Editor’s Note: This article by Byron York ran in the September 2, 2002, issue of National Review.
Saxby Chambliss is a little perplexed. The Republican congressman from Georgia is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security and a key player in the congressional investigation into the roots of the September 11 attacks. He knows a lot about the subject. Yet it was not until he read a recent issue of Time magazine that he learned that in late 2000 the Clinton administration came up with a new, aggressive, wide-ranging plan to topple the al-Qaeda terrorist network. In an article headlined “Could 9/11 Have Been Prevented?” Time reported that top Clinton officials handed the plan to the incoming Bush administration, but, tragically, the Bush team chose not to act until it was too late. The heroes of the article were Richard Clarke, a top anti-terrorism aide who is said to have put together the plan, and Samuel Berger, President Clinton’s national security adviser, who is portrayed as a tough-talking hardliner on terrorism.
And that’s what has Chambliss perplexed. “I’ve had Dick Clarke testify before our committee several times, and we’ve invited Samuel Berger several times,” Chambliss says, “and this is the first I’ve ever heard of that plan.” If it was such a big deal, Chambliss wonders, why didn’t anyone mention it?
Sources at the White House are just as baffled. In public, they’ve been careful not to pick fights with the previous administration over the terrorism issue. But privately, they say the Time report was way off base. “There was no new plan to topple al-Qaeda,” one source says flatly. “No new plan.” When asked if there was, perhaps, an old plan to topple al-Qaeda, which might have been confused in the story, the source says simply, “No.”
The Time article, which was the work of a team of 15 reporters, said that after the October 12, 2000, attack that killed 17 American sailors on board the USS Cole, Clarke began work on “an aggressive plan to take the fight to al-Qaeda.” Clarke reportedly wanted to break up al-Qaeda cells, cut off their funding, destroy their sanctuaries, and give major support to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. In addition, Time reported, “the U.S. military would start planning for air strikes on the camps and for the introduction of special-operations forces into Afghanistan.” It was, in the words of a senior Bush administration official quoted by Time, “everything we’ve done since 9/11.”
According to the magazine, Clarke presented the plan to Berger on December 20, 2000, but Berger decided not to act on it. “We would be handing [the Bush administration] a war when they took office,” an unnamed former Clinton aide told Time. “That wasn’t going to happen.” Instead, Berger urged his successor, Condoleezza Rice, to take action. To the Clinton team’s dismay, the Bush White House did not come up with its own finished plan against al-Qaeda until September 4, 2001.
On its face, the story was a sensational indictment of the Bush administration’s response to terrorism. But if the president’s critics hoped it would inflict political damage on the Bush White House, it has instead had the opposite effect, backfiring on Clinton’s defenders and causing them to back away from the story’s main conclusion.
Indeed, even a cursory look at the Clinton administration’s record on terrorism raises questions about the article’s premise. For example: If there was indeed such a plan, why did the Clinton team wait so long to come up with it?
In the past, former Clinton officials have said that they moved into fully engaged anti-terrorism mode after the August 7, 1998, bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. More than 200 people, including twelve Americans, were killed, and an investigation quickly showed the attack to be the work of Osama bin Laden. In an interview with National Review last year, Daniel Benjamin, a former National Security Council official, said the Africa bombings were a turning point in the administration’s response to terrorism. “I and a whole lot of people basically did very little else other than Osama bin Laden for the next year and a half,” Benjamin said.
At the time, top Clinton officials vowed a long, tough campaign. “This is, unfortunately, the war of the future,” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told reporters on August 21, shortly after the U.S. fired cruise missiles at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. “This is going to be a long-term battle against terrorists who have declared war on the United States.” Other officials, including President Clinton, said similar things.
So why, when by their own account the war unquestionably began in August 1998, did Clinton administration officials wait until December 2000, a few weeks before leaving office, to come up with a plan to fight it? Why was the plan created so late that it could not be implemented but was instead presented to the incoming Bush administration with the admonition, “Here — do this”? There’s no answer in the Time story.
In addition, the Clinton defenders’ account is plagued by some internal contradictions. For example, Time says the Clinton administration was constrained from taking action in the aftermath of the Cole bombing because “the CIA and FBI had not officially concluded [that bin Laden was behind the attack] and would be unable to do so before Clinton left office.” But the article also documents the frustrations of John O’Neill, a top FBI official who had “run afoul of Barbara Bodine, then the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, who believed the FBI’s large presence was causing political problems for the Yemeni regime.” Time says that “when O’Neill left Yemen on a trip home for Thanksgiving, Bodine barred his return.” It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Clinton administration, for whatever reason, made the investigation more difficult and then claimed it could not act against al-Qaeda because the investigation had not yielded conclusive results.
It didn’t quite make sense, and indeed, after the Bush White House denied the Time story, some former Clinton officials began to pull back on some of its claims. Now, one of them — who asks not to be named — says Time didn’t have it quite right. “There were certainly ongoing efforts throughout the eight years of the Clinton administration to fight terrorism,” the official says. “It was certainly not a formal war plan. We wouldn’t have characterized it as a formal war plan. The Bush administration was briefed on the Clinton administration’s ongoing efforts and threat assessments.”
That’s pretty much what the Bush White House says happened. So why make all the headline-grabbing charges in the first place? More than anything, the article’s appearance is evidence of the dogged determination of former Clinton officials to portray their administration as tough on terrorism. Sometimes that public-relations campaign has involved positive defenses of Clinton’s record, and sometimes it has involved attacks on the Bush White House. The Time piece was the most spectacular example yet of the latter; it was, in Saxby Chambliss’s words, “a full-bore shotgun blast at the Bush administration.” And even though it missed, there will no doubt be more. For their part, Bush officials say they don’t want to “get into this game.” But they’d better get used to it.