- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 6, 2001

It was good to see George W. Bush's predecessor rallying with the rest of America to support the commander in chief in these tense times, but we do wish Bill Clinton would avoid discussing issues of national security. Loose lips still sink ships, and they can also down airplanes and destroy tall buildings.

When the former president was asked about a report that he had authorized an attempt to take out Osama bin Laden after American embassies were destroyed in Kenya and Tanzania back in 1998, Mr. Clinton not only confirmed the report, but couldn't resist the temptation to present his administration's record in the best light.

It's a record he might not want to shine too much light on. Because as president, he mainly only talked against terrorism. ("America will never tolerate terrorism. Defeating these organized forces of destruction is one of the most important challenges our country faces.") The talk was never matched by policy at least not a determined, focused, consistent policy. To call it a weak policy would be to overstate its strength; it was showy but pitiful.

To quote Paul Bremer, who chaired the National Commission on Terrorism back in the '90s: "The Clinton administration basically had a very episodic approach to fighting terrorism. And then it acted essentially in a feckless fashion, particularly in 1998 when Clinton used words about a long war and his action was to send a couple of cruise missiles to destroy a couple of mud huts in Afghanistan." He also blew up an empty factory in Khartoum. The plant was supposed to be connected with Osama bin Laden, but in the end the Clinton administration didn't even contest the owner's claims when he came for his assets in court.

As The New York Times' Michael Gordon pointed out, there was no risk to American personnel in this kind of long-distance war against terrorism, but there was little risk to the terrorists, either.

"We did what we thought we could," Bill Clinton now tells NBC. "I made it clear that we should take all necessary action to try to apprehend [Osama bin Laden] and get him. We never had another chance where the intelligence was as reliable to justify military action."

Rather than make excuses, a simple No Comment would have sufficed. Indeed, it would have shown an appropriate modesty on the part of a former president who, when it comes to terrorism, has much to be modest about. That becomes clear when one reviews the low points of the Clinton administration's war on terrorism, which wasn't much of one. The Clinton crew dropped the ball from the beginning, when one of its first decisions was to downgrade the State Department's office of counterterrorism.

The Clinton administration also responded to Saddam Hussein's attempt to assassinate President George Bush with a barrage of cruise missiles. They hit the headquarters of Saddam's intelligence agency in the middle of the night. (When it came to bombing terrorists, this commander in chief was Hell on empty buildings.)

Barred from running for president again, Bill Clinton seems to be running for ex-president, burnishing his record whenever he can and sometimes just inventing it. He would do better to follow Jimmy Carter's example by simply doing good deeds; Mr. Carter has been so exemplary at it that a lot of us have just about forgotten his failed presidency.

Let it be noted that Congress did pass some strong and needed legislation against terrorist organizations during the '90s, but often enough over the Clinton administration's opposition. Unfortunately, that administration then failed to enforce those laws with anything like consistent rigor. It played up to terrorist regimes like Iran's and made excuses for Yasser Arafat even after the Palestinian leader had unleashed his bomb-throwers. A month after Camp David had collapsed, the Pollyannas in the Clinton White House were still looking for ways to appease the man who had resurrected terrorism as an instrument of policy in the Middle East.

But the most telling action Bill Clinton took against terrorists, or rather for them, was to offer clemency to 16 convicted Puerto Rican bombers, part of the group that had waged a nine-year war in Puerto Rico and on the mainland. Their toll: six killed and 70 wounded in more than 70 bombings. In offering these terrorists clemency, Bill Clinton overruled the recommendations of his FBI director (which he did with some regularity) and various law enforcement officers. That he chose to confer clemency on this homicidal bunch while his spouse was angling for Puerto Rican votes in New York's Senate race only added to the injury and insult.

George W. Bush can also be criticized for the state of the country's defenses against terrorism during his brief months in the Oval Office before Sept. 11, 2001. But he doesn't ask for it by trying to defend his record. Since Sept. 11, he has had other things to do, and has been doing them rather well. He's been too busy and too focused to make excuses for what went before an omission that would become another president just now. Save it for your memoirs, Bill.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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