Don't blame Clinton

Conservatives who once ridiculed and obstructed the former president's aggressive efforts to fight terrorism are now trying to pin Sept. 11 on him. They have a lot of nerve. Part 2 of a debate.

Published January 15, 2002 11:47PM (EST)

When terrorists first tried to take down the World Trade Center with a truck bomb in February 1993, there was no organized outcry of recrimination against George Herbert Walker Bush, who had left the Oval Office a scant six weeks earlier. Nobody sought political advantage by blaming Bush for the intelligence failures that had allowed the terrorist perpetrators to conspire undetected for more than three years.

And no liberal commentator attempted to pronounce that former president guilty of "criminal negligence" based on the sort of fabrications and falsehoods deployed since Sept. 11, here and elsewhere, against Bill Clinton. Yet recently, opportunistic critics have mounted a false indictment of Clinton, attempted to erase his administration's extensive record of action against terrorism and smeared him by suggesting he should have prevented the tragedy of Sept. 11.

To expect fairness and forbearance from these critics would be foolish at this late date. For them, indicting Clinton remains the most compelling obsession of all. As Mark Steyn warned (surely only half-jokingly) in the National Review: "If we members of the Vast Right-wing Conspiracy don't get back to our daily routine of obsessive Clinton-bashing, then the terrorists will have won."

Not to worry, as Andrew Sullivan's readers can attest. Nearly every day he eagerly promotes the slurring and sliming of Clinton, shooting first and checking later. Sullivan's Salon essay ("While Clinton Diddled") arraigning Clinton, in which he pugnaciously introduces himself as presenting "the facts" and challenges the rest of us to "deal with them," continues this sorry pattern. He distorts and misuses the few facts he selects for his polemic. He presumes that his readers are too ignorant and lazy to check for themselves.

Sullivan's favorite method is to attach his wacky accusations to reporting and quotes from reputable sources, appropriating their authority for his false interpretations. Supposedly citing the New York Times and the Washington Post, Sullivan asserts that Clinton "got his warning about Islamist terrorism very early on" in the first World Trade Center bombing, because "the investigation found links to Osama bin Laden." He adds that "the State Department confirmed" bin Laden's complicity in the killing of American soldiers in Somalia.

Sullivan thereby implies that Clinton should have acted against bin Laden immediately, when in fact nobody knew about the Saudi millionaire's alleged involvement with the WTC bombing or the Mogadishu murders until at least three years later. In 1993, U.S. authorities were scarcely aware of bin Laden's existence, and al-Qaida had not yet been formed. Conservative journalists, such as the New Republic's Fred Barnes, were then suggesting that the likeliest perpetrator of the World Trade Center bombing was Iran. Even now, hard evidence linking bin Laden to those earlier events remains scarce.

Perhaps the most sensational charge against Clinton to emerge in the months since Sept. 11 is the dubious claim that he somehow let an offer from Sudan to turn over bin Laden slip through his fingers. Sullivan blatantly misrepresents a definitive article that appeared in the Washington Post on Oct. 3, 2001, on this topic. "The Sudanese government offered to hand over bin Laden to the United States," Sullivan writes. "Astonishingly, the Clinton administration turned the offer down." But that phony accusation is exploded by the very first sentence of the Post article, which says only that Sudan offered to "arrest Osama bin Laden and place him in Saudi custody."

Specifically, the Post reported that during secret negotiations in 1996 between American officials and Sudan defense minister Elfatih Erwa, "The [Khartoum] government was prepared to place [bin Laden] in custody and hand him over, though to whom was ambiguous. In one formulation, Erwa said Sudan would consider any legitimate proffer of criminal charges against the accused terrorist. Saudi Arabia, he said, was the most logical destination." The Post then detailed efforts by the White House and the State Department to induce the Saudis to accept custody of bin Laden, which the authorities in Riyadh adamantly refused.

Nowhere does the Post's carefully worded story state that Sudan agreed to "hand bin Laden over to the United States" -- because that never happened, except perhaps in Sullivan's imagination.

