March 28, 2004 | Broadcast

CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer

We are joined now by Richard Perle. He served as an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration, and he is the co-author of the new book, “An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror.”

Richard Perle, good to see you. Thank you very much.


WOODRUFF: Richard Clarke was just with us. And it seems to me his line of criticism against President Bush is in two areas: both before 9/11, saying the president didn’t do enough; and after, saying the war in Iraq diverted resources and attention away from the war on terror.

What about before, his point that this was something the administration could have paid far more attention to, that the terrorism task force headed by the vice president, for example, never met before 9/11?

PERLE: Look, Richard spent a lifetime in the bureaucracy, and I think he’s still thinking in terms of bureaucratic approaches to problems.

It’s far from clear what would have been done, what could have been done, what should have been done to deal with that threat, other than what ultimately was done, which was to destroy the base from which al Qaeda was operating.

And that was not done under the Clinton administration. It was not done prior to September 11th. And I rather doubt that any administration would have decided and gotten approval to launch a military strike, a significant military strike against the Taliban regime.

WOODRUFF: But the fact that the administration didn’t change in any significant way the Clinton anti-terror policy before 9/11?

PERLE: Well, the Clinton anti-terror policy was hopelessly inadequate. It was fundamentally wrong-headed because it treated terrorism as a matter for law enforcement. The idea was, there’s a terrorist act, you chase the terrorists to wherever they retreat, you try to catch them and bring them before a court.

WOODRUFF: But nothing was done to change that until after 9/11?

PERLE: Well, changing that — and the president changed it on 9/11, when he said we will go after the states that sponsor and harbor these terrorists. Changing that was a huge act. It was a courageous act. It didn’t come in the last administration, it came in this administration.

WOODRUFF: Clarke’s point was that that should have been done before.

PERLE: Well, it’s easy to say now that the incoming Bush administration should do something that no previous administration had done, and that is launch a war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Nothing else could have been very effective.

WOODRUFF: What about his other main point, that, after 9/11, all the resources that have gone into the war on Iraq have, in so many ways, in his view, diverted attention and energy from going into the war on al Qaeda?

PERLE: I just think he doesn’t understand the war on terrorism, with all due respect. He served in a bureaucratic capacity dealing with that for many years.

The problem with his approach to the war on terrorism is that it treated it as a matter of law enforcement and defending the perimeter. He was never prepared to say that we should bring down regimes that were sponsoring terrorists.

That’s the key to winning the war on terror. It was not his policy, it is this president’s policy. And I think he simply didn’t understand when he was responsible that we had to go to measures of that importance if we were going to deal effectively with terrorism.

WOODRUFF: Well, pre-9/11, President Bush himself said — and this is in the Bob Woodward book, “Bush at War,” the president said, “I was prepared to look at a thoughtful plan that would bring them to justice, would have given the order to do that. I have no hesitancy about going after him. But I didn’t feel that sense of urgency. My blood was not nearly as boiling.”

PERLE: Of course, I understand that. And we all understand that the vague intelligence that was available was not an adequate basis for the kind of action that ultimately proved to be necessary.

What proved to be necessary is going after the states that sponsored terrorism, and that has now been done by this president. It was not done by any previous president.

WOODRUFF: Your initial reaction, Richard Perle, when you first heard about 9/11, did you assume that Saddam Hussein was somehow connected?

PERLE: No, I didn’t, certainly not. I had no reason to think that, no evidence to support that. It wasn’t immediately obvious, although it became obvious fairly quickly that it was probably al Qaeda.

But I think Richard is quite wrong in suggesting that the war against Saddam Hussein is not part of the war on terror. It’s fundamental to the war on terror because, look, what happened…

WOODRUFF: Where is the link between al Qaeda and…

PERLE: Let me explain the link, because it’s a geopolitical link — although there were links between Iraqi intelligence and al Qaeda.

