Live Desk with Martha MacCallum:

MacCALLUM: It was the most clicked-on story on; the most viewed clip on YouTube. Chris Wallace's interview with President Clinton was almost the biggest thing to happen to TV, certainly over this weekend, and it's because Clinton became visibly upset when Chris asked him about his handling of terrorist Osama bin Laden while he was in office. So, what happened behind the scenes? Chris Wallace joins The Live Desk now from Boston, today. Hi Chris, good to have you with us.

WALLACE: Well, thank you, Martha. Congratulations on your new show. I'm honored to be on the first one.

MacCALLUM: Thank you. It's an honor to have you, and it was quite incredibly riveting television to watch over the weekend, your interview with President Clinton, and sort of the -- the second-day talk on all of this is that it's Democratic strategy that they wanted to show that Clinton was giving everybody an example of how to get tough on terror. There's -- there he is pointing his finger at you. But it was very visceral reaction that he had. What was your feeling for how much he planned to say and how much he said?

WALLACE: Well, I -- I don't think that -- and I've -- I've heard this now, today, that this is a, you know, a plan, Democratic strategy. That wasn't the way it played in the room at all, Martha. I -- we had strict ground rules, 15 minutes: half on his Clinton Global Initiative, a wonderful program to raise money for impoverished nations, and the other half, on anything we wanted to ask. This was the third question I asked and he just blew. And -- and his communications director was jabbing my -- our -- my producer in the arm saying, "End this interview right away."

When it was over, Clinton did not want to make up and be friends. He was still fuming. And as he left, he started yelling at his aides that if they ever put him in that kind of a situation again, he would fire them. So, I do not think this was pre-planned. I think all this talk now is after-the-fact-spinning by somebody.

MacCALLUM: Very interesting. It -- it -- and you know, the other thing that we're taking a closer look at now that everything is sort of settling a little bit on this is -- is the facts of what he had to say, and those are starting to be contested a bit, as well, as we look at it. And one of the things that he said was that he couldn't go in there to -- to get at the Taliban in Afghanistan because there -- he didn't have access to a base in Uzbekistan. Is that true?

WALLACE: Well, he said two things. First of all, that he didn't have landing rights in Uzbekistan, which certainly were key, and in fact, when we invaded Afghanistan, we did have those landing rights. He also said that the CIA and the FBI did not certify that Al Qaeda was responsible for the attack on the Cole. This was in the final three months of his -- of his term in office, in late fall of 2000. The interesting thing is, when we looked into it after the fact, the 9-11 Commission said that this issue of invading Afghanistan was never seriously discussed on any level of interagency review, either in the Clinton or the Bush administration. So, somebody may have talked about it but this talk about getting full battle plans does not seem to have been borne out.

MacCALLUM: You know the other thing I thought? Nobody could have been happier with this interview than Richard Clarke. It was like a big boost for his book. He must have wanted to give the president a huge hug after he got off the air. But there's also the discrepancy about whether or not Richard Clarke sort of wanted to step aside a little bit into a different area of intelligence and that that didn't actually happen until after September 11th. He was, as Clinton put it, "demoted."

WALLACE: Yeah, the interesting thing, though, about that is that -- that the president, President Clinton, kept on talking about Richard Clarke, who was his top anti-terror adviser, as the authoritative source on what he did do or didn't do. Well, Clarke does say -- we went back and looked at the record -- Clarke says that Clinton was obsessed with getting bin Laden and that the CIA failed him.

On the other hand, he talks about the fact that, for instance, in 1999, there was an effort he was pushing to bomb Al Qaeda before the millennium -- all that talk that there was going to be a terror attack at the time. He brought this to President Clinton's National Security adviser, "Sandy" Berger, and Berger wrote on the memo one word: "No." So, Clinton's record at least from the lips of -- of Richard Clarke is not quite as pure as he indicates it was.

MacCALLUM: Just one more quick one, Chris. Is -- was it your sense from talking to him that he's more concerned about his own legacy? Or that he wants to set the tone for Democrats in the future and wants them to -- to not take anything lying down?

WALLACE: Well, I think that it's certainly -- both is the case. But I think that what set him off in that interview, and I did -- again, I do not think it was pre-planned at all -- is I think he's been boiling, and part of it may have been the ABC docudrama. It may just be that their criticisms -- I think he feels he -- there's a double standard -- that he's judged more harshly than George W. Bush and -- and so, as soon as this happened, it was as if I had just hit -- with I thought a non-confrontational question -- had hit a very raw nerve, and he just went off with conspiracy theories and a right-wing hit job and -- but I think, on the other hand, he also feels that, you know, this is the best way for Democrats to be. There's only one side to play in politics and that's offense.

