The following transcript documents a background briefing in early August 2002 by President Bush's former counterterrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke to a handful of reporters, including Fox News' Jim Angle. In the conversation, cleared by the White House on Wednesday for distribution, Clarke describes the handover of intelligence from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration and the latter's decision to revise the U.S. approach to Al Qaeda. Clarke was named special adviser to the president for cyberspace security in October 2001. He resigned from his post in January 2003.
RICHARD CLARKE: Actually, I've got about seven points, let me just go through them quickly. Um, the first point, I think the overall point is, there was no plan on Al Qaeda that was passed from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration.
Second point is that the Clinton administration had a strategy in place, effectively dating from 1998. And there were a number of issues on the table since 1998. And they remained on the table when that administration went out of office — issues like aiding the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, changing our Pakistan policy -- uh, changing our policy toward Uzbekistan. And in January 2001, the incoming Bush administration was briefed on the existing strategy. They were also briefed on these series of issues that had not been decided on in a couple of years.
And the third point is the Bush administration decided then, you know, in late January, to do two things. One, vigorously pursue the existing policy, including all of the lethal covert action findings, which we've now made public to some extent.
And the point is, while this big review was going on, there were still in effect, the lethal findings were still in effect. The second thing the administration decided to do is to initiate a process to look at those issues which had been on the table for a couple of years and get them decided.
So, point five, that process which was initiated in the first week in February, uh, decided in principle, uh in the spring to add to the existing Clinton strategy and to increase CIA resources, for example, for covert action, five-fold, to go after Al Qaeda.
The sixth point, the newly-appointed deputies — and you had to remember, the deputies didn't get into office until late March, early April. The deputies then tasked the development of the implementation details, uh, of these new decisions that they were endorsing, and sending out to the principals.
Over the course of the summer — last point — they developed implementation details, the principals met at the end of the summer, approved them in their first meeting, changed the strategy by authorizing the increase in funding five-fold, changing the policy on Pakistan, changing the policy on Uzbekistan, changing the policy on the Northern Alliance assistance.
And then changed the strategy from one of rollback with Al Qaeda over the course of five years, which it had been, to a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination of Al Qaeda. That is in fact the timeline.
QUESTION: When was that presented to the president?
CLARKE: Well, the president was briefed throughout this process.
QUESTION: But when was the final September 4 document? (interrupted) Was that presented to the president?
CLARKE: The document went to the president on September 10, I think.
QUESTION: What is your response to the suggestion in the [Aug. 12, 2002] Time [magazine] article that the Bush administration was unwilling to take on board the suggestions made in the Clinton administration because of animus against the — general animus against the foreign policy?
CLARKE: I think if there was a general animus that clouded their vision, they might not have kept the same guy dealing with terrorism issue. This is the one issue where the National Security Council leadership decided continuity was important and kept the same guy around, the same team in place. That doesn't sound like animus against uh the previous team to me.
JIM ANGLE: You're saying that the Bush administration did not stop anything that the Clinton administration was doing while it was making these decisions, and by the end of the summer had increased money for covert action five-fold. Is that correct?
CLARKE: All of that's correct.
QUESTION: Are you saying now that there was not only a plan per se, presented by the transition team, but that it was nothing proactive that they had suggested?
CLARKE: Well, what I'm saying is, there are two things presented. One, what the existing strategy had been. And two, a series of issues — like aiding the Northern Alliance, changing Pakistan policy, changing Uzbek policy — that they had been unable to come to um, any new conclusions, um, from '98 on.
QUESTION: Was all of that from '98 on or was some of it ...
CLARKE: All of those issues were on the table from '98 on.
ANGLE: When in '98 were those presented?
CLARKE: In October of '98.
QUESTION: In response to the Embassy bombing?
CLARKE: Right, which was in September.
QUESTION: Were all of those issues part of alleged plan that was late December and the Clinton team decided not to pursue because it was too close to ...
CLARKE: There was never a plan, Andrea. What there was was these two things: One, a description of the existing strategy, which included a description of the threat. And two, those things which had been looked at over the course of two years, and which were still on the table.