We know that al Qaeda were trained in Saddam’s facilities at Salman Pak. But the link is a much more fundamental one than that.

When you looked up after September 11th and said, “What would this have been if there had been weapons of mass destruction, chemical or biological weapons or nuclear material,” and then you said, “We’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen,” and you looked around and said, “Who has the capacity to deliver that kind of horrific weapon to the terrorists,” you got a short list, and Saddam Hussein was at the head of that list.

WOODRUFF: But you also had an historic, I’ve been told, animosity between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

PERLE: I know that’s what you’ve been told, and that was the conventional wisdom. And I’ve heard Richard Clarke express that conventional wisdom.

The fact is that we now know that Saddam Hussein’s intelligence and al Qaeda had worked together and would have continued to work together. We are talking about the terrorists from many countries with many different objectives. What they have in common is a desire to destroy this country.

WOODRUFF: You worked with Richard Clarke for, what, over 20 years. You’ve known him from your days you were at the Pentagon and in other places working together. What’s your overall assessment of him? You’ve already said he — go ahead, what were you…

PERLE: Well, I’m stunned that he would take a complicated matter and reduce it to the simple proposition that the president, who had been in office for a few months, was somehow responsible for a failure that was deep in the administration in which he served. And I’m disappointed.

WOODRUFF: Does that fit with the Richard Clarke you knew?

PERLE: No, it’s not characteristic of the Richard Clarke I knew.

WOODRUFF: Who was what?

PERLE: Well, who was a lifetime and, I think, pretty effective civil servant. And what surprises me is the extremity of the view he now expresses.

But I think he simply has it wrong on the question — on the fundamental question, which he would say is the fundamental question, and that is the relationship between Iraq and the war on terror. I think it’s part and parcel of the war on terror; he thinks it isn’t. And that’s the issue that we ought to be debating, not who was irresponsible, who was lax.

He said something very interesting in his interview with you. He recounted the repeated acts of terror to which the United States failed to respond. And he’s right about that.

WOODRUFF: Under previous presidents?

PERLE: That’s right. He’s right about that. And with each act of terror, the ambitions of the terrorists grew larger. That’s what brought us to September 11th.

And the ambitions of the terrorists that concern us most are the destruction of the United States in order to establish an Islamic universe.

These are not the recruits out of the war against Saddam Hussein. These are people who may be going to Iraq now because they want to defeat us in Iraq. But Iraq is not a recruitment basis for those fanatics who want to establish an Islamic universe.

WOODRUFF: All right. We’re going to take a short break.

I want to ask Richard Perle more about what Richard Clarke had to say today in our interview. We’ll be right back.


WOODRUFF: Back now with more of my interview with Richard Perle, former assistant secretary of defense.

Do you believe that, picking up on what you said a minute ago, removing Saddam Hussein has made the U.S. any safer, when you consider al Qaeda out there, in the words of many, metastasizing, becoming an even greater threat than it already has been?

PERLE: I think al Qaeda has indeed metastasized, and it is now to be found in many countries.

When al Qaeda had Afghanistan as a base of operations, where they could recruit and train and observe the capabilities of the recruits and the trainees, assign them to tasks, and do research and development, and organize operations, they were capable of attacks like September 11.

If they are not welcome anywhere, that is, if the states that have been opening their territory to terrorists now refuse to do so, they will be reduced to a level of ineffectiveness with which we can deal. Bin Laden in a cave somewhere, unable to communicate, unable to organize, is not the threat of bin Laden with the run of Afghanistan.

So, it is fundamental that we get states out of the business of offering safe harbor for terrorists. And to do that, we had to go after Saddam Hussein.

WOODRUFF: But what about Richard Clarke’s other fundamental point? And that is, by going into Iraq and putting the United States squarely in the middle of that part of the world, the United States has helped to inflame the passions of these — whether it’s al Qaeda or any other potential terrorist groups.

And now we hear what’s coming out of the West Bank and Gaza, from the new leader of Hamas, saying the U.S. is behind what’s going on in the Middle East, as well.

