The White House Situation Room was buzzing. It was fall 1998 and the National Security Council (NSC) and the “intelligence community” were tracking the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, the shadowy mastermind of terrorist attacks on American targets overseas. “They’ve successfully triangulated his location,” yelled a “Sit Room” watch stander. “We’ve got him.”
Beneath the West Wing of the White House, behind a vaulted steel door, the Sit Room staff sprang into action. The watch officer notified National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, “Sir, we’ve located bin Laden. We have a two-hour window to strike.”
Characteristic of the Clinton administration, the weapons of choice would be Tomahawk missiles. No clandestine “snatch” by our Special Operations Forces. No penetrating bombers or highspeed fighter aircraft flown by our Air Force and Navy forces. No risk of losing American lives.
Berger ambled down the stairwell and entered the Sit Room. He picked up the phone at one of the busy controller consoles and called the president. Amazingly, President Clinton was not available. Berger tried again and again. Bin Laden was within striking distance. The window of opportunity was closing fast. The plan of attack was set and the Tomahawk crews were ready. For about an hour Berger couldn’t get the commander in chief on the line. Though the president was always accompanied by military aides and the Secret Service, he was somehow unavailable. Berger stalked the Sit Room, anxious and impatient.
Finally, the president accepted Berger’s call. There was discussion, there were pauses—and no decision. The president wanted to talk with his secretaries of defense and state. He wanted to study the issue further. Berger was forced to wait. The clock was ticking. The president eventually called back. He was still indecisive. He wanted more discussion. Berger alternated between phone calls and watching the clock. The NSC watch officer was convinced we had the right target. The intelligence sources were conclusive. The president, however, wanted a guaranteed hit or nothing at all. This time, it was nothing at all. We didn’t pull the trigger. We “studied” the issue until it was too late—the window of opportunity closed. Al-Qaeda’s spiritual and organizational leader slipped through the noose.
This lost bin Laden hit typified the Clinton administration’s ambivalent, indecisive way of dealing with terrorism. Ideologically, the Clinton administration was committed to the idea that most terrorists were misunderstood, had legitimate grievances, and could be appeased, which is why such military action as the administration authorized was so halfhearted, and ineffective, and designed more for “show” than for honestly eliminating a threat.
When on February 26, 1993, Egyptian and Palestinian terrorists blew a hole six stories deep under the North Tower of the World Trade Center, President Clinton had been in office thirty-eight days. Eight months after President Clinton left office, al-Qaeda terrorists flew hijacked U.S. commercial airliners into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon. The towers came down, as the terrorists finished the job begun eight years earlier. From 1993 to 2001, Islamic terrorists attacked American targets ten separate times. If there’s anything beyond scandal that we should most remember about the Clinton years, this is it: They were the years that terrorists brought their war to the United States.
The Clinton administration never responded decisively, even when given the opportunity, as it was obliged to do, with its own “war against terrorism.” If we had a national interest in sending troops to Haiti and Rwanda, certainly the Clinton administration had an obligation in the name of our national security to deploy and use the military resources necessary to deal with al-Qaeda as its deadly presence became known and its declared war on America became public and costly. That it did not respond is a consequence for which the Clinton administration is, in my view, extremely culpable. By failing to answer the threat as it should have, the Clinton administration was guilty of gross negligence and dereliction of duty to the safety of our country, which the president was sworn to defend.
Compare this with the decisive reactions to fight terrorism under President Reagan. On October 8, 1985, a group of Palestinian terrorists seized the Italian luxury liner Achille Lauro off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt. The terrorists were seeking the release of Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel. In the course of their hijacking, they would kill an American, sixty-nine-year-old Leon Klinghoffer.
The direction from the White House down to the Pentagon and on to the operational units was swift and clear. Within a few hours, I received a phone call at home, quickly packed for an unknown period of time and destination, and was flying a C-141 from Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, to pick up members of the First Special Forces Operational Detachment–Delta, as it was known then, or Delta Force.
We flew nonstop to Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily and set up operations for the potential interdiction and seizure of the ship. The rapidity and strength of executive decision-making found refuge in the heart of every airman and soldier involved. There was no question as to our intent or conviction.
