Former President William Jefferson Clinton in an interview with Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace that was aired on September 24, 2006.
WALLACE: Mr. President, welcome to Fox News Sunday.
WALLACE: In a recent issue of The New Yorker you say, quote,
I’m 60 years old and I damn near died, and I’m worried about how many lives I can save before I do die.
Is that what drives you in your effort to help in these developing countries?
CLINTON: Yes, I really—but I don’t mean—that sounds sort of morbid when you say it like that. I mean, I actually…
WALLACE: That’s how you said it.
CLINTON: Yes, but the way I said it, the tone in which I said it was actually almost whimsical and humorous. That is, this is what I love to do. It is what I think I should do.
That is, I have had a wonderful life. I got to be president. I got to live the life of my dreams. I dodged a bullet with that heart problem. And I really think I should—I think I owe it to my fellow countrymen and people throughout the world to spend time saving lives, solving problems, helping people see the future.
But as it happens, I love it. I mean, I feel it’s a great gift. So, it’s a rewarding way to spend my life.
WALLACE: Someone asked you—and I don’t want to, again, be too morbid, but this is what you said. He asked you if you could wind up doing more good as a former president than as a president, and you said, Only if I live a long time.
CLINTON: Yes, that’s true.
WALLACE: How do you rate, compare the powers of being in office as president and what you can do out of office as a former president?
CLINTON: Well, when you are president, you can operate on a much broader scope. So, for example, you can simultaneously be trying to stop a genocide in Kosovo and, you know, make peace in the Middle East, pass a budget that gives millions of kids a chance to have afterschool programs and has a huge increase in college aid at home. In other words, you’ve got a lot of different moving parts, and you can move them all at once.
But you’re also more at the mercy of events. That is, President Bush did not run for president to deal with 9/11, but once it happened it wasn’t as if he had an option.
Once I looked at the economic—I’ll give you a much more mundane example. Once I looked at the economic data, the new data after I won the election, I realized that I would have to work much harder to reduce the deficit, and therefore I would have less money in my first year to invest in things I wanted to invest in.
WALLACE: So what is it that you can do as a former president?
CLINTON: So what you can do as a former president is—you don’t have the wide range of power, so you have to concentrate on fewer things. But you are less at the mercy of unfolding events.
So if I say, look, we’re going to work on the economic empowerment of poor people, on fighting AIDS and other diseases, on trying to bridge the religious and political differences between people, and on trying to, you know, avoid the worst calamities of climate change and help to revitalize the economy in the process, I can actually do that.
I mean, because tomorrow when I get up, if there’s a bad headline in the paper, it’s President Bush’s responsibility, not mine. That’s the joy of being a former president. And it is true that if you live long enough and you really have great discipline in the way you do this, like this CGI, you might be able to affect as many lives, or more, for the good as you did as president.
WALLACE: When we announced that you were going to be on Fox News Sunday, I got a lot of e-mail from viewers. And I’ve got to 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 Qaida out of business when you were president?
There’s a new book out, I suspect you’ve already read, called The Looming Tower. And it talks about how 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 go through that.
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. Now, I will answer all 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 in their little Pathway to 9/11, 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 neo-cons 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 that Osama bin Laden had anything to do with Black Hawk down or was paying any attention to it or even knew Al Qaida was a growing concern in October of ‘93.
WALLACE: I understand, and 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 now criticize me wanted to leave the next day.
You brought this up, so you’ll get an answer, but you can’t…
WALLACE: I’m perfectly happy to.
CLINTON: All right, secondly…
WALLACE: Bin Laden says…
CLINTON: Bin Laden may have said…
WALLACE: … bin Laden says that it showed the weakness of the United States.
CLINTON: But it would’ve 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 to keep anybody out.
He was not a religious fanatic…
WALLACE: But, Mr. President…
CLINTON: … there was no Al Qaida…
WALLACE: … with respect, if I may, instead of going through ‘93 and…
CLINTON: No, no. You asked it. You brought it up. You brought it up.
