Wallace falsehood: said in Clinton interview that he asked Bush admin officials "plenty of questions" about failure to catch bin Laden

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN & ROB DIETZ

During his interview with former President Bill Clinton on Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace asked Clinton why he failed to "do more" during his presidency to put Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden "out of business," a question, Clinton said, Fox News "do[esn't] ask the other side." Wallace denied the charge, responding, "That is not true."

In a taped interview with former President Bill Clinton that aired on the September 24 edition of Fox News Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace asked Clinton why he failed to "do more" during his presidency to put Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden "out of business." Clinton responded with a vigorous defense of his administration's anti-terrorism policies, noting that he instituted a "comprehensive anti-terror strategy" during his tenure in the White House and that many conservatives had accused him at the time of being "too obsessed with finding bin Laden." He then told Wallace: "I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you've asked this question of. ... Tell the truth." Wallace replied, "Have you ever watched Fox News Sunday, sir? ... We ask plenty of questions." Clinton later stated, "[Y]ou people ask me questions you don't ask the other side," to which Wallace responded, "That is not true." In fact, in dozens of interviews over the past five years with senior Bush aides, Wallace and former host Tony Snow have repeatedly failed to ask pressing questions regarding the Bush administration's efforts to pursue Al Qaeda in the eight months prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- and in the years since.

Here is a list of senior Bush administration officials interviewed on Fox News Sunday since September 11, 2001. (White House press secretary Tony Snow previously hosted the program. Wallace succeeded him in December 2003.):

  • Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; 9/10/06
  • National Security adviser Stephen Hadley; 8/6/06
  • Rice; 7/16/06
  • Rice; 6/4/06
  • Rice; 5/21/06
  • Rice; 3/26/06
  • Rice; 12/18/05
  • Hadley; 12/4/05
  • Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld; 11/20/05
  • Rice; 10/16/05
  • Rumsfeld; 6/26/05
  • Rice; 6/19/05
  • Hadley; 5/15/05
  • Then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card; 5/1/05
  • Rumsfeld; 3/20/05
  • Hadley; 3/13/05
  • Vice President Dick Cheney; 2/6/05
  • Rice; 1/30/05
  • Rice (then-National Security adviser); 10/10/04
  • Rice; 6/27/04
  • Rice; 6/6/04
  • Rice; 4/18/04
  • Rumsfeld; 3/28/04
  • Card; 12/7/03
  • Rumsfeld; 11/2/03
  • Rice; 9/28/03
  • Rice; 9/7/03
  • Rice; 7/13/03
  • Rumsfeld; 5/4/03
  • Rumsfeld; 3/30/03
  • Rice; 2/16/03
  • Card; 1/26/03
  • Rumsfeld; 1/19/03
  • Rice; 11/10/02
  • Rice; 9/15/02
  • Card; 6/9/02
  • Rice; 5/26/02
  • Cheney; 5/19/02
  • Rice; 5/5/02
  • Card; 4/14/02
  • Rice; 2/3/02
  • Cheney; 1/27/02
  • Rumsfeld; 11/11/01

In the March 28, 2004, interview with Rumsfeld, Wallace did press him on whether the Department of Defense should have "been thinking more about" terrorism prior to 9-11 and asked him to respond to the "basic charge that, pre-9-11 ... this government, the Bush administration, largely ignored the threat from Al Qaeda." Referring to Rumsfeld's testimony before the 9-11 Commission regarding the Defense Department's anti-terrorism efforts, Wallace remarked, "[I]t sure sounds like fighting terrorism was not a top priority."

But beyond this exchange, the Fox News Sunday interviews listed above have almost entirely ignored several key questions regarding the Bush administration's efforts to pursue bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Why did the White House not respond more forcefully to the August 6 CIA memo warning of an impending bin Laden strike against the United States?

On August 6, 2001, the CIA delivered a now-famous "Presidential Daily Brief" (PDB) to Bush entitled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S." The memo stated that, although the FBI had "not been able to corroborate" a 1998 report that bin Laden was seeking to "hijack a U.S. aircraft," "FBI information since that time indicate[d] patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York."

The administration appears to have done little in response to the August 6 PDB. The 9-11 Commission stated in its report that it "found no indication of any further discussion before September 11 among the President and his top advisers of the possibility of a threat of an al Qaeda attack in the United States" -- this despite the fact that "[m]ost of the intelligence community recognized in the summer of 2001 that the number and severity of threat reports were unprecedented."

News of the August 6 memo first broke on May 18, 2002. During Cheney's appearance on Fox News Sunday the following day, Snow brought up the memo and asked him, "Why didn't we connect the dots?" But in their subsequent interviews with Bush administration officials, Wallace and Snow repeatedly failed to ask them if they regretted not reacting more forcefully to it. Wallace even avoided questioning Rice about it days after she discussed the memo during her testimony before the 9-11 Commission, as the weblog Think Progress noted.

