Bill Clinton’s failure on terrorism

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Richard Miniter’s new book, “Losing bin Laden: How Bill Clinton’s Failures Unleashed Global Terror,” tells the sad, infuriating history of the number of opportunities President Clinton had to capture and imprison or kill the terrorist Osama bin Laden. Instead, we are still hunting. Bin Laden is still at large and alive enough to sponsor and concoct the details of the worst attack on America in our history — the destruction of the World Trade Center and the bombing of the Pentagon. What other horrors he is planning we do not know, simply because he is still uncaptured.

That reality is the sickening part of this remarkably well-researched and -sourced new book. Mr. Miniter — part of the reporting team that broke the “The Road to Ground Zero” story in the Jan. 6, 2002 London Sunday Times — has told how many real, actual and missed opportunities the Clinton administration had to capture and defang bin Laden. Why in the world would any U.S. administration not accept any and all offers to help dispose of one of the most vicious and well-financed terrorist leaders?

For several reasons, as the author points out.

The Clinton foreign policy was to get re-elected. Therefore, anything that might be controversial had to be avoided. So, from the beginning to the end of the administration, the Clintons “demanded absolute proof before acting against terrorists.” This high bar guaranteed inaction. At the beginning of his term, after the attack of Feb. 26, 1993, Mr. Clinton refused to admit that the World Trade Center had been bombed. Later, he referred to it only as “regrettable” and “treated the disaster… like a twister in Arkansas.” Earlier, he had “urged the public not to ‘overreact’ to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.”

That attitude was typical of the Clintonites. The president did not want to hear about bad news — such as our terrible losses in October 1993, when Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu, Somalia, or the even more terrifying losses in New York. That would require a strong response which might upset some of the strange group of advisors and officials Mr. Clinton had collected. So it was with all the other missed opportunities to get bin Laden. CIA Director James Woolsey rarely had any meetings with Mr. Clinton. The president never supported Mr. Woolsey’s urgent request for Arabic-language translators for the CIA in 1994. A separate feud between Mr. WoolseyandSen.Dennis DeConcini, Arizona Democrat, was allowed to run its course without direction by the Clinton White House, which further set back the CIA director’s appeal for Arabic translators. So, as the author concludes, “a bureaucratic feud and President Clinton’s indifference kept America blind and deaf as bin Laden plotted.”

The Sudanese would offer to let the U.S. see their intelligence files and all the data they had gathered about bin Laden and the associates who had visited him in Sudan, “and would be repeatedly rebuffed through both formal and informal channels. This was one of the greatest intelligence failures of the Clinton years as the result of orders that came from the Clinton White House.” Had the Clinton administration accepted and examined these files, countless terrorists could have been tracked. Sudan’s offer to arrest bin Laden and deliver him to U.S. officials was likewise refused.

The Clinton Administration did try to get Saudi Arabia to accept bin Laden from Sudan, but the Saudi government apparently had as difficult a time as Mr. Clinton in making up its mind. The issue finally resolved itself thus: “The Clinton Administration refused to work with the government of Sudan,” and so all the Sudanese efforts to help us by cooperating in the capture and delivery of bin Laden failed. Nothing more happens — even after Mr. Clinton won re-election in November 1996.

This is the long sad story of the Clinton Administration’s blind refusal to accept offer after offer to deliver one of the world’s terrorist leaders before and after his minions killed thousands in various terrorist attacks. The book is climaxed by a documented recital of the links between bin Laden’s al Qaeda units and Iraq that should convince all but the most extreme Bush-haters that these links exist and continue. In all of this, we should try to remember and be grateful for the brilliant military achievements of our forces in overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

There have always been disputes within administrations. What is important is to contrast the methods President Reagan used to resolve these differences with Mr. Clinton’s indecisiveness. If Mr. Reagan had so feared taking any kind of position that might become controversial or might injure his chances for re-election, as Mr. Clinton did every day, we would never have won the Cold War. “Losing bin Laden” is a valuable history that should serve as a training manual in how not to run a foreign policy.

Caspar W. Weinberger, a former Secretary of Defense, is chairman of Forbes.

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