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Transcript: Rice Responds to Clarke

Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, spoke to reporters at the White House on Wednesday to discuss charges made by Richard A. Clarke, a former counterterrorism official, that the Bush administration did not take the threat of terrorism seriously enough. Rice also talked about why she has not publicly testified before the bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Following are excerpts of the interview.

Q: So have you changed your mind about testifying?

DR. RICE: No, it's not my mind. It's — (Laughter.) I would like to be very clear that this is not a matter of preference. I would like nothing better in a sense than to be able to go up and do this. But I have a responsibility to maintain what is a longstanding separation — constitutional separation between the executive and the legislative branch.

This body is — the commission is a body under Article II of the legislature, and so I have to maintain that separation. I also have a responsibility to make sure that the commission knows everything that I know, and that's why I spent four hours with them, and I'm prepared to spend longer with them anywhere they want, any time they want, answer as many questions as they have. And I hope we'll have an opportunity to do that. But I just have to maintain the separation.

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Q: One thing that Clarke is saying today is that you considered terrorism an important issue, but not an urgent issue. Is that true?

DR. RICE: I don't know what it means. I thought we weren't interested in it at all. According to the "60 Minutes" interview, I thought we ignored it. So now it was important, but not urgent. I really don't know what to make of this, what is a kind of shifting story.

I will say that what we did suggests that we thought it both important and urgent. We kept in place an experienced team of counterterrorism experts from the Clinton administration, whose responsibility it was to keep the Clinton administration strategy going.

We did everything during that period of time that we could. The intelligence agencies had the authorities that had been there in the Clinton administration. Nothing unraveled those authorities so they were still acting on those authorities.

George was still out disrupting and trying to break up cells in various parts of the world. The President wrote to Musharraf on February 16th. Colin and I had met with the Pakistanis. We'd met with the Uzbeks to — we had approved additional counterterrorism support for the Uzbeks.

We were doing everything that we could.

Now, was it the only priority? Of course not. There were other things that had to be done, as well, including the crisis with China around the EP-3 shoot-down; trying to build a relationship with Russia, China. Good thing we built the relationship, by the way with Russia, because when the war comes, we are able to get into Central Asia without friction with the Russians. So that turned out to be an important thing.

But at the same time that we were pursuing what the Clinton administration had been doing, we were developing a more robust strategy to try and eliminate al Qaeda. And by Dick's calculation, as well as that of George Tenet, this was still going to be multi-year. You couldn't do it overnight. I was impressed with some of the testimony by several people who said, it would have been difficult to just invade Afghanistan. I happen to agree with that view.

But we were developing a more robust strategy. That was a strategy that drew on some of the ideas that Dick Clarke had given us in that January 25th memo. He said in the August 2002 interview that they were, in fact, ideas that had been around since 1998. That was my understanding, as well.

And we pursued those ideas toward a more robust strategy. So I don't know what else you do to demonstrate that you think it's urgent and important. The President was being briefed by George Tenet at least 40 some — 40 plus of his briefings dealt, in one way or another al Qaeda, or the al Qaeda threat.

During the threat period it got really urgent. That's when I was on the phone with Colin and Don, and Don was moving the Fifth Fleet out of port, and when Colin was buttoning down embassies abroad. And when we actually did have Dick Clarke come in and — Andy Card and I did — and on July 5th convene the domestic agencies to say, even though all the threat reporting is about some threat abroad — because it was the Persian Gulf, the G8, possibly something in Israel — bring the domestic agencies together, let's make sure that they're buttoning down. The FAA issues alerts. The FBI issues warnings. So it's pretty urgent and important.

Q Do you think the fact that the staff of the commission was equally critical of both the Clinton administration and the Bush administration for not being more active militarily, and the fact that Secretary Cohen and Secretary Albright pretty much agreed with your people that it would have been hard to invade Afghanistan, do you think that makes your case a little bit easier to make?

DR. RICE: Well, I think it just says that September 11th was a life-changing event for the United States. It was life-changing for Americans. It was life-changing for the country, for the strategic direction of the country. We did think that there were other ways to deal with the threat than just using cruise missile strikes against — against al Qaeda.

We really thought that using again, for instance, in response to the Cole, using cruise missile strikes again against training camps that probably would have already been abandoned would have sent exactly the wrong message. And so one of the things that the new strategy looked at was actually to have the Defense Department do contingency plans that would allow us to go after the Taliban, not just after al Qaeda training camps.

