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To raise the question of former President Bill Clinton’s record on terrorism in the wake of Sept. 11 is to invite a chorus of disapproval. For bringing the subject up, you will be accused of pathological “Clinton hatred,” a vendetta, and so on and so forth. Whatever. Let’s just go to the tape, shall we? What follows is a chronology of Bill Clinton’s response to terrorism, as reported and compiled by major news organizations, in particular the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Sunday Times and the New Yorker. I cite nothing here that isn’t already in the public record. Any defense of Clinton has to deal with these facts. So deal with them.
Clinton got his warning about Islamist terrorism very early on. Almost as soon as he got into office, terrorists struck at the World Trade Center in New York. Six people were killed and hundreds injured. Although the investigation found links to Osama bin Laden and a burgeoning network of Islamist terrorists, no commensurate response from the United States was unearthed by any of the major newspapers investigating the record. Was the danger conveyed to the president? “Clinton was aware of the threat and sometimes he would mention it,” Leon Panetta told the New York Times. The president preferred to focus on the economy. “In retrospect, the wake-up call should have been the 1993 World Trade Center bombing,” Michael Sheehan, counter-terrorism coordinator at the Clinton State Department, conceded to the New York Times. Some immigration laws were tightened marginally. But that was it. Why wasn’t the threat taken more seriously? According to George Stephanopoulos, the White House ignored the implications of the first WTC attack because “it wasn’t a successful bombing.” Clinton never even paid a visit to the site.
If six dead and hundreds more injured were not enough to galvanize the new commander in chief, neither was the murder of 18 American soldiers in Somalia shortly afterward. The State Department confirmed that bin Laden had helped train the terrorists who killed these soldiers and dragged the body of one through the streets of Mogadishu. Clinton did nothing to retaliate after the incident, blamed Gen. Colin Powell privately for the mess and, indeed, according to administration sources, learned from the fracas only the importance of staying out of dangerous foreign entanglements. For his part, bin Laden learned that the United States was not serious about countering the public murder of its own soldiers abroad or civilians at home.
By the end of Clinton’s first term, the government began to stir. The CIA finally set up a special unit to monitor al-Qaida. In the years since 1993, the network had gained traction and organization in its African client state of Sudan. Then the administration got an amazingly lucky break. The Sudanese government offered to hand over bin Laden to the United States, just as it had handed over Carlos the Jackal to the French in 1994. The Sudanese also offered to provide the United States with a massive intelligence file on al-Qaida’s operations in Sudan and around the world. Astonishingly, the Clinton administration turned the offer down. They argued that there was no solid legal proof to indict bin Laden in the United States. This was despite the fact that internal government documents had fingered bin Laden for ties to the first WTC bombing, the murders in Mogadishu and the 1992 bombing of a hotel in Aden, Yemen. For all this, the administration still viewed al-Qaida as a matter for domestic civil and criminal law enforcement. Instead of seizing the terrorist, the administration wanted Saudi Arabia or some other third party to seize him. The Saudis demurred. “In the end they said, ‘Just ask him to leave the country. Just don’t let him go to Somalia,’” a Sudanese negotiator told the Washington Post. “We said he will go to Afghanistan, and they said, ‘Let him.’” The administration didn’t even use the negotiations with the Sudanese to disable bin Laden’s financial assets in the Sudan. He was able to transfer them to his new base, where he used them essentially to buy the Taliban regime.
Within a month, al-Qaida struck again in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American soldiers with a 5,000-pound bomb. Even senior Clinton officials concede that allowing bin Laden to go free was a massive mistake. “Had we been able to roll up bin Laden then, it would have made a significant difference,” a “U.S. government official with responsibilities, then and now, in counterterrorism,” told the Washington Post last October. “We probably never would have seen a Sept. 11.” Read that sentence again: We probably never would have seen a Sept. 11. That’s from someone working in the Clinton administration.
