The American Enterprise Magazine | 6.1.04
By Alan W. Dowd

The public postmortem conducted by the national 9/11 commission has been full of ironic twists. Take the commission’s finding that U.S. intelligence assets had Osama bin Laden in their sights on at least three separate occasions during the Clinton presidency (not to mention an offer from the Sudan to snatch the terror mastermind) but were prevented from acting by higher-ups.

In 1999, U.S. teams were actually ordered to hold their fire because administration officials worried that an Arab dignitary on a hunting trip in the vicinity of bin Laden might be harmed. According to 9/11 commission staff, CIA officials still call this the “lost opportunity to kill bin Laden before 9/11.”

It’s odd that the welfare of someone vacationing near a terrorist was enough to dissuade the Clintonites from acting. And it’s especially odd that Richard Clarke—who now parades himself as a spurned prophet, and sanctimoniously blames his successors for not acting more forcefully against bin Laden—was at the very center that decision. For it was Clarke himself who convinced his bosses to scrub the 1999 attack by warning about the proximity of Arab officials to bin Laden.

Perhaps mindful of his role in squandering that opportunity, Clarke later recommended, after the USS Cole attack, that President Clinton “bomb all of the Taliban and al-Qaeda infrastructure.” Of course, that didn’t happen—until Bill Clinton was out of office. Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright explained to the commission that “to bomb at random or use military force would have made our lives more difficult inside the Islamic world.” Of course, the decision not to bomb made quite an impact inside our own world—not to mention a hole in the Manhattan skyline.

Referring to the refusal to attack bin Laden at his hunting lodge, 9/11 commissioner Bob Kerrey says, “We had a round in our chamber and we didn’t use it.” Other commissioners joined Kerrey in questioning why no American officials took the kind of action that might have prevented the September 11 attacks.

Of course, that sounds a lot like preemption—a dirty word in some quarters these days. If preemption would have been appropriate to forestall bin Laden’s September 11 massacres, it was also appropriate to prevent Saddam Hussein from trying to top bin Laden somewhere down the road.

“The United States will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons,” President Bush declared in 2002. “As a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed”—which is exactly what Bush did in Iraq, and Clinton didn’t do in Afghanistan and Sudan.

Yet Clarke and some of the Democrats on the 9/11 commission have tried to use the hearings to shift the blame onto Bush for not achieving in eight months what Clinton failed to attempt in eight years. Clarke insisted that during the Clinton presidency there was “no higher priority” than fighting terrorism and especially al-Qaeda. The historical facts argue otherwise:

* In 1993, Islamic terrorists threw their first blows at the TwinTowers, killing six Americans and injuring 1,000. The Clinton administration responded with indictments.

* In 1996, a truck bomb in Saudi Arabia claimed 19 U.S. airmen and injured 200. Clinton responded with indictments.

* In 1998, terrorists bombed a pair of American embassies in East Africa, murdering 224 civilians and injuring more than 5,000. Clinton responded with an impotent volley of cruise missiles and an indictment of bin Laden.

* Finally, in October 2000, terrorists used a rubber boat to blast a hole in the Cole, killing 17 sailors. The Clinton team responded by sending FBI officials (not troops) to Yemen.

Clinton’s counterterror policies, which were reactive rather than preemptive, and premised on law enforcement rather than military action, bear no resemblance to Bush’s.

In the words of Commissioner Kerrey, al Qaeda “knew—beginning in 1993, it seems to me—that there was going to be limited, if any, use of the military and that they were relatively free to do whatever they wanted.”

It was politicians like Bill Clinton, and policymakers like Richard Clarke, Madeleine Albright, and Jamie Gorelick (who did her best as part of the Clinton Justice Department to handcuff law enforcement officials at all levels, yet now broadcasts sanctimony as a 9/11 commission member) who constrained our intelligence and military forces from killing bin Laden. And now they’re casting blame to divert attention their own misjudgments.