The terrorists left the boat under safe haven provided by Egypt two days later and boarded an Egyptian airliner bound for the sanctity of Tunisia. On October 11, U. S. Navy F-14 jets intercepted the airliner and forced it to land at Sigonella. Members of the Delta Forced poured from a following C-141, surrounded the jet, and quickly took the terrorists into captivity. In all, three days from presidential directive to successful outcome.
In another instance, the La Belle Discotheque in West Berlin was bombed on April 5, 1986, killing one American soldier and wounding more than two hundred, of which at least sixty were fellow U.S. servicemen. Within hours, the U.S. pinpointed Libya as the perpetrator through intercepted telephone calls. Two days later, my crew and I got the call and began the long flight east. This time we were hauling the armaments, the missiles, and the rocket motors to be installed on U.S. fighters at bases in the United Kingdom. When we arrived, we were met by an already established twenty-four-hour base of operations. Again it was clear: Here was conviction and resolve. The plans were being laid out, and every airman knew the situation and embraced it.
On April 15, the U.S. launched air strikes at the heart of Libya. Eighteen U.S. Air Force F-111 aircraft launched from British attack sites in Tripoli, firing missiles at military barracks, headquarters, the Tripoli airport, and commando training bases. Fifteen U.S. Navy A-6 and A-7 attack jets hit military targets in Benghazi.
President Reagan addressed the nation. “Our evidence is direct, it is precise, and it is irrefutable. Today we have done what we had to do. If necessary, we shall do it again. . . . He [Muammar Qaddafi] counted on America to be passive,” declared the president. “He counted wrong.”
Compare these successes with the legacy of the Clinton administration. The truck bomb that exploded beneath the World Trade Center in early 1993 killed six Americans and injured more than one thousand. Initially, the Clinton administration adopted the theory that it was a simple criminal act and handled the bombing as a law enforcement issue. President Clinton even warned Americans against “overreacting.” In an interview with MTV he described the attack as having been perpetrated by someone who “did something really stupid.” In no way did the administration see this terrorist attack as rivaling in importance its preferred issues of “it’s the economy, stupid,” socializing health care, and lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military.
Treating the bombing solely as a law enforcement issue created barriers preventing an effective resolution. Laws protecting grand jury secrecy neutralized the involvement of the intelligence agencies, in effect obstructing the identification and pursuit of a growing international terror network. Further complicating things, the administration’s law enforcement team was not yet in place, because of the ill-organized and scandal-ridden selection process of President Clinton’s cabinet.
Foreboding clues emerged throughout the World Trade Center investigation, pointing to a larger, more complex conspiracy. Testifying to the House International Relations Committee in April 1995, terrorism expert Steven Emerson stated that there was evidence “pointing to the involvement of Usama bin Laden, the ex-Afghan Saudi Mujahideen supporter now taking refuge in the Sudan.”
Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who’d held three U.S. visas and was also on the State Department’s watch list for his involvement in the assassination of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, was eventually convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment as the ringleader of the bombing. The same fate was handed down to five of his associates.
More important, an ancestral tree of terrorism was emerging. Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, a master bomb builder, was captured in Pakistan on February 7, 1995. He was implicated in the first World Trade Center bombing and accused of planting the bomb that exploded aboard a Filipino commercial airliner en route to Japan in 1995. He was arrested with files connecting him to al-Qaeda and financing through bin Laden’s brother-in-law. Most significant, he was suspected of developing plans to use commercial airliners as weapons, specifically to blow up the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia, among other targets. Filipino intelligence sources had intercepted terrorist plans, which the terrorists had code-named Operation Bojinka, or “loud bang” in Serbo-Croatian. But this developing picture was not welcomed by the Clinton administration, which took a heavily lawyerly approach—as suited the backgrounds of most of the administration—toward these developments, rather than an approach more suitable to our national security.
The single event that would forever underscore Clinton’s foreign policy efforts occurred on October 3, 1993—the Black Hawk Down incident that pitted American forces against warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, the emerging power behind the guerrilla warfare being fought in and around Mogadishu. The Black Hawk Down military failure shaped and reinforced the president’s unfocused posturing involving military action abroad; his preferred means of operation was showing the flag while not incurring the risk or the cost of having to support actual combat. Clinton’s response four days after Mogadishu was to announce the withdrawal of American combat troops and most logistics units. He declared that the U.S. role in Somalia would end by March 31, 1994.