MacCALLUM: All right. It was fascinating television, Chris. Great interview, and thank you so much for being with us today.

WALLACE: Again, congratulations.

MacCALLUM: Thanks, Chris. All right. Time now for The Live Desk "A-List." With us now, first, in-depth on the Clinton interview at The Live Desk today, is Laura Schwartz. She's in a position to know all about this. She was a political analyst, is a political analyst, and a former special assistant to President Clinton. Ann Hayes is joining us. She's former undercover special agent with the United States Department of Justice in Afghanistan and Pakistan. John LeBoutillier, who is a former Republican Congressman from New York; and today's wild card is actor Vince Curatola, who's a -- an old friend and is best known, of course, for his mob boss character, "Johnny Sack," on the hit show, The Sopranos, to bring a little bit of a reality check to the table for us today. Vince, it's good to have you with us.

VINCE CURATOLA (actor): Thank you. It's lovely to be here, and congratulations.

MacCALLUM: Thank you. It's great to have all of you here.

LAURA SCHWARTZ (former Clinton White House director of Events): Thank you.

MacCALLUM: It's a great first-day panel and --

SCHWARTZ: It's exciting.

MacCALLUM: It is exciting, and Laura, you know, I want to start with you, because we've all heard these sort of notorious stories about the Bill Clinton behind closed doors, who gets angry and who chews out his staff, and what -- what was your reaction when you heard Chris Wallace say that -- that he chewed them out on the way out the door and said, "If you ever let that happen to me again, you'll be fired"?

SCHWARTZ: Well, I think any CEO of a company or president of a country, after they walk into something like that, being otherwise briefed, perhaps, yeah, you're going to say, "Listen, this isn't what I was looking, you know, to do." Now, if you know going in what it's going to be, you can properly prepare for it. But I think overall, you know, this is getting a ton of press, which is great for Fox, it's great for, you know, so many aspects, but it did give the president an opportunity to set the record straight on what his administration did in spite of the Republican Congress who thought he was obsessed -- too obsessed with terrorism. But, as with any politician, the moment you show your frustration and your emotions come through, the emotion takes over the message. And that's why, today, we're talking about the reaction to it instead of more on the message that he left with it. And, of course, the Clinton Global Initiative -- 7 billion dollars this year -- just an incredible second year.

MacCALLUM: And they did talk about that, and I think Chris had every intention of getting around and talking about it again. And I don't think that Chris anticipated --

SCHWARTZ: And you'll see the president --

MacCALLUM: -- that it was going to go in that direction before he had a chance to do that.

SCHWARTZ: Right. And he calmed right down -- you know, the president, when it was back to the Clinton Global Initiative, he did a great job articulating what they're doing for racial and ethnic, you know, equality and -- and poverty around the country. So, you can definitely see the dynamic. But President Clinton is an incredible leader and incredible manager, and yes, there are things that he may not disagree -- may -- may not agree with, how some things are being handled at the time, but, you know what, he also forgives and moves on.

MacCALLUM: All right, Ann. Let's talk a little bit about some of what he said in terms of how his administration was handling the situation in Afghanistan. I've heard all kinds of stories -- we all have over the past few years -- about moments when they literally had bin Laden in their scope --

HAYES: Right.

MacCALLUM: -- and that those people were called off of that mission. Can you clarify any of that for us?

HAYES: Well, we're never going to know exactly what happened there. There have been stories that came out that he had every opportunity to take bin Laden and he just refused to do so; because President Clinton, it's been thought of, that he looked at terrorism more from a law enforcement standpoint. You know, what are the lawyers going to say? Do we have the legal grounds to take bin Laden? Whereas, this administration has fought more -- looked at the war on terror more as a war. So, I think President Clinton was talking about that a lot during his interview in trying to defend himself. I think Chris Wallace is right. I think President Clinton had his dander up because of the ABC docudrama that was on a couple of weeks ago and he feels like he needs to defend himself. When you do that though it -- it does make you look like you are -- have done something wrong.

MacCALLUM: Yeah.

HAYES: And Bill Clinton should never really shake his finger like that because it brings back memories of -- of other times he's shaken his finger.

SCHWARTZ: No. Let's not go there. But you hit a really good point about the ABC -- The Path to 9/11. I mean, this movie just came out. What's dramatic about 9-11 is that it was real. It's not fictional.

HAYES: Exactly.

SCHWARTZ: There's no need to infuse any drama into that horrible day in all of our lives and that really, the last three weeks, that's what we've been talking about, looking at, and it's time to set the record straight.

MacCALLUM: John LeBoutillier, what about the argument between Republicans and Democrats over who handles terrorism better because this is what it really comes down to in this debate?

