Osama Bin Missing: Who's Tried Hardest to Tackle Top Terrorist?
October 3, 2006
Clinton interview on Fox News leads to spitting match over which President did most to bring Bin Laden down.
In an extraordinary interview with Fox News Sunday's Chris Wallace on Sept. 24, former President Bill Clinton took on critics who have questioned why he didn't do more during his time in the White House to eliminate Osama bin Laden. Wallace raised the question because, he said, viewers had demanded that he do so, and Clinton let loose. His responses were a mix of assertions about what his Administration did to rid the world of bin Laden and blasts at conservatives who have criticized his efforts as insufficient. He took a few shots at his host in the process.
Since Wallace's interview, we've received a number of e-mails requesting that we look at Clinton's claims and those of some who have responded to him. We find Clinton's specific factual assertions to be mostly correct, though we neither endorse nor dispute his statements of opinion. It is true for example that Clinton tried to kill Osama bin Laden, and probably missed him only by hours with a cruise-missile barrage in 1998. But we can’t judge whether that means Clinton came “closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since,” given the Bush administration’s near-miss at Tora Bora, Afghanistan in 2001, and the possibility that there have been other, still-classified attempts.
Clinton appeared more than ready to take on his critics. (Transcript available here.) We'll take his statements in order, comparing what he said to the factual record laid out in the final report of The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (The 9/11 Commission), and other specified sources.
Docu or Drama?
Mostly true. Clinton is right that the 9/11 Report "directly contradicted" parts of an ABC mini-series that aired on Sept. 10 and 11, "The Path to 9/11" – at least on two of the three events he alludes to. On the third, the Report may not contradict the ABC version, but neither does it offer any support for it. The mini-series shoved red-hot spurs into what was obviously already a Democratic sore spot by portraying Clinton and his former aides as lackluster in going after the terrorist leader. Clinton lawyer Douglas J. Band and Clinton Foundation CEO Bruce R. Lindsey complained in a Sept. 1 letter to ABC about three specific scenes which are the ones to which Clinton presumably referred:
When Clinton said the miniseries represents "a right-wing conservative run" by ABC, he may be referring to the fact that the writer/producer of the program, Cyrus Nowrasteh, is politically to the right of center. He has called liberal filmmaker Michael Moore "an out-of-control socialist weasel" and has referred to himself as " more of a libertarian than a conservative." But he also has said of himself that he is "neither an activist, politician or partisan, nor an ideologue of any stripe." ABC as a network is not known for ideological leanings one way or the other, although conservatives say that almost all mainstream media is liberal, and liberals criticize those same media outlets for having bought too readily into Bush's post-9/11 counterterrorism strategy and the Administration's rationale for invading Iraq.
Was ABC "falsely claiming" that the miniseries was based on the 9/11 Report? ABC's poster for the program did claim it was based on the Report. As controversy began to heat up, the network tempered its sourcing claims a bit, but not always. When it aired, the film contained the following disclaimer:
Black Hawk Down
True: Clinton is correct that there was a Republican effort to bring U.S. forces home immediately after a US helicopter was shot down in Mogadishu. His view prevailed, with the withdrawal date set for March 31, 1994.
According to the 9/11 Report, the intelligence community didn't learn that bin Laden's organization was linked to the Black Hawk shoot-down until 1996-97 (p. 341).
Mostly true. Clarke served every president beginning with Reagan and in Clinton's final years had the title of National Counterterrorism Coordinator. He had run the cabinet-level principals committee meetings on counterterrorism, briefing cabinet secretaries on the subject. When Condoleezza Rice became Bush's National Security Advisor, she kept him and his title but downgraded the position, taking away his right to run or even participate in principals meetings. Clarke saw it as a personal slight and also as an indication of where counterterrorism stood in the new Administration's list of priorities, although the latter is a judgment call and is strongly denied by the Bush team.