Still referring to the same Post article, Sullivan complains that the Clinton administration "didn't even use the negotiations with the Sudanese to disable bin Laden's financial assets in the Sudan." But as the Post reported, the U.S. ambassador to Sudan pointedly inquired whether those assets would remain under bin Laden's control after his expulsion. He got no reply from Sudan's foreign minister, and within a few days after his query, the Saudi terror chief departed for Afghanistan.

The Sudanese have always had their own agenda, by the way, which Sullivan doesn't think worth mentioning. They promised to cooperate against terrorism only if the United States ended economic sanctions imposed to punish their genocidal campaign of murder and enslavement against black Christians.

"There were meetings between U.S. and Sudanese officials, including in New York, involving senior counter-terrorism officials, where [Sudanese envoys] would hint that they had great stuff if we lifted sanctions," says a former NSC official with direct knowledge of those events. Other former administration officials have publicly confirmed this account. (And imagine the howling protest from pundits like Sullivan if the Clinton White House had suddenly turned "soft" on Sudan.) But neither the FBI nor the CIA believed that Khartoum was providing anything valuable on bin Laden or al-Qaida.

Sullivan refers to other alleged foreign "offers" to arrest or track bin Laden, but there appears to be little substance to those stories beyond mere speculation. As if he knows what he's talking about, he complains that "it is astonishing that more effort wasn't made to clinch the deals." But of course he knows nothing more than what he read in the London Sunday Times's murky account. What's truly astonishing is that he plays the useful idiot in a Sudanese disinformation gambit, with which Khartoum hopes to win friends in the Bush White House.

While Clinton never got bin Laden, Sullivan cannot honestly fault him for lack of zeal. In 1998, he authorized an intensive, ongoing campaign to destroy al-Qaida and seize or assassinate bin Laden by signing a secret National Security Decision Directive to that effect.

Several attempts were made on bin Laden's life, aside from the famous cruise missile launches that summer, which Sullivan and other Republicans reflexively denounced as an attempt to deflect attention from the Lewinsky scandal.

(It never seems to occur to them that they are smearing not only Clinton, but also ranking intelligence and military officers, such as Gen. Anthony Zinni, now President Bush's Mideast envoy, who encouraged the president to take that shot in the dark.)

In 1999, the CIA organized a Pakistani commando unit to enter Afghanistan on a mission to capture or kill bin Laden. That operation was aborted when Gen. Pervez Musharraf seized the Pakistani government from Nawaz Sharif, the more cooperative civilian prime minister. A year later, the Saudi terrorist leader was reportedly almost killed in a rocket-grenade attack on his convoy; the missiles hit the wrong truck.

Simultaneously, the White House tried to persuade or coerce the Taliban regime into expelling bin Laden from their country. Clinton signed an executive order freezing $254 million in Taliban assets in the United States, while the State Department kept the Taliban internationally isolated. But as we have learned since last September, there was nothing the United States could have done, short of full-scale military action, to separate al-Qaida from the Taliban. And there was no guarantee that such action would lead to the apprehension of bin Laden, as we have also discovered lately.

Sullivan charges that "Clinton did little that was effective" and "simply refused to do anything serious about the threat." But his bogus "chronology" ignores nearly everything that the Clinton administration did or tried to do.

Following the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the new president sent stringent anti-terrorism legislation to Congress as part of his first crime bill, including new deportation powers and a federal death penalty for terrorists. The passage of portions of that legislation many months later was the last time he would enjoy real cooperation against terrorism from congressional conservatives. When he sought to expand those protections in 1995 after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, he was frustrated by a coalition of civil libertarians and anti-government conservatives, who argued that his "overreaction" posed a threat to constitutional rights.

No anti-terrorism legislation reached Clinton's desk until more than a year later. Thanks to an increasingly obstreperous Republican majority on both sides of the Capitol, law enforcement officials were denied new authority for roving wiretaps and new powers to monitor money laundering that Clinton had requested. All that would have to wait until after Sept. 11.

