Wesley Clark the other day blamed the Bush administration for the intelligence failures leading to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. And Hillary Clinton said, darkly, that the administration’s refusal to hand over documents to a 9/11 commission “unnecessarily raises suspicions that it has something to hide.” Meanwhile, Condi Rice in a speech last week pointed to the failure to take terrorism seriously during the 1990s–in other words, she pointed to Clinton administration failures.
The war over the war on terror has just begun.
In this battle, it’s useful to stick to specifics. Let’s take, for instance, the Clinton administration’s handling of the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996. If Clinton was as vigilant against terrorism as he says–handing over a wondrous counterterrorism policy to an inept and inattentive Bush administration–it should be clear in cases like that of Khobar. Instead, as I write in my new book Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years, the Clinton administration deliberately looked the other way after the Khobar bombing and made a near-apology to the perpetrator of the attack.
In November 1995, a bomb exploded in central Riyadh at an office of the Saudi National Guard, which had long cooperated with the American military. It killed five Americans and two Indians. In June 1996, a massive bomb exploded at a U.S. base supporting the southern no-fly zone in Iraq. It ripped into the eight-story Khobar Towers complex, killing 19 U.S. servicemen.
For the Clinton team, desperate times called for the usual measures–a poll. Dick Morris noted in a memo a few days after the bombing:
SAUDI BOMBING–recovered from Friday and looking great
Approve Clinton handling 73-20
Big gain from 63-20 on Friday
Security was adequate 52-40
It’s not Clinton’s fault 76-18″
A fraught three-way tug-of-war began over the investigation into the bombing between the Saudis, who didn’t want the U.S. to get at the truth in the case; the FBI, which was determined to ascertain the facts and suspicious of the motives of the White House; and the White House, which loathed its FBI director and was lukewarm about pursuing the case.
The pattern of Saudi non-cooperation had been set after the Riyadh bombing, when the Saudis denied FBI agents access to four suspects, and swiftly beheaded them to lend finality to that lack of access. In the Khobar case, the shroud of Saudi non-cooperation further clouded a complicated picture that made no sense according to the conventional wisdom that Shiite and Sunni terror groups–representing different variants of Islam–could never cooperate.
A Shiite extremist group, Saudi Hezbollah, backed by high-ranking officials in the Iranian government appeared primarily responsible. But bin Laden, who had earlier reached out to Hezbollah, sympathized with the bombing–a “praiseworthy act of terrorism”–and so did some of the kingdom’s radical Wahhabi clerics.
The Saudis may have refused cooperation not just because–as is often argued–they feared that the United States would lash out and bomb Iran in retaliation, but because they wanted to obscure the role of prominent Saudis in the emerging terrorist network.
If the Saudis feared U.S. military retaliation against Iran, they clearly didn’t know with whom they were dealing. While the investigation into the murder of 19 Americans in an Iranian-backed operation was ongoing, the Clinton administration began a campaign to woo Teheran. It is difficult to warm relations with a regime at the same time as pursuing its connections to terror. So by 1998 the administration appeared prepared to forgive and forget Khobar Towers.
“American officials,” writes Madeleine Albright biographer Thomas W. Lippman, “stopped saying in public that they suspected Iran of responsibility for the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Air Force residential compound in Saudi Arabia.” The administration softened the State Department warning about travel to Iran, waived sanctions against foreign oil firms doing business there, and removed it from the list of major exporters of illegal drugs.
Iran was determinedly, and predictably, unmoved, because anti-Americanism was close to the core of the regime. The administration then deployed its big gun: a soupy, let’s-all-get-along near-apology to the Iranians from the president of the United States, which had been a longtime demand of the Teheran terror regime. President Clinton’s statement in April 1999, while the FBI was still trying to unravel the Iranian terror plot, ranks among the most shameful things he ever said in office.
“It may be that the Iranian people have been taught to hate or distrust the United States or the West on the grounds that we are infidels and outside the faith,” Clinton said. “And, therefore, it is easy for us to be angry and respond in kind. I think it is important to recognize, however, that Iran, because of its enormous geopolitical importance over time, has been the subject of quite a lot of abuse from various Western nations. And I think sometimes it’s quite important to tell people, look, you have a right to be angry at something my country or my culture or others that are generally allied with us today did to you 50 or 60 or 100 or 150 years ago. But that is different from saying I am outside the faith and you are God’s chosen.”
The outreach to Iran was exactly at variance with Clinton’s rhetoric immediately after the Khobar attack. “The cowards who committed this murderous act,” Clinton said upon learning of the bombing, “must not go unpunished. Let me say again: We will pursue this. America takes care of our own.” Clinton made his semi-apology to Iran before officially requesting its cooperation in the Khobar case, which he did only in October 1999 and never backed up with international pressure.