Clarke did give the Clinton Administration credit for being vigorous in responding to the embassy bombings, as well as overall in its anti-terror efforts, though it could have done more, he said in his testimony to the 9/11 Commission. "At the senior policy levels in the Clinton Administration, there was an acute understanding of the terrorist threat, particularly al Qaeda," Clarke told the Commission. "That understanding resulted in a vigorous program to counter al Qaeda including lethal covert action, but it did not include a willingness to resume bombing of Afghanistan. Events in the Balkans, Iraq, the Peace Process, and domestic politics occurring at the same time as the anti-terrorism effort played a role."
Capture or Kill?
Disputed: Indeed, the CIA worked with tribal groups and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan to try to get bin Laden, dangling a monetary reward, all of which was approved by Clinton – but there were differing understandings as to whether they were authorized to kill him or had to capture him alive. A new Memorandum of Notification, a document spelling out what the agency was and wasn't allowed to do with respect to bin Laden, was drawn up in late 1998 that contained stronger language than earlier memorandums about when the tribal groups could use lethal force, according to the 9/11 Report. Previously, killing bin Laden was authorized only in self-defense during a capture operation. In the new document, it was permitted if capture wasn't considered feasible. However, subsequent memorandums reverted to earlier language, though the reasons for that are unclear. This helps explain why, according to the Report, "former White House officials and the CIA officials might disagree as to whether the CIA was ever authorized by the President to kill bin Laden." (pgs. 131-133)
Comprehensive anti-terror operation
True. It is also true that a broad-scale terrorist threat wasn't perceived until the mid-to-late1990s. Until then, the government wasn't set up to address it. (pps. 94-95)
After the Cole Attack
True: Clinton did draw up plans as he described, and was indeed frustrated by the reluctance of the CIA and FBI to pin blame for the attack squarely on bin Laden.
The USS Cole was attacked in Yemen by suicide bombers Oct. 12, 2000. The following month Berger asked Gen. Hugh Shelton to "reevaluate military plans to act quickly against bin Laden," the 9/11 Report says. The air strikes envisioned in the new strategy were wider ranging than had been described in earlier plans, including attacks against the Taliban. "For the first time, these strikes envisioned an air campaign against Afghanistan of indefinite duration." (p. 194)
In early 1999 plans were ordered for using fast, precision-targeting AC-130 "Spooky" gunships, designed for use by the special forces, to strike bin Laden's headquarters. One concern, though, was that the gunships would need access to bases nearby because their refueling range was just over 2,000 miles. " Thus an AC-130 deployment had to be embedded in a wider political and military concept involving Pakistan or other neighboring countries to address issues relating to basing and overflight," the 9/11 Report says (p. 135). The report doesn't mention needing basing rights in Uzbekistan, which Clinton said were needed. But that country didn't grant such basing rights until shortly after 9/11, according to the Report (p. 337), which of course was after Clinton left office. In 2005 those rights were revoked when the U.S. criticized the Uzbekistan government for human rights violations.
It's true that the intelligence agencies wouldn't certify that bin Laden was responsible for the suicide bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. Clinton told the 9/11 Commission, according to its report, that he was frustrated "he couldn't get a definitive enough answer to do something about the Cole attack" (p. 193). Former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger concurred, telling the panel that the intelligence agencies had strong suspicions, but reached "no conclusion" by the time Clinton left office that the ship bombing was definitively the work of bin Laden. In late December 2000, with only days left before Clinton had to vacate the White House, slides from a CIA briefing to a small group of key officials said it was the agency's "preliminary judgment" that al Qaeda "supported the attack" but had "no definitive answer" to the question of who directed it and how (p. 195). (Clarke told the panel that he thought the agencies were 'holding back,'" p. 195) Did that mean Clinton was limited to sending in "a few hundred Special Forces," if he did anything at all? In practice, probably so. Those who were interviewed by the panel thought it was impossible to justify a broader military offensive unless blame could clearly be laid (p. 195).
