Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Reporter: Tony Jones
Tony Jones speaks with the prolific writer and outspoken commentator Christopher Hitchens about the New York attacks and their implications.
TONY JONES: Well just a year after September 11, the prolific writer and outspoken commentator Christopher Hitchens joined me on the roof of a building overlooking Ground Zero to talk about the New York attacks and their implications. Now, five years after the event that changed the world, we invited him to join us again - this time from our Washington studio. Christopher Hitchens thanks for being there.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Thanks for having me back.
TONY JONES: It seems that the United States, and much of the Western world, is still learning the lessons of 9/11. After reflecting on this for five years now, what did we get right and what did we get wrong?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Mmm. Well I think we found out that we were at war, which was better than being at war and not knowing it, which was the case until five years and about five minutes ago. Until five years and five minutes ago, for example, we didn't know the name AQ Khan. We didn't know that Pakistan was being Talibanised from within, that there were al-Qaeda sympathisers in its nuclear program - and we weren't doing anything about that either. We didn't know, incidentally, that international black market of rogue states: North Korea, Libya and Iran, linked by AQ Khan and exchanging nuclear and other technologies, formed the corners of the box in which we thought had Saddam Hussein. When people talk about the box he was in, that box included AQ Khan and the North Koreans and the nuclear black market. So that goes also partly to the point that keeps coming up of whether or not we are safer. I always think that's a contemptible question. Not just because it can't be answered, but because it seems to demand that our governments exist to give us a sense of security, rather than a sense of our duties in the case of a war.
TONY JONES: Christopher Hitchens, I'm going to pause to let you get your earpiece in.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: It's never going to stay in. I'm sorry. It's not my fault. I can hear you. Your viewers will just have to watch with fascination as it pops in and out. TONY JONES: That's alright, as long as you can hear me. Is it clear now, do you think, that history will primarily judge President Bush's reaction to September 11 by his decision to go to war with Iraq and the linkage he made between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: It’s not the linkage that he made it's the linkage that Saddam Hussein made. The Iraqi regime was the only one in the region to applaud the attacks and it was the only one when every other country, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, were expelling al-Qaeda sympathisers, to start welcoming them onto its soil, particularly in the shape of the notorious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. I think that I heard someone say this, actually it was the President, I'm sorry, on your show just a moment ago: the removal of the Taliban was in reprisal for the last attack. The removal of Saddam Hussein was for the next attack so that it wouldn't come. And yes, I'm certain the President will be remembered principally for ridding the Middle East - along with Australian and British support - of the worst dictator the region has ever known and the most dangerous one.
TONY JONES: At least one key witness to the events, within the White House, immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the former counter-terrorism chief, Richard Clarke, says that advisers in the White House were bent on attacking Iraq in retaliation, whether or not Saddam Hussein had anything to do with al-Qaeda?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Well, there is a pre-existing quarrel with Saddam Hussein as you know on other matters, including his support for international terrorism. If you remember, the man who was responsible for the hijack of the Achille Lauro the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, the so-called Abu Abbas, the late, when he was captured, had to be released by the Italian police because he was travelling on a diplomatic passport. Do you want to know which country issued him with a diplomatic passport? This wouldn't be the only time that Iraq had given official State support to activity like that. It was unsleepingly pursuing nuclear materials in places like Niger as we can now, I think, adequately demonstrate. It was a permanent threat to its neighbours and a latent threat to all of us. The Senate had passed 98 votes to nil, the Iraq liberation act at the urging of President Clinton and vice-president Gore in 1998. So there was a pre-existing commitment to the removal of Saddam Hussein, which meshed, in my opinion, much better than most people believe with the provocation of September 11. After all, the last time the World Trade Centre was attacked, the man who mixed the chemicals for it, Mr Yassin, went straight from New Jersey, after he'd been interrogated and released, to Baghdad, where he still is, and lived in the intervening time under Saddam Hussein's protection. It's really all a question of whether you would, or would not, give the Saddam Hussein regime the benefit of any doubt, or the presumption of any innocence. If I phrase it like that, I think you might find it difficult to say yes you would.
