Transcript: Is the Sept. 11 Commission Playing a Blame Game?

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, March 23, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: In today's testimony [before the congressional comission looking into the events leading up to Sept. 12], we heard about U.S. efforts to stop Al Qaeda (search) before the attacks.

Both administrations did take action. Some lawmakers say the measures weren't strong enough or immediate enough. New Mexico governor, former energy secretary, Bill Richardson (search) joins me now live from Sante Fe. Governor, today's big question — has this investigation become a blame game between the Clinton and Bush administrations?

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO: It appears it is. And couple that, John, with the fact that it is an election year, it's going to provide election fodder on both sides. My concern, John, is that we'll be so preoccupied with blaming each other, both parties, that out in the homeland in states like mine and states around the country, that somehow we won't be prepared with homeland assistance to our first responders, our police, our firemen, that the country will be vulnerable. I hope not. But I just wish ...

GIBSON: Mr. Governor, when you were the ambassador to the U.N. and you were the secretary of energy, you were there. Why during an eight-year period did the Clinton administration not take military action against Al Qaeda?

RICHARDSON: Well, we did, John. I think the Secretary of State Albright today mentioned three instances that we did take action. When I was U.N. ambassador in 1997-98, I was sent by President Clinton to Afghanistan to try to get Usama bin Laden extradited. This is when we didn't have all the information about him. I think what we have here is a case of — on Al Qaeda I do believe some of the assertions made about the Bush administration, and I'm a Democrat, I do think the Bush people took it seriously. And, if anything, I think this is where President Bush is probably strongest. Where they're going to have trouble, John, is dealing with a credible person like Richard Clarke (search) who I knew who once told me he was a Republican, who 20 years spent in the bureaucracy, he knows this whole counter terrorism issue well. And the charge that he made that there was too much preoccupation with Iraq, I think that's where the administration is going to have trouble.

GIBSON: OK. Let's take that point. That clearly seems to be the dividing line. Both administrations took Al Qaeda seriously. Both of them felt constrained against action. The Clinton administration launch some Tomahawk missiles. The Bush administration came in to size things up, clearly thought that was inadequate and was planning something else. The dividing line seems to be the Clinton administration, as represented in this case by Richard Clarke, did not believe Iraq was at the bottom of things and the Bush administration did. Why is it wrong for the Bush administration to look to Iraq?

RICHARDSON: Well, John, because every concrete intelligence that we've received post and after indicates that there's hardly any link, if at all, between Iraq and Al Qaeda and 9/11.

GIBSON: Governor, lets me ask you — do you think that a standard of reasonable doubt is the one that ought to be applied here or that the president, acting for the security of the American people, after the demonstrated vulnerability of 9/11, should act on possibilities and probabilities?

RICHARDSON: He should act on the best intelligence that he did not get. And this is where I think a massive overhaul of our intelligence structure. The president has to act on the best information. I think his gut was telling him it was Iraq, but there was very little substantiation. That's what worries me. Now I do think the president when it comes to Al Qaeda, when it comes to Afghanistan, when it comes to dealing with the terrorism threat internally, he has been preoccupied, rightfully so, and he has been spending time on it and we've marshaled resources. I wish we had more of a coalition. The issue, John, is did we expend too much political capital losing friends and alliances in the Iraq conflict by not being more multilateral? And did that affect our coalition building to fight terrorism more effectively? I think that's the dividing line.

GIBSON: Well, we shall see. Governor, appreciate you coming on. Thank you very much, Governor Bill Richardson.

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