Why did the Bush administration demote Richard Clarke?

Former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke left the White House in January 2003, shortly after being demoted by the Bush administration. He subsequently criticized the administration's response to the alarming intelligence delivered prior to 9-11. During the September 24 interview, Clinton said that Clarke was "loyal" to former presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush. Clinton then noted that despite Clarke's loyalty, the Bush administration "downgraded him and the terrorist operation," which prompted Clinton to ask Wallace, "I want to know how many people you asked, 'Why did you fire Dick Clarke?' " Clinton later said: "This country only has one person who's worked against terror, from the terrorist incidents under Reagan to the terrorist incidents on 9-11. Only one: Richard Clarke."

In his numerous interviews with Bush administration officials, Wallace mentioned Clarke only once, as Think Progress noted, in the March 28, 2004, interview with Rumsfeld. But in that interview, Wallace failed to question Rumsfeld on Clarke's demotion.

Why didn't the Bush administration do anything in response to the bombing of the USS Cole?

During the interview, Wallace asked Clinton about the "attack on the Cole" and why, "after the attack," the Clinton administration "didn't do more." Wallace was referring to the USS Cole bombing on October 12, 2000, roughly three months before Clinton left the White House. Clinton noted that he didn't have much time to respond to the bombing and asked Wallace: "I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you asked, 'Why didn't you do anything about the Cole?' "

As Think Progress noted, no Bush administration official has ever been asked about the administration's lack of response to the Cole bombing by a host of Fox News Sunday -- this despite the fact that the FBI and CIA did not certify that bin Laden was responsible for the attack until early 2001.

Why did Bush not heed the CIA's call for more troops to help catch bin Laden at Tora Bora?

In an April 17, 2002, article on bin Laden's escape from the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan in late 2001, The Washington Post reported that the Bush administration's "failure to commit U.S. ground troops to hunt him was its gravest error in the war against al Qaeda, according to civilian and military officials with first-hand knowledge." The article noted that several "[a]fter-action reviews, conducted privately inside and outside the military chain of command, describe the episode as a significant defeat for the United States." Further, the Post quoted a senior counterterrorism official saying, "We [messed] up by not getting into Tora Bora sooner and letting the Afghans do all the work. ... We didn't put U.S. forces on the ground, despite all the brave talk, and that is what we have had to change since then."

But in their subsequent appearances on Fox News Sunday, senior Bush aides did not face any questions regarding the Bush administration's decision-making at Tora Bora.

In 2006, investigative reporter Ron Suskind shed even more light on the incident in his new book, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (Simon & Schuster, June 2006). Suskind disclosed that CIA officer Henry "Hank" Crumpton, the head of the agency's Afghanistan campaign at the time, had told Bush in late November 2001 that Pakistani and Afghan fighters were "definitely not" equipped to handle the mission and that "we're going to lose our prey if we're not careful." According to Suskind, Crumpton "strongly recommended the marines, or other troops in the region, get to Tora Bora immediately." But despite delivering this recommendation to Bush directly, the administration never committed more troops to the area, and bin Laden ultimately escaped.

Since Suskind's book release in June, Wallace has interviewed both Rice and Hadley, but he did not ask either of them about this revelation.

From the September 24 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday:

WALLACE: When we announced that you were going to be on Fox News Sunday, I got a lot of emails from viewers, and I gotta say, I was surprised most of them wanted me to ask you this question: Why didn't you do more to put bin Laden and Al Qaeda out of business when you were president?

There's a new book out, you may -- I suspect you've already read, called The Looming Tower, and it talks about the fact that when you pulled troops out of Somalia in 1993, bin Laden said, "I have seen the frailty and the weakness and the cowardice of U.S. troops." Then there was the bombing of the embassies in Africa and the attack on the Cole.

CLINTON: OK, let's just cut the --

WALLACE: Let me -- let me -- may I just finish the question, sir? And after the attack, the book says that bin Laden separated his leaders, spread them around because he expected an attack and there was no response. I understand that hindsight is always 20/20 --

CLINTON: No, let's talk about it.

WALLACE: But the question is why didn't you do more? Connect the dots and put them out of business?

CLINTON: OK, let's talk about it. I will answer all of those things on the merits, but first I want to talk about the context in which this arises. I'm being asked this on the Fox network. ABC just had a right-wing conservative run their little Pathway to 9-11 [sic] falsely claiming it was based on the 9-11 Commission report with three things asserted against me directly contradicted by the 9-11 Commission report. And I think it's very interesting that all the conservative Republicans who now say I didn't do enough claimed that I was too obsessed with bin Laden. All of President Bush's neocons thought I was too obsessed with bin Laden. They had no meetings on bin Laden for nine months after I left office. All the right-wingers who now say I didn't do enough said I did too much -- same people.

