Tuesday, former Secretary of State for the Bill Clinton Administration Madeleine Albright appeared before the 9/11 Commission in a public hearing on the Hill. One of the things we learned in this hearing was that in 1998 and 1999 three military acts against Al Qaeda were thwarted because of incomplete or faulty intelligence.
We also were informed through a Commission report that in 1998 President Clinton issued an order that, according to the Washington Times, “minimized the use of military forces to go after Al Qaeda in favor of law enforcement and diplomacy that ultimately failed.”
Madeleine (“Madam”) Albright’s appearance was supposed to be an opportunity for the Commission and, just as importantly, the public to get better information about how the Executive Branch handled potential threats and sources of terrorism prior to September 11, 2001. Albright saw her testimony as less of a chance to give important information about how the Clinton Administration dealt with terrorists and more of a chance to help clean up the Clinton legacy.
Here are just a few of her statements attempting to let people know how tough President Clinton’s White House was, or at least wanted to be:
- I can say with confidence that President Clinton and his team did everything we could — everything we could think of — based on the knowledge, we had to protect our people and disrupt and defeat Al Qaeda.
We certainly recognized the threat posed by the terrorist groups.
- As early as 1995, President Clinton said that, and I quote, “Our generation’s enemies are the terrorists who kill children or turn them into orphans.”
The president repeatedly told the United Nations that combating terrorism topped America’s agenda and should top theirs. He urged every nation to deny sanctuary to terrorists and to cooperate in bringing them to justice.
- I fully embraced an aggressive policy before and especially after August 7th, 1998, when terrorist explosions struck our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. This was my worst day as secretary of state.
Within a week, we had clear evidence that Osama bin Laden was responsible. The question for us was whether to rely on law enforcement or take military action. We decided to do both.
- To use force effectively, we placed war ships equipped with cruise missiles on call in the Arabian Sea. We also studied the possibility of sending a U.S. special forces team into Afghanistan to try and snatch bin Laden.
- I think that we were operating within an atmosphere where we were watching all kinds of potential attacks, and, in fact, foiled a number of them in the years that we were in office. I, kind of, call them the dogs that didn’t bite or bark, because people didn’t hear about them.
So, I think that we were always on the lookout, which is why I said I wasn’t surprised, because we knew that there were a variety of attacks possible and we foiled some.
In various briefings, we were told that there were all kinds of ways to do things: car bombs or suitcases or bio or chemical. And among the various parts of what we were briefed, there would be sometimes a mention of an airplane.
But basically, we were looking at all kinds of potential ways that there could be attacks. And so the sadness of this was that we were always on the lookout for some terrible thing, and we were foiling many, many of the potential attacks.
- . . . we were mostly accused of overreacting, not underreacting. And I believe we reacted appropriately, and as I said earlier, we would have acted more had we had actionable intelligence.
- President Clinton had ordered that lethal force be used [against Al Qaeda and the Taliban]. There were armed submarines in the Arabian Sea and a variety — bombers on standby and ready to go so that — the orders were there.
The president also asked for a variety of options from the Pentagon in terms of special forces, a variety of — as far as I know, there was no option off the table and that there were questions about the Pentagon saying that these were not viable.
You will have Secretary Cohen here and you can ask him these questions. But I do know that from the perspective of one of the members of the principals’ committee, I, as secretary of state, can assure you that the president asked for a variety of military options.
And so, I, again, think that you have — from my perspective, the Pentagon did not come forward with viable options in response to what the president was asking for.
- . . . it was very hard to get congressional support for military action. We had a hard time in various other areas, whether it was supporting peacekeeping operations or generally in terms of trying to get support because I think there was a whole question about how serious this all was, despite the fact that I think we made many statements to the effect, as I said, President Clinton and Ambassador Pickering and I, and Sandy Berger and Secretary Cohen spoke very often about the continuing danger of terrorism.
- Former Sen. Slade Gorton (R.-Wash.): So at least during probably the year 2000, if not earlier, and 2001, up to 9/11, a rational Al Qaeda could determine that terrorism was essentially cost-free, or only at a cost so modest that it was well worthwhile?
Albright: I don’t believe that actually.
I think that if you look at what we were doing, we were on an upward trajectory of ramping up our dealing with terrorist activities, whether it was putting the infrastructure into place that the Bush administration is using on tracking finances, on trying to get more money into the CIA, of developing counterterrorism centers and activities. So I think, no.
I mean, it’s hard for me to get inside the head of Al Qaeda, but no, I do not think they must have thought it was cost-free.
- I can only talk about what we did and that is that it was constantly on our minds, that President Clinton spoke about it all the time privately in meetings to foreign leaders, as well as publicly — that we did, in fact, create the national security system that allowed somebody like Dick Clarke in the job of being the coordinator, and that I think our record in dealing with this is one that established a variety of policies that I think were on the way toward helping us fight terrorism.
One of the items Albright and the Clintonites prided themselves on was their use of diplomacy. Having listened to Albright’s assessment of the Administration’s use of diplomacy, I’m not so sure it’s something she should remember with a real sense of pride — at least not with regard to getting a handle on the Taliban and Al Qaeda (or North Korea, for that matter).
- Even as we took protective measures and looked for ways to use force effectively, we pressed ahead diplomatically. Shortly after our cruise missile strikes, the Taliban called the State Department to complain. This led to a prolonged dialogue during which we repeatedly pushed for custody of bin Laden.
The Taliban replied by offering a menu of excuses. They said that surrendering bin Laden would violate their cultural tradition of hospitality and that they would be overthrown by their own people if they yielded bin Laden in response to U.S. pressure. Perhaps, they said, bin Laden will leave voluntarily. At one point they told us he had already gone.
In any case, we were assured that bin Laden was under house arrest. That was a lie, since he continued to show up in the media threatening Americans.
