As counterterrorism and foreign policy professionals and veterans of the NSC staff in the years proceeding September 11, we have heard our share of misstatements and conspiracy theories about terrorism. But nothing quite compares to Richard Miniter’s book “Losing Bin Laden,” which includes a number of erroneous allegations about the Clinton administration’s counterterrorism record, many of which were then published in this newspaper. Let us address a few:
First, Mr. Miniter recycles old, false Sudanese claims that the Clinton White House declined access to Sudan’s intelligence files on al Qaeda and that an unnamed CIA official declined an offer from Sudan in 1996 to turn Osama bin Laden over to the United States.
No one should believe these allegations by Mr. Miniter’s source, Fateh Erwa — a Sudanese intelligence officer known for his penchant to deceive — that there was an offer to hand bin Laden over to the United States. Certainly, no offer was ever conveyed to any senior official in Washington. Had the Sudanese been serious about offering bin Laden to the United States, they could have communicated such an offer to any number of senior Clinton administration officials. It did not happen.
Mr. Miniter also claims that Sudan repeatedly tried to provide voluminous intelligence files on bin Laden to the CIA, the FBI, and senior Clinton administration officials and would be “repeatedly rebuffed through both formal and informal channels.” Absurd. In fact, it was precisely the other way around.
On multiple occasions, and in venues ranging from Addis Ababa to Virginia, Washington, New York and Khartoum, the United States aggressively pressed the Sudanese to prove their alleged commitment to cooperating on terrorism, by severing their close ties with known terrorists, arresting specific individuals and providing specific intelligence information to us. Yet, despite frequent promises of cooperation, presumably in the hopes of getting off the terrorism list and out from under U.N. sanctions, the Sudanese consistently failed to deliver.
This should come as no surprise, because Sudan in the mid-‘90s was one of the most hard-core terrorist states in the world. Its fiercely militant leader, Hassan Turabi, turned Sudan into a sanctuary, training base and active supporter for a range of Islamic terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda.
That Mr. Miniter so willingly credits bogus claims from the Sudanese regime — a regime the Bush administration has rightly kept on the terrorism list, that has done nothing to bring an end to their domestic slave trade, and has only recently begun to engage seriously in international efforts to bring an end to a civil war that has killed over two million Sudanese citizens — is deeply troubling.
Another charge in the book is that President Clinton failed to retaliate immediately after the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 despite the fact that responsibility for the attack was clear. Mr. Miniter cites this as part of his overall and unsubstantiated theory that Mr. Clinton “refused to wage a real war on terrorism.”
When the USS Cole was hit in October 2000, al Qaeda was a prime suspect. But other terrorist groups and states which had attacked us before were also potentially responsible.
It was appropriate that Mr. Clinton wanted conclusions from his chief intelligence and law enforcement agencies before launching broad retaliatory strikes on al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan. Definitive conclusions from the CIA and FBI on who was behind the Cole were not provided to Mr. Clinton for the remainder of his term.
Even without conclusions from the FBI and CIA on the Cole, bin Laden and his lieutenants were still hunted to the last day of Mr. Clinton’s presidency for al Qaeda’s 1998 attacks on our two embassies in Africa. And if the Clinton administration dropped the ball in responding to the Cole bombing, why didn’t the incoming Bush administration pick it up in January, 2001?
Mr. Miniter also alleges that in the spring and summer of 1998 the Clinton administration was deadlocked over the decision to conduct a special forces mission near a bin Laden camp. Mr. Miniter suggests that the president did not want to overrule Pentagon concerns over risks because he could not “stomach sending thousands of troops into harm’s way.” Mr. Clinton was, in fact, ready and willing to undertake a special forces or other paramilitary assault on bin Laden, particularly after our missile attacks on bin Laden in the summer of 1998, and often pressed his senior military advisers for options. But Mr. Clinton’s top military and intelligence advisers concluded that a commando raid was likely to be a failure, given the potential for detection, in the absence of reliable, predictive intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts.
Mr. Clinton approved every request made of him by the CIA and the U.S. military involving using force against bin Laden and al Qaeda. As President Bush well knows, bin Laden was and remains very good at staying hidden.
For eight years the Clinton administration fought hard to counter terrorism, and while we didn’t accomplish all that we hoped, we had some important successes. The current administration faces many of the same challenges.
Confusing the American people with misinformation and distortions will not generate the support we need to come together as a nation and defeat our terrorist enemies.
Roger Cressey served as National Security Council senior director for counterterrorism from 1999-2001. Gayle Smith served as special assistant to the president for African affairs from 1998-2001.