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Bill Clinton struggled to address Islamic extremism: documents

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As President Clinton campaigned for re-election in 1996, his national security team worried about the political impact of another terrorist bombing against U.S. military forces after the lethal Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia.

Newly released documents Friday showed that Will Wechsler, an aide to then-White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, wrote a memo around July 1996 titled "Political Ramifications of a Third Bombing."

"Losses from a series of terrorist attacks will begin to be considered politically unacceptable," Mr. Wechsler wrote. "Political pressure will ... sharply increase for the President to change policy and take 'decisive" action' ... This pressure will need to be confronted by the President at the earliest stage of such a crisis. The least desirable reaction to a third bombing would be for the President to appear to waffle ..."

The documents, released by the Clinton presidential library and the National Archives, show that Mr. Clinton's team struggled with how to respond to the emerging threat of Islamist extremism in the years before Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda became known to Americans.

The June 25, 1996, Khobar Towers bombing destroyed a U.S. Air Force barracks outside Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 servicemen and wounding nearly 400 others. A terrorist group known as Saudi Hezbollah was blamed for the attack, but FBI and other U.S. officials later concluded that Iran's Revolutionary Guard played a role in selecting the target and training the perpetrators.

Just months prior to the Khobar Towers bombing, in November 1995, a car bomb killed five U.S. military personnel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. As the 1996 election approached, the Clinton White House worried about the political domestic impact of a potential "third bombing."

Mr. Wechsler wrote that there would be political pressure on Mr. Clinton either for "withdrawing [U.S. forces] from Saudi Arabia (as Reagan did in Lebanon) or taking unconsidered military action (as Carter did in Iran)."

That was an apparent reference to President Carter's ill-fated rescue attempt of the U.S. hostages in Iran in April 1980, a mission in which eight U.S. servicemen died when a helicopter and a military plane collided.

Mr. Wechsler advised Mr. Clarke: "The least desirable reaction to a third bombing would be for the President to appear to waffle, first deciding on what may be perceived as a 'defensive' posture (further enhancing security, sending anti-terrorism equipment, continuirig the investigations, etc.) then succumbing to political pressures to 'do something,' potentially making matters worse (moving ships into the Gulf without an explicit mission, striking 'suspected' terrorists and risking collateral civilian casualties, taking premature actions against Iran or Syria, etc.). Therefore, at the outset of such a crisis, the President should forcefully reject both alternatives. and reaffirm his commitment to a measured, consistent response."

Mr. Wechsler added, "This course will undoubtedly come at a political cost, but so would the alternatives. The key, however, will be directing the President's decision-making process away from minutia and toward confronting this issue at the earliest possible stage in the crisis, then ensuring that his decision becomes well understood."

In another national-security memo, written on Sept. 4, 1996, White House counterterrorism aide Steven Simon posed questions for top Clinton administration officials about a recent string of terrorist attacks around the globe carried out by what he called a "diverse range of actors." He even raised the question of whether the terrorists were winning.

"What can be done to defeat or deter attacks by terrorists who are not driven by a political program, but are motivated by rage?" Mr. Simon asked.

He asked, "Is the offense winning, because the weapons available to it are becoming more potent, especially in terms of their capacity to inflict large numbers of casualties? Although chemical and biological weapons come immediately to mind, high energy chemical explosives, let alone fertilizer, can inflict appalling damage."

The documents also show there was concern in the Clinton White House that then-Defense Secretary William Perry didn't want to hold the leadership of U.S. Central Command accountable for inadequate security preparations prior to the Khobar Towers attack.

In a memo on Sept. 18, 1996, White House national security aide James Seaton wrote to fellow staffer Joe Sestak that Mr. Perry apparently didn't see the need to discipline Gen. J. H. Binford Peay III, commander of U.S. Central Command, for "failures" in the chain of command.

"The 1995 ... bombing should have provided a wake-up call to CENTCOM," Mr. Seaton wrote. "The clear sense of urgency, top-down guidance and command supervision commonly evidenced when any task or mission has the commander's attention -- when force protection is a command priority -- was absent at Khobar Towers. Thus, Secretary Perry's apparent recommendation to the President to relieve [Gen. Peay] of any culpability in the pre-Khobar Towers situation may well prove problematic."

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