LeBOUTILLIER: You know, well, it's a great question. We're sitting here five years and two weeks after 9-11, and we have yet to capture Osama bin Laden either under Bill Clinton or under George Bush, and frankly, as an American, I think it's a disgrace that we haven't gotten him, that we've put all our energy, which is tremendous energy, and 400 billion into Iraq, and our wonderful troops are over there, when the first priority should have been getting Osama bin Laden. And our president, he's a Republican president, too, he said to the country we're going to get him dead or alive, and then he sort of dropped it and moved over here to Iraq, and it's -- this is hurting this country, you know, it's hurting us in the world and it's hurting us as American citizens. What is it that prevents us from doing what we said we were going to do?

HAYES: But he also said at the very beginning of this that this was a different kind of a war, that getting bin Laden was a priority but it wasn't something that was going to happen tomorrow or the next day. It could have been years from now that we'd get him.

LeBOUTILLIER: Well - but -- but you can't -- you --

MacCALLUM: All right, let -- you know, the -- the easy place to go here would be to ask "Johnny Sacks" to just take care of the whole thing.

CURATOLA: You know I -- I -- listen, I mean, if you owe the IRS $11, they'll find you. I don't care what hole you're hiding in, in the desert somewhere. There is a certain subculture in this country that if they want you, they're going to find you. I think that -- I feel that, you know, I was very close to [former FBI agent] John O'Neill -- may his soul rest in peace -- and I had dinner with him many times uptown -- I won't mention the watering hole. All right?

MacCALLUM: We just should mention he's the -- he's the person who was portrayed in The Path to 9/11 by Harvey Keitel.

CURATOLA: Portrayed by Harvey Keitel. You're exactly right. And if he said anything to me and my wife, Maureen, on a continual basis, for months and months and months, before the horrific attack was, "I keep telling them. They don't listen. I walk through the White House; I bang on the floors; I bang -- I stomp on the -- on the -- whatever I have to do to get his attention. He will not listen." He. He. He. He. You know who he is? The guy that's got an office now up in Harlem who was just on this report who got so excited. OK?

SCHWARTZ: What about Richard Clarke? What about the largest anti-terrorism measures ever by a president, which was President Clinton?

CURATOLA: You know, when the Japanese --

SCHWARTZ: Which, after eight months they -- they never looked at Osama bin Laden, and he ignored his Daily Presidential Brief, and you know, look where we are today --

LeBOUTILLIER: Well, that's under Bush --


LeBOUTILLIER: -- but what I think what Vince is saying and it's -- you know -- everybody's talking about Richard Clarke's book. Read the book, because in the book, he expresses tremendous frustration both at Clinton and Bush. He did sit in a limousine one day going to a speech with Clinton trying to get him to sign off -- wouldn't do it. This story Martha told about "No" on the memo from "Sandy" Berger. So, Clinton didn't do it, but then the minute they took over, the Bush team took over, Clarke is still there, he tries to get Condi Rice to focus up on Osama, and she wouldn't do it and wanted to put him over into cyber terrorism.

MacCALLUM: So, why was it that nobody wanted -- nobody wanted to believe that 9-11 could actually happen?

LeBOUTILLIER: Well, let me ask you something. When you saw those airplanes go into the World Trade Center, when we all first saw it, who of us thought right away this has to be an accident, you know, some guy, bad pilot.

MacCALLUM: The first plane, absolutely.

LeBOUTILLIER: I mean, the notion that the enemy could do this to us in such a diabolically clever and simple way, frankly, the government didn't see it properly.

MacCALLUM: So, is it pointless, you know, as an exercise do you think, Vince, to go back and to rehash and to point fingers at this point -- at this stage of the game?

CURATOLA: No. I don't think -- I do think it's pointless. I think there's too much rhetoric. I mean, why don't we -- listen, this guy -- first we heard that he was on kidney dialysis, which means he had to be treated three days a week. He's got to walk around with a pack and 16 people making sure that he's clean all day long. Wherever he is -- and I believe we know where he is -- I would, if it was me, I would excise the entire area around where we know him to be so that we get him. He had -- you know, it's cancer. This is not going to -- we're not going to be touchy-feely here with some kind of a little bit of a treatment and a little bit of injection. He has to -- this has to be cut out.

SCHWARTZ: You're absolutely right, Vince --

HAYES: Yeah.

SCHWARTZ: -- and that's why we should not have put seven times more troops in Iraq than we should have done in Afghanistan.

MacCALLUM: All right, we're going to leave it there, but we're going to be right back with our great panel. Thank you.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Terrorism
Fox News Channel
Martha MacCallum
The Live Desk
Attacks on Bill Clinton, Propaganda/Noise Machine
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