Monday, September 25, 2006

If you ask Bill Clinton about his administration’s efforts to combat terrorism and hunt down Osama bin Laden, as Fox News host Chris Wallace did Sunday, you’re apparently nothing more than a partisan right-winger. You’ve also — obviously — never read former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke’s “Against All Enemies: America’s War on Terror,” which, according to the former president, conclusively exonerates both him and his administration from any blame in the attacks on September 11.

Regarding the first charge, Mr. Clinton said: “I think it’s very interesting that all the conservative Republicans, who now say I didn’t do enough [to hunt down bin Laden], claimed that I was too obsessed with bin Laden.”

We’re not sure which conservative Republicans he’s talking about. On the event of the administration’s bombing of Afghan and Sudanese targets in 1998 following the terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich said, “I think the president did exactly the right thing.” He even waved off rumors that Mr. Clinton acted only to divert attention from the Monica Lewinsky affair: “It has no relationship with any other activity of any kind.” And that was from Mr. Clinton’s arch partisan rival and bete noire at the time.

There were other misremembrances. Mr. Clinton claimed that “[no one] even knew al Qaeda was a growing concern in October of ‘93,” referring to the infamous “Black Hawk Down” fiasco in Somalia, which resulted in the death of 18 Americans. But Mr. Clinton must have been aware of bin Laden and al Qaeda following the first World Trade Center bombing on Feb. 26, 1993. As Richard Miniter recounts in his book, “Losing Bin Laden,” Rep. Bill McCollum, then chairman of House Republicans’ anti-terrorism task force, starting in 1993 wrote repeatedly to Mr. Clinton and other administration officials warning of bin Laden and other terrorists.

Moreover, contrary to Mr. Clinton’s claim that there’s “not a living soul” who thought bin Laden was involved in Somalia, the September 11 Commission report says that as early as 1996-97, the intelligence community had received information linking al Qaeda to the 1993 battle in Somalia. Mr. Clinton surely knew of these reports.

Telling Mr. Wallace to go read Mr. Clarke’s book, the former president emphasized how he “worked hard to try and kill” bin Laden. In reality, Mr. Clarke’s book, which indeed is more sympathetic to the Clinton administration’s terror effort than other accounts, tells a different story. In it, Mr. Clinton never specifically orders the death of bin Laden. Instead, as Mr. Clarke writes, “[Mr. Clinton] had given the CIA unprecedented authority to go after bin Laden personally and al Qaeda, but had not taken steps when they did little or nothing.”

Mr. Clinton also attacks the Bush administration for “demoting” and then firing Mr. Clarke. As the man himself has written (in his book no less), Mr. Clarke demoted himself “to the apparent surprise of [then-National Security Adviser] Condi Rice.” Nor was he fired. Rather, he says he “quit the Administration altogether” after working on a special program.

Yet Mr. Clarke’s book is not the final word on Mr. Clinton’s anti-terrorism efforts. The September 11 Commission concluded that while the administration “took the [terrorist] threat seriously,” it was “not in the sense of mustering anything like the kind of effort that would be gathered to confront an enemy of the first, second, or even third rank.”

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