This was true, even when, in November 1996, bin Laden confessed in an interview with the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper to his role in the heavy losses suffered by U.S. troops in Somalia. “The only non-Somali group which fought the Americans are the Arab Mujahedeen who were in Afghanistan,” he said. “There were successful battles in which we inflicted heavy losses against the Americans. We used to hunt them in Mogadishu.”
On March 8, 1995, a seemingly minor news account provided additional clues. Two U.S. consulate workers were killed in Karachi, Pakistan. Their van, with diplomatic license plates, was sprayed with bullets from men armed with AK-47 assault rifles. Speculation pointed to retaliation for the arrest and extradition of Ramzi Yousef. Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto called it “part of a well-planned campaign of terrorism.” President Clinton called the attack a “cowardly act” and sent an FBI team to Pakistan to investigate. Again, the administration chose to treat the latest act of terrorism as a law enforcement issue.
By 1995, the administration was paying close attention to bin Laden. He was a millionaire, associated with known terrorist groups, and he had openly detailed his hostility toward the United States. At this point, bin Laden had yet to be tied to the attacks at the World Trade Center or in Mogadishu. The government of Sudan, in an effort to improve its diplomatic standing with America, offered to turn the terrorist-supporting bin Laden over to the Saudis, but the Saudis refused to accept him, and President Clinton felt that U.S. legal action against bin Laden was as yet unwarranted.
In November 1995, a bomb exploded near a U.S. military training center in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh. Seven people were killed, including five Americans, and forty were wounded. It was the deadliest such attack since the Beirut bombings of 1983.
President Clinton reacted angrily to the news. He promised that the United States would “devote an enormous effort” to bringing the attackers to justice. The FBI sent a team of agents to investigate, but the agents soon became bogged down in Saudi bureaucracy. The Saudis eventually arrested four militants but beheaded them before the FBI could interrogate them.
Seven months after the bombing in Riyadh, on June 25, 1996, a truck bomb exploded outside Khobar Towers, the U.S. Air Force barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Nineteen airmen lost their lives and 515 were wounded. “The explosion appears to be the work of terrorists, and if that is the case, like all Americans, I am outraged by it,” President Clinton declared. “We will pursue this. . . . America takes care of our own. The cowards who committed this murderous act must not go unpunished.”
One month into my White House job, on June 30, 1996, I traveled with President Clinton to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, to attend one of the memorial services held in a large aircraft hangar for twelve of the slain airmen. It was a hot, muggy Florida morning, and on the way to the service President Clinton seemed strangely detached. Maybe it was the jet-lagging flight back from Europe that he’d just had. To me, he just seemed unaffected and unmoved.
We wound our way through the crowded hangar normally used for aircraft maintenance but now festooned with stars and stripes bunting. Injured survivors from the blast had been flown in from the Gulf. They sat in wheelchairs or were laid on gurneys in front of the stage. President Clinton stepped to the podium. In the spotlight, he suddenly became engaged and driven.
He invoked the Bible in a way that touched me as a career Air Force officer and as a Christian. He said, “There is a passage in Isaiah in which God wonders, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Isaiah answers, ‘Here I am Lord; send me.’ These men we honor today said to America, ‘Send me.’” Clinton then declared, “We will not rest in our efforts to capture, prosecute, and punish those who committed this evil deed. . . . America must not, and America will not, be driven from the fight against terrorism.” I believed him.
But there was no immediate response. The FBI concluded that Iran was behind the attack; administration officials suppressed the report. In pursuit of secret diplomatic initiatives to restore ties with Iran that would ultimately fail, the United States turned the other cheek.
A full five years later, on June 21, 2001, a federal grand jury in Washington indicted thirteen Saudis and a Lebanese for taking part in the attack. None were turned over to the United States, and extradition still appears unlikely.
During the summer of the 1996 attacks, I myself learned firsthand that the administration knew that terrorists were plotting to use commercial airliners as weapons. The president received a Presidential Daily Brief, or PDB, every morning. It was a document encased in a smart leather folder, and emblazoned with the presidential seal, that contained the president’s daily intelligence update from the NSC. A senior NSC representative normally delivered it to the president. On weekends, at Camp David, and on vacations, the military aide was responsible for delivering and retrieving the brief.
