Former US President Bill Clinton talks to Jim about intelligence failings in the run up to the Iraq war - the morning before Lord Butler publishes his conclusions.
The Butler report today will look at how the intelligence was gathered and used in the run up to war in Iraq. It is still a war that excites political comment here and in the United States. Across the world itís a war that put a unique strain in modern times on the trans-atlantic relationship, split the United Nations and split Europe.
We are joined now by President Bill Clinton
Jim: Mr Clinton good morning.
President Clinton: Good morning.
Jim: As you look at this whole issue, which came to a head after you left office, are you concerned about the quality of intelligence that was used to take the United States and the United Kingdom to war?
President Clinton: Yes I am. I looked at the report a little bit or at least the news reports of the U.S Senate Intelligence committeeís findings and they seem to indicate that there was more reason to be sceptical about the feeling that Iraq had substantial stocks of chemical and biological materials than we had originally thought. And I have to say, all the time I was there, we thought there was a substantial amount of chemical and biological weapons. At least we knew that, or I was told everyday for years and years that a good deal of what we thought Saddam had at the end of the first Gulf war remained unaccounted for, as of 1998 when the UK and the US bombed the suspected sites when Saddam kicked the weapons inspectors out.
Jim: And that was one of the reason you did it, because you believed the intelligence was accurate?
President Clinton: Absolutely I did. And because, let me remind that late in my first term in 1995, I believe, Saddamís two sons-in-laws defected. They came to Jordan and told us one of them had been in charge of that programme. He said Ďwe still have a lot of things, hereís what weíve got, hereís where it is, we found it, we destroyed it. It was more than half of what all that was destroyed, including in the Gulf warĒ. And the Iraqis simply admitted they had been lying and they had all this stuff Ė so at least in the mid 90ís, they did have a substantial amount of material that they had been concealing.
Jim: But it was a sorry story after Ď98 wasnít it? Because after congress passed that act which, among other things gave a vast amount of money to Mr Chalabi who was providing intelligence, it became more and more suspicious in its quality and what we now discover, donít we, is that a lot of that was misleading, exaggerated, certainly dangerous in terms of the reason for going to war in the way that we did, when we did?
President Clinton: Well apparently Chalabi even admitted lying to the United States and its allies. I must say that in our administration we had a lot of trouble with mostly Republicans in the Senate and although we had a few Democratic supporters too, who believed in Chalabi because the people in our administration never really trusted Chalabi, so we didnít invest a lot of money in him, but it is true that afterward he became quite a favourite of the administration, although President Bush had a lot of help there because Chalabi always had support in the Congress, people who believed him and then he basically admitted that he hadnít told the truth on a lot of that.
Jim: There is a very important point here which is really the basis of the debate that still goes on this country and obviously weíll see the Butler report today, which I know that you havenít seen. Do you think that the policy of containment of Saddam which you pursued, you had a policy of regime change after Ď98, but you preferred containment to invasion. Do you think the policy of containment was still working at the end of 2002/beginning of 2003?
President Clinton: Yes, but I think that the facts were different in 2001, after September 11th. Keep in mind, I think containment was going to work against Saddam Hussein as long as he lived, in terms of his neighbours he obviously couldnít do much against them. His military capacity was less then it was in the first gulf war, as we saw, when he was toppled rather easily. Itís more difficult to build a country that toppled. But the issue was that if you believe that he had substantial stocks of chemical or biological materials, the issue was not whether he would use it but whether he was likely to sell it, or give away or likely to have it stolen and therefore it ought be accounted for. And thatís why the whole world actually supported resuming the inspections.
Jim: Do you believe the inspectors should have had more time at the beginning of 2003?
President Clinton: Yes I do. If you remember, Mr Blix, who was doing a good job and was pretty tough on the Iraqis when they werenít cooperative, was pleading for four to six weeks as I recall Ė but I think he should have been allowed to finish his job. Thatís were I think the big mistake on the part of the United States was.