TONY JONES: Isn't it more important, though, to create or to make a link between September 11 and Saddam Hussein, if you are going to invade the country virtually as a direct result of that?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Yes, well I mean, I think the links were pretty adequately demonstrated.
TONY JONES: Not according to Richard Clarke, for example, who makes the claim that the President himself, only 24 hours after the attacks, came to him urging him to find the evidence that Iraq was involved with the September 11 attacks and he couldn't find that evidence?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I've read that too. I wouldn't myself have tasked Mr Clarke with that, nor would I have trusted the CIA to get that right, even a tiny thing like that, because they've always got everything else wrong. The CIA continues to say there can't have been a connection, because if one was ever proved - and there's a great deal of evidence for it - they would look stupid. Because they always said, not just that it wasn't there. Do observe this distinction. They said it couldn't be there. They said, by definition, Saddam Hussein could not help Islamic terrorists because his regime was supposedly secular. Now that to anyone who knows anything about Iraq is sheer fatuity. There is an overarching analysis as well that, to some extent, puts these matters of linkage in perspective. When one examined the situation, and realised that al-Qaeda and its co-thinkers have been incubated by what was, in effect, a political slum in the Middle East, which we've been letting rot and decay for far too long and, therefore, it would be a good thing to begin some slum clearance in the region. This meant turning the Pakistani Government from a sympathiser of the Taliban to at least, neutrality. It meant taking away their Afghan colony from them. That's what they've been treating Afghanistan as being. It meant warning the Saudi Arabians we knew what they were doing; it meant undercutting their oil monopoly, by trying to liberate the oil fields of Iraq. And it meant removing the most outstanding supporter of terrorism and jihadism in the region, who was a man with whom we in any case had a political rendezvous. A man who should have been removed from power in 1991. So if you could get over your obsession with this idea that there were invented linkages, you would see there is a broader intersection of argument that favours regime change in the Middle East.
TONY JONES: I understand Christopher Hitchens...
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Excuse me, they would have made maintenance of the status quo much more dangerous.
TONY JONES: I understand what you're saying but the claim of Richard Clarke and others.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Which you really obviously won't let go of, will you? Richard Clarke knows...
TONY JONES: I want to follow down the path of the logic that he sets out and the final piece of logic that he sets out is that the war in Iraq was a diversion from what the real war on terrorism should have been, which was to hunt down Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and deal with him. Now that argument still resonates today in American politics, doesn't it?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Certainly does. It most certainly does. It remains the most outstanding failure. We've caught or killed or neutralised a number of bin Laden's lieutenants and we've killed a man who, in my judgment, much more dangerous than him. Mr al-Zarqawi, one of his clones, and, it could be argued, one of his rivals. But the survival of Osama bin Laden even as a figure, even if he's only now somewhat symbolic, is, of course, fantastically important. Mr Clarke was...
TONY JONES: Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you, go ahead.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Mr Clarke, I should add, since this is apparently the 'Richard Clarke Show' was the leading ornament of the Clinton Administration that utterly failed to confront bin Laden at all. Mr Clarke was also the man who said when his government, his president, ordered the bombing of Sudan without even calling for an inspection of the relevant sites, or consulting the UN in the least, probably hitting the wrong factory, chemical factory, but the pretext for that, if you remember, is that Osama bin Laden owned that factory and that it was mixing chemical weaponry for Saddam Hussein. So Mr Clarke made the Saddam-bin Laden connection before anybody else did. I'm afraid to say, since you keep asking my opinion of him, I think what he says now is the result of partisanship. He would not be making these criticisms if he was on the inside and I think it's shabby that people will put their party first on these occasions. But Mr Clarke is the source of a lot of useful information. And if what he says, or alleges, is true about the Saddam-al-Qaeda connection then it would be impeachably delinquent of any government attacked on American soil with such massive force, not to ask is there a Saddam Hussein role in this? Because the likelihood that there could be would have to be very high? To say let's not think about Saddam, which is the only alternative, would be absolutely pathetic.
