The president who took bin Laden seriously

Republicans are trying to blame 9/11 on Clinton, but the official report shows that he responded to al-Qaida threats far more effectively than Bush.


Joe Conason
July 25, 2004 3:52AM (UTC)

While the nonpartisan members of the 9/11 commission have sounded excruciatingly even-handed as they issued their final report, the Republican congressional leadership -- which has always tried to thwart the 9/11 investigation -- blatantly insists on blaming Clinton for the intelligence failures that resulted in the fateful attacks.

Two days before the report appeared, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and his leadership team exploited a briefing on the report to mount a partisan assault.

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Their script, repeated by Hastert and his whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., suggested that "eight months of the Bush administration" couldn't make up for the policies established during "eight years of the Clinton administration."

Readers of the report will also note its sharp criticism of the inadequacy and inattention to the real "gathering threat" during the '90s in Congress, where the "overall attention ... to the terrorist threat was low ... [and] not impressive." Of course, the Republican caucus has exercised iron control over the nation's legislative agenda since 1995.

"Beginning in 1999," the 9/11 report notes, various expert and well-intended commissions "made scores of recommendations to address terrorism and homeland security but drew little attention from Congress." Hastert's colleagues are too busy preparing an investigation of Sandy Berger to act on the report's recommendations -- in an obvious attempt to deflect attention from its findings.

That's an understandable tactic, because anyone who reads the report's actual text may well conclude that in confronting the terrorist threat, the Clinton administration was considerably more serious and alert than its successor. Consider the critical chapters devoted to the Millennium plot and the months preceding 9/11.

"President Clinton was deeply concerned about [Osama] Bin Ladin," remarks the opening section of Chapter 6, titled "From Threat to Threat." It goes on to note that by the summer of 1998, Clinton and his national security advisor Sandy Berger "ensured that they had a special daily pipeline of reports feeding them the latest updates on Bin Ladin's reported location."

Stopping the Millennium plot -- in which al-Qaida operatives planned to bomb Los Angeles International Airport and other major targets at the end of 1999 -- was in great measure the result of a lucky break, as the report acknowledges. An alert customs agent arrested al-Qaida operative Ahmed Ressam, who was bringing a carload of explosives into the United States from British Columbia.

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Along with other intelligence alarms, Ressam's arrest spurred Clinton and his aides, including Berger and counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, into a desperate, unrelenting effort to prevent disaster. To Clinton, the Millennium alert required what one commissioner called "knocking heads together" every day in the CIA, the FBI, the Justice Department and the National Security Council.

Among the effects of that daily head-knocking, according to the 9/11 report, was to force usually reticent FBI officials to disgorge the kind of critical information that they habitually held back from other federal agencies. Ordered to appear in person before a committee of Cabinet-rank officials, "it was hard for FBI officials to hold back information." Operations were mounted simultaneously in eight countries to disrupt the Islamist conspiracies. After Ressam's arrest, more wiretaps than ever before were authorized to find the sleeper cells that Clarke warned were preparing attacks here.

Again and again, the report takes careful note of Clinton's active, personal participation in the effort against al-Qaida during the Millennium alert, exploding myths about his supposed distraction by domestic scandals. Clarke spoke directly with the president on several occasions that month. "In mid-December," the report reveals, "President Clinton signed a Memorandum of Notification (MON) giving the CIA broader authority to use foreign proxies to detain Bin Ladin lieutenants, without having to transfer them to U.S. custody. The authority was to capture, not kill, although lethal force might be used if necessary."

The commission confirms Clinton's widely reported "obsession" with al-Qaida, describing in detail his efforts to raise international awareness, increase spending on counterterrorism and homeland security long before that phrase became fashionable, and to demand action by the nation's covert forces. Indeed, their report credits Clinton with ignoring a serious threat to his own safety to seek foreign assistance in the struggle against bin Laden.

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In early 2000, immediately following the millennium crisis, Clinton was scheduled to visit India. He insisted on visiting Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf as well -- despite the fact that both the Secret Service and the CIA had "warned in the strongest terms that visiting Pakistan would risk the President's life." Musharraf made promises that were never carried out, despite carrots and sticks brandished at him by American diplomats.

The contrast with the Bush administration could scarcely be clearer. On that score, the report's most relevant section is Chapter 8, "The System Was Blinking Red." And the most damning paragraphs of that report involve the notorious Presidential Daily Brief of Aug. 6, 2001. Under the bold headline, "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.," the briefing states the al-Qaida leader "would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and 'bring the fighting to America.'"

Before examining the report's findings about the PDB, however, another usually ignored aspect of this story is worth noting in Chapter 6, where the drumbeat of warnings about an impending al-Qaida attack in spring 2001 first comes up. By then, Richard Clarke's hair was on fire, as was that of CIA director George Tenet. Enter Vice President Dick Cheney, whose important contributions during the months preceding the disaster merit a single paragraph:

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"In May, President Bush announced that Vice President Cheney would himself lead an effort looking at preparations for managing a possible attack by weapons of mass destruction and at more general problems of national preparedness," the report says on page 204. (Remember that the comprehensive, bipartisan Hart-Rudman report on those issues had been published and ignored by the new administration a few months earlier.) "The next few months were mainly spent organizing the effort and bringing an admiral from the Sixth Fleet back to Washington to manage it. The Vice President's task force was just getting under way when the 9/11 attack occurred."

For reasons best known to the commissioners, they made little effort to learn why Cheney did so little for so long, or what his role was in dealing with the terrorist threat before that fateful September. That was the sole reference to the Cheney task force that I could find in the report, which contains no index.

While the report describes repeated chances to thwart the 9/11 plot, its authors were deeply reluctant to say that it could have been stopped. But the report adds a significant new detail to the tale of the famous briefing that the president received while on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

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What Bush and his national security advisor Condoleezza Rice dismissively termed a "historical document" -- before its stunning contents were declassified -- was dispatched to Texas with far more urgent intentions. So testified the two CIA analysts who authored it. The two analysts -- one of whom is identified in the report's voluminous footnotes only as "Barbara S." -- told the commission bluntly that they regarded the PDB as "an opportunity to communicate their view that the threat of a Bin Ladin attack in the United States remained both current and serious." While the Aug. 6 PDB was the 36th in a series dealing with al-Qaida or bin Laden, it was the first one given to the president in 2001 that was "devoted to the possibility of an attack in the United States."

Unfortunately, the alarmed analysts were unable to pinpoint the time, date, place or method by which bin Laden's minions would wreak bloody havoc on us. Without such specific data, the president responded complacently to their warning. The commission's report says that he never discussed the threat of a domestic attack with any of his aides, including the attorney general -- although the PDB highlighted the news that the FBI was then conducting "approximately 70 full field operations throughout the US that it considers Bin Ladin-related."

The report records what President Bush told the commission about the Aug. 6 PDB during his closed interview, without additional comment. Perhaps none is required:

"He ... remembered thinking that it was heartening that 70 investigations were under way ... He said that if his advisers had told him there was a cell in the United States, they would have moved to take care of it. That never happened."

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Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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