(CBS) Former White House terrorism advisor Richard Clarke tells Correspondent Lesley Stahl that on Sept. 11, 2001, and the day after - when it was clear al Qaeda had carried out the terrorist attacks - the Bush administration was considering bombing Iraq in retaliation.
Clarke's exclusive interview will be broadcast on 60 Minutes, Sunday, March 21 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
Clarke was surprised that the attention of administration officials was turning toward Iraq when he expected the focus to be on al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
'They were talking about Iraq on 9/11. They were talking about it on 9/12,' says Clarke.
The top counter-terrorism advisor, Clarke was briefing the highest government officials, including President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
'Rumsfeld was saying we needed to bomb Iraq....We all said, 'but no, no. Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan,' recounts Clarke, 'and Rumsfeld said, 'There aren't any good targets in Afghanistan and there are lots of good targets in Iraq.' I said, 'Well, there are lots of good targets in lots of places, but Iraq had nothing to do with [the September 11 attacks].''
Clarke goes on to explain what he believes was the reason for the focus on Iraq.
'I think they wanted to believe that there was a connection [between Iraq and al Qaeda], but the CIA was sitting there, the FBI was sitting there, I was sitting there, saying, 'We've looked at this issue for years. For years we've looked and there's just no connection,'' says Clarke.
Clarke, who advised four presidents, reveals more about the current administration's reaction to terrorism in his new book, 'Against All Enemies.'
There was a case to be made for invading Iraq. Most intelligence services believed Sadaam had not "reformed", even Hans Blix felt he was probably concealing weapons. The sanctions regime had all but collapsed. The US military build-up had forced partial compliance, but it was not sustainable politically, economically, or militarily. Sadaam was (and is) profoundly evil. Iraq was a festering sore at the heart of one of the world's most volatile and fragile regions. Sadaam would gain increasing wealth and power fostering his megalomania. In time he'd arrange to have a nuke detonate in a van parked outside the White House. (The latter seems ever more feasible as we learn of the Khan nuclear trade.)
There were cases to be made for not invading too. The case against was of three sorts: 1) It will make things worse in the near-term and the long-run. 2) It is not right to slay even 10 innocents so that 1000 may be better off. 3) We did not raise our children to die for the benefit of the Iraqi people.
Strong cases either way, lots of room for reasoned and passionate argument.
In the end, though, the Bush administration was not really arguing either case. They argued a case that they invented and probably believed -- that Sadaam was behind al Qaeda and the attack of 9/11 and that he already had the capabilities others feared he was seeking. The Bushites were the tools of Chalabi, a brilliant schemer who many people seem to have underestimated. They lied to US senators when they provided them bone-chilling super-secret intelligence briefings -- so chilling that even Paul Wellstone considered voting for war. They lied to us (see Rumsfeld caught out, prior posting). They lied to themselves as well.
The last irony is the one yet to be played by history. Iraq is far more complex than the media usually reports. The governing council alone is a bewildering mix of plot and counter-plot. Some of the US military representatives in Iraq are people of astounding intellectual power, courage, and will. It is not inconceivable that Iraq will weather terrorist attacks, Baathist sabotage, Sunni-Shia conflict and the US/UK invasion (the last being by far the easiest to get through -- unless you're collateral damage).
There is a future, though not perhaps the most likely, wherein Iraq does become a shining example for the Arab world.