And that was written into the new strategy because we were worried that you didn't want to be in the position of just all-out invasion of Afghanistan, or cruise missile strikes, there had to be something in between. And what was in between was to, first, put more pressure on the Taliban, for a short time diplomatically; then put pressure on them by arming not just the Northern Alliance, but southern tribes, as well, so that you put real pressure on them. If you couldn't them that way, think about using military force against their targets. But I found consistency in the views of the two that an all-out invasion of Afghanistan would probably have been

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Q: Okay, and then the September 4th memo that Mr. Clarke sent to you. The commissioners seemed to suggest that it was full of warnings, that you're going to have explain —

DR. RICE: It wasn't warning — it said, you're about to have a meeting on the new NSPD — I'm paraphrasing now — you're about to have a meeting. It was a road map, as we call it, a guide for me to direct the meeting, to conduct the meeting.

It says, you're about to have this meeting on this NSPD. It's a good NSPD. It's got a lot of good stuff in it. But let me give you a history of how bureaucracies have defeated these things before. And one day, we're going to be really sorry because there's going to be an attack on the United States — I'm sorry, an attack with thousands of Americans dead, or something like that, and then how will we feel that the Agency couldn't do this, or that — that's not a warning.

Q So you understood it as a theoretical warning, as opposed to a specific warning?

DR. RICE: Absolutely. One day we're going to be sorry? No. This was — the notion that he would — anyone would say that this was a warning. Of course, we all knew that one day a catastrophic attack was possible. But this was about, you really need not to let the bureaucracies defeat this new NSPD. That's what this was about.

Q: Dr. Rice, I think — I think there's only one passage where Mr. Clarke talked about you specifically.

DR. RICE: I think so. Ask those guys. We're trying to get something, to make sure it's not classified.

MR. McCORMACK: Yes, this is all unclassified.

DR. RICE: It's all unclassified, okay, fine.

Q Just so you don't have to listen to me, would you mind just looking at that paragraph? Could you just give us your version of that call? I think it's the only time that he said that you specifically did something. I sense you don't have the same recollection about it, which is why I'm asking.

DR. RICE: I have no idea what he's talking about. He says, when Condi Rice came back from that meeting, called me and related what the President requested, and I said, well, you know we've had this strategy ready since before you were inaugurated.

I just want to, again, refer you to the August 2002 interview in which he says, no, we didn't give them a plan. Either he gave us a plan, or he didn't give us a plan. But he doesn't have it both ways. In the August 2002 interview, he didn't give us a plan. In the book, apparently, he did give us a plan.

Today, in the testimony, I'm told he says, well, the plan was from 1998 — the Dilenda (ph) Plan, which was there, but that was from 1998. I thought this plan was supposedly developed in 2000. This story has so many twists and turns now that I think he needs to get this story straight.

Okay, thanks.

Q: And may I ask you something more general, the Vice President said he was out of the loop. You said he wasn't in most of the meetings.

But he hadn't been replaced. He still was the counterterrorism official. And I wonder if the counterterrorism official is out of the loop on terrorism issues, if that's not a problem.

DR. RICE: I would not use the word out of the loop. He was in every meeting about terrorism. He was not in the President's daily briefing with George Tenet. What the President did was to reestablish his principal conduit for intelligence information on everything, including terrorism, to be his DCI. But he was not — he was in every meeting that was held on terrorism, all the deputies' meetings, the principals' meeting that was held, and so forth — the early meetings after September 11th. When the President went to Camp David, he went with his closest advisors on September 15th. It was a time when he wanted people in the room with whom he had a particular relationship —

Q: Dr. Rice — and that speaks to my last question. It was clear that he'd been demoted. And so can you see why people outside the process would look like — that might look like terrorism was less of a priority since you demoted the terrorism guy.

DR. RICE: He wasn't demoted. We had a different organizational structure. Dick was still the national coordinator. He was still doing all of the things he had been doing. He had the CSG. He had — by the way, he had daily access to me through a staff meeting that I hold every day, that is — by the way — quite operational. It's not to sit down and debate the fine points of American security policy. It's for the person to say — who does Africa to say, the President really needs to call the President of Sudan today because the peace treaty is going off track. Or Condi you need to call Secretary Powell, there's a mix-up here. We're not sure what's going on. Or can you get the — the President needs to have a meeting on this. It's very operational.

That's how I do business. I don't use e-mail for business. I think it's intemperate, and I don't communicate by e-mail. So the staff meeting was, to me, the central thing. I did have to send Dick two e-mails telling him, come to my staff meetings, because he kept being too busy. I finally told him that it was important that he not be too busy. So he was not demoted. When people met, he was there. But, yes, we had a somewhat different structure. We were a new team. It is usually the case that when you transition into a new team, you sort of adjust to that structure.

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Q: Dr. Rice, just on Dick Clarke, you're his boss, you're calling meetings that he's supposed to be at, I think if most of us were called to a meeting that our boss wanted us to be and we didn't show up, we'd be either disciplined, or fired. Was there any action taken against Dick Clarke on that regard?

DR. RICE: I sent him one e-mail. He didn't come. I sent him another e-mail, and I told him that I thought he really better start coming, he came.

