Transcript: Counterterror Experts Debate Clinton Claims on 'FNS'

The following is a partial transcript of the Oct. 1, 2006, edition of "FOX News Sunday With Chris Wallace":

"FOX NEWS SUNDAY" HOST CHRIS WALLACE: Bill Clinton said a lot of things in our interview last week. How much of it was true? Well, we've assembled a panel of experts to discuss just that: Daniel Benjamin, a counterterrorism expert for the Clinton National Security Council; Michael Scheuer, who ran the CIA unit that hunted Usama bin Laden; and Lawrence Wright, author of a behind-the-scenes new book on the run-up to 9/11 called "The Looming Tower."

We should note we invited Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism expert President Clinton mentioned last week, but he declined.

Gentlemen, thank you all for coming today.

Let's start with President Clinton's claim in our interview that he may not have known in 1993 about Usama bin Laden but that, as time went on, he became very knowledgeable about him. Here it is.


WALLACE: Did they know in 1996 when he declared war on the U.S.? Did they know in 1998...

W. CLINTON: Absolutely, absolutely...

WALLACE: ... when he bombed the two embassies? Did they know in 2000 when he hit the Cole?

W. CLINTON: What did I do? I worked hard to try to kill him. I authorized the finding for the CIA to kill him. We contracted with people to kill him. I got closer to killing him than anybody's gotten since.


WALLACE: Mr. Scheuer, as the man in charge of what was called "Alec Station," the CIA unit in charge of hunting down Usama bin Laden, you say the Clinton administration missed at least 10 chances to get him. I don't want to go into all 10, but what was the problem?

FORMER CIA UNIT CHIEF MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, the president is correct, in that he got - President Clinton is correct that he got closer than anyone, but, of course, he always refused to pull the trigger. And in addition, we were never authorized, while I was the chief of operations, to kill Usama bin Laden. In fact, Mr. Richard Clarke definitely told us we had no authorization to kill bin Laden.

Why they didn't shoot, of course, is, at least from Mr. Tenet's viewpoint it was because one time they were afraid to have shrapnel hit a mosque when they killed bin Laden. And two other times I think they were afraid they actually would have to do something, so they warned the emirates on one occasion, the princes from the United Arab Emirates, to move so we couldn't attack bin Laden.

WALLACE: They were on a hunting trip with bin Laden.

SCHEUER: Yes, sir. And Richard Clarke called the emirates and warned them that they should get out of that area, which cost us the chance to kill him.

WALLACE: Mr. Benjamin, you were working in the National Security Council at that time. Weren't there a number of cases where the Clinton administration had bin Laden in their sights and refused or failed to pull the trigger?

FORMER CLINTON NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL OFFICIAL DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, as the 9/11 commission report has shown, the answer to that is no. On three different occasions we had some intelligence that bin Laden might be in a particular place at a particular time, and we had warships off the coast of Pakistan ready to shoot cruise missiles. However, we never got the confirming intelligence.

I have the greatest respect for Mike Scheuer, but on this case I think he's wrong, because, quite simply, we never had enough information to do this with confidence, knowing that we would get the target. And it doesn't help your deterrence and it doesn't help your case if you fire and you don't hit the right person.

WALLACE: Mr. Wright, one of the strongest points I picked out from your book was, you talk a lot about the so-called wall that was barring the sharing of information between the CIAand the FBI. And you say repeatedly that it blocked, it hindered efforts to get bin Laden.

AUTHOR LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Right. The wall was, to some extent, legal. There was a small legal wall constructed within the FBI between criminal and intelligence agents. But the mythical wall, the nonexistent legal wall, grew up between these cultures, and they naturally decided not to share information. There's a natural jealousy in all intelligence agencies about their information.

WALLACE: But give us one, very briefly, an example of the kind of case where if one side, the FBI, had known what the CIA knew or vice versa, it could have made all the difference.

