- The Washington Times - Monday, June 10, 2002

The congressional investigation into September 11 will encompass the U.S. handling of terrorism going back to 1986. Why include the Reagan administration in this investigation? Indeed, some congressmen are already complaining that this is "Terrorism 101," reviewing well-known events. Going back to the 1980 is likely to blur the strategic failure behind September 11. It could also give a pass to Bill Clinton, who bears significant responsibility for this disaster.
A decade ago before Mr. Clinton took office major terrorist strikes against the United States were considered to be state-sponsored. For all practical purposes, that meant Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, major attacks against the United States ceased, because the state sponsors of terrorism lost their superpower patron. Libya's downing of Pan Am 103 in December 1988 was the last major terrorist strike on an American target for more than four years.
During the first President Bush's tenure, there were no significant attacks against Americans. Yet that changed radically after Bill Clinton became president. The Feb. 26, 1993, bombing of the World Trade Center occurred one month into Mr. Clinton's first term in office (the phone records of Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of that bomb, suggest the final green light for the attack came shortly after the 1992 elections).
Following the trade center bombing, terrorist attacks against Americans continued and grew even more lethal. Doesn't that suggest Mr. Clinton's response to terrorism was ineffectual? After all, Mr. Clinton's handling of terrorism differed significantly from earlier administrations. The Clinton administration transformed terrorism from a national security issue into a law-enforcement problem. It focused on arresting and convicting individual perpetrators.
That started with the 1993 trade center bombing. The Clinton administration claimed the attack had no state sponsor, but had been carried out by a handful of Muslim fanatics. New York FBI, however, strongly suspected that Iraq was behind the bombing. Yet FBI headquarters accommodated Mr. Clinton's desire not to hear Iraq was involved (Coleen Rowley's blistering attack on the rampant careerism at headquarters is highly relevant here). So the notion was born that major terrorist strikes against the United States no longer involved states, but were being carried out by "loose networks" of Muslim militants, of which Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda is the most recent manifestation.
The predictable happened. To get away with the murder of large numbers of Americans, all Saddam Hussein had to do was work with and hide behind Islamic extremists. It also helped to leave some small fry behind after each attack so they could be arrested and stand trial.
Probably, senior Clinton administration officials recognized what was going on. The White House certainly knew of the suspicions of New York FBI regarding Iraq's sponsorship of the trade center bombing. In the months leading up to the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, both Iraq and bin Laden issued ferocious threats against America. They culminated on Aug. 5, when Iraq threw out UNSCOM Chairman Richard Butler and declared the suspension of weapons inspections. Two days later the two embassies were bombed simultaneously.
Initial media speculation focused on Iraq, because of the confrontation over weapons inspectors. But already a suspect, traveling on a poorly forged passport, had been detained by Pakistani authorities. The Clinton administration quickly put out word that bin Laden was behind the embassy attacks, turning a blind eye to the obvious possibility that Iraqi intelligence was working with him.
The Clinton administration's unstated assumption, it seems, was that Saddam would never do anything truly horrible to the United States because the U.S. response would be so ferocious. Thus, it was easiest to ignore the evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks, because the only response that would really address the problem a war to oust Saddam appeared too daunting.
The bureaucracies that deal with terrorism remain committed to their Clinton-era positions, even after September 11. Hence the effort by the CIA and Justice Department to dismiss the report by Czech intelligence that Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in April 2001 a report repeatedly reaffirmed by the Czechs, including their U.N. ambassador last this week.
Indeed, the bureaucracies seem incapable of dealing with September 11, whether because they are genuinely confused or because they are corrupted afraid they will be held to account, if Iraq is recognized to have been involved, when they ignored so much earlier evidence suggesting Iraq was working with Islamic militants to attack the United States.
How can Congress correct such a huge mistake? Republicans could do the country and themselves an enormous service by pointing out what should be quite clear. The terrorism starting with 1993 trade center bombing and culminating in September 11 is a Clinton-era phenomenon that George W. Bush inherited.

Laurie Mylroie is the author of "Study of Revenge: The First World Trade Center Attack and Saddam Hussein's War Against America."


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