Bill Clinton’s failure on terrorism

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Part one of an exclusive four-part series of excerpts.

Clinton administration counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke attended a meeting with Secretary of Defense William Cohen, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Attorney General Janet Reno, and others. Several others were in the room, including Leon Fuerth, Gore’s national security advisor; Jim Steinberg, the deputy National Security Advisor; and Michael Sheehan, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism. An American warship had been attacked without warning in a “friendly” harbor — and, at the time, no one knew if the ship’s pumps could keep it afloat for the night. Now they had to decide what to do about it.

Mr. Clarke had no doubts about whom to punish. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had compiled thick binders of bin Laden and Taliban targets in Afghanistan, complete with satellite photographs and GPS bomb coordinates — the Pentagon’s “target decks.” The detailed plan was “to level” every bin Laden training camp and compound in Afghanistan as well as key Taliban buildings in Kabul and Kandahar. “Let’s blow them up,” Clarke said… . Around the table, Clarke heard only objections — not a mandate for action.

This is how Clarke remembers the meeting, which has never before been described in the press… . Attorney General Janet Reno insisted that they had no clear idea who had actually carried out the attack. The “Justice [Department] also noted, as always, that any use of force had to be consistent with international law, i.e. not retaliation but self protection from future attack,” Clarke told the author. Reno could not be reached for comment.

Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet joined Reno in insisting on an investigation before launching a retaliatory strike. Tenet “did not want a months-long investigation,” CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said. “He simply believed that before the United States attacked, it ought to know for sure who was behind the Cole bombing.” While Tenet noted that the CIA had not reached a conclusion about what terror group was behind the surprise attack on the USS Cole, “he said personally he thought that it would turn out to be al Qaeda,” Clarke recalls.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was also against a counterstrike — but for diplomatic reasons. “We’re desperately trying to halt the fighting that has broken out between Israel and the Palestinians,” Albright said. Clarke recalls her saying, “Bombing Muslims wouldn’t be helpful at this time.” Some two weeks earlier, Ariel Sharon had visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which touched off a wave of violence known as the “second Intifada” and threatened to completely destroy the Clinton Administration’s hopes for Middle East peace settlement.

Mr. Clarke remembers other objections from the State Department. “State noted that we had been bombing Iraq and Serbia and were getting the reputation internationally as a mad bomber nation that could only address its problems that way.” “It would be irresponsible,” a spokeswoman for Albright told the author, for the Secretary of State, as America’s chief diplomat, not to consider the diplomatic impact of a missile strike that might try but would quite likely fail to kill bin Laden.

Albright urged continued diplomatic efforts to persuade the Taliban to turn over bin Laden. Those efforts had been going on for more than two years and had gone nowhere. It was unlikely that the Taliban would ever voluntarily turn over its strongest internal ally… .

Secretary of Defense Cohen also did not favor a retaliatory strike, according to Mr. Clarke. The attack “was not sufficient provocation,” Clarke remembers Cohen saying, or words to that effect. Cohen thought that any military strike needed a “clear and compelling justification,” Clarke recalls. (Cohen, despite repeated phone calls over more than one week, failed to respond to interview requests.) Cohen also noted that General Anthony Zinni, then head of CENTCOM, was concerned that a major bombing campaign would cause domestic unrest in Pakistan (where bin Laden enjoyed strong support among extremists) and hurt the U.S. military’s relationship with that nation.

Mr. Cohen’s views were perfectly in accord with those of the top uniformed officers and Clinton’s political appointees at the Pentagon, Sheehan told the author. “It was the entire Pentagon,” he added. The chief lesson that the Defense Department seemed to draw from the assault on the USS Cole was the need for better security for its ships, what was invariably called “force protection.” Listening to Cohen and later talking to top military officers, Sheehan, a former member of Special Forces before joining the State Department, told the author that he was “stunned” and “taken aback” by their views. “This phenomenon I cannot explain,” he said. Why didn’t they want to go hit back at those who had just murdered American servicemen without warning or provocation?

The issue was hotly debated. Some of the principals were concerned that bin Laden might somehow survive the cruise-missile attack and appear in another triumphant press conference. Clarke countered by saying that they could say that they were only targeting terrorist infrastructure. If they got bin Laden, they could take that as a bonus. Others worried about target information. At the time, Clarke said that he had very reliable and specific information about bin Laden’s location. And so on. Each objection was countered and answered with a yet another objection.

In the end, for a variety of reasons, the principals were against Mr. Clarke’s retaliation plan by a margin of seven to one against. Mr. Clarke was the sole one in favor. Bin Laden would get away — again.

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