Ray McGovern and Jason Leopold: The intelligence agencies had the information, the question is why didn’t they use it
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In 2009, Richard Clarke gave quite a remarkable interview to two filmmakers who were working on a documentary. John Duffy and Ray Nowosielski interviewed Clarke about his relationship with George Tenet and what George Tenet told him about the existence of two suspected (at that time) al-Qaeda conspirators in the United States. Here’s a little bit of that interview.
RICHARD CLARKE, COUNTERTERRORISM EXPERT: And it’s not as I originally thought, which was that one lonely CIA analyst got this information and didn’t, somehow, recognize the significance of it. No. Fifty–five O–CIA personnel knew about about this. You have to intentionally stop it; you have to intervene and say, no, I don’t want that report to go. And I never got a report to that effect. If there was a decision made to stop normal distribution with regard to this case, then people like Tom Wilshire would have known that. Here they are in the NSC advisor’s office, trying to make their best case possible for action, but in trying to make this persuasive case, they never once mentioned that already two al-Qaeda terrorists known to be involved in the Kuala Lampur planning [incompr.] had entered the United States.
JAY: Now joining us to talk about the significance of Clarke’s comments and some of the fallout afterwords are Ray McGovern. Ray served as an Army infantry intelligence officer, then as a CIA analyst. He helped write and edit the president’s daily brief under Nixon and Ford and Reagan. Ray now works for Tell the Word, a minister of the inner-city Washington Church of the Savior. And he joins us from Oakland. And also joining us, Jason Leopold. Jason is an investigative reporter and the deputy managing editor of Truthout. He’s also the author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller News Junkie. He joins us from Los Angeles. Thank you both for joining us.
JASON LEOPOLD, DEPUTY MANAGING EDITOR, TRUTHOUT: Thank you. Great to be here.
JAY: So, Jason, why don’t you pick up the narrative here and tell us basically what happened, Clarke’s interview, and tell us the story and a little bit about what you think is the significance of this?
LEOPOLD: Sure. Well, these two filmmakers spoke to Clarke back in October 2009, and they had been, basically, investigating what happened with regard to two of the hijackers who made their way into the United States in 2000, undetected, apparently, by the various intelligence agencies, even though the CIA had been monitoring one of the key al-Qaeda meetings taking place where 9/11 was discussed, in Malaysia. And, you know, over the years, we’ve been hearing about these intelligence failures and the fact that information had not been shared. And Clarke becomes the first high-ranking official who was in a position to know what was happening with regard to al-Qaeda, given his background and his work in tracking, you know, some of the suspected terrorists within the organization. And he pointed his finger and said that Tenet, Rich Blee (a name that has not really been discussed before over the past decade), and Cofer Black all knew about these two hijackers who apparently were on Flight 77 that flew into the Pentagon, and withheld information and intelligence not only from the FBI, but Clarke said that they more or less lied to Congress and the 9/11 Commission with regard to specific intelligence information that the CIA had about these two hijackers. So, you know, his comments are explosive, particularly as we come up on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. And really what it does, what Clarke is doing is trying to say that, look, this is a puzzle that has not been solved,there are still pieces that need to be, you know, put together here. And you can tell that Clarke has been thinking about this for quite some time. I mean, he wrote about this specific event or this specific problem with the intelligence in his book. Although he did not name George Tenet, Richard Blee, who was head of the bin Laden unit [incompr.] in the CIA, Cofer Black, he did not point a finger at them, but here he is saying that these guys were responsible.
JAY: We’ll play the clip here. He’s asked directly in the interview–if this information wasn’t passed on to Clarke, Clarke is asked directly, at what level would this decision have to have been made not to pass it on, and Clarke’s making the point here that he didn’t have to pass it on; there should have been an automatic flow of this information. Clarke says there had to have been a specific decision to stop the automatic flow to Clarke. And he’s asked: at what level is this decision made? So here’s a little clip where he answers that question.
INTERVIEWER: He had full range of opportunity to alert you.
CLARKE: He did, but he wouldn’t have to, because unless somebody intervened to stop the normal automatic distribution, I would automatically get it. For me, to this day, it is inexplicable why, when I had every other detail about everything related to terrorism, that the director didn’t tell me, that the director of the Counterterrorism Center didn’t tell me, that the other 48 people in the CIA who knew about it never mentioned it to me or anyone in my staff in a period of over 12 months.
