- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Staffers and supporters of then-President Bill Clinton used to enjoy repeating the old adage, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Now, they’re proving the old adage true, as Clinton administration biggies are signifying their intent to finger the Bush administration for not heeding their warnings on al Qaeda.

The worst of it is, President Bush could have passed on to President Clinton some of the blame for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that shocked America some 230 days into his administration. After all, Clintonia was warned about al Qaeda — by al Qaeda. Al Qaeda was linked with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six and wounded 1,000.

Mr. Clinton was president when al Qaeda bombs killed 231 people at U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Seven years after terrorists tried to destroy the World Trade Center, the Clinton administration failed to prevent Osama bin Laden’s operation from attacking the destroyer USS Cole in 2000, an attack that left 17 dead.

Mr. Bush didn’t point the finger at Mr. Clinton. As former Gov. Pete Wilson, who is on the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, noted, “Bush was willing to give them a pass on this because he thought this was a time for unity, not partisan sniping.”

Dubya’s reward for not faulting Mr. Clinton? The Clinton machine is blaming Mr. Bush. On Saturday, the New York Times reported big fish in the Clinton pond planned to tell the independent commission investigating the September 11 attacks they had warned the Bushies about al Qaeda but the Bush White House was slow to react.

Then, on “60 Minutes,” Richard Clarke, a former counterterrorism official under both Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton, essentially blamed Mr. Bush for letting September 11 happen. Said Mr. Clarke, “Frankly, I find it outrageous the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he has done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop September 11. Maybe. We’ll never know.”

It should tell you something that Mr. Clarke doesn’t blame the Clinton administration, even though Mr. Clinton failed to curb al Qaeda over eight eventful years. As former Gov. Wilson noted, Clintonia is wandering into dangerous territory if it tries to paint Mr. Bush as somehow culpable for the September 11 deaths.

If it were preventable, Mr. Wilson asked, “Well, then, why didn’t Clinton prevent it?” Mr. Clinton, after all, had eight years to fight Osama bin Laden and avenge the deaths of Americans killed in service to their country. Added Mr. Wilson, “There’s a long record of the [Clinton administration] having ignored escalating acts of terrorism and making an inadequate response.”

Consider the words of former Sen. Bob Kerrey, Nebraska Democrat, who told the New York Times, “There was no contemplation of any military action after [the] Feds discovered how close al Qaeda terrorists had been to coordinated attacks in America during millennium festivities], and there should have been.”

Mr. Kerrey added the attack on the Cole was “even worse,” because “it was an Islamic army against our Navy. Just because you don’t have a nation-state as your adversary doesn’t mean you should not consider a declaration of war.”

Last week, NBC’s Lisa Myers reported a CIA plane produced a satellite video of a man believed to be Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan a year before the September 11 attacks. The tape, Miss Myers reported, “illustrates an enormous opportunity the Clinton administration had to kill or capture bin Laden. Critics call it a missed opportunity.”

It was an opportunity the Clinton government didn’t grab.

Do I blame Clinton for the September 11 attacks? No, absolutely not. I blame al Qaeda.

I think Mr. Clinton could have done things differently. He was too quick to bomb terrorist targets but lax when it came to doing all that was needed to fight Osama bin Laden. It would have been nice if Mr. Bush were Osama savvy sooner, if he were strong where Mr. Clinton was not, but I’m not sure what Mr. Bush could have done differently that would have prevented some 3,000 deaths.

I know America — Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush, Democrat and Republican — had a wholly different attitude before September 11. Osama bin Laden had declared holy war on America. And America barely noticed.

Not even Mr. Clarke seems to have foreseen the carnage to come. And before he started writing his book, that was his job.

Debra J. Saunders is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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