“I worked hard to try and kill him,” former president Bill Clinton told Fox News Sunday. “I tried. I tried and failed.”
“Him” is Osama bin Laden. And in his interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, the former president based nearly his entire defense on one source: Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, the book by former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke. “All I’m asking is if anybody wants to say I didn’t do enough, you read Richard Clarke’s book,” Clinton said at one point in the interview. “All you have to do is read Richard Clarke’s book to look at what we did in a comprehensive systematic way to try to protect the country against terror,” he said at another. “All you have to do is read Richard Clarke’s findings and you know it’s not true,” he said at yet another point. In all, Clinton mentioned Clarke’s name 11 times during the Fox interview.
But Clarke’s book does not, in fact, support Clinton’s claim. Judging by Clarke’s sympathetic account — as well as by the sympathetic accounts of other former Clinton aides like Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon — it’s not quite accurate to say that Clinton tried to kill bin Laden. Rather, he tried to convince — as opposed to, say, order — U.S. military and intelligence agencies to kill bin Laden. And when, on a number of occasions, those agencies refused to act, Clinton, the commander-in-chief, gave up.
Clinton did not give up in the sense of an executive who gives an order and then moves on to other things, thinking the order is being carried out when in fact it is being ignored. Instead, Clinton knew at the time that his top military and intelligence officials were dragging their feet on going after bin Laden and al Qaeda. He gave up rather than use his authority to force them into action.
Examples are all over Clarke’s book. On page 223, Clarke describes a meeting, in late 2000, of the National Security Council “principals” — among them, the heads of the CIA, the FBI, the Attorney General, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the secretaries of State, Defense. It was just after al Qaeda’s attack on the USS Cole. But neither the FBI nor the CIA would say that al Qaeda was behind the bombing, and there was little support for a retaliatory strike. Clarke quotes Mike Sheehan, a State Department official, saying in frustration, “What’s it going to take, Dick? Who the shit do they think attacked the Cole, fuckin’ Martians? The Pentagon brass won’t let Delta go get bin Laden. Hell they won’t even let the Air Force carpet bomb the place. Does al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon to get their attention?”
That came later. But in October 2000, what would it have taken? A decisive presidential order — which never came.
The story was the same with the CIA. On page 204, Clarke vents his frustration at the CIA’s slow-walking on the question of killing bin Laden. “I still to this day do not understand why it was impossible for the United States to find a competent group of Afghans, Americans, third-country nationals, or some combination who could locate bin Laden in Afghanistan and kill him,” Clarke writes. “I believe that those in CIA who claim the [presidential] authorizations were insufficient or unclear are throwing up that claim as an excuse to cover the fact that they were pathetically unable to accomplish the mission.”
Clarke hit the CIA again a few pages later, on page 210, on the issue of the CIA’s refusal to budget money for the fight against al Qaeda. “The formal, official CIA response was that there were [no funds],” Clarke writes. “Another way to say that was that everything they were doing was more important than fighting al Qaeda.”
The FBI proved equally frustrating. On page 217, Clarke describes a colleague, Roger Cressey, who was frustrated after meeting with an FBI representative on the subject of terrorism. “That fucker is going to get some Americans killed,” Clarke reports Cressey saying. “He just sits there like a bump on a log.” Clarke adds: “I knew he was talking about an FBI representative.”
So Clinton couldn’t get the job done. Why not? According to Clarke’s pro-Clinton view, the president was stymied by Republican opposition. “Weakened by continual political attack,” Clarke writes, “[Clinton] could not get the CIA, the Pentagon, and FBI to act sufficiently to deal with the threat.”
Republicans boxed Clinton in, Clarke writes, beginning in the 1992 campaign, with criticism of Clinton’s avoidance of the draft as a young man, and extending all the way to the Lewinsky scandal and the president’s impeachment. The bottom line, Clarke argues, is that the commander-in-chief was not in command. From page 225:
Because of the intensity of the political opposition that Clinton engendered, he had been heavily criticized for bombing al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, for engaging in ‘Wag the Dog’ tactics to divert attention from a scandal about his personal life. For similar reasons, he could not fire the recalcitrant FBI Director who had failed to fix the Bureau or to uncover terrorists in the United States. He 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. Because Clinton was criticized as a Vietnam War opponent without a military record, he was limited in his ability to direct the military to engage in anti-terrorist commando operations they did not want to conduct. He had tried that in Somalia, and the military had made mistakes and blamed him. In the absence of a bigger provocation from al Qaeda to silence his critics, Clinton thought he could do no more.
In the end, Clarke writes, Clinton “put in place the plans and programs that allowed America to respond to the big attacks when they did come, sweeping away the political barriers to action.”
But the bottom line is that Bill Clinton, the commander-in-chief, could not find the will to order the military into action against al Qaeda, and Bill Clinton, the head of the executive branch, could not find the will to order the CIA and FBI to act. No matter what the former president says on Fox, or anywhere else, that is his legacy in the war on terror.
— Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President — and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.