PERLE: Well, the idea that the U.S. is behind — everything that goes on in the Middle East is an old idea. The fact is, there is no evidence — I didn’t hear it from Richard — there is no evidence that anybody has been recruited to al Qaeda because the United States has gone in and destroyed a secular regime, which earlier Richard was saying was opposed to al Qaeda, in Iraq.

So, the fact is, the al Qaeda believers are true believers. They’re ideologically motivated. They want to remove us as an obstacle to their ambitions.

WOODRUFF: And you don’t think the U.S. presence in Iraq has just made the U.S. more of an — of just an enemy, more of a threat?

PERLE: No, I don’t, because, if you believe that, you assume that, all over the Arab world, people were on the side of this brutal dictator Saddam Hussein. I don’t believe that.

And increasingly we’re seeing editorial comment in the Arab world now raising the question of whether the Arab world was silent for too long while Saddam murdered millions of fellow Arabs.

WOODRUFF: Let me read you something the New York Times ran an editorial on Thursday and said, “Ms. Rice” — they were talking about Condoleezza Rice, the president’s national security adviser — “was trained as a sovietologist. Many of Mr. Bush’s other top advisers are also former Cold Warriors who remain loyal to the agenda of the Gulf War era of the early 1990s. Their mindset did not allow for the possibility of an extranational threat not orchestrated by any one particular government,” in other words, the state-sponsored terrorism that you’ve referred to.

PERLE: Right. You know, that’s just wrong. If anyone has a mindset, it’s the New York Times, it seems to me. And it’s perfectly consistent, and it’s mired in old perspectives.

No, this is a very forward-looking and imaginative group of people. Don Rumsfeld, the vice president, they’re not mired in anything.

And in fact, it is this group that understood that we could not deal effectively with terrorism until we deprived the terrorism of the safe havens from which they operated. And that required some very new thinking, because no previous administration was prepared to do that.

WOODRUFF: Dr. Rice, should she testify before the 9/11 Commission, openly, in public?

PERLE: I think she would be wise to testify. I think she would acquit herself well. She has nothing to conceal, nothing to hide. And there’s a procedural and legal and precedential and constitutional issue here. Sometimes you have to set those aside because the circumstances require it. And I think she should probably go forward to the commission.

WOODRUFF: A very quick last question, Richard Perle, about Iraq. Your, I guess, long-time friend, associate, Ahmed Chalabi, who’s part of the interim ruling arrangement there, is he the best-suited person to run Iraq, do you think?

PERLE: I think the Iraqis have to decide that. I think he’s a very capable person. He’s extraordinarily intelligent. He’s effective in bringing groups of Iraqis together, something he’s done for many years.

WOODRUFF: He’s gotten closer to the Islamic clerics and others in Iraq. Are you comfortable with that?

PERLE: I think he and others in Iraq are trying to forge a new democracy out of what was left from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. He believes in secularism. He believes in democracy.

I have complete confidence in him, and I hope the people of Iraq are wise enough to see his benefits.

WOODRUFF: Weapons of mass destruction, will they be found?

PERLE: I don’t know whether they’ll ever be found, but I certainly know that they existed because Saddam used them.

And any president with that knowledge had to assume — and he got lots of intelligence to support it — had to assume that what Saddam would not explain had been hidden away, because he refused to explain what had happened to things we knew had been created.

It would have been wildly irresponsible to assume that he didn’t have those weapons and possibly to allow them to fall into the hands of al Qaeda or others.

WOODRUFF: Richard Perle, former assistant secretary of defense, thank you very much. It’s very good to see you.

PERLE: Nice to see you.

WOODRUFF: I appreciate your coming by.

PERLE: Thanks.

WOODRUFF: Thank you.

Just ahead, the political impact of the 9/11 investigation, what new revelations could mean for President Bush’s re-election campaign and Democrats hoping to win the White House.