- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

If the Clinton administration had a plan to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and to dismantle the al Qaeda terrorist network, as his former counterterrorism chief claims, how come the Clinton administration didn’t implement it?

Lesley Stahl of CBS did not ask this question of Richard Clarke in her fawning interview on “60 Minutes,” but somebody should.

Mr. Clarke claimed in the “60 Minutes” interview and in his just-published book, “Against All Enemies,” that Bush administration officials weren’t much concerned about international terrorism until the September 11, 2001, attacks.

“I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he’s done such great things about terrorism,” Mr. Clarke told Miss Stahl. “He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop September 11.”

Mr. Clarke and other Democrats want to blame Mr. Bush for his predecessor’s failings, but it won’t wash. The Bush national security team did listen to the recommendations of Mr. Clarke and other Clinton holdovers, but found them wanting, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice wrote in The Washington Post Mar. 22. “We judged that the collection of ideas presented to us were insufficient for the strategy President Bush sought,” Miss Rice said. “The president wanted more than occasional, retaliatory cruise missile strikes. He told me he was ‘tired of swatting flies.’ ”

Mr. Clarke’s charge that worries about al Qaeda took a back seat to concerns about Iraq and ballistic missile defense is false, Miss Rice said. The first foreign policy strategy document adopted by the administration was a plan to compel the Taliban in Afghanistan to stop providing sanctuary to al Qaeda, or to oust the regime if it failed to comply, she said.

The thrust of Mr. Clarke’s complaint is that Mr. Bush failed to do in eight months what President Clinton failed to do in eight years. But all he has to offer is a continuation of the “law enforcement” approach to terrorism that failed to deter the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993; the bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996; the attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000.

No wonder Mr. Bush wanted a different approach. But a new strategy takes time to devise and put into effect. The speed with which Mr. Bush acted against the Taliban after September 11 indicates considerable planning had been done in the preceding months.

The September 11 plot had been hatched well before Mr. Bush became president. Most of the conspirators were in this country before he took the oath of office. It would be unfair to blame Mr. Clinton for the parlous state of intelligence and counterintelligence in the CIA and FBI at the time. But it is fair to note he did nothing to improve the situation during his two terms of office.

President Bush has.

Though there is no evidence Mr. Bush lacked concern about al Qaeda, there is considerable evidence Mr. Clinton didn’t worry about the terror group as much as hindsight suggests he should have. Britain’s Sunday Times reported Jan. 6, 2002, that Mr. Clinton turned down at least three offers from foreign governments to help seize Osama bin Laden.

“The main reasons were legal,” the Sunday Times said. “There was no evidence that could be brought against bin Laden in an American court.” Mr. Clinton’s legalistic approach to terror may explain why his administration also passed up an opportunity to kill bin Laden in the fall of 2000.

NBC news obtained a surveillance videoshot by a Predator drone of bin Laden at the Tarnak Farms training camp in Afghanistan. An air strike could have taken him out. But Gary Schroen, former CIA station chief in Pakistan, told NBC’s Lisa Meyers the White House instructed the CIA to try to capture bin Laden alive, not kill him.

Can terrorism be defeated with subpoenas, dialogue and nuance, or are bombs and bullets required? The key issue in this election is whether we will continue waging war on terror, as Mr. Bush plans, or retreat to the failed legalistic approach of the Clinton years, as advocated by Mr. Clarke and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Jack Kelly, a syndicated columnist, is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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