TONY JONES: Alright, let's go beyond Richard Clarke and...
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Are you sure you want to do this?
TONY JONES: Yes, of course. And we'll go to the...
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: It's like letting go of your blanket.
TONY JONES: The Senate committee report, which was released yesterday - in part, two chapters of a five-charter report - it concluded there were no links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Politically, the interesting thing about the release of this report was that two Republican senators voted to release it. It's incredibly embarrassing, if true, incredibly embarrassing to the President. So what is going on there?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Well, I don't think that's going to prove to be true. I've already read at least one very trenchant critique of this report. I think the Senate committee will deeply regret having issued such a half-baked and unfinished piece of work. It would be very difficult for me to do this on the air now with your audience, unless you gave me a great deal of time, but I can point out - I will be able to tell you now - that when you read the critiques of it, you'll find that the report spells people's names wrong, doesn't realise it's using the same name twice of a very important individual. Takes the word of the CIA on a very important subject where the agency just happens to have got it all wrong. You won't be quoting this report with quite the same - what shall I say - assurance in a couple of days. It's really disgraceful. I have to say it's really disgraceful that...
TONY JONES: The one direct quote the 'Washington Post' used from the report, straight from the CIA, says, "The Iraqi regime did not have a relationship, harbour or turn a blind eye towards Zarqawi and his associates."
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: That's flat out false.
TONY JONES: The CIA got this wrong as well as your other intelligence, you're saying?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: The CIA has never got anything right. Actually, I think I know it's a trillion-dollar intelligence budget. Unconstitutionally, the CIA, which I agree with Senator Moynahan, should have been closed and abolished some years before now, doesn't have to reveal how much money it spends. But let's say it's a trillion dollars. The only American who was able to infiltrate the Taliban in that entire period was John Walker Lynde, an al-Qaeda fancier from Marin County, California, and a drifter. The CIA has recently fired two or three dozen of its very few translators into a Arabic and Persian because they're homosexual. It is famously incompetent, corrupt and viral and it has never got anything right by either Iraq, Afghanistan or al-Qaeda. George Tenet on - this time, exactly this time five years ago, was watching the smoke with Senator David Barron, formerly of Oklahoma, and is quoted directly by Robert Woodward as having said, "Gee, I hope it's nothing to do with those guys in the flight schools in the mid-west," who the CIA knew about that and did nothing about. It's remarkable that the leaders of the CIA have not been impeached and put on trial for criminal and culpable negligence and this contribution to this fantastically mediocre Senate report is only the latest of their many failures. That's what I think about the CIA.
TONY JONES: At the same time that people are asking - you are asking - questions about the CIA's culpability in all of this, a high-rating ABC network drama called 'The Path to 9/11' is essentially claiming that the New York attacks are almost the inevitable consequence of President Clinton's weakness and that of his administration in not assassinating Osama bin Laden when they'd the chance. What do you make of that politicking?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Well, I actually did get to see an advance copy of that series. And I must say - if it's ever shown unedited - it's remarkably good as a drama/documentary. But it has all those limitations. And of course it's true that the Clinton administration decided it was a law-and-order problem; that the only way to attack bin Laden and his people was to try to get an actual indictment against them in a New York court, which now seems a bit quaint. And it's true that on the one occasion when they went for him physically, they depended on firing cruise missiles only and not sending in a team to try and grab him in his, identifiable then, hide-out in Afghanistan and it's also a regrettable fact that the secretary of state decided, knowing cruise missiles were going to hit Pakistan, to tell the Pakistani - excuse me, to hit Afghanistan, but would be crossing Pakistan - to warn the Pakistani Government, who then warned bin Laden. So it is a pretty keystone-cops interlude and, of course, the Democrats and Liberals earned a terrific snip about the revelation of it and the slight fictionalisation about the role of their national security adviser Sandy Berger.
TONY JONES: Christopher Hitchens, it's a pity that, as four years ago, when we had many hours to talk to you, we only have a short amount of time this time. We are going to have to leave you there. We thank you very much for taking the time to join us tonight.