Jim: Well, the big mistake, you say, but Mr. Blair went along with it, he tried to get more time, he got a few more weeks by common consent at the beginning of 2003. Then he found he couldnít push the United States any further but he stood by Mr. Bushís side. Do you think if Mr Blair had taken a step backwards, he might have got more time?
President Clinton: Well he tried, let me say in addition to what you said, Itís important for the people in the UK to remember what else he did. He supported a resolution in the United Nations which would have given Hans Blix the time that he sought, and would have said that at the end of that, if Blix found that Saddam had not co-operated and therefore the UN resolutions could not be met, then he would be removed, and the French and the British < Germans> opposed that resolution, that as long as inspectors were there even of Saddam wasnít co-operating there was no reason to attack him. And we could have gotten a majority in the United Nations Security Council if Mexico and Chile had gone along, but by then public opinion had so hardened in their own countries and they didnít do it.
But I think itís important for people here you can second guess Blair if you like, but, and itís clear in our country according to our own Senate, the Intelligence was not what it should have been. But at the time nearly everybody thought there was probably a stock of chemical and biological weapons there and it was vulnerable to falling into the wrong hands, either by design or by corruption within Saddamís regime. And essentially the French and the Germans said we still donít care. Now as I understand it a lot of people in the world, because Saddam himself could not pose a direct threat, he wasnít going to attack anybody because he was too weak. So that left the prospect of what we all believe was a substantial amount of material there. Had the final UN resolution passed thereís a good chance that war could have been avoided, thatís what Blair was trying to do. When the French and the Germans moved away from him and the Chileans and the Mexicanís didnít go along he then basically had to go back to their position or go on with Bushís position, he was in an impossible position really.
Jim: You think he was stuck? He had to try and be a bridge to Europe and the United States?
President Clinton: He was always as I said repeatedlyÖ if you go look at his record right up to the time of the conflict, right until the UN resolution, the last effort failed. He tried to do three things Get rid of whatever weapons stocks were there, preserve the transatlantic relationship and European Union, and work through the UN.
When both sides in effect fell away from him, the US on one side and France and Germany on the other, he was left with the prospect of walking away from what he believed was weapons of mass destruction site, or walking forward without the UN and Europe, it was a terrible dilemma for him. Let me remind you, I donít know what the Butler report is going to say obviously, but at least according to the reports at the time and ever since, British intelligence was even more far leaning than American intelligence. The CIA for example never believed that Saddam had any ties to Al-Qaeda and the CIA we all know from President Bushís hotly disputed State of the Union speech. It was the British intelligence, not American intelligence that believed Saddam attempted to get, or did get nuclear materials from Niger in Africa. So your intelligence was apparently more aggressive than ours and Blair had to act on it I think. Thatís what he thought, and I can understand in the aftermath of 9/11 why he thought that way.
Jim: On 9/11, You according to Richard Clark, a former counter-terrorism head in the White House, were to some degree obsessed by Al-Qaeda, certainly more than the incoming administration was in itís early months in 2001, But do you regret looking back at the history, and weíll see the 9/11 report from Congress quite soon, do you regret that you didnít go for them in the last period of your presidency? You did have one strike, it was unsuccessful.
President Clinton: We had one strike but we had three others planned which I was prepared to go forward with. At the last minute they were called off because the CIA said they didnít trust their own intelligence to do it. We also contracted with Afghan tribal groups to capture or kill Bin Laden that never produced anything and we had a contract with the Pakistanis to train a group to go on across the Pakistan border to capture or kill him and then when General Musharraf became President he cancelled that, so the only other option then was either the introduction of a substantial para-military force, our special forces, or some small scale invasion which the world would have howled about based on the facts at the time. I would have had the opportunity to do one of these two things after Bin Laden bombed the U.S.S Cole and killed those naval soldiers.
Jim: Bill Clinton, thank you very much.
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