WALLACE: May I ask a general question and then you can answer?
WALLACE: The 9/11 Commission, which you’ve talk about—and this is what they did say, not what ABC pretended they said…
CLINTON: Yes, 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: First of all, that’s not true with us and bin Laden.
WALLACE: Well, I’m telling you that’s what the 9/11 Commission says.
CLINTON: All right. 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, but yes, he has a vigorous…
CLINTON: He has a variety of opinion 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.
CLINTON: No, wait a minute.
WALLACE: … cruise missiles.
CLINTON: No, no. I authorized the CIA to get groups together to try to kill him.
The CIA, which 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’ve 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, anybody who 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.
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. What I want to know is…
WALLACE: Well, wait a minute, sir.
CLINTON: No, wait. No, no…
WALLACE: I want to ask 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 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 you asked, Why did you fire Dick Clarke?
I want to know how many people you asked…
WALLACE: We asked—we asked…
CLINTON: I don’t…
WALLACE: Do you ever watch 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’s 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.
WALLACE: But, President CLINTON, if you look at the questions here, you’ll see half the questions are about that. I didn’t think this was going to set you off on such a tear.
CLINTON: You launched it—it set me 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’s not true. Sir, that is not true.
CLINTON: And Richard Clarke made it clear in his testimony…
WALLACE: Would you like to talk about the CLINTON Global Initiative?
CLINTON: No, I want to finish this now.
WALLACE: All right. Well, after you.
CLINTON: All I’m saying is, you falsely accused me of giving aid and comfort to bin Laden because of what happened in Somalia. No one knew Al Qaida existed then. And…
WALLACE: But 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?
CLINTON: And who talked about…
WALLACE: Did they know in 2000 when he hit the Cole?
CLINTON: What did I do? 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 Qaida with that sort of dismissive thing? 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 and 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 in to 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 Qaida 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 yields (ph), where they ask me one-sided questions. And the other guys notice that. And it always comes from one source. And so…
CLINTON: 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…
CLINTON: I am upset because…
WALLACE: And all I can say is, I’m asking you this 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 there’s been a serious disinformation campaign to create that impression.
This country only has one person who’s worked on this terror. From the terrorist incidents under Reagan to the terrorist incidents from 9/11, only one: Richard Clarke.
And all I can say to 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 of 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 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: One of the…
CLINTON: And 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 flat—and fair.
WALLACE: I think we do.
WALLACE: One of the main parts of the Global Initiative this year is religion and reconciliation. President Bush says that the fight against Islamic extremism is the central conflict of this century. And his answer is promoting democracy and reform.
Do you think he has that right?
CLINTON: Sure. To advance—to advocate democracy and reform in the Muslim world? Absolutely.
I think the question is, what’s the best way to do it? I think also the question is, how do you educate people about democracy?
Democracy is about way more than majority rule. Democracy is about minority rights, individual rights, restraints on power. And there’s more than one way to advance democracy.
But do I think, on balance, that in the end, after several bouts with instability—look how long it took us to build a mature democracy. Do I think, on balance, it would be better if we had more freedom and democracy? Sure I do. And do I think specifically the president has a right to do it? Sure I do.
But I don’t think that’s all we can do in the Muslim world. I think they have to see us as trying to get a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. I think they have to see us as willing to talk to people who see the world differently than we do.
WALLACE: Last year at this conference, you got $2.5 billion in commitments, pledges. How’d you do this year?
CLINTON: Well, this year we had—we had $7.3 billion, as of this morning.
WALLACE: Excuse me?
CLINTON: $7.3 billion, as of this morning. But $3 billion of that is—now, this is over multi years. These are up to 10-year commitments.
But $3 billion of that came from Richard Branson’s commitment to give all of his transportation profits for a decade to clean energy investments. But still, that’s—the rest is over $4 billion.
And we will have another 100 commitments come in, maybe more, and we’ll probably raise another, I would say, at least another billion dollars, probably, before it’s over. We’ve got a lot of commitments still in process.