QUESTION: So there was nothing that developed, no documents or no new plan of any sort?
CLARKE: There was no new plan.
QUESTION: No new strategy — I mean, I don't want to get into a semantics ...
CLARKE: Plan, strategy — there was no, nothing new.
QUESTION: 'Til late December, developing ...
CLARKE: What happened at the end of December was that the Clinton administration NSC principals committee met and once again looked at the strategy, and once again looked at the issues that they had brought, decided in the past to add to the strategy. But they did not at that point make any recommendations.
QUESTIONS: Had those issues evolved at all from October of '98 'til December of 2000?
CLARKE: Had they evolved? Um, not appreciably.
ANGLE: What was the problem? Why was it so difficult for the Clinton administration to make decisions on those issues?
CLARKE: Because they were tough issues. You know, take, for example, aiding the Northern Alliance. Um, people in the Northern Alliance had a, sort of bad track record. There were questions about the government, there were questions about drug-running, there was questions about whether or not in fact they would use the additional aid to go after Al Qaeda or not. Uh, and how would you stage a major new push in Uzbekistan or somebody else or Pakistan to cooperate?
One of the big problems was that Pakistan at the time was aiding the other side, was aiding the Taliban. And so, this would put, if we started aiding the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, this would have put us directly in opposition to the Pakistani government. These are not easy decisions.
ANGLE: And none of that really changed until we were attacked and then it was ...
CLARKE: No, that's not true. In the spring, the Bush administration changed — began to change Pakistani policy, um, by a dialogue that said we would be willing to lift sanctions. So we began to offer carrots, which made it possible for the Pakistanis, I think, to begin to realize that they could go down another path, which was to join us and to break away from the Taliban. So that's really how it started.
QUESTION: Had the Clinton administration in any of its work on this issue, in any of the findings or anything else, prepared for a call for the use of ground forces, special operations forces in any way? What did the Bush administration do with that if they had?
CLARKE: There was never a plan in the Clinton administration to use ground forces. The military was asked at a couple of points in the Clinton administration to think about it. Um, and they always came back and said it was not a good idea. There was never a plan to do that.
(Break in briefing details as reporters and Clarke go back and forth on how to source quotes from this backgrounder.)
ANGLE: So, just to finish up if we could then, so what you're saying is that there was no — one, there was no plan; two, there was no delay; and that actually the first changes since October of '98 were made in the spring months just after the administration came into office?
CLARKE: You got it. That's right.
QUESTION: It was not put into an action plan until September 4, signed off by the principals?
CLARKE: That's right.
QUESTION: I want to add though, that NSPD — the actual work on it began in early April.
CLARKE: There was a lot of in the first three NSPDs that were being worked in parallel.
ANGLE: Now the five-fold increase for the money in covert operations against Al Qaeda — did that actually go into effect when it was decided or was that a decision that happened in the next budget year or something?
CLARKE: Well, it was gonna go into effect in October, which was the next budget year, so it was a month away.
QUESTION: That actually got into the intelligence budget?
CLARKE: Yes it did.
QUESTION: Just to clarify, did that come up in April or later?
CLARKE: No, it came up in April and it was approved in principle and then went through the summer. And you know, the other thing to bear in mind is the shift from the rollback strategy to the elimination strategy. When President Bush told us in March to stop swatting at flies and just solve this problem, then that was the strategic direction that changed the NSPD from one of rollback to one of elimination.
QUESTION: Well can you clarify something? I've been told that he gave that direction at the end of May. Is that not correct?
CLARKE: No, it was March.
QUESTION: The elimination of Al Qaeda, get back to ground troops — now we haven't completely done that even with a substantial number of ground troops in Afghanistan. Was there, was the Bush administration contemplating without the provocation of September 11th moving troops into Afghanistan prior to that to go after Al Qaeda?
CLARKE: I can not try to speculate on that point. I don't know what we would have done.
QUESTION: In your judgment, is it possible to eliminate Al Qaeda without putting troops on the ground?
CLARKE: Uh, yeah, I think it was. I think it was. If we'd had Pakistani, Uzbek and Northern Alliance assistance.