"They Did Not Try"
Exaggeration: It's not true that the Bush Administration "did not try" to address the al Qaeda threat before 9/11, though how hard is open to debate. It unquestionably got off to a sluggish start. The first principals' meeting on terrorism didn't take place until Sept. 4, 2001. That doesn't mean nothing was happening, though. In March, 2001, Rice asked the CIA to draw up a new set of authorities for covert action in Afghanistan. It drafted two documents, including one that permitted greater use of lethal force in a variety of circumstances. However, CIA Director George Tenet argued to the Deputy Director of the National Security Council that the Administration should make some larger decisions about policy before deciding on final language, and the draft was put on hold (p. 210). Also in March, Bush expressed frustration to Rice about not being able to get bin Laden. "I'm tired of swatting at flies," he told her, according to the 9/11 Report (p. 202). Bush told the Commission that he was frustrated with catching terrorists one-by-one or cell-by-cell, though he understood that it took time to mesh diplomatic, financial and military measures into a coherent policy (p. 202).There was also a great deal of discussion in the spring and summer of 2001 about the ongoing development of an armed Predator – a pilotless drone that could launch Hellfire missiles when it found its target (p. 211).
Still, the pace was slow, and extremely frustrating to Clarke (p. 203). Rice told the 9/11 Commission she had told Bush "that she and his other advisers thought it would take three years or so for their al Qaeda strategy to work." (p. 213).
Because of several questions by Bush in 2001 about whether the al Qaeda threat was aimed at the U.S., the CIA produced an article in the Aug. 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." But the Commission found no evidence that Bush discussed the article or the threat to the U.S. with any of his top advisers before Sept. 11, nor did the article prompt any meetings at the National Security Council. Tenet visited Bush in Crawford, Tex., on Aug. 17, and participated in daily intelligence briefings with Bush from Aug. 31-Sept. 10; he told the Commission that the subject wasn't raised (pp. 260-262).
In his new book "State of Denial," journalist Bob Woodward recounts an anecdote that shows the frustration of some officials that the new Administration wasn't acting quickly enough, particularly in view of a significant uptick in noise in the intelligence system. CIA Director George Tenet wanted an immediate bin Laden action plan, Woodward writes, but "Rumsfeld had questioned all the [National Security Agency] intercepts and other intelligence." On July 10, 2001, Tenet and his counterterrorism chief, Cofer Black, thought the likelihood of a terrorist attack in the near future was so great that the two of them hopped in a car to the State Department, calling Rice on the way to say they needed to see her immediately. Tenet had been pushing her to set a clear counterterrorism policy for months, according to the Woodward book. In this meeting, he and Black conveyed that immediate action was needed to thwart bin Laden, the book recounts. The book's conclusion that Tenet and Black "felt the brush-off" from Rice at the meeting has been contradicted. Tenet's testimony to the 9/11 Commission indicated that he felt Rice took them seriously at the meeting, and Rice's spokesman said both that there was "nothing new" in the briefing and that Rice asked Tenet to give the same briefing to Attorney General John Aschcroft and Rumsfeld (Ashcroft has said that he never got such a briefing). The bottom line, it appears, is that nothing immediate was done to deal with the urgency of the threat reporting. A National Security Presidential Directive authorizing a new covert war against bin Laden, prepared by Rice, was ready to go to Bush on Sept. 10.
Clinton did leave an anti-terror strategy, put together by Clarke and his staff in apaper entitled "Strategy for Eliminating the Threat from the Jihadist Networks of al Qida: Status and Prospects." It was completed just as Clinton's time as President was coming to a close. (p. 197) It was conveyed to the incoming Bush Administration in January 2001. (p. 201)
It's certainly plausible to say that Clarke was "the best guy in the country" on al Qaeda, although a word like "best" is almost always a matter of opinion. There's no denying that he was extremely well-versed on the subject, and many of his warnings proved prescient. And Clarke was demoted, in effect, by Rice (see above).