One late-summer Saturday morning, the president asked me to pick up a few days’ worth of PDBs that had accumulated in the Oval Office. He gave them to me with handwritten notes stuffed inside the folders and asked that I deliver them back to the NSC.
I opened the PDB to rearrange the notes and noticed the heading “Operation Bojinka.” I keyed on a reference to a plot to use commercial airliners as weapons and another plot to put bombs on U.S. airliners. Because I was a pilot, this naturally grabbed my attention. I can state for a fact that this information was circulated within the U.S. intelligence community, and that in late 1996 the president was aware of it.
Shortly thereafter, the president appointed Vice President Gore to chair the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. The commission’s report, released in spring 1998, laid out several recommendations to improve airport security, one of which included establishing a system for profiling passengers. But the FAA chose not to comply, because of inevitable fears that profiling on the basis of ethnicity and national origin would run into legal grounds that would violate civil liberties. Another recommendation from the report emphasized the need for interagency cooperation—specifically, the sharing of information among the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Federal Aviation Administration—on suspected terrorists. Tragically, the findings were never implemented by the agencies involved.
On August 7, 1998, truck bombs exploded at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Two hundred and twenty-four people were killed, twelve of them Americans. More than five thousand were injured. President Clinton responded, “We will use all the means at our disposal to bring those responsible to justice, no matter what or how long it takes. . . . We are determined to get answers and justice.”
It was crystal clear that these attacks were tied to bin Laden. On August 20, the president ordered a retaliatory strike. Five U.S. warships in the Arabian Sea fired sixty Tomahawk cruise missiles at four suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan known to be used by bin Laden and his senior staff. From the Red Sea, two Navy warships fired another twenty missiles at the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant, in Sudan, suspected of manufacturing chemical weapons.
The attack on bin Laden failed. He escaped the missiles and was able to enjoy his safety as a guest of Afghanistan’s Taliban government. The success of the attack on the pharmaceutical factory was less clear. Intelligence officials had provided evidence that the plant could have been used for the development of VX nerve gas. At best, the strikes were a message; at worst, they were ineffective and insignificant.
In the wake of the retaliatory strikes, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright noted, “I think it’s important for the American people to understand that we are involved in a long-term struggle. This is, unfortunately, the war of the future.” But it was obvious to me that the Clinton administration went right back to business as usual; there was no follow-up, let alone any “war on terror.”
Two years later, on October 12, 2000, the final act of terrorism during the Clinton presidency occurred. Seventeen American sailors were killed and thirty-nine wounded off the coast of Yemen when terrorists floated a bomb-laden boat to the edge of the USS Cole and detonated it. Clinton’s response was muted. He called the attack “a despicable and cowardly act” and added, “We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable.” As in the embassy bombings, investigators quickly linked responsibility to bin Laden and his network, yet nothing more substantial was done.
In his eight years in office, President Clinton’s military response to the terrorist threats was negligible and did nothing to seriously address the problem, instead following a de facto course of drift, which allowed the terrorist network to grow in size and strength. The problem within the administration was, again, a complete and total blindness to the proper use of the military. Terrorism was, as I’ve said, treated as a law enforcement issue, and in that context, as a budgetary issue, it was addressed.
President Clinton tripled the budget for counterterrorism and established a cross-agency counterterrorism center. Terrorism “was absolutely a top priority for the Clinton administration. Not a day went by that we did not focus on this, and it was high on the president’s list, too,” claimed former national security advisor Sandy Berger. Maybe, but President Clinton never began, much less finished, a war on terrorism, because he never thought in terms of prosecuting a military campaign against terrorism, and he underestimated the rapidly evolving threat until it was too late.
As ever with President Clinton, it was domestic politics that “wagged the dog.” He did not want a war against terrorism as a focal point in his new administration, so he downplayed the first World Trade Center bombing. Later, the focal points were reelection or scandal management. Never in my experience at the Clinton White House were national security and a systematic campaign against terrorism a Clinton administration priority. And as an officer, I was shocked, because I had assumed that there was not a higher responsibility or priority for the commander in chief than the security of the nation. President Clinton proved my assumption was completely wrong.