WRIGHT: Well, in January of 2000, two members of Al Qaeda flew from Kuala Lumpur to Los Angeles and then moved to San Diego. In March of 2000, the CIA learned of this, and they didn't tell the FBI. This is a year and a half before 9/11. And once they're in the U.S., they really belong to the FBI.

WALLACE: In our interview, President Clinton was very emphatic that after the attack on the USS Cole in October of 2000, he was ready to go to war. Let's watch.


W. CLINTON: After the Cole, I had battle plans drawn to go into Afghanistan, overthrow the Taliban and launch a full-scale attack and search for bin Laden.


WALLACE: Now, Mr. Wright, you say in your book -- and I must say I mentioned this to President Clinton in our interview last week -- that bin Laden was so sure after the Cole attack that he was going to be hit that he separated, he scattered all of his leaders, but there was no response. Why not?

WRIGHT: Well, they took place 25 days before the general election, for one thing, so it would have been politically difficult.

I think this whole thing about the FBI and the CIA not warranting that Al Qaeda did it was done as a kind of "you don't want to know" basis. Because everybody knew Al Qaeda did it. And, you know, the intelligence agencies were reporting to the NSC what the FBI guys on the ground in Yemen were finding. They knew that it was Al Qaeda in early November. But the leadership of those two agencies wouldn't certify it, in my opinion, because they didn't want the president to have to know that.

WALLACE: Let me ask you about that, Mr. Benjamin, because that was one of the points that President Clinton made in our interview, that it wasn't certified by the FBI and the CIA. Two points about that: One, he's the commander in chief. The CIA and the FBI don't work for -- I mean, they work for him, he doesn't work for them. And two, doesn't this get to the whole issue as to whether or not this was viewed as law enforcement or a war?

BENJAMIN: No, I don't think it has anything to do with that. I think it has to do with having a standard of proof that you know that there was outside leadership of Al Qaeda directing an attack in Yemen, and could you attack that outside leadership in Afghanistan on that basis? I think it's a very clear issue.

The whole discussion of a law enforcement paradigm versus a war paradigm is, in many ways, just a myth, because the War on Terror, if you want to call it that, was conducted in a way before 9/11 that involved an awful lot of intelligence operations that had nothing to do with law enforcement.

This was about being able to say we got the right guys. And it was a very difficult time. It was right before the election. He needed to have proof to justify this kind of attack.

WALLACE: But, Mr. Scheuer, I can see you beginning to shake your head. I mean, whether or not they had certifiable proof about the Cole, they certainly knew that Al Qaeda had been involved in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Africa.

In your opinion, as somebody who was up close and personal, why didn't the Clinton administration go after Al Qaeda after the USS Cole?

SCHEUER: Mr. Wallace, my opinion is not all that important. I went to a little Jesuit school in Buffalo called Canicius, and the priests taught us never to lie, but if you had to lie, never lie about facts. Mr. Richard Clarke, Mr. Sandy Berger, President Clinton are lying about the opportunities they had to kill Usama bin Laden. That's the plain truth, the exact truth.

Men and women at the CIA risked their lives to provide occasions to kill a man we knew had declared war and had attacked America four or five times before 1998. We had plans that had been approved by the Joint Operations Command at Fort Bragg. We had opportunities, many opportunities to kill him.

But that's the president's decision. That's absolutely the case. It's not a simple, dumb bureaucrat like me; that's not my decision. It's his. But for him to get on the television and say to the American people he did all he could is a flat lie, sir.

WALLACE: Mr. Benjamin?

BENJAMIN: Well, I simply disagree. The plans that Mike is referring to about being approved were actually disapproved by his own chain of command. The CIA did not have confidence in the operation that was drawn up, and we couldn't go forward with it.

After the attack on the East Africa embassies, the covert operations were restarted, and again the same assets that were being involved earlier proved to be feckless and didn't deliver the goods.


SCHEUER: ... saying this, that what Mr. Benjamin, who I have a great deal of respect for, but what I say doesn't matter. What matters is the documents that back up what I have to say or what Mr. Benjamin has to say.