They were all trying to get me to withdraw from Somalia in 1993, the next day after we were involved in Black Hawk Down, and I refused to do it and stayed six months and had an orderly transfer to the United Nations. OK, now let's look at all the criticisms: Black Hawk Down, Somalia. There is not a living soul in the world who thought Osama bin Laden had anything to do with Black Hawk Down or was paying any attention to it or even knew Al Qaeda was a growing concern in October of 1993.

WALLACE: I understand -- I --

CLINTON: No, wait. No, wait. Don't tell me this. You asked me why didn't I do more to bin Laden. There was not a living soul -- all the people who are now criticizing me wanted to leave the next day. You brought this up, so you get an answer, but you can't --

WALLACE: I'm perfectly happy to.

CLINTON: All right. All right, secondly --

WALLACE: Bin Laden says --

CLINTON: But -- bin Laden may have said that --

WALLACE: Bin Laden says it showed the weakness of the U.S. --

CLINTON: But it would have shown the weakness if we'd left right away, but he wasn't involved in that. That's just a bunch of bull. That was about Mohammed Adid, a Muslim warlord murdering 22 Pakistani Muslim troops. We were all there on a humanitarian mission. We had no mission -- none -- to establish a certain kind of Somali government or keep anybody out. He was not a religious fanatic.

WALLACE: But Mr. President --

CLINTON: There was no Al Qaeda --

WALLACE: With respect, if I may, without -- instead of going through '93 --

CLINTON: No, no, you asked it. You brought it up.

WALLACE: May I --

CLINTON: You brought it up.

WALLACE: -- may I ask a general question and then you can answer? The 9-11 Commission, you -- which you talk about -- and this is what they did say -- not what ABC pretended they said.

CLINTON: What did they say?

WALLACE: They said about you and President Bush and I quote: "The U.S. government took the threat seriously, but not in the sense of mustering anything like the kind of effort that would be gathered to confront an enemy of the first, second or even third rank."

CLINTON: That -- first of all, that's not true with us and bin Laden.

WALLACE: Well, I'm talking about what the 9-11 Commission says.

CLINTON: Let's look at what Richard Clarke said. Do you think Richard Clarke has a vigorous attitude about bin Laden?

WALLACE: Yes, I do.

CLINTON: You do, don't you?

WALLACE: I think he has a variety of opinions and loyalties --

CLINTON: That's right.

WALLACE: -- but yes, he has a vigorous opinion.

CLINTON: He has a variety of opinions and loyalties now, but let's look at the facts. He worked for Ronald Reagan. He was loyal to him. He worked for George H. W. Bush. He was loyal to him. He worked for me and he was loyal to me. He worked for President Bush; he was loyal to him. They downgraded him and the terrorist operation. Now, look what he said. Read his book and read his factual assertions -- not opinions -- assertions. He said we took "vigorous action" after the African embassies. We probably nearly got bin Laden.

WALLACE: Well, wait --

CLINTON: I authorized -- now, wait a minute --

WALLACE: You launched a few -- you threw a few cruise missiles.

CLINTON: No, no. I authorized -- I authorized the CIA to get groups together to try to kill him. The CIA was run by George Tenet that President Bush gave the Medal of Freedom to. He said he did a good job, setting up all these counterterrorism things. The country never had a comprehensive anti-terror operation until I came there.

Now if you want to criticize me for one thing, you can criticize me for this: after the Cole, I had battle plans drawn to go into Afghanistan, overthrow the Taliban, and launch a full scale attack/search for bin Laden. But, we needed basing rights in Uzbekistan, which we got after 9-11. The CIA and the FBI refused to certify that bin Laden was responsible while I was there. They refused to certify. So, that meant I would have had to send a few hundred Special Forces in, in helicopters and refuel at night. Even the 9-11 Commission didn't do that. Now, the 9-11 Commission was a political document, too. All I'm asking is: If anybody wants to say I didn't do enough, you read Richard Clarke's book.

WALLACE: Do you think you did enough, sir?

CLINTON: No, because I didn't get him.

WALLACE: Right.

CLINTON: But at least I tried. That's the difference in me and some, including all the right-wingers who 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.

So, you did Fox's bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit-job on me, but what I want to know --

WALLACE: Now, wait a minute, sir, I asked a question. You don't think that's a legitimate question?

CLINTON: It was a perfectly legitimate question. But I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you've asked this question of. I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you asked, "Why didn't you do anything about the Cole?" I want to know how many people you asked, "Why did you fire Dick Clarke?" I want to know how many people you asked about this.

WALLACE: We asked -- we asked. Have you ever watched Fox News Sunday, sir?