INTERVIEWER: They were stopped from getting to you and stopped from getting to the White House, then.
CLARKE: And stopped from getting to the FBI and the Defense Department. We therefore conclude that there was a high-level decision in the CIA ordering people not to share that information.
INTERVIEWER: How high-level?
CLARKE: I would think it would have to be made by the director.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve got to understand my relationship with him. We were close friends. He called me several times a day. We shared the most trivial of information with each other. It was not a lack of information sharing. They told us everything except this.
JAY: So, just to continue with the narrative a bit, what happens next? Clarke says this; it goes public, this interview. Even though the interview’s done in 2009, this goes public just at the beginning of August just past. And then, of course, Tenet and the other–his two colleagues deny all this. So explain what happens there.
LEOPOLD: Yeah. Basically, the two filmmakers had contacted Tenet, Cofer Black, and Richard Blee. Again, this is a–Richard Blee is an important name. It’s not somebody who has been out there before. They vehemently deny, you know, any of the suggestions that Clarke had made about what they knew and when they knew it, attacked Clarke, said that he more or less did not know what he was talking about and that they testified truthfully. And, you know, the problem is is that we actually don’t have much of the information from the 9/11 Commission–and I’m talking about the congressional investigative committee that looked into this. A lot of those documents are still classified and have yet to be released. So they went after him, they attacked him for it. And, you know, unfortunately, it’s an assertion, an allegation, a claim that Clarke made that really should be a topic of discussion.
JAY: Ray, what’s your take? There has been very little in mainstream media reporting on this, which is rather strange given that Clarke is a mainstream player. He’s not a marginal guy in all of this.
RAY MCGOVERN, RETIRED CIA OFFICER: It’s truly mind-boggling that the fawning corporate media, which is my term for the, quote, “mainstream media”, end-quote, has been able to avoid this story. After all, you have a principal advisor to President Bush accusing the head of CIA of dereliction of duty at the very least, and saying that had he done his job, 9/11 might have been prevented–at least, the plane might have been prevented from going into the Pentagon, which was the plane that these two al-Qaeda operatives were on. Now, Tenet knew that they were in-country for over a year but never [incompr.] to tell Clarke. Clarke makes the point that he was in receipt of just everything from Tenet, and that it would have taken personal intervention on the part of Tenet to prevent him from getting the normal dissemination of that information. It was not, as Clarke says, as I had already thought, says Clarke, that it was just one miscreant or one lazy analyst in the CIA who didn’t think to forward this on to the people who needed it. No, it was 50–five zero, says Clarke–and among them George Tenet. So in many respects it boils down to a contest between George Tenet, who in my view has zero credibility, and Richard Clarke, who in my view has a great deal of credibility. When Tenet, through his spokesman, says no, wait a second, we swore–we swore into oath on this, well, you know, that makes me laugh if it wasn’t so–if it was really funny. But under oath, Tenet perjured himself before the 9/11 Commission by saying that he wasn’t in touch with President Bush for the entire month of August, even by telephone. That was a lie, and later that evening one of his henchmen called the 9/11 Commission had said, oh, the director misspoke. When you swear under oath and then you don’t tell the truth, you don’t have any credibility left with me. And Clarke has a great deal of credibility. I haven’t caught him in any lies yet.
JAY: Jason, Clarke sort of speculates why he thinks Tenet did all this. Here’s a little bit of what Clarke says.
CLARKE: I can understand them possibly saying, we need to develop sources inside al-Qaeda; when we do that, we can’t tell anybody about it. And I can understand them perhaps seeing these two guys show up in the United States and thinking, ah-ha, this is our chance to flip them, this is our chance to get guys inside al-Qaeda, and to do that, we can’t tell anybody outside CIA until we got them, until they’re really giving us information.
JAY: So, Jason, what do you make of that? I mean, it’s just a speculation on Clarke’s part of why Tenet did this. What do you think of the theory?