The 9/11 commission ignored those documents, didn't publish them to the American people, let no one involved with the effort to get bin Laden testify to the American people.

This is not a question of interpretation or judgment. This is a question of fact. And the documents will show the president had the opportunity.

WALLACE: All right. I want to get into one last area here, and I'll give you all an opportunity. One of the other issues that I discussed with President Clinton was the transition to the Bush administration in 2001, and here's what President Clinton had to say about that.


W. CLINTON: At least I tried. That's the difference in me and some, including all of the right-wingers that are attacking me now. They ridiculed me for trying. They had eight months to try. They did not try. I tried.

So I tried and failed. When I failed, I left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy and the best guy in the country, Dick Clarke, who got demoted.


WALLACE: Mr. Benjamin, wasn't the plan that President Clinton talks about there, the plan that Dick Clarke presented to Condi Rice in January of 2001, wasn't that awfully close to the delenda plan, "delenda" being Latin for destruction, which, in fact, he had drawn up in 1998 in the Clinton years and in fact was rejected by the Clinton White House?

BENJAMIN: Well, I was no longer in the administration. My understanding was that it was an elaboration of the original program. And things, of course, had changed because of the bombing of the Cole. This involved elaborate diplomatic approaches to other governments that a new administration needed to take on.

I do think that the key point here is that President Clinton is correct. The administration came into office. They held a meeting immediately on regime change in Iraq. They didn't hold a meeting of the principals of the National Security Council until September 4 on Al Qaeda. They didn't take the threat nearly as seriously as their predecessors had, and valuable time was lost.

WALLACE: Mr. Scheuer, you're very critical of President Clinton, as we've seen today, but you also are on the record as saying that President Bush was, quote, "absolutely negligent in his failure to do more in the first eight months."

SCHEUER: Oh, I think that's absolutely the case. And I think that this administration has led us into a tremendously difficult long-term problem, which will be very bloody and costly for Americans.

I think fair is fair, though. Mr. Clarke, Mr. Berger, Mr. Clinton did have opportunities that were delivered by the men and women of the CIA to kill Usama bin Laden. In the first eight months of the Bush administration, there were no such opportunities. Could Bush have done more?

BENJAMIN: He didn't create any either.

SCHEUER: There were no such opportunities.

BENJAMIN: There were no votes (ph)?

SCHEUER: Well, the agency was still in the field. We were still trying to collect information. We didn't know where he was. I'm not saying that what they did or not was right, but the fact is Bush didn't have eyes on target.

WALLACE: Let me bring Mr. Wright into this, as well.

As someone -- and I have read your book -- who has reported this exhaustively for years around the world, after the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Africa, after the attack on the USS Cole, and it's not like the slate gets wiped clean when a new president comes in, why did both presidents fail to appreciate and take more seriously the threat of Al Qaeda?

WRIGHT: Well, first of all, they were both poorly served by their intelligence agencies. And this is not a Clinton or a Bush problem; it goes back to Carter. It has been withered for decades under many administrations. And the will to act had also withered along with that.

And so, when it gets down time for Mike -- you know, when Clinton says, "Get him," and Mike is in charge of getting him, he doesn't have the kind of people really available to him. They're trying to hire tribal people who are not CIA employees. They're trying to give them some kind of reward if they capture him. They don't have people that speak natively Arabic and ...

WALLACE: I understand that, but wasn't it also failure of will by both presidents?

WRIGHT: I think if they actually had a real moment of having bin Laden in their sights, but the truth is, on each of these occasions, when they had tribals who said they thought that he was there, one time when he was in the governor's house but he actually left, another time when the CIA had mistakenly given information that led to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and then the best opportunity to get bin Laden arises right after that, and, you know, and Clinton -- and Tenet had a failure of nerve.

In each of these cases, the intelligence was not great. And the reason the intelligence was not great is they didn't have people that were capable of getting inside the tent.

WALLACE: All right. We could talk about this, and I wish we could, talk about this a lot more. And I want to thank you for coming in today and helping us try to set the record straight.