Q: Did Bill Clinton pass up a chance to kill Osama bin Laden?
A: Probably not, and it would not have mattered anyway as there was no evidence at the time that bin Laden had committed any crimes against American citizens.
Was Bill Clinton offered bin Laden on "a silver platter"? Did he refuse? Was there cause at the time?
Let’s start with what everyone agrees on: In April 1996, Osama bin Laden was an official guest of the radical Islamic government of Sudan – a government that had been implicated in the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993. By 1996, with the international community treating Sudan as a pariah, the Sudanese government attempted to patch its relations with the United States. At a secret meeting in a Rosslyn, Va., hotel, the Sudanese minister of state for defense, Maj. Gen. Elfatih Erwa, met with CIA operatives, where, among other things, they discussed Osama bin Laden.
It is here that things get murky. Erwa claims that he offered to hand bin Laden over to the United States. Key American players – President Bill Clinton, then-National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and Director of Counterterrorism Richard Clarke among them – have testified there were no "credible offers" to hand over bin Laden. The 9/11 Commission found "no credible evidence" that Erwa had ever made such an offer. On the other hand, Lawrence Wright, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Looming Tower," flatly states that Sudan did make such an offer. Wright bases his judgment on an interview with Erwa and notes that those who most prominently deny Erwa’s claims were not in fact present for the meeting.
Wright and the 9/11 Commission do agree that the Clinton administration encouraged Sudan to deport bin Laden back to Saudi Arabia and spent 10 weeks trying to convince the Saudi government to accept him. One Clinton security official told The Washington Post that they had "a fantasy" that the Saudi government would quietly execute bin Laden. When the Saudis refused bin Laden’s return, Clinton officials convinced the Sudanese simply to expel him, hoping that the move would at least disrupt bin Laden’s activities.
Much of the controversy stems from claims that President Clinton made in a February 2002 speech and then retracted in his 2004 testimony to the 9/11 Commission. In the 2002 speech Clinton seems to admit that the Sudanese government offered to turn over bin Laden:
Clinton: So we tried to be quite aggressive with them [al Qaeda]. We got – well, Mr. bin Laden used to live in Sudan. He was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991, then he went to Sudan. And we’d been hearing that the Sudanese wanted America to start dealing with them again. They released him. At the time, 1996, he had committed no crime against America, so I did not bring him here because we had no basis on which to hold him, though we knew he wanted to commit crimes against America. So I pleaded with the Saudis to take him, ’cause they could have. But they thought it was a hot potato and they didn’t and that’s how he wound up in Afghanistan.
Clinton later claimed to have misspoken and stated that there had never been an offer to turn over bin Laden. It is clear, however, that Berger, at least, did consider the possibility of bringing bin Laden to the U.S., but, as he told The Washington Post in 2001, "The FBI did not believe we had enough evidence to indict bin Laden at that time, and therefore opposed bringing him to the United States." According to NewsMax.com, Berger later emphasized in an interview with WABC Radio that, while administration officials had discussed whether or not they had ample evidence to indict bin Laden, that decision "was not pursuant to an offer by the Sudanese."
So on one side, we have Clinton administration officials who say that there were no credible offers on the table, and on the other, we have claims by a Sudanese government that was (and still is) listed as an official state sponsor of terrorism. It’s possible, of course, that both sides are telling the truth: It could be that Erwa did make an offer, but the offer was completely disingenuous. What is clear is that the 9/11 Commission report totally discounts the Sudanese claims. Unless further evidence arises, that has to be the final word.
Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter. What is not in dispute at all is the fact that, in early 1996, American officials regarded Osama bin Laden as a financier of terrorism and not as a mastermind largely because, at the time, there was no real evidence that bin Laden had harmed American citizens. So even if the Sudanese government really did offer to hand bin Laden over, the U.S. would have had no grounds for detaining him. In fact, the Justice Department did not secure an indictment against bin Laden until 1998 – at which point Clinton did order a cruise missile attack on an al Qaeda camp in an attempt to kill bin Laden.
We have to be careful about engaging in what historians call "Whig history," which is the practice of assuming that historical figures value exactly the same things that we do today. It’s a fancy term for those "why didn’t someone just shoot Hitler in 1930?" questions that one hears in dorm-room bull sessions. The answer, of course, is that no one knew quite how bad Hitler was in 1930. The same is true of bin Laden in 1996.
Correction: We originally answered this question with a flat ‘yes’ early this week, based on the account in "The Looming Tower," but an alert reader pointed out to us the more tangled history laid out in the 9/11 Commission report. We said flatly that Sudan had made such an offer. We have deleted our original answer and are posting this corrected version in its place.
– Joe Miller
"1996 CIA Memo to Sudanese Official." Washington Post, 3 Oct. 2001.
9/11 Commission. 9/11 Commission Report Notes. 21 Aug. 2004. 17 Jan. 2008.
9/11 Commission. "Chapter 4: Responses to al Qaeda’s Initial Assaults." 21 Aug. 2004. 9/11 Commission Report. 17 Jan. 2008.
NewsMax.com. "Berger Flashback: Hard Spin on Sudan Offer," 19 July 2004.
Clarke, Richard. Testimony before the House and Senate Intelligence Committee. Lindsey Graham, Chair. 11 June 2002.
Clinton, William. Speech to the Long Island Association. Long Island, NY, Feb. 2002.
Gellman, Barton. "U.S. Was Foiled Multiple Times in Efforts To Capture Bin Laden or Have Him Killed." Washington Post, 3 Oct. 2001.
U.S. Grand Jury Indictment Against Usama bin Laden. United States District Court: Southern District of New York. 6 Nov. 1998.
Wright, Lawrence. "The Looming Tower." New York: Vintage Books, 2006.