FBI director Louis Freeh, and those around him, began to suspect that the administration didn’t care that much about finding the perpetrators because if connections with Iran were established it would be forced to take, or at least consider, action against Iran. This meant that getting to the bottom of the case would present what the administration hated most: a difficulty, a risk.
“It was hard,” says Dale Watson, who was executive assistant director of the FBI for counterterrorism and counterintelligence. “It was hard because of the question: What would you do if there was a state sponsor behind this?” Instead of lapsing into its default mode of attempting to placate a country like Iran, the administration would have been forced at least to talk tough, and perhaps think about doing something about it. “It was an attitude of look the other way,” says retired Special Forces Gen. Wayne Downing, who led a Pentagon review of the bombing in 1996.
“Director Freeh was the only one in Washington,” says former chief of the international-terrorism division of the FBI Mike Rolince, “pushing for direct access to suspects, pushing for records, pushing for identities of the people, wanting this investigation to succeed. We got a lot of lip service from people who said that they were behind us, but we knew for a fact that when certain Saudi officials came into town and it was the right time to push them for things the Bureau wanted, we know from other people that the issue wasn’t even raised. It was crystal clear to some of us that they were hoping that this whole thing would just go away.”
In a meeting that was supposed to be devoted to pressuring the Saudis on Khobar, Clinton got weepy when Crown Prince Abdullah expressed support for him in the Lewinsky affair and didn’t push the Saudi hard. Saudi Ambassador to the United States Prince Bandar told Freeh that the White House wanted to avoid confrontation with Iran at all costs, even if it meant ignoring the Khobar Towers attack. For its part, the White House thought Freeh was out of control and trying to make U.S. foreign policy. “We weren’t out of control,” says Dale Watson, “we were working extremely hard to collect information and evidence that we could use possibly to charge and prosecute people with.”
That’s what the administration professed to be interested in as well. But this was a more complicated case, where the law-enforcement approach to terrorism might not help avoid the alternative of waging war.
“What the administration did was latch onto law enforcement as a way of showing that they were doing something,” says former CIA director Jim Woolsey. “And if you prosecute successfully a small fry, you can claim victory. If you show yourself to be looking for foreign-state involvement in something, it’s sort of like a pass in football–several things can happen and most of them are bad. You may turn up foreign state involvement, in which case, you’ve got to do something about it, and that might mean body bags coming back on the evening news. Or you don’t do anything about it and you look weak. Or you don’t find it, and people say, well, ‘You were looking for it and didn’t find it, so you’re incompetent.’ Politically the safest thing to do in a lot of circumstances is to circumscribe your efforts.”
In the Khobar case, the law-enforcement approach itself risked creating pressure for a military strike. The White House was therefore angered when Freeh–the head of its lead agency in the fight against terror, whose job it was to pursue the facts–pursued the facts.
When Freeh told national security adviser Sandy Berger there was evidence to indict several suspects, Berger asked, “Who else knows this?” He then proceeded to question the evidence. A reporter for The New Yorker who later interviewed Freeh about the case writes that the FBI Director thought “Berger . . . was not a national security adviser; he was a public-relations hack, interested in how something would play in the press. After more than two years, Freeh had concluded that the administration did not really want to resolve the Khobar bombing.”
The price of not getting to the bottom of the matter–although the Saudis opened up somewhat in response to Freeh’s proddings and allowed the questioning of suspects–wasn’t just shrugging off the murderer of 19 Americans. It was failing to understand fully the changing nature of the terror threat. “Khobar provided the keys that unlocked the new terror world,” says one terror expert. “Everything you needed to know about the new terror network, the cooperation between all the different sects and factions, the rise of Wahhabi radicalism in Saudi Arabia, the changing dynamic of the Middle East–it all was present in that case.”
An attack against American servicemen abroad was not merely a crime. It was an act of war. As Louis Freeh later put it, “Khobar represented a national security threat far beyond capability or authority of the FBI or Department of Justice to address. Neither the FBI Director nor the Attorney General could or should decide America’s response to such a grave threat.”
The Khobar bombing should have prompted severe consequences for both Saudi Arabia, for its financial support for the growing terror network, and Iran, for its direct involvement in the attack. But the Clinton administration couldn’t bring itself to change the basis of its relationship with Saudi Arabia, or to punish Iran, which actually got softer treatment after Khobar.
Clinton wasn’t in the business of subjecting Middle Eastern states to further “abuse from various Western nations.” Knowing that about him is the beginning of knowledge in the brewing war over the war on terrorism.