LEOPOLD: I–you know, first of all, it’s a theory that has been floated for quite a while. I mean, it’s a theory that the FBI–many FBI agents who were working with the CIA on al-Qaeda tracking bin Laden, they feel the same way. In fact, you know, Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower–amazing book on the whole history of al-Qaeda leading up to 9/11–he actually said that the–you know, in his conversations, in his interviews with many, many FBI agents specifically on this particular piece of intelligence revolving around these two hijackers, that they felt that the CIA withheld this information from the FBI because they were trying to recruit and flip these two agents. And I suspect that, you know, Richard Clarke spent a great deal of time thinking about this over the years. And perhaps Richard Clarke has some, you know, additional information that he could not share. But, you know, I doubt it’s just something, you know, off the cuff as some sort of a–he threw it out there. He has thought about it. He wrote about it, as I indicated, in his book as well. So it–right now it takes on such a, you know, new urgency, ’cause we’re approaching the 10th anniversary of 9/11, because now we–you know, we’re starting to see the mainstream media covering a little bit about–or a little bit more about the intelligence failures. Why they have not done it over the course of the past decade, I don’t have any answer to that. But we’re starting to see these issues become relevant again. And they’re clearly important, and questions still need to be asked and answered.
JAY: Right. Ray, if you look at the different fronts of this–and just to mention a few, there’s this one where Tenet doesn’t tell Clarke about these two guys in the United States. There’s the actual demotion of Clarke in the first place. Clarke is in the principal meetings under Clinton because Clinton’s administration believes that terrorism, and specifically bin Laden and al-Qaeda, is the number one threat to the United States. Tenet later tells Congress–and I believe he’s written it elsewhere–that in his first security briefing to Bush, he says the number one threat to the United States is bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Yet they demote Clarke. He’s not in the principals meeting. And then he testifies in 9/11, even though his hair’s on fire the whole summer of 2001, trying to tell Condoleezza Rice and get to the principals about what’s happening, he can’t get their attention. Coleen Rowley in the FBI says the FBI was essentially told the administration’s not interested in terrorism and all of this. I mean, there seemed to be–is there not a pattern here of a culture, at the very least, of not wanting to know, and perhaps something more?
MCGOVERN: Well, not wanting to know, at least, mostly because they had other priorities. I mean, after all, terrorism was at the bottom of Ashcroft’s list, the Justice Department head. And there are all kinds of things going on, like anti-ballistic missile defense. That’s what Condoleezza Rice was going to talk about a major address on 9/11, ironically. So the truth is that Richard Clarke, despite his badgering, despite his insistence, was never able–was never able to get a principals meeting on this subject (principal meeting meaning the leaders of our national security apparatus), not until September 4, 2001. So September 4. So what’s that? Seven–that’s a week before 9/11. Now, what happened there? Well, the CIA apparently, to cover their rear ends, had already shared some information on these two fellows, these al-Mihdhar and the other, al-Hazmi, with the FBI at a very low level. But Tenet never raises–never raises it on 4 September, and Clarke really faults him for that, because had he raised it, as Clarke says, those two people would have been toast, they would have been wrapped up in 24 hours, certainly they would not have been able to get on the American Airlines 77 flight that hit the Pentagon, and the whole thing could have been unraveled.
JAY: Ray, how does Ashcroft not be interested in terrorism when the FBI says the number one man on the ten most wanted list is bin Laden? How can you not be interested in that?
MCGOVERN: Well, if you’re incompetent and if you don’t know what’s important and if you’re serving other interests and you think that terrorism is just a problem that’s magnified by Richard Clarke and only by Richard Clarke and some of his minions like Tenet, then you can be completely divorced from reality. That’s how I see it. These people were incredibly incompetent. They didn’t want to listen [incompr.] we know what happened.
JAY: Jason, you know, given what we know of the–you know, a lot of people have talked about the Project for the New American Century and this–you know, this famous line people talk about, the need for a new Pearl Harbor, and there’s been a lot of, you know, talk about the possibility, at least, on the spectrum of various conspiracy theories, that at least at some level, if they knew something was coming, somebody in the administration didn’t want anything done about it. I mean, do you see enough of a pattern here that at the very least this cries out for some kind of real investigation based on this hypothesis rather than just negligence and incompetence?
