June 30, 2004
I've stressed before that I'm not that interested in pinning blame on Americans for the September 11 attacks; there's way too much 20/20 hindsight out there. Nonetheless, it's important to keep the historical record straight - not least as a reminder that those who want to return to the pre-September 11 policies are horrifically mistaken, and also as a curative against current agitprop that seeks to blame President Bush for the problem. In that light, it's important to keep the Clinton legacy on terrorism in perspective and understand why, with the benefit of that hindsight, it was such a disaster.
Clinton likes to speak today of his "virtual obsession" with getting Osama bin Laden. Here's his explanation of why he didn't, from Larry King's show on Sunday night:
And after the African embassies were blown up, there was a plan to blow up our embassy in Albania. We did that. There was a plan by many of bin Laden's allies from the mujahideen in Afghanistan, the Afghan War, to take over Bosnia after the Bosnian War and we stopped that.
So we were deeply immersed in this. So what I say all the time is -- and what I told President Bush when we had our little meeting after the Supreme Court decision -- I regret deeply that I didn't get him. I tried everything I knew to get him.
I wish -- the only real regret I have in terms of our efforts is nearly everybody in the world knew that he did the USS Cole in October of 2000. I knew what our options were, I knew what our military options were, I knew what our covert options were. And I felt I couldn't take strong military action against Afghanistan because the FBI and the CIA didn't officially agree that bin Laden had done it until after I left office.
If they had done so when I was in office, I would have taken stronger action -- even as a lame duck president.
KING: Do you know why they didn't?
CLINTON: I think they just had a process they wanted to go through. And keep in mind, you know, when Oklahoma City happened, which before 9/11 was the worst domestic terrorist incident, a lot of people immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was a Muslim militant terrorist. And I remember standing in the Rose Garden of the White House pleading with the American people not to jump to any conclusions.
So I felt if I launched a full scale attack, violated air space of countries that wouldn't give me permission, had to do the logistics of doing that without basing rights like we had in Uzbekistan and other things we had after 9/11, I would have been on grounds without an approval.
But I don't think -- I don't know of anything that I could have done that I didn't do at the time that would have dramatically increased the chances of getting bin Laden because I wanted to do it and I regretted not doing it.
There's just a world of misguided caution there, and not just on Clinton's part; the FBI and CIA bear some pretty substantial responsibility as well. But note that Clinton treated the Cole incident exactly as the current critics of the Iraq war would have treated Saddam Hussein: by giving bin Laden the benefit of every doubt, by treating it as a law enforcement matter requiring indictable evidence before one moves to protect the nation. The consequences of this approach, as we now know, were catastrophic.
Clinton's approach was also problematic for a deeper reason: he spoke at the time and speaks now, as President Bush has wisely stopped doing, as if apprehending a single leader (bin Laden) was the goal, and as if military action was pointless if he didn't apprehend the #1 guy. But we also know, as Clinton knew and told the nation as far back as August 1998, that Taliban Afghanistan was home to "a network of terrorist compounds near the Pakistani border that housed supporters of Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden." Of course, it was the men training in those camps, not bin Laden himself, who actually executed the September 11 plot, and thousands more trained there who may still be at large. In a January 1999 speech, Clinton reiterated the problem:
Since 1993, we have tripled funding for FBI anti-terrorist efforts. Our agents and prosecutors, with excellent support from our intelligence agencies, have done extraordinary work in tracking down perpetrators of terrorist acts and bringing them to justice. And as our air strikes against Afghanistan -- or against the terrorist camps in Afghanistan -- last summer showed, we are prepared to use military force against terrorists who harm our citizens. But all of you know the fight against terrorism is far from over. And now, terrorists seek new tools of destruction.
Last May, at the Naval Academy commencement, I said terrorist and outlaw states are extending the world's fields of battle, from physical space to cyberspace, from our earth's vast bodies of water to the complex workings of our own human bodies. The enemies of peace realize they cannot defeat us with traditional military means. So they are working on two new forms of assault, which you've heard about today: cyber attacks on our critical computer systems, and attacks with weapons of mass destruction -- chemical, biological, potentially even nuclear weapons. We must be ready -- ready if our adversaries try to use computers to disable power grids, banking, communications and transportation networks, police, fire and health services -- or military assets.
Indeed, even ordinary internet users knew about the terrorist training camps in Afghanistan during the last two and a half years of the Clinton Administration.
Richard Miniter has taken a dark view of Clinton's efforts:
[S]tarting in 1993, Rep. Bill McCollum (R., Fla.) repeatedly wrote to President Clinton and warned him and other administration officials about bin Laden and other Islamic terrorists. McCollum was the founder and chairman of the House Taskforce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare and had developed a wealth of contacts among the mujihedeen in Afghanistan. Those sources, who regularly visited McCollum, informed him about bin Laden's training camps and evil ambitions.
