Clinton's National Security Legacy

Most Americans first heard of Osama bin Laden only on Sept. 11, 2001. The spectacular works of evil he perpetrated on that day, however, were by no means his first strikes. In 1998, the terrorist mastermind was able to boast that “the U.S. knows that I have attacked it, by the grace of God, for more than ten years.” During those years, Richard Miniter documents in Losing bin Laden (published by Regnery, a sister company of HUMAN EVENTS), Bill Clinton had no fewer than twelve chances to catch him. But the attacks that bin Laden helped bring to bloody fruition—including the 1993 strike against the World Trade Center (which Clinton initially refused to believe was a bombing at all), the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, and others, large and small, around the world—instead met primarily with indifference, inaction, and impotence from the Clinton Administration. But not only did Clinton fail to catch bin Laden. He also rebuffed the Sudanese government’s offers to capture him, decided that non-retaliation was the best response to the Cole attacks, and hampered in numerous ways FBI and CIA efforts to meet the terrorist challenge. Even his impotent and self-serving missile strikes against Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan were less effective than they could have been because Clinton acted on faulty and incomplete intelligence. He even gave away the element of surprise for his 1998 missile attack on Afghanistan by giving advance notice to the Pakistani government—a hotbed of jihadists and bin Laden sympathizers. Worst of all was the cumulative effect of his failure to act: in a real sense, Bill Clinton created Osama bin Laden. Every time the Muslim radical would strike at the U.S. and meet with a weak response, Osama’s prestige in the Islamic world would grow. Clinton’s pathetic addition to polling data—and the many distractions of his scandals—ended up building Osama’s reputation, bankroll, and roster of recruits. In researching this book, Miniter spoke in depth and on the record with numerous high profile Clinton Administration figures: Clinton confidant Dick Morris; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; both National Security Advisors, Tony Lake and Sandy Berger; counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke; CIA directors James Woolsey and George Tenet; and many more—including several CIA station chiefs, the former U.S. Ambassador to Sudan, and numerous others who witnessed Clinton’s failures up close, and were unafraid to go on the record about them. In the course of his interviews and investigations Miniter lays to rest the hoary myth that the CIA funded bin Laden’s operations against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the 1980s, he argues persuasively, few in the CIA had even heard of bin Laden—and the hard evidence of a money trail of any kind simply isn’t there. Miniter also turns up a great deal that is new—notably, the sheer number of chances that Clinton had to get bin Laden, and all the help he was offered to do so by foreign governments. Even the Saudi government, Miniter recounts, tried to have bin Laden killed in 1994, but they succeeded only in exponentially increasing Osama’s hatred for the House of Saud and its patron, the United States. High-placed officials in the United Arab Emirates made another foray in 2000, putting out backchannel feelers to the Clinton Administration about being willing to help capture bin Laden. All the UAE wanted in return was a state visit by Clinton, or even simply a phone call to Sheikh Zayed, asking for his help against Osama. Clinton aides were leery. One reason why? “Clinton had a full fundraising schedule for the 2000 Gore presidential campaign.” In 1999, Afghanistan Northern Alliance forces came very close to killing bin Laden with a bomb: the vehicle behind the terrorist chief’s was destroyed. What was the reaction from the U.S.? Northern Alliance intelligence official Amrullah Saleh “received a lecture on the laws of war—and was sternly told not to do it again.” Appalling story follows appalling story. Early in his tenure, Clinton let a CIA request for money to hire Arabic translators die of indifference. Did the CIA need the translators? It certainly did when transcripts of Osama’s phone calls were obtained—and lay unexamined for lack of translators. This crucial blunder, says Miniter, “kept America blind and deaf as bin Laden plotted.” Meanwhile, one of the chief “experts” to which Clinton’s CIA and FBI turned for information about Osama and other terrorists, an Egyptian and naturalized U.S. citizen named Ali Mohammed, was a double agent who passed on top secret Army documents to the terrorists. The sheer amount of information that Miniter presents is astonishing: photos of Osama’s operations in Sudan and elsewhere, revealing documents, and more. He even details how an unmanned reconnaissance plane, the Predator, sighted bin Laden not once, but three times—but each time, “there were no U.S. military ‘assets’ in place to strike him.” Yet this was in August 2000, when Osama’s jihad against the United States had now continued for twelve years. Here also is a Holy Grail of modern politics: evidence of links between Iraq and Al-Qaeda. According to Miniter, this evidence that was largely available during the Clinton years—but those were the years, says Miniter, when “some of America’s antiterrorist units suffered from the lowest ebb of morale since the 1970s.” Miniter also reveals that Osama had a hand in the downing of the Black Hawk helicopters in Somalia. Clinton, as usual, privately raged and shifted blame, but in this crisis (as throughout his tenure) he was intellectually handcuffed by the liberals’ guiding myth of foreign policy: all foreign initiatives are potential Vietnams. Americans, he told George Stephanopoulos, are “basically isolationist.” Characteristically, he concentrated not on retaliation against the terrorists, but on spin: he ordered classified grisly reconnaissance footage of the battle in Somalia, and even sent a White House press officer, in helmet and flak jacket, to Mogadishu to try (in vain) to paint a more positive picture of the events. Miniter points out that even in the face of all this, the popular notion that the Clinton Administration did nothing to respond to the global terrorist threat is a myth. On occasion Clinton did act, but feebly. Miniter also points out that “the hardworking street-level agents of the FBI, the CIA, and other counterterrorism agencies deserve credit for their work during the Clinton years,” and if Presidents must take the blame for bureaucratic blunders that happen on their watch, so they must be given credit for the positive achievements of their underlings. Fair enough. But the overwhelming record of this book is that Clinton’s efforts to stop terrorism were sporadic and half-hearted at best—and that the destruction of the World Trade Center and the damage to the Pentagon must be laid at his feet. Losing bin Laden is extraordinarily disturbing and exceptionally important, and not just for the body blow it deals to Bill Clinton’s continuing attempts to burnish his legacy and avoid the harsh judgment of history that is certain to come to him. It is also, in a certain sense, a primer for elected officials and bureaucrats—of what they must not let happen again if our nation is to be safe.