"No One Knew al Qaeda Existed"
Essentially True: While someone might have known al Qaeda existed, in 1993 Osama bin Laden was still seen in the West as a leader of successful anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan. A London newspaper article in December that year carried the headline, "Anti-Soviet warrior puts his army on the road to peace." It wasn't until the following year that a handful of news reports began to surface saying bin Laden was financing terrorist activities, which were said to be aimed at conservative Arab regimes.
A Contract on bin Laden?
Debatable: As outlined earlier, Clinton did authorize the CIA to work with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance but there was much confusion about whether those on the ground had a green light to assassinate bin Laden outright or merely to try to capture him using deadly force in self-defense.
Who Got Closer?
Debatable: Clinton probably came within hours of killing bin Laden on Aug. 20, 1998 when the US attacked training camps in Afghanistan near Khost, where the CIA believed terrorist leaders were gathering to plan further attacks in the wake of earlier bombings of US embassies. The cruise missile strikes, launched from Navy vessels in the Arabian Sea, mostly hit their targets but missed bin Laden, most likely by just a few hours (9/11 Report, p. 117).
That's the last time an attack was launched until after 9/11. Bush probably came close too, however. Newspaper accounts have quoted unnamed intelligence officials saying that bin Laden narrowly escaped capture in the battle of Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in late 2001, primarily because no U.S. ground troops were in the area at the critical time. The failure to capture bin Laden there became an issue in the 2004 presidential election. Last year, the CIA field commander at Tora Bora, Gary Bernsten, said he had definitive intelligence that bin Laden was hiding in the Tora Bora mountains, and could have been caught.
Who came closer? Clinton's claim is plausible, but the publicly available evidence isn't sufficient to prove the case either way.
I've Never Criticized
Mostly false. Of course, Clinton's claim that he "never criticized" is negated by this very interview. True, Clinton may not have personally criticized Bush. But these weren't his first disparagements of the current Administration's actions. In interviews surrounding the June 2004 release of his book, My Life, Clinton said, for example, "I believe we made an error in not allowing the United Nations to complete the [weapons] inspection process" before making the decision to invade Iraq, Clinton said on CBS News's 60 Minutes . He also said he believed the Iraq war distracted from what should have remained the main mission of dismantling al Qaeda.
We have no idea how important the Bush Administration thinks Afghanistan is compared with Iraq. But if allocation of troops is a measure of priorities, Clinton is correct. There are currently 141,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 21,000 in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon.
That Little Smirk
Your Call: We'll leave it to readers to decide if the expression on Wallace's face is a smirk – or stunned disbelief. Call it, maybe, shock and awe. And while we wish mind reading was among our talents, we have no idea if Wallace thought he was clever or was desperately trying to figure out how to regain control of his own interview.
Wallace Soft on Republicans?
Earlier in the piece Clinton demanded that Wallace tell him whether or not he'd ever asked members of the Bush Administration questions like "Why didn't you do anything about the Cole?" Wallace didn't address that directly during the interview, but we called Fox and asked them to send us any interviews they'd like to in which Wallace posed tough questions about terrorism to Bush officials, including why they didn't retaliate for the Cole bombing. They sent two, a Sept. 10 2006 interview with Rice and a March 28 2004 interview with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Wallace's questioning of Rice is not particularly pointed. As for his chat with Rumsfeld, Wallace asks the following:
"The Entire Military"
Exaggeration. After the Cole attack it is true that the bulk of the military's leadership, including Defense Secretary William Cohen, opposed the sort of attack Clinton describes. However, there were a few, among them Gen. Peter Schoomaker, head of the Special Operations Command, who thought a plan involving the special forces was feasible. Lt. Gen. William Boykin, a deputy secretary of defense for intelligence, told the Commission that "opportunities were missed because of an unwillingness to take risks and a lack of vision and understanding" (p. 136).