Q: So there was no discussion of something that — pardon me, I'm sorry.

DR. RICE: That's all right.

Q: That — any disciplinary action against him, and there's no conflict over that?

DR. RICE: No. Look, I know how to manage people, and I asked him to come once. We continued to have a problem. I asked him to come twice. We didn't have a problem after that.

Q: Why wasn't he coming?

Q: In his resignation letter —

DR. RICE: He said he was busy. And on a couple of occasions he people had come and said he was busy doing —

Q: Busy doing what?

DR. RICE: Giving speeches or doing other things. But it was not acceptable.

Q: In his resignation letter, he praised the President's courage and determination, did he leave in a huff?

DR. RICE: No. What's really puzzling is that there are two very different stories here. There's the book and the "60 Minutes" interview. There is the August 2002 interview, where I assume he said things that he believed to be truthful, that we didn't give him — he didn't give us a plan; that the strategy was to eliminate al Qaeda, not to roll it back; that we had acted on the steps that he gave to us on January 25th. I assume he was saying things that he believed to be true.

There is also during the whole time that he's here — relations are very cordial. He comes to me and asks me to support him with Tom Ridge to become deputy homeland secretary, said he was supportive of the President. He'd like to continue to serve. He'd like to be deputy homeland secretary.

We had lunch. I invited him to lunch after he left to kind of thank him for his long service. And he sat at the table. We had an extensive discussion. It's three weeks before Iraq. Not a word about concerns that Iraq was going to somehow take us off the path of the war on terrorism. It would have been easy to do — kick the others out, close the door, say, I just want you to know I think you're making a mistake. Didn't do it.

So there are two very different pictures here. And the fact of the matter is, these stories can't be reconciled. Either he gave us the plan, as he says in his book; or he didn't, as he says in his discussion — his press interview in August. Either we were ignoring the threat, or now it's changed to it was important but not urgent; or we were actually responding to the things that he suggested, which is what he said in the August 2002 interview. Either the President was not interested in this problem, which is what he said in his "60 Minutes" interview; or it was the President who in March changed the strategic direction of the NSPD, which is what he said in his August 2002 interview. So these are not reconcilable. And I assume he spoke the truth on August 2002, so the question is, what happened here?

Q: I have one question —

MR. McCORMACK: This is the last question —

Q: I don't know what kind of an answer I'll get, but how damaging

is this to the Bush presidency?

DR. RICE: I think, Elisabeth, the American people do not believe that the President of the United States is pursuing a folly in the war on terrorism. He's pursuing a coherent, aggressive strategy that takes the fight to the terrorists. It's the first such strategy in American history against terrorism after a long period of time in which the terrorists — really going back to '80s — thought they'd gained the upper hand, in which they'd thought their victory was inevitable. We've killed or captured two-thirds of the al Qaeda leadership. We've got a worldwide coalition fighting this terrorism. We've liberated 50 million people. We have a good ally in Afghanistan. We're building a good ally in Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are fighting in the war on terrorism like they never have before. I think that the American people understand that.

And, frankly, when Dick Clarke is asked which of his stories is he going to stand by, I think it will be very obvious to the American people that there's a real problem in saying the things that he's said about the President of the United States on "60 Minutes," when he's got a record of having said something very different just a little while ago.

Oh, yes, I just — there's one other thing here, which is that, after the attacks, this is on September 15th. As I mentioned to you, Andy Card and I on July 5th during the high spike period asked Dick to come in and asked him to convene the domestic agencies — not because there was any threat reporting about the United States — there wasn't, but just in case, just convene them. And here's the note that Dick wrote to me on September 15th: "When the era of national unity begins to crack in the near future, it is possible that some will start asking questions like, did the White House do a good job of making sure that intelligence about terrorist threats got to the FAA and other domestic law enforcement authorities, as the attached paper, which was sent to you in July, and the e-mail, also July, note, in late June the Interagency Counterterrorism Security Group,which I chair, warned of an upcoming, spectacular al Qaeda attack that would be qualitatively different. We convened on 5 July a special meeting of domestic federal law enforcement agencies because we could not rule out the possibility that the attack would be in the U.S." In fact, that was the meeting that we asked him to convene.

"At the special meeting on July 5 were the FBI, Secret Service, FAA, Customs, Coast Guard, and Immigration. We told them that we thought a spectacular al Qaeda terrorist attack was coming in the near future." That had been had been George Tenet's language. "We asked that they take special measures to increase security and surveillance. Thus, the White House did ensure that domestic law enforcement including the FAA knew that the CSG believed that a major al Qaeda attack was coming, and it could be in the U.S., and did ask that special measures be taken."

That was, of course, his job — but that was his assessment on September 15th.

MR. McCORMACK: Thank you very much everybody.

DR. RICE: All right, thank you.