Back then, Sullivan was among those who accused Clinton of having "shredded civil liberties in the war on terrorism," a concern that no longer seems to disturb him. His memory of the actual legislation is pretty dim, anyway. He wrongly claims that the administration's 1996 bill "focused on domestic terrorism" rather than "dealing with the real threat" from al-Qaida. Among that bill's most controversial provisions were new powers to turn away suspect immigrants, swifter deportation procedures and a new deportation court that can view secret evidence.

Recalcitrant Republicans, led by then-Senator John Ashcroft, later defeated another potentially crucial White House initiative. Along with computer-industry lobbyists, they rejected proposals to tighten controls on encryption software and to ensure that law enforcement officials could crack the kind of coded messages found on the laptop owned by Ramzi Yusef, the man who planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Intelligence experts believe that encrypted computer links were probably used by the Sept. 11 plotters and their masters in al-Qaida. Some Democrats, no doubt swayed like their GOP colleagues by the generosity of industry lobbyists, joined the Republicans to deny this important tool to law enforcement.

The Clinton administration's attempts to improve airport security were similarly obstructed in Congress. The Gore commission urged U.S. air carriers to screen all passengers with computerized profiling systems, to upgrade poorly trained private security personnel and to install high-tech baggage-screening equipment. But action on key measures was stalled by lawmakers at the behest of airline lobbyists, and ultimately by the sluggish bureaucracy at the Federal Aviation Administration. Key senators on the Senate Aviation Subcommittee shot down mandated changes recommended by the White House and instead urged "further study." (Eight of the nine Republicans on the subcommittee had received contributions from the major airlines.)

While Clinton and Gore certainly share responsibility for failing to push Congress and their own bureaucrats harder, the aviation industry could rely on conservative ideologues and PAC contributions to stymie burdensome reforms.

Among those attacking the Gore Commission recommendations, incidentally, was the New Republic, which noted that "two billion dollars a year to guard against terrorism and sabotage" would amount to "a cost per life saved of well over $300 million." The cost of such libertarian dogma must now be measured in thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.

Even before the Gore Commission report, the Clinton administration had moved to place bomb-detection equipment in major airports and to upgrade background checks on airport personnel. Unfortunately, as Samuel Skinner, former transportation secretary in the first Bush administration, told an interviewer in 1996: "[T]he airlines decided it was not in their short-term best interest to pay for these services from their own pocket, so they made a concerted effort to make sure that [they] didn't have to pay for this and didn't have to charge passengers for it." Also unfortunately, congressional Republicans had repealed a tax on airline tickets that would have financed high-tech improvements in baggage screening and passenger security.

If corporate lobbyists pursued their own narrow interests at the expense of national security, so did Clinton's adversaries on Capitol Hill.

Among the most egregious was Senator Phil Gramm, who blocked an administration bill to close loopholes that let terrorist groups launder money through offshore banks. The Texas Republican denounced that legislation, now belatedly endorsed by the Bush White House as necessary to dismantle al-Qaida, as "totalitarian."

The typical partisan reaction to Clinton's counterterror proposals was enunciated in 1996 by Rep. David McIntosh, who insisted on steering the debate back to a phony White House scandal. "We find it very troubling that you're asking us for additional authority to wiretap innocent Americans," declared McIntosh, "when you have failed to explain to the American people why you abuse their civil liberties by having FBI files brought into the White House."

Harassing the White House was the overriding aim of congressional Republicans throughout the Clinton era, and not only after January 1998 as Sullivan implies. Terrorism and other serious national problems were of relatively little concern to the national GOP leadership. Looking back now, knowing what we know, the greatest scandal of that naive period was its pointlessly destructive scandal-mongering.

Nevertheless, while politicians and pundits fanned the scandal frenzy, Clinton and his appointees tried to prepare for the serious threats they anticipated. After Oklahoma City, they began a nationwide initiative to improve home-front security that continued to grow until Clinton left the White House.