"A Serious Disinformation Campaign"
At least partly true. Whether there has been a "disinformation campaign" is a matter of opinion. However, the conservative punditocracy – including sources like The Washington Times editorial page and Fox News host Bill O'Reilly – has certainly blamed Clinton for not getting bin Laden. Clinton is probably including the ABC miniseries when he refers to a "campaign" (see above).
"Wag the Dog" refers a popular 1997 film about a president who fakes a war to distract the public from paying attention to his personal scandal. When Clinton, who was embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, launched airstrikes on bin Laden camps in Afghanistan and a factory in Sudan in August, 1998, "[s]ome Republicans in Congress raised questions about the timing of the strikes," the 9/11 Report recalls (p. 118). "Much public commentary turned immediately to scalding criticism that the action was too aggressive."
"A Vigorous Attempt"
Correct. Who came closer is, as we've said, a matter we can't resolve. But it is certainly true that Clinton's Republican Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, described Clinton as vigorously trying to get bin Laden. Cohen told the 9/11 Commission that "President Clinton and his entire national security team devoted an extraordinary amount of time and effort to coping with the threat."
Clarke also described Clinton's anti-terrorist actions as strong, as we've already noted.
The day after Clinton's interview on Fox, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a meeting with writers and editors at The New York Post , said the idea that the Bush Administration took no action on terrorism pre-9/11 was "flatly false," calling the Bush efforts "at least as aggressive" as what Clinton had done, and denied Clinton's claim that the Bush team had been left a plan by the previous Administration.
False: Rice's statement is not supported by the 9/11 Report, which describes the plans Clarke drew up and says they were conveyed to Bush's aides, as we noted earlier. The 9/11 Report says that as the Clinton Administration drew to a close in December 2000, Clarke and his staff developed a policy paper on eliminating the al Qaeda threat, "the first such comprehensive effort" since a 1998 plan known as Delenda (p. 197). The Report also says (p. 201): "After Rice requested that all senior staff identify desirable major policy reviews or initiatives, Clarke submitted an elaborate memorandum on January 25, 2001. He attached to it his 1998 Delenda Plan and the December 2000 strategy paper."
Clarke is emphatic about the matter, telling interviewer Charlie Rose on Sept. 28, 2006:
Rice also denied that Clarke had been demoted, saying "Richard Clarke was the counterterrorism czar when 9/11 happened." Technically true, in that Clarke's title didn't change, but effectively false, since she cut him out of key meetings and lessened his authority.
We can find no independent confirmation for the claim made by Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit who appears as "Mike" in the 9/11 Report, that the CIA knew exactly where bin Laden was at least 10 times yet no action was ordered, as he told the Boston Globe . As we've noted above, in mid-1999 intelligence operatives felt certain of bin Laden's location, but no strikes were ordered, much to the frustration of some involved. Similarly, in Dec. 1998, intelligence was received that bin Laden would be spending the night in the governor's residence in Kandahar. But officials charged with deciding whether to mount a cruise missile strike thought there was too great a likelihood of collateral damage, and that the intelligence was not sufficiently reliable. 'Mike' told a colleague he'd been unable to sleep after the decision. But the decision to hang back was vindicated when later reports indicated bin Laden had left his location by the time the missiles would have hit. And the Report adds a bit of context: "[F]aulty intelligence had just led the United States to mistakenly bomb the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the NATO war against Serbia," bringing intense scrutiny and criticism to the Administration and CIA.
The 9/11 Report says that problems pinpointing bin Laden's location continued. In 2000, military operations in Afghanistan were planned, but were "limited by the same operational and policy concerns encountered in 1998 and 1999. Although the intelligence community sometimes knew where bin Laden was, it had been unable to provide intelligence considered sufficiently reliable to launch a strike." (p. 188)
- by Viveca Novak with Justin Bank and Emi Kolawole
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