Was Terrorism Really a Top Priority?

Condoleezza Rice faces not just the 9/11 commission today but the specter of Richard Clarke, the disgruntled former National Security Council terrorism expert who did his best to undermine the credibility of his former boss when he testified before the commission on March 24. The main thrust of Clarke’s testimony was that Rice and the entire Bush team were insufficiently attentive to terrorism as an imminent threat because they were focused on other things, especially Iraq. And the media played right along, parroting Clarke’s criticism with front-page news stories questioning Rice’s pre-9/11 judgment, like this one in The Washington Post: “Top Focus Before 9/11 Wasn’t on Terrorism; Rice Speech Cited Missile Defense.” Or this in The New York Times: “New to the Job, Rice Focused On More Traditional Threats.”

That criticism from Clarke might have been more persuasive had he been equally hard on the Clinton Administration, for which he worked for eight years. But, no, he gave Clinton and the whole national security team high marks, saying, “My impression was that fighting terrorism in general, and fighting al Qaeda in particular, were an extraordinarily high priority in the Clinton Administration, certainly no higher a priority. There were priorities probably of equal importance, such as the Middle East peace process, but I certainly don’t know of one that was any higher in the priority of that administration.”

Funny, I don’t remember the Clinton years that way — but then maybe my mind is clouded by the disease so common to active partisans, selective memory. So I decided to do a little research to see how the media portrayed the Clinton Administration’s priorities at the time.

Using Nexis, the exhaustive data bank of newspaper articles, magazine pieces, and radio and TV transcripts, I looked back over eight years of stories in which Rice’s predecessors in the Clinton Administration, Anthony Lake and Samuel Berger, were mentioned in stories that also included references to terrorism or Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda, to see whether they were out sounding the alarm on these threats.

During the entire Clinton Administration’s tenure, only 278 stories appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, or Chicago Tribune, which cited these officials in stories that also mentioned either terrorism (271), bin Laden (71), or al Qaeda (4). Most of the mentions of terrorism, however, referred to attacks against Israel or other non-U.S. targets. And few of the stories even suggest that the Clinton Administration made fighting terrorism its top priority.

President Clinton did give a major speech to the United Nations in September 1998, in which he said that fighting terrorism was “at the top of the U.S. agenda.” But as The New York Times noted in its coverage, “if he looked preoccupied, which he did, it was because he was in the awkward position of addressing the United Nations at the same time that a videotape of his testimony to a grand jury investigating the Monica Lewinsky matter was playing on television screens and computer monitors around the world. Some television banks here were playing his speech and the videotape at once.” Moreover, noted the Times, “Mr. Clinton did not advance American policy against terrorism in any new direction. . . .”

Although several terrorist attacks against Americans occurred during Clinton’s tenure — most notably the first World Trade Center bombing, the bombing of a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia, the bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa, and the attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen — the military response was spotty at best, consisting of a few cruise missiles launched at an abandoned training camp in Afghanistan and a chemical plant in Sudan.

But it isn’t just that the Clinton Administration didn’t do very much to strike back at terrorists, Clinton??¢â???¬â???¢s National Security advisers weren’t all that outspoken on the issue either. In 1996, for example, Anthony Lake gave a major speech to the Chicago Foreign Relations Council, entitled “Laying the Foundation for a Post-Cold War World: National Security in the 21st Century.” In it, Lake mentions terrorism, almost in passing, as a modern threat, along with drug trafficking and managing environmental disaster. The foreign policy crises he described as “the most urgent” were “repression in Haiti, the war in Bosnia and the containment of Iraq.”

The truth is, no one — not George W. Bush or Condoleezza Rice, and certainly not Bill Clinton or his advisers — fully understood how grave a threat al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and other Islamist terrorists posed to America until September 11, 2001. We know now, and the true test of leadership is how our leaders responded once the terrorists struck. And here both Bush and Rice look pretty good compared with their predecessors, Richard Clarke’s revisionist history notwithstanding.