March 23, 2004 | Broadcast

American Morning

Tomorrow, the 9/11 commission will hear from Richard Clarke. He is the former counterterrorism chief for President Bush. Clarke’s new book, accusing the president of ignore the al Qaeda threat and fixating on Iraq after 9/11, has put him in the eye of a political firestorm.

Joining us this morning to weigh-in on the fallout from Washington D.C., Democratic consultant Victor Kamber of the Kamber Group.

Good morning.


O’BRIEN: And also former RNC communications director Cliff May. He is now with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Good morning to you, Cliff. How are you?

CLIFF MAY, FMR. RNC. COMM. DIR.: Good morning, Soledad. I’m well.

O’BRIEN: Wonderful. Let’s begin with you in fact, Cliff.

Richard Clarke, who is a very credible figure within the administration, quits his job, writes a book in which he says that the president did a terrible job on terrorism, both before 9/11 and after 9/11. How seriously do you think people, not people in the administration, but people in general should be taking his charge?

MAY: Well, they should take it seriously, and they should take it seriously enough that they look at the whole context of this and understand what’s going on. This is not going to make me popular, but I would argue that nobody took terrorism seriously enough prior to 9/11 — not the Bush administration during its eight months in office, not the Clinton administration during the eight years in office, not the first Bush administration, or the Reagan administration. And I go back to the Reagan administration because it was in 1983 really that this war began, when Hezbollah suicide terrorists bombed our embassy barracks in Beirut. And instead of fighting, we fled from that, and we continued with the pattern until 9/11, when we suddenly began to really fight back seriously.

I think it’s also important to ask yourself about Mr. Clarke. I think he is a serious man, and I think he worked very hard, but he is among those who did not succeed in understanding this threat. I would like to know exactly what he counseled President Clinton during those eight years when we had the first World Trade Center attack, and the bombings of our embassies, and the USS Cole and the barracks in Saudi Arabia? Did he tell President Clinton let’s get rid of the terrorist training camps in Afghanistan? Did he tell him, let’s penetrate al Qaeda, whatever it takes? Did he tell him at least we need to reinforce cockpit doors in the planes, because we know that al Qaeda is looking at flying lessons, and we know that an Egyptian Islamist pilot has crashed a plane into the sea.

I think a lot of people made mistakes, and I think it’s destructive of us to be going around finger pointing, rather than coming up with solutions for the future, which has really got to be our top priority.

O’BRIEN: Some people, Victor, say that this is really just truly all partisan, and that, in fact, Richard Clarke is closely linked to Rand Beers, who of course is working on Kerry’s campaign, and the administration has also said, hey, if there’s ever a guy who should have red flagged this for the administration, that was actually Richard Clarke’s job. How do you respond to those charges that the White House makes?

KAMBER: Well, the partisan charges of the White House are just that, partisan. Here is a Reagan appointee who served under eight years of Ronald Reagan, and four years of George Bush Senior, and eight months, nine months of George Bush Jr., and yes, he also served through the Clinton administration. I have no problem with what Cliff just said, and maybe in books two, or three and four of Clarke, he can talk about other administrations.

Book one is focused on this president and this war that he called upon the United States to participate in, and according to Clarke, called upon this war without the packs, without the information that was necessary. I find him totally credible. You know, I don’t know anything about him as his background other than what you all have exposed.

The fact, as I say is, he’s a Republican. He was a Republican appointee. I know of no ties to John Kerry. Kerry will be the beneficiary of his comments.

O’BRIEN: But, Victor, forgive me for jumping in on this, but certainly when you have allegations that are of, I think it’s fair to argue, of tremendous importance to a nation, and very, very serious allegations against an administration, kind of weird timing, to make sure they come out when your book’s coming out, as opposed to revealing them, you know, two and a half years earlier.

KAMBER: Soledad, obviously, we are a capitalistic society. I understand where the publisher, and maybe even the author can think they make money coming out of a certain time. I’m not defending the fact that he may be a capitalist and want to make money out of this deal by publishing it a certain time, but to ascribe any kind of partisanship and blame Democrats for his book is a ludicrous concept.

MAY: No one is blaming Democrats.

KAMBER: Or Kerry or anything else. The bottom line is he wrote a book that happens to find the shortcomings of this administration and their actions in the war. It’s published at this time.

O’BRIEN: Cliff.

MAY: One other things, there are some things he’s saying that really don’t strike me as credible. I don’t even think they’ll strike Vic as credible. For example, he says that when he briefed Condoleezza Rice about al Qaeda, it appeared she had never heard of al Qaeda before. I just think that’s very strange and a peculiar thing to suggest.

KAMBER: You hope it is. You hope it is.

MAY: Well, Condoleezza Rice, she’s a very smart lady with a very — I mean, she’s got a doctorate. She’s been studying this stuff. What do you think, she’s a housewife from Fresno, California?

O’BRIEN: OK, you know what, before we get into more as Condi Rice as a housewife, Fresno, California thing, let’s move and talk a little bit about Antonin Scalia. He wrote a memo defending his ability to be impartial in a case that involves his friend, the vice president, Dick Cheney. The two of them went duck hunting in Louisiana not long ago.

Cliff, and we don’t have tons of time, so I want you to just both weigh in quickly on this. Where’s the harm in just saying, we know what, we do have a close friendship, I’m out of this case?

MAY: Because anybody who you ever have a friendship with who is involved in a case, which is going to happen all the time, you always have to recuse yourself.

I think, on the contrary, what we have to understand here is that people who are Supreme Court justices, of course they’re going to have friendships with vice presidents from time to time. That doesn’t mean they can not weigh in and doing in an objective and fair way. Just knowing somebody doesn’t mean you agree with somebody. I know Vic. I don’t necessarily agree with Vic. We can go duck hunting, I still wouldn’t agree with him.

KAMBER: The very fact that he voted for the presidential election, that it was 5 to 4, and Scalia was on the side of voting for the president. For the mere appearance of impropriety, it’s a court that is tainted. Why keep it tainted? Mr. Scalia offers nothing special in terms of this Cheney decision, that he brings a great expertise. He can step aside, the case can go on. No one suffers anymore except Scalia’s ego, and that happens to be too big right now anyway. He thinks he’s the only one who has an answer.

O’BRIEN: And that is the final word this morning, although I’ve got to tell you, the visual of the two of you duck hunting together, I’ve got to think about that for a while. You guys, as always, thanks a lot. We’ll check in with you later — Bill.