LEOPOLD: Yeah. I think that–I think it’s worth looking into it. I personally have not seen any evidence that would suggest that the conspiracy theories are actually, you know, the facts. I think that there are a lot of [inaud.] that need to be answered, specifically based on what Clarke is saying. Look, what’s really important to know about these two specific hijackers as well is that they weren’t even put on a no-fly list. They had, you know, the intelligence agencies, or at least CIA, they knew that one of them had–already had obtained a visa for traveling back and forth. You know, the State Department was not alerted. They were allowed to enter the United States. When one of the liaisons, the–was working–the FBI agent working with the CIA wanted to alert others at the FBI [incompr.] the CIA, you know, said no, you cannot alert them; this information has to stay here. So you start to take a look at that, and sure, it does suggest that perhaps something larger was going on.
JAY: None of these pieces on their own, maybe, say that, but when you look at the Iron Man story, which you ran on Truthout, I mean, you co-authored on Truthout, you have a joint force intelligence committee saying, according to the whistleblower, Iron Man, that pre-9/11 they had actually said and even predicted that if there was an attack, it would be on the World Trade Center, and one tower might collapse into the other. The Pentagon was the other target. The attack could come by air. I mean, the fact that in theory that gets closed down by one of the senior people there, Meyers. I mean, you put all these different pieces together, it’s–there’s a bit of a smoking gun here, is there not?
LEOPOLD: There absolutely is. And that story on the joint forces intelligence committee and the work that this asymmetrical warfare unit was doing, particularly on al-Qaeda, and the briefing slides that they had, in which they were showing that the likely targets were the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, sure, it does raise a lot of questions and does certainly beg for further investigation. You know, for me personally, I’d have to see, you know, additional evidence to show that, hey, the high-level administration officials, government officials, knew this was actually happening and basically sat back and allowed it to happen. I think that Clarke actually went that far, though. I think Clarke did say that George Tenet, Rich Blee, Cofer Black, and others allowed the attack to happen. Clarke specifically noted that [inaud.] information been disseminated during the principals meeting, he would have immediately requested and demanded an investigation. And it’s–you know, he also says that, look, you know, the CIA, to protect itself, Tenet perhaps, to protect his own rear, more or less allowed this to happen. And I think Clarke did go that far.
JAY: Ray, what do you make of this? Is there a pattern here of something more? At the least, is this a question for you?
MCGOVERN: Well, first off, when you have the two cochairs of the 9/11 Commission saying in their book, we were set up to fail, we’re not given enough time, enough money, enough people, enough access to sensitive information, well, hello? Who will quarrel with the notion that an independent investigation is necessary to address precisely the things that you and Jason were just talking about? On the other hand, you know, people come to me and they say, well, don’t you think Dick Cheney is capable of arranging this kind of inside job? And I say [inaud.] I believe Dick Cheney is capable of that, but I don’t do faith-based intelligence. Okay? It doesn’t matter what I believe; it’s what I see in the way of empirical evidence. And the empirical evidence is all kind of all over the lot. And I have not been able to put it together in such a way as to convince me that there’s something really sinister, other than gross incompetence, misfeasance, a little malfeasance, but no coherent [incompr.] to let happen. Now, that could come out of an independent commission. I’m willing to–I’m open, I’m willing to be persuaded. But right now, faith-based intelligence is not what I do.
JAY: Okay. Final word to you, Jason.
LEOPOLD: You know, there’ve been a lot of discussion that this was an intelligence failure. Based on what we know, based on what Clarke has shown us, what he has suggested, and what we’ve seen, this wasn’t an intelligence failure, because they had the intelligence. This was a matter of [inaud.] withholding that intelligence. And it’s that–you know, the reason behind that is what we still need to understand why that was. So it is not a failure that they weren’t [inaud.] to obtain the information. They had it. They had it in their hands. They knew specifically what was going to happen. But the other questions as to why it was not shared, those are some of the issues that we really need to look into.
JAY: Alright. Thanks. Thank you both for joining us. Thanks, Ray. Thanks, Jason. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And you can read more about all of this at Jason’s website, Truthout. And, also, on our site we’re going to show the whole Richard Clarke interview. And the filmmakers have a website which we will link to which gives more documentation connected with the whole Clarke interview. So, once again, thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget the donate button over here, ’cause if you don’t do that, we can’t do this.