At the same time, during his reelection campaign, Clinton’s chief political advisor, Dick Morris, was worried about the nascent public perception that Clinton was soft on terrorism. He proposed a new initiative — not because it was necessary to protect Americans, but because he feared Clinton’s record on terrorism could be a political liability in the upcoming elections. Morris devised a mock attack ad against Clinton’s anti-terrorist record to try to persuade the president to take the issue more seriously. Here’s how the New York Times described Morris’ pitch:
“‘Out of control. Two airline disasters. One linked to terrorism,’ the advertisement said. ‘F.A.A. asleep at the switch. Terror in Saudi Arabia.’ Mr. Morris said he told Mr. Clinton that he could neutralize such a line of attack by adopting tougher policies on terrorism and airport security. He said his polls had found support for tightening security and confronting terrorists. Voters favored military action against suspected terrorist installations in other countries. They backed a federal takeover of airport screening and even supported deployment of the military inside the United States to fight terrorism.”
Clinton did little that was effective. The 1996 anti-terrorism bill, while modestly helpful, was focused on domestic terrorism after Oklahoma City and was still reactive, not proactive. Its key provisions — enabling the death penalty for terrorist offenses and placing chemical tags in explosives — were very weak weapons for dealing with the real threat, al-Qaida. More was politically unnecessary. Clinton had such a commanding lead over Bob Dole that the difficulties of corralling Congress, browbeating the bureaucracy, or mounting a sustained military campaign against terrorism didn’t seem worth the effort. Notice that he was not actually constrained by public opinion. Morris’ polling had shown such measures would actually have been popular. Instead, Clinton ordered his trusty vice president to chair a commission on airline safety and security. By February 1997, it recommended a whole slew of proposals, including a federalized airline screening service, computer cross-checks for different airlines to vet potential terrorists, and so on. The report was never implemented. If it had been, simple computer checks could have exposed two of the terrorists who boarded American Airlines flights under their own names on Sept. 11.
The Clinton White House also allowed new constraints to be placed on the CIA, forbidding it from hiring or using any undercover agents with dubious or criminal pasts. In fact, for the entire period of Clinton’s presidency, there was not a single undercover agent in Afghanistan who could speak Arabic, a deficiency highlighted by former CIA Middle East specialist Reuel Marc Gerecht in the Atlantic, the Weekly Standard and elsewhere. To make matters worse, even as late as 1997, al-Qaida was not listed as an official terrorist organization by the U.S. government. This, despite the fact that a top-level defector had warned in late 1996 that al-Qaida was planning a direct attack on the United States. No one in the upper reaches of the administration seemed to take his warnings seriously.
In 1998, the gravity of the threat became clearer. The African embassy bombings showed beyond any shadow of a doubt the danger and professionalism of bin Laden’s network. Hundreds were killed on sovereign American soil. Clinton responded not with an overhaul of security and intelligence or a coordinated military strategy to defeat al-Qaida but by lobbing cruise missiles at al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan. In these actions, the president bypassed normal command procedures in a way that clearly suggested he wanted a quick attack to distract from his own impeachment woes, rather than an earnest attempt to cripple al-Qaida. The strikes failed to wound bin Laden, missing him by an hour or so, helped cement al-Qaida’s reputation as an elusive threat capable of attacking the United States and getting away with it, and made Clinton more nervous about taking the offensive in the future.
To his credit, Clinton approved three subsequent attempts to kill bin Laden, none of which took place because of faulty intelligence (in part a result of the new restrictions placed on the CIA). He also launched an attempt to target al-Qaida’s financial apparatus, but a serious effort to cripple al-Qaida’s finances was shot down by Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, according to anonymous Clinton officials cited in the New Yorker. Rubin allegedly believed it was impossible to isolate the terrorist financial networks without disrupting the markets and spooking international investors. The administration soon became frustrated by the options available. Once the Clinton administration had allowed bin Laden to flee the Sudan and set up a proto-terrorist state in Afghanistan, the options became far more difficult and required far more of a military commitment. Clinton was nervous, especially in his scandal-ridden state, that he could never marshal public support for such an ambitious undertaking. So he hoped it would go away, or that assassination efforts requiring minimal intelligence might work. Clinton’s own State Department terrorism expert, Michael Sheehan, knew that more was necessary — pressure on Pakistan and the Taliban and a broader global offensive against a terrorist network that could operate independently of its leader. But no greater effort was expended. “Our reaction was responsive, almost never proactive,” Sheehan told the Times.