Between 1996 and 2001, federal spending on counterterrorism increased dramatically to more than $12 billion annually. The FBI's counterterrorism budget rose even more sharply, from $78 million in 1996 to $609 million in 2000, tripling the number of agents assigned to such activities and creating a new counterterrorism center at the bureau's Washington headquarters. Whether that gusher of funding was properly used by FBI director Louis Freeh (who has somehow escaped criticism in the aftermath of Sept. 11) is a separate question.

But as Sullivan surely knows, it would hardly be fair to blame Freeh's shortcomings on Clinton alone. As FBI director, Freeh didn't conceal his contempt for the president who had appointed him. He eventually aligned himself with Clinton's adversaries in Congress and in the media. The president had no real power to remove him, and in any case the degree of the bureau's deterioration didn't become clear until near the end of Clinton's second term. But his agency received abundant resources from the White House that Freeh continuously tried to undermine.

Besides strengthening law enforcement, the Clinton administration sponsored a series of wide-ranging simulations that brought together local, state and federal officials to determine how government would respond if terrorists attacked with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Clinton himself was reportedly obsessed with the potential threat of anthrax and other bio-weapons.

That is why, by the time he left office, scores of those planning exercises were taking place annually across the country. Spending on "domestic preparedness" programs rose from $42.6 million in 1997 to more than $1.2 billion in 2000. The foresight represented by those appropriations has given his administration's successors an important head start.

Several months before Clinton left office, the federal Centers for Disease Control issued a $343 million contract for 40 million doses of smallpox vaccine, as part of a wide-ranging research and development program of defense against biological weapons. The Clinton administration also established a new stockpile of drugs, vaccines and medical supplies for use solely in national emergencies. On Sept. 11, the first shipments from those warehouses went out in trucks headed for New York City, under orders from Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson. How fortunate for Thompson and the rest of us that someone had thought ahead.

None of this means that Clinton's record is free of blemish. Could he have done more to reform the intelligence and law enforcement bureaucracy? Should he have spent even more money, with greater wisdom, on homeland security? Was he distracted by domestic concerns and scandals, including the Lewinsky affair he so stupidly brought on himself?

Yes, but such observations are only of historical interest at this point. And meanwhile, that history should also include successes Clinton had in fighting terrorism, which his critics never mention.

On Clinton's watch, the CIA instituted a special al-Qaida unit that thwarted several deadly conspiracies, including a scheme to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on Millennium Eve, and plots to bomb the Holland and Lincoln tunnels in New York as well as the United Nations building. Timely intelligence also prevented a deadly assault on the Israeli embassy in Washington. As early as 1996 -- as reported by the Post and other publications -- the State Department and the CIA began to neutralize dozens of terrorist cells overseas through prosecutions, extraditions and executions quietly undertaken by allies on every continent, from Albania to the Philippines.

A month before Clinton left office -- and nine months before the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- those successful operations were praised by the nation's most experienced diplomats in this field, including conservatives. "Overall, I give them very high marks," said Robert Oakley, who served as ambassador for counterterrorism in the Reagan State Department, to a reporter for the Washington Post. "The only major criticism I have is the obsession with Osama, which has made him stronger." Paul Bremer, who also held the same post under Reagan and later was chosen by congressional leaders to chair the National Commission on Terrorism, disagreed slightly with his colleague. Bremer told the Post he believed that the Clinton administration had "correctly focused on bin Laden."

But to give Clinton any credit would scarcely serve his critics, who have more sinister and explicitly political aims.

Their rhetoric is redolent of the old "stab-in-the-back" theories used by right-wing extremists to discredit FDR after Pearl Harbor and JFK following the Bay of Pigs. This brand of demagogy dates back to Germany after WWI, when the nascent Nazi movement insisted that social democrats, capitalists and Jews had betrayed the nation and the people. With that pedigree, such ugly and divisive arguments ought to be repugnant to every responsible citizen.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

MORE FROM Joe Conason

Related Topics ------------------------------------------