In 1999, we developed a new strategy aimed at pulling all the diplomatic levers we had simultaneously. We went to each of the countries we thought had influence with the Taliban and asked them to use that influence to help us get bin Laden.
One such country was Pakistan, whose leaders were reluctant to apply real pressure to the Taliban because it would alienate radicals within their own borders.
There was a limit to the incentives we could offer to overcome this reluctance. Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998 had triggered one set of sanctions; a military coup in 1999 triggered more.
Nevertheless, in our discussions with Pakistani leaders we were blunt. We told them that, “Bin Laden is a murderer who plans to kill again. We need your help in bringing him to justice.”
Our ambassador delivered this message, so did Tom Pickering. So did I. So did the president of the United States.
In return, we received promises but no decisive action. We couldn’t offer enough to persuade Pakistani leaders, such as General Musharraf, to run the risks that would have been necessary.
It was not until September 11th that Musharraf had the motivation in his own mind to provide real cooperation. And even that has not yet resulted in bin Laden’s capture, though it apparently has led to several attempts on Musharraf’s life.
The other two countries we went to were Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and both agreed to deliver the right message. The Saudis sent one of their princes to confront the Taliban directly. And he came back and told us the Taliban were “idiots and liars.”
The Saudis then downgraded diplomatic ties with the Taliban, cut off official assistance and denied visas to Afghans traveling for non- religious reasons. And the UAE did the same. Our diplomats, including Ambassador Pickering, also met directly with Taliban leaders.
We told them that if we did not get bin Laden, we would impose sanctions both bilaterally and through the U.N., which we did. We also warned them clearly and repeatedly that they would be held accountable for any future attacks traceable to Al Qaeda.
In retrospect, we know that the Taliban and bin Laden had a symbiotic relationship. The Taliban needed the money and muscle Al Qaeda provided; bin Laden needed space for his operatives to live and train. And there was never a real chance the Taliban would turn bin Laden over to us or to anybody else.
The best part of Albright’s appearance was her back-and-forth with former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D.-Neb.). It appears that Kerrey is one of the Democrats who “gets it.”
- Kerrey: Madam Secretary, first of all, it’s very nice to see you again.
It seems to me during the Clinton administration there were two big mistakes and I wonder if you’d comment on them.
The first is that from 1993 through 2001, the United States of America was either attacked or we prevented attack by radical Islamists close to a dozen times, either where the attack was successful or whether we interrupted the attack. And that during that period of time, not only did we not engage in any single military attack other than the 20th of August 1998 — there was no attack against Al Qaeda during that entire period of time.
Indeed, the presidential directive that was — the operative one of 62, that was written and signed in May of 1998, didn’t give the military primary authority in counterterrorism. They were still responsible for supporting the states and local governments if we were attacked and they were still providing support for the Department of Justice and doing investigations.
And it seems to me especially — you cited the ’93 case with Iraq, the bombing of Iraq — it seems to me that that was a terrible mistake. Indeed, the commission has seen evidence that people at lower levels of the Department of Defense and Dick Clarke himself were preparing analyses suggesting more aggressive military efforts and it went nowhere. So that’s mistake number one that I think was a big one.
And the second one was after we had reason to believe that the Saudis were financing terrorists who were at least indirectly connected, if not directly connected, with killing Americans on the 7th of August 1998, that we didn’t threaten to freeze their assets or actually freeze their assets; something that my guess is would have a dramatic impact on the kingdom’s willingness to continue to behave in that fashion.
So those are the two mistakes that I think were made during the Clinton administration. The first one, I think, is a really large one. Honestly, I don’t understand if we’re attacked and attacked and attacked and attacked, why we continue to send the FBI over like the Khobar Towers was a crime scene or the East African embassy bombings was a crime scene.
You said we had balance between military effort and diplomacy. And frankly, I’ve got to say, it seems to me it was very unbalanced in favor of diplomacy against military efforts.
Albright: [I]t is very difficult to assess what the targets would have been. And in many cases, some of the linkages that have been made now were not evident at the particular time. And to bomb at random or use military force I think would have created a situation that would have made our lives, American lives, even more difficult within the Muslim world.
These are judgments that have to be made. And I think I’m known well enough inside and outside the government as somebody who was always willing to match diplomacy with force.
And so, I do believe that we used force when it was appropriate, and strongly. So I think that…
Kerrey: Madam Secretary, with great respect, after August of ’98 you and I both know what we did.
We led the North Atlantic alliance to an effort against Kosovo and that was the choice that was made; that was the threat that was considered to be the most important. And we used a military force against Belgrade.
I think it’s a straw man to say that we’re going to have random bombing or indiscriminate bombing. That’s not what we’re proposing at all.
I keep hearing the excuse we didn’t have actionable intelligence. Well, what the hell does that say to Al Qaeda? Basically, they knew — beginning in 1993 it seems to me — that there was going to be limited, if any, use of military and that they were relatively free to do whatever they wanted.
Albright: Senator, there never — as far as I know — was a discussion as to whether there was a choice between using force in the Balkans and using force against Al Qaeda. That was not a choice that ever was discussed or made. It was not one or the other.
And I think that the executive orders that President Clinton put out about using lethal force against Osama bin Laden, everything that we did in terms of the structure that we put together to freeze various assets and to go after them with every conceivable tool that we had — you, Senator, I know, were the only person that I know of who suggested declaring war. In retrospect, you were probably right.
But we used every single tool we had in terms of trying to figure out what the right targets would be and how to go about dealing with what we knew to be a major threat.
And I reviewed it, and I am satisfied that we did what we could given the intelligence that we had and pre-9/11, if I might say. We have to keep being reminded of that, because there were whole questions — as Secretary Lehman said — that we overreacted, not the other way around.