The administration made fitful attempts to maintain surveillance of bin Laden, and Clinton himself pressed for assassination. But intelligence was never good enough, and al-Qaida prospered. Spy planes were sent over Afghanistan, to no avail. Still, home-front security was an option, and the National Commission on Terrorism reported that the United States was dangerously vulnerable. The commission proposed a swath of measures — from immigration to law enforcement to airline security — to ameliorate the terrorist threat. It was prescient enough to have a picture of the World Trade Center on its cover, with crosshairs superimposed over the upper floors. Civil liberties groups whined and the bureaucracies complained. A writer in this magazine described the commission’s warnings of a domestic terrorist attack as “a con job with roughly the veracity of the latest Robert Ludlum novel.” James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, described the commission’s recommendations as reminiscent of “the darkest days of the McCarthy era.” (Full disclosure: In a broader context, I also worried in print about some of the Clinton administration’s record on civil liberties.) Spooked by the opposition, and running low on political capital, the Clinton administration let the proposals die in the Congress. Even the bombing of the USS Cole did not lead to a major bombing campaign of bin Laden’s terrorist camps or a resuscitation of the commission’s proposals. And when at the end of 1999 a terrorist was apprehended bringing vast amounts of explosives into the United States, the sense of urgency didn’t measurably increase.
“That was a wake-up call,” a senior law enforcement officer told the New York Times, “not for law enforcement and intelligence, but for policy makers.”
“If you understood al-Qaida, you knew something was going to happen,” Robert M. Bryant, deputy director of the FBI, told the Times. “You knew they were going to hit us, but you didn’t know where. It just made me sick on Sept. 11. I cried when those towers came down.”
But in July 2000, Clinton’s famous luck helped him again. A major donor to his campaign, Mansoor Ijaz, approached the administration with an offer from a Gulf state to help apprehend bin Laden. The deal was designed to be unofficial, according to the Sunday Times of London, which retrieved e-mail copies of some of the negotiations. The Clinton administration went directly to the United Arab Emirates to confirm the offer. The UAE, upset that the secrecy of the operation had been violated, denied that there was an offer. Subsequently, according to the Sunday Times, “a third more mysterious offer to help came from the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia, then led by Prince Turki al-Faisal, according to Washington sources. Details of the offer are still unclear although, by one account, Turki offered to help to place a tracking device in the luggage of bin Laden’s mother, who was seeking to make a trip to Afghanistan to see her son. The CIA did not take up the offer.” This final inconclusive offer represented the third chance that the Clinton administration had to apprehend bin Laden. The final two offers were certainly less promising than the 1996 Sudan opportunity. But given how dangerous bin Laden had become, it is astonishing that more effort wasn’t made to clinch the deals.
There have been, of course, several spirited attempts to exonerate the record of Bill Clinton. The record of the new Bush administration surely wasn’t much better. But at least by the summer, the new president had ordered up a new strategy for dealing with al-Qaida that was more ambitious than “swatting at flies,” as Bush described the previous strategy. The proposal for a real campaign was to reach the new president’s desk Sept. 10. It was too late. But it remains a fact that the new administration had devised in eight months a strategy that Bill Clinton had delayed for eight years.
There are other mitigating arguments made in Clinton’s defense. The first is that hindsight is easy and that no one realized the extent of the threat until Sept. 11. This is simply untrue. Government report after report warned of serious vulnerabilities. Bombing after bombing by bin Laden showed his capabilities. As early as 1993, the press was full of warning signs. Here’s one: “The crater beneath the World Trade Center and the uncovering of a plot to set off more gigantic bombs and to assassinate leading political figures have shown Americans how brutal these Islamic extremists can be,” wrote Salman Rushdie in the New York Times after the first WTC bombing. By 1998, the punditocracy was full of prescience. Here’s Jim Hoagland in the Washington Post after the cruise missile attacks in response to the embassy bombings: “There are troubling signs that this president could once again stage a pinprick raid, announce the problem solved and turn back to his own domestic and personal preoccupations. A single night of missile strikes against remote desert sites will not leave America’s self-declared enemies off balance for long.” That, of course, is exactly what Bill Clinton did.