In October 2000, al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen. Seventeen sailors were killed in the blast. The USS Cole was almost sunk. In any ordinary administration, this would have been considered an act of war. After all, America entered the Spanish-American war and World War I when our ships were attacked.
Counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke had ordered his staff to review existing intelligence in relation to the bombing of the USS Cole. After that review, he and Michael Sheehan, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, were convinced it was the work of Osama bin Laden. The Pentagon had on-the-shelf, regularly updated and detailed strike plans for bin Laden's training camps and strongholds in Afghanistan.
At a meeting with Secretary of Defense William Cohen, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Attorney General Janet Reno, and other staffers, Clarke was the only one in favor of retaliation against bin Laden. Reno thought retaliation might violate international law and was therefore against it. Tenet wanted to more definitive proof that bin Laden was behind the attack, although he personally thought he was. Albright was concerned about the reaction of world opinion to a retaliation against Muslims, and the impact it would have in the final days of the Clinton Middle East peace process. Cohen, according to Clarke, did not consider the Cole attack "sufficient provocation" for a military retaliation. Michael Sheehan was particularly surprised that the Pentagon did not want to act. He told Clarke: "What's it going to take to get them to hit al Qaeda in Afghanistan? Does al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon?"
Instead of destroying bin Laden's terrorist infrastructure and capabilities, President Clinton phoned twice phoned the president of Yemen demanding better cooperation between the FBI and the Yemeni security services. If Clarke's plan had been implemented, al Qaeda's infrastructure would have been demolished and bin Laden might well have been killed. Sept. 11, 2001 might have been just another sunny day.
[W]hy attack just one Afghan training camp? Mike Rolince, former chief of the international terrorism division of the FBI, explained to me: "We never went back to the camps and dismantled the neighborhood where these people were allowed to train, test chemicals, recruit, plan operations. On a regular basis, we saw intelligence that documented what they were, where they were, how big they were, how many people were going through there, and the administration lacked the political will to go in there and do something about it."
Now, Clinton's failure to act is sometimes excused by other circumstances: impeachment distracted him, he had to prosecute the Kosovo war, he couldn't act during an election. Let's go to the timeline of Clinton's military responses against al Qaeda or, for that matter, against Iraq, charted against a selection (admittedly incomplete) of significant events:
|August 1998||August 7: Embassy bombings. August 17: Clinton grand jury testimony||August 20: Missile strikes on terror camps in Afghanistan|
|September 1998||September 11: Starr Report released||None|
|November 1998||Congressional elections||None|
|December 1998||December 19: Clinton impeached||December 16: Desert Fox (bombing of sites in Iraq)|
|February 1999||February 12: Senate acquits Clinton||None|
|March 1999||March 24: Bombing in Kosovo begins||None|
|April 1999||Kosovo campaign continues||None|
|May 1999||Kosovo campaign continues||None|
|June 1999||June 10: Kosovo campaign ends||None|
|March 2000||March 7: Bush, Gore lock up nominations; stock market begins long slide||None|
|July 2000||Republican Convention||None|
|August 2000||Democratic Convention||None|
|October 2000||October 12: Cole bombing; October 11: second Bush-Gore debate, candidates discuss Iraq but neither addresses terrorism||None|
|November 2000||Election, recount begins||None|
|December 2000||December 12: Supreme Court stops recount||None|
|January 2001||January 20: Clinton leaves office amid flurry of presidential pardons and new regulations||None|
Again, the purpose of the timeline isn't to damn Clinton (although one does come away with the conclusion that his military aggressiveness tended to wane when he wasn't in extreme political/legal peril, and question what he could have been doing instead of spending "a whole day a week every week for a year, maybe a little more" in marriage counseling), but to point out the obvious: for more than three years after the August 1998 attacks, the nation and its president (Clinton, for most of that period) knew there were terrorist camps operating in Afghanistan, and failed to treat them as a lethal threat. In the latter half of 1999 in particular, it seems difficult to explain why an offensive against terrorists could not have been a higher priority. Let us not repeat that error.
That's quite a charge. Do you have any evidence of this whatsoever?
It should be pointed out that, if the Clinton administration did provide the Taliban with foreign aid to discourage them making money from opium sales - a charge I have heard nowhere else, seen nowhere else, and for which I can find no information in reference - the Bush administraiton continued the practice and upped the foreign aid for the very same reason. See here for one article, and here for another. The second has a lot of history on opium production in Afghanistan, from the 1980s and the Soviet war until the present. Nowhere is the Clinton administration mentioned, except in Hillary Clinton's speech announcing grants to combat violence against women internationally.
Unless you have a link to support your contention, Mr. Doe, it is suspect at best. Some documentation would be appreciated. It seems that the current administration is the first to provide foreign aid to the Taliban specifically for the limiting of opium production - a bribe, in your words, to help in the war on drugs. Didn't help us much, since opium production has increased twenty times in the time since we inveded the country.