WALLACE: When you look at the $3 billion from Branson, plus the billions that Bill Gates is giving in his own program, and now Warren Buffet, what do you make of this new age of philanthropy?
CLINTON: I think that, for one thing, really rich people have always given money away. I mean, you know, they’ve endowed libraries and things like that.
The unique thing about this age is, first of all, you have a lot of people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet who are interested in issues at home and around the world that grow out of the nature of the 21st century and its inequalities—the income inequalities, the health-care inequalities, the education inequalities.
And you get a guy like Gates, who built Microsoft, who actually believes that he can help overcome a lot of the health disparities in the world. And that’s the first thing.
The second thing that ought to be credited is that there are a lot of people with average incomes who are joining them because of the Internet. Like in the tsunami, for example, we had $1.2 billion given by Americans; 30 percent of our households gave money, over half of them over the Internet.
And then the third thing is you’ve got all these—in poor countries, you’ve got all these nongovernmental groups that you can—that a guy like Gates can partner with, along with the governments.
So all these things together mean that people with real money want to give it away in ways that help people that before would’ve been seen only as the object of government grants or loans.
WALLACE: Let’s talk some politics. In that same New Yorker article, you say that you are tired of Karl Rove’s B.S., although I’m cleaning up what you said.
CLINTON: But I do like the—but I also say I’m not tired of Karl Rove. I don’t blame Karl Rove. If you’ve got a deal that works, you just keep on doing it.
WALLACE: So what is the B.S.?
CLINTON: Well, every even-numbered year, right before an election, they come up with some security issue.
In 2002, our party supported them in undertaking weapons inspections in Iraq and was 100 percent for what happened in Afghanistan, and they didn’t have any way to make us look like we didn’t care about terror.
And so, they decided they would be for the homeland security bill that they had opposed. And they put a poison pill in it that we wouldn’t pass, like taking the job rights away from 170,000 people, and then say that we were weak on terror if we weren’t for it. They just ran that out.
This year, I think they wanted to make the questions of prisoner treatment and intercepted communications the same sort of issues, until John Warner and John McCain and Lindsey Graham got in there. And, as it turned out, there were some Republicans that believed in the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions and had some of their own ideas about how best to fight terror.
The Democrats—as long as the American people believe that we take this seriously and we have our own approaches—and we may have differences over Iraq—I think we’ll do fine in this election.
But even if they agree with us about the Iraq war, we could be hurt by Karl Rove’s new foray if we just don’t make it clear that we, too, care about the security of the country. But we want to implement the 9/11 Commission recommendations, which they haven’t for four years. We want to intensify our efforts in Afghanistan against bin Laden. We want to make America more energy-independent.
And then they can all, if they differ on Iraq, they can say whatever they want on Iraq.
But Rove is good. And I honor him. I mean, I will say that. I’ve always been amused about how good he is, in a way.
But on the other hand, this is perfectly predictable: We’re going to win a lot of seats if the American people aren’t afraid. If they’re afraid and we get divided again, then we may only win a few seats.
WALLACE: And the White House, the Republicans want to make the American people afraid?
CLINTON: Of course they do. Of course they do. They want us to be—they want another homeland security deal. And they want to make it about—not about Iraq but about some other security issue, where, if we disagree with them, we are, by definition, imperiling the security of the country.
And it’s a big load of hooey. We’ve got nine Iraq war veterans running for the House seats. We’ve got President Reagan’s secretary of the navy as the Democratic candidate for the Senate in Virginia. A three-star admiral, who was on my National Security Council staff, who also fought terror, by the way, is running for the seat of Kurt Weldon in Pennsylvania.
We’ve got a huge military presence here in this campaign. And we just can’t let them have some rhetorical device that puts us in a box we don’t belong in.
That’s their job. Their job is to beat us. I like that about Rove. But our job is not to let them get away with it. And if they don’t, then we’ll do fine.
WALLACE: Mr. President, thank you for one of the more unusual interviews.