Here’s Paul Bremer in the Post in August 1998: “The ideology of such groups makes them impervious to political or diplomatic pressures … We cannot seek a political solution with them.” He then proposed the following: “Defend ourselves. Beef up security around potential targets here and abroad … Attack the enemy. Keep up the pressure on terrorist groups. Show that we can be as systematic and relentless as they are. Crush bin Laden’s operations by pressure and disruption. The U.S. government further should announce a large reward for bin Laden’s capture — dead or alive.” Whatever excuses the Clintonites can make, they cannot argue that the threat wasn’t clear, that the solution wasn’t proposed, that a strategy for success hadn’t been outlined. Everything necessary to prevent Sept. 11 had been proposed in private and in public, in government reports and on op-ed pages, for eight long years. The Clinton administration simply refused to do anything serious about the threat.
Others have argued that Clinton was being persecuted by the Republicans and so was unable to function properly as president when the al-Qaida threat was looming. This, of course, has an element of truth to it. Some (but not all) of the attacks on Clinton were unwarranted and extreme in the period from January 1998 onward. But that still doesn’t excuse Clinton’s negligence up until 1998, the period of the most serious failures, when al-Qaida was most vulnerable to disruption. And it assumes, as all such Clinton defenses assume, that the president could have done nothing about the scandal. This is a false assumption. A president who put his country ahead of himself would have settled the Paula Jones suit. He would have realized that the presidency is not a part-time job, and that it is more important to be free to tackle vital matters of state than to avoid the humiliation of a settled sexual harassment suit. A responsible president puts his constitutional duties first, the most important of which is the protection of American citizens from attacks by foreign entities. By fighting the Jones suit to the bitter end, by lying under oath and adopting brutal political warfare to defend himself, the president essentially put his own interests above the nation’s. At the time, many of us believed we were simply lucky to have such a scandal in what we saw as peaceful times. We were wrong. While Clinton was defending himself, al-Qaida was girding to attack a defenseless nation.
Was Clinton the only one to blame? Surely not. Plenty of bureaucrats put their own petty turf wars before a successful anti-terrorist strategy. Others responsible include a hostile Congress, an inept FBI and CIA, and a general public insouciance toward a threat that few took seriously. But none of this exculpates the commander in chief. It is his job to warn the country of danger. It is his job to bang bureaucratic heads together to avoid a national security disaster. Again, it is simply not true that the public would have balked at serious measures to deal with terrorism if the president had taken the initiative. Dick Morris’ own polls showed this. And Clinton had seen those polls in his first term. Indeed, Clinton had all the information he needed and all the authority he needed and all the luck he needed to do what had to be done. And he didn’t do it.
No objective review of the Clinton administration’s record on terrorism can escape this simple conclusion. The bulk of the domestic responsibility for the security and intelligence failures that led to Sept. 11 must be laid at the feet of the commander in chief for the bulk of the previous eight years. No, he was not responsible for Sept. 11. Full responsibility lies with al-Qaida. But he was more responsible than anyone for the gaping holes in national security and intelligence that made Sept. 11 possible. The buck must stop with him — this time. The most damning verdict is in the words of a “senior Clinton official” who said the following to Joe Klein of the New Yorker: “Clinton spent less concentrated attention on national defense than any other president in recent memory. He could learn an issue very quickly, but he wasn’t very interested in getting his hands dirty with detail work. His style was procrastination, seeing where everyone was, before taking action. This was truer in his first term than in his second, but even when he began to pay attention he was severely constrained by public opinion and his own unwillingness to take risks.”
In most matters, this kind of caution, wishful thinking and procrastination can be forgiven and even overlooked. In matters of vital national security, it is close to criminal negligence. The Clinton legacy may have many good things in it — economic growth and welfare reform among them. But it must also be revised now to include thousands of casualties in the ashes of ground zero — ordinary people who trusted their president to protect them, and whose president ultimately betrayed that trust.
Salon columnist Andrew Sullivan's commentary appears daily on his own andrewsullivan.com Web site.More Andrew Sullivan.
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