Richard A. Clarke in 2010., Markus Schreiber / AP Photo
In the interview for the documentary, Clarke offers an incendiary theory that, if true, would rewrite the history of the 9/11 attacks, suggesting that the CIA intentionally withheld information from the White House and FBI in 2000 and 2001 that two Saudi-born terrorists were on U.S. soil—terrorists who went on to become suicide hijackers on 9/11.
Clarke speculates—and readily admits he cannot prove—that the CIA withheld the information because the agency had been trying to recruit the terrorists, while they were living in Southern California under their own names, to work as CIA agents inside Al Qaeda. After the recruitment effort went sour, senior CIA officers continued to withhold the information from the White House for fear they would be accused of “malfeasance and misfeasance,” Clarke suggests.
Clarke says it is fair to conclude “there was a high-level decision in the CIA ordering people not to share information.” Asked who would have made the order, Clarke replies, “I would think it would have been made by the director,” referring to Tenet.
Clarke said that if his theory is correct, Tenet and others would never admit to the truth today “even if you waterboarded them.”
Clarke’s theory addresses a central, enduring mystery about the 9/11 attacks— why the CIA failed for so long to tell the White House and senior officials at the FBI that the agency was aware that two Al Qaeda terrorists had arrived in the United States in January 2000, just days after attending a terrorist summit meeting in Malaysia that the CIA had secretly monitored.
In a written response prepared last week in advance of the broadcast, Tenet says that Clarke, who famously went public in 2004 to blow the whistle on the Bush White House over intelligence failures before 9/11, has “suddenly invented baseless allegations which are belied by the record and unworthy of serious consideration.”
The CIA insisted to the 9/11 Commission and other government investigations that the agency never knew the exact whereabouts of the two hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, inside the U.S.—let alone try to recruit them as spies.
Agency officials said the CIA's delay in sharing information about the two terrorists was a grave failure, but maintained there was no suggestion of deception by CIA brass. Tenet has said he was not informed before 9/11 about Hazmi and Mihdhar's travel to the U.S., although the intelligence was widely shared at lower levels of the CIA.
The 9/11 Commission investigated widespread rumors in the intelligence community that the CIA tried to recruit the two terrorists—Clarke was not the first to suggest it—but the investigation revealed no evidence to support the rumors. The commission said in its final report that "it appears that no one informed higher levels of management in either the FBI or CIA" about the two terrorists.
But in his interview, Clarke said his seemingly unlikely, even wild scenario—a bungled CIA terrorist-recruitment effort and a subsequent cover-up—was “the only conceivable reason that I’ve been able to come up with” to explain why he and others at the White House were told nothing about the two terrorists until the day of the attacks.
“I’ve thought a lot about this,” Clarke says in the interview, which was conducted in October 2009. He said it was fair to conclude “there was a high-level decision in the CIA ordering people not to share information.” Asked who would have made the order, Clarke replies, “I would think it would have been made by the director,” referring to Tenet.
Clarke, now a security consultant and bestselling author, has hinted in his writings in the past that there may have been a CIA cover-up involving Hazmi and Mihdhar, although he has never made such direct attacks on Tenet and others at the CIA by name.