CLINTON: I don't believe you asked them that.

WALLACE: We ask plenty of questions of --

CLINTON: You didn't ask that, did you? Tell the truth, Chris.

WALLACE: About the USS Cole?

CLINTON: Tell the truth, Chris

WALLACE: With Iraq and Afghanistan, there's plenty of stuff to ask.

CLINTON: Did you ever ask that? You set this meeting up because you were going to get a lot of criticism from your viewers because Rupert Murdoch is supporting my work on climate change. And you came here under false pretenses and said that you'd spend half the time talking about -- you said you'd spend half the time talking about what we did out there to raise $7 billion-plus in three days from 215 different commitments. And you don't care. But,

WALLACE: President Clinton, if you look at the questions here, you'll see half the questions were about that. I didn't think this was going to go off on such a tear.

CLINTON: You launched -- it set off on a tear because you didn't formulate it in an honest way and because you people ask me questions you don't ask the other side.

WALLACE: That -- sir, that is --

CLINTON: And Richard Clarke -

WALLACE: That is not true.

CLINTON: Richard Clarke made it clear in his testimony --

WALLACE: Would you like to talk about the -- about the Clinton Global Initiative?

CLINTON: No, I want to finish this now.

WALLACE: All right. Well, it's up to you.

CLINTON: All I'm saying is, you launched -- you falsely accuse me of giving aid and comfort to bin Laden because of what happened in Somalia. No one knew Al Qaeda existed then, and --

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

CLINTON: Absolutely, they did.

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

CLINTON: What did I do? I worked hard to try to kill him. I authorized a finding for the CIA to kill him. We contracted with people to kill him. I got closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since. And if I were still president, we'd have more than 20,000 troops there trying to kill him. Now, I've never criticized President Bush, and I don't think this is useful.

But you know, we do have a government that thinks Afghanistan is only one-seventh as important as Iraq. And you ask me about terror and Al Qaeda with that sort of -- sort of dismissive theme, when all you have to do is read Richard Clarke's book to look at what we did in a comprehensive, systematic way to try to protect the country against terror. And you've got that little smirk on your face. You think you're so clever.

But I had responsibility for trying to protect this country. I tried and I failed to get bin Laden. I regret it, but I did try. And I did everything I thought I responsibly could. The entire military was against sending Special Forces into Afghanistan and refueling by helicopter and no one thought we could do it otherwise because we could not get the CIA and the FBI to certify that Al Qaeda was responsible while I was president. And so I left office. And yet, I get asked about this all the time, they had three times as much time to deal with it and nobody ever asks them about it. I think that's strange.

WALLACE: Can I ask you about the Clinton Global Initiative?

CLINTON: You can.

WALLACE: I always intended to, sir.

CLINTON: No, you intended, though, to move your bones by doing this first, which is perfectly fine. But I don't mind people asking me. I actually talked to the 9-11 Commission for four hours, Chris, and I told them the mistakes I thought I made. And I urged them to make those mistakes public because I thought none of us had been perfect. But instead of anybody talking about those things, I always get these clever little political eels where they ask me one-sided questions, and the other guys another set. And it always comes from one source. And so -- and so --

WALLACE: I just want to ask you about the Clinton Global Initiative, but what's the source? I mean, you seem upset, and I -- and I --

CLINTON: I am upset, because --

WALLACE: -- and all I can say is, I'm asking you in good faith because it's on people's minds, sir. And I wasn't --

CLINTON: Well, there's a reason it's on people's minds. That's the point I'm trying to make. There's a reason it's on people's minds because they've done a serious disinformation campaign to create that impression. This country only has one person who's worked against terror, from the terrorist incidents under Reagan to the terrorist incidents on 9-11. Only one: Richard Clarke.

And all I can say -- anybody is -- you want to know what we did wrong or right, or anybody else did? Read his book. The people on my political right, who say I didn't do enough, spent the whole time I was president saying, "Why is he so obsessed with bin Laden? That was 'Wag the Dog' when he tried to kill him." My Republican Secretary of Defense -- and I think I'm the only president since World War II to have a Secretary of Defense from the opposite party -- Richard Clarke, and all the intelligence people said that I ordered a vigorous attempt to get bin Laden and came closer apparently than anybody has since.

WALLACE: All right.

CLINTON: And then, you guys try to create the opposite impression when all you have to do is read Richard Clarke's findings and you know it's not true. It's just not true. And all this business about Somalia --the same people who criticized me about Somalia were demanding I leave the next day -- the same exact crowd.

WALLACE: All right.

CLINTON: So, if you're going to do this, for God's sake, follow the same standards for everybody --

WALLACE: I think we do, sir.

CLINTON: -- and be fair.

WALLACE: I think we do.

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