And your contention that the mujahadin were overthrown by the Taliban is only partially correct. There was not solidarity within the mujahadin beyond evicting the Soviets from Afghanistan; both the Northern Alliance and the Taliban can trace leaders and fighters back to those early groups. One mujahadin leader mentioned in the second article above is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar:
The prime recipients of this aid, labeled “Freedom Fighters” by President Reagan, were also known as the mujahideen. The CIA, through their erstwhile ally Pakistan’s foreign intelligence branch, the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), gave the majority of their funds to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Afghan guerilla warlord who led the US proxy forces against the Soviet Union. Alfred McCoy, in his well-documented work The Politics of Heroin, details the nefarious nature of Hekmatyar, an Islamic fundamentalist who gladly sent his minions to disfigure the faces of women students who did not wear veils.
Certainly this man, who goes on to be one of the prime opium runners in AFghanistan, is not opposed to the strict Islam practiced by the Taliban, and would not be included in the "defeated" group. Unless his own power threatened theirs.
My impression was that the charge about the U.S. giving money to the Taliban to curb drug production was aimed at the pre-9/11 Bush Administration, not Clinton’s. Either way, I’m deeply skeptical. In fact, researching something else, I stumbled on this link awhile back:
Take a look at this article.
I only heard about the Bush Admin giving the Taliban money in regard to 'The War on Drugs' and their role in supressing opium production. I'm pretty sure they were handing over millions that summer, before 9/11. Now, I should add they might have been loan guarantees or aid of some sort as opposed to a cash payout/blank check. Idon't have exact recollection or a source to link. I'll try and follow up.
As for Clinton and the same practice? It would not surprise me a bit for this to have been occuring before Bush took office, but Doe's charge is the first I ever heard about it.
Overall you give Clinton more fair treatment than I expected. You are a credit to your conservative, Clinton-hating crowd. You get your potshots in, but maintain a degree of intellectual honesty that comes as a pleasant surprise compared to most Bush supporters.
Hurrah! I think this is the first time your comments thread remembered my 'personal info'
I'm not overly concerned with "laying blame." What I WOULD like to see addressed is this comment (and I don't doubt Clinton is speaking knowledgeably):
"We must be ready -- ready if our adversaries try to use computers to disable power grids, banking, communications and transportation networks, police, fire and health services -- or military assets."
How have we effectively acted to protect these infrastructural targets of terrorism?
We -- bloggers, congressional commissions, citizens -- would be much better served to expend our energies into investigating WHAT has been done to protect these targets, WHAT we HAVEN'T done (that is feasible), WHAT we NEED to do still do, and HOW best to accomplish that.
Too bad you didn't expend your time creating a TABLE outlining that info. Not only would it have provided more use to the country, you might have actually contributed to moving the "talking point" past the blame-game, political rhetoric.
Sorry, I'm not usually so snarky upon first visits to a blog. But I'm at the point where I'd like to see some proactive, rather than reactive, discussion.
Impressive, Crank. One comment: you write by giving bin Laden the benefit of every doubt, by treating it as a law enforcement matter requiring indictable evidence before one moves to protect the nation
I think that's imprecise. Certainly I did not get the impression that Clinton, the FBI, CIA, or anybody felt that bin Laden had to be given "the benefit of every doubt", which is an extremely high standard. And "indictable evidence" is a quite low standard.
Clearly, though, Clinton was not aggressive enough in going after bin Laden. Even Clinton would agree with that.
Mr Furious - Yeah, I've had that problem as well.
cj - Those are fair questions, although as I stressed in the post I linked to up top, there are two parts to the war on terror - offense and defense - and I mostly focus on the offense because (1) that's where our long-term prospects for victory are and (2) that's where the deep philosophical differences are. And frankly, as to the extent of our defenses to attacks on computer systems, I've got my hands full handling the simple tasks required to keep my PC running . . .
And what did Bush do about the Al Qaeda threat for the first 8 months of his administration? Why didn't Bush seek a retaliatory attack for the October 2000 Cole bombing? If you want to argue that Clinton did nothing, and that experts were telling him to do something, then why didn't the more hawkish Bush Defense Department attack training camps?
Brad - That's a fair point, and it's one reason why the blame here is bipartisan and systemic. As with Clinton, there were reasons, ones I outlined in the post I linked up top:
Bush failed, again in hindsight, by failing to change Clinton's policies in this regard. But with just 8 months in office, no public mandate for war, no consensus on the issue among our allies, and his hands full just trying to get all his foreign policy people through the Senate (the people who want UN approval for everything didn't mind dragging their feet on Bush's UN ambassador), a quick change in policy would have been turning a battleship in a bathtub.
To the extent we're pointing fingers, Clinton does deserve a greater share of the blame because he had the time to develop an offensive strategy and didn't (it's a matter of some dispute how far Bush's team had gotten on that score in the days leading to September 11). But in either case, the failings went well beyond the man at the big desk.