American Enterprise Online | 4.6.04
By Alan Dowd

Like September 11 itself, the public postmortem carried out by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States is full of strange and often ironic subplots.

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 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 a UAE dignitary might be harmed. It's odd that the health and welfare of some UAE official in close proximity to a person with American blood on his hands tilted the balance against action.

But reflecting the caution of those halcyon days when the Arab League stood with us, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reminded the Commission that "to bomb at random or use military force would have made our lives [as Americans] more difficult inside the Islamic world."

Of course, not to bomb (randomly or otherwise) made quite an impact inside our own world. Just take a look at the hole in the Manhattan skyline. As Commissioner Bob Kerrey, who sounded early warnings over al-Qaeda during his Senate tenure, concluded, "We had a round in our chamber and we didn't use it." Other Commissioners joined Kerrey in questioning why neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush took the kind of action that might have prevented or at least disrupted the September 11 attacks.

I may be wrong, but that sounds a lot like preemption--a dirty word in some quarters these days. If preemption was 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. After all, Saddam also had motive and means to do so.

For Bush and many other Americans, continuing the status quo would invite something much worse than September 11. "The United States will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," the President 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.

To borrow a phrase, Bush didn't leave a round in the chamber. Love it or hate it, Bush's counterterrorism policy bears no resemblance to Clinton's, which was reactive rather than preemptive, and premised on law enforcement rather than military action. But that matters little to terrorism specialist Richard Clarke. Rather than giving credit (and criticism) where it is due, he used the hearings to shift most of the blame onto Bush for not achieving in eight months what Clinton failed to attempt in eight years.

According to Clarke, the Bush administration regarded terrorism as "an important issue but not an urgent issue." Conversely, in Clarke's view, there was "no higher priority" than fighting terrorism and especially al-Qaeda during the Clinton presidency. Doubtless, that was true for Clarke, a national-security professional whose resume dates back to the Reagan administration. It may have even appeared to him from his perch in the White House that the rest of Mr. Clinton's staff was equally committed to waging a war on terror. But the historical record and our own memories paint a different picture:

In 1993, Islamic terrorists threw their first blows at the Twin Towers, killing six Americans and injuring 1,000. The Clinton administration responded with indictments and prosecutions. In 1996, a truck bomb exploded outside the U.S. military's Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. The blast claimed 19 airmen and injured 200. Clinton responded with indictments and deportations. 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, an indictment of bin Laden, and a $5-million bounty. Finally, in October 2000, terrorists used a rubber boat to blast a hole in the USS Cole, killing 17 sailors. The Clinton team responded not by sending troops into Yemen, but FBI agents.

According to former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, "There could not have been any doubt about what President Clinton's intent was after he fired 60 Tomahawk missiles at bin Laden." Actually, there was, at least in bin Laden's mind. By relying on high-tech, stand-off weaponry, the attacks only served to reinforce his mistaken notion that America didn't have the stomach to fight him on the battlefield. As Kerrey concludes, "Basically, they 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."

Speaking for many of us, Kerrey still cannot comprehend why the Clinton administration was insistent on treating Yemen, East Africa, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda's other targets like "crime scenes" rather than what they were and are--battlefields.

To be fair, 9/11 is not solely Clinton's fault. But if al-Qaeda was planning it as far back as 1998, as intelligence experts contend, nor is it solely Bush's fault. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations were trapped in a conundrum by al-Qaeda's postmodern war: Because of the diffuse nature of al-Qaeda, a preemptive strike, even one that decapitated the terror superpower, probably wouldn't have prevented the attacks on Manhattan and Washington. In fact, after taking such action, the odds are that 9/11 would have been blamed on America's itchy trigger finger. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it, "Ironically, much of the world, in all likelihood, would have blamed September 11 on the U.S. as an al-Qaeda retaliation for the U.S. provocation of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden."

Moreover, if intelligence agencies had bin Laden in their sights but were constrained from nabbing or killing him, then the intelligence community's share of the blame is far less than that of the policymaking community. Before he took to writing, Clarke was a member of the policymaking community; and his own testimony serves as a reminder that making policy is far easier than executing it. In fact, it was Clarke himself who warned about the proximity of UAE officials to bin Laden and convinced his bosses to scrub the 1999 attack. According to Philip Zelikow, staff director for the 9/11 commission, senior CIA officials still cite this as the "lost opportunity to kill bin Laden before 9/11."

After the Cole attack in fall 2000, perhaps mindful of that missed opportunity, Clarke recommended to President Clinton "that we bomb all of the Taliban and al-Qaeda infrastructure." Of course, that didn't happen--until fall 2001, after September 11.

What was that about "no higher priority"?