Editor’s note: When it comes to Bill Clinton’s record on terrorism, there’s no need to invent fictional scenarios to show how ineffective he was; the truth is bad enough. A few months after 9/11, Byron York went through the record — including the former president’s habit of taking polls to see how he should respond to terrorist attacks — and came up with this report, from the December 17, 2001 issue of National Review:
June 25, 1996, a powerful truck bomb exploded outside the Khobar Towers barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, tearing the front from the building, blasting a crater 35 feet deep, and killing 19 American soldiers. Hundreds more were injured. When news reached Washington, Presi dent Bill Clinton vowed to bring the killers to justice. “The cowards who committed this murderous act must not go unpunished,” he said angrily. “Let me say again: We will pursue this. America takes care of our own. Those who did it must not go unpunished.” The next day, leaving the White House to attend an economic summit in France, Clinton had more tough words for the attackers. “Let me be very clear: We will not resist” — the president corrected himself — “we will not rest in our efforts to find who is responsible for this outrage, to pursue them and to punish them.”
As Clinton spoke, his top political strategist, Dick Morris, was hard at work conducting polls to gauge the public’s reaction to the bombing. “Whenever there was a crisis, I ordered an immediate poll,” Morris recalls. “I was concerned about how Clinton looked in the face of [the attack] and whether people blamed him.” The bombing happened in the midst of the president’s re-election campaign, and even though Clinton enjoyed a substantial lead over Republican Bob Dole, Morris worried that public dissatisfaction with Clinton on the terrorism issue might benefit Dole.
Indeed, Morris’s first poll showed less support for Clinton than he had hoped. But by the time Morris presented his findings to the president and top staffers at a political-strategy meeting a few days later, public approval of Clinton’s response had climbed — something Morris noted in his written agenda for the session:
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
The numbers were a relief for the re-election team. But soon there was another crisis when, on July 17, TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on its way from New York to Paris. There was widespread suspicion that the crash was the result of terrorism (it was later ruled to be an accident), and Morris’s polling found the public growing uneasy not only about air safety but also about Clinton’s performance in the Khobar investigation. Morris found that the number of people who believed Clinton was “doing all he can to investigate the Saudi bombing and punish those responsible” was just 54 percent, while 32 percent believed he could do more. Morris feared that White House inaction would allow Dole to portray Clinton as soft on national security.
“We tested two alternative defenses to this attack: Peace maker or Toughness,” Morris wrote in a memo for the president. In the “Peacemaker” defense, Morris asked voters to respond to the statement, “Clinton is peacemaker. Brought together Arabs and Israelis. Ireland. Bosnia cease fire. Uses strength to bring about peace.” The other defense, “Tough ness,” asked voters to respond to “Clinton tough. Stands up for American interests. Against foreign companies doing business in Cuba. Sanctions against Iran. Anti-terrorist legislation held up by Republicans. Prosecuted World Trade Center bombers.” Morris found that the public greatly preferred “Toughness.”
So Clinton talked tough. But he did not act tough. Indeed, a review of his years in office shows that each time the president was confronted with a major terrorist attack — the February 26, 1993, bombing of the World Trade Center, the Khobar Towers attack, the August 7, 1998, bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the October 12, 2000, attack on the USS Cole — Clinton was preoccupied with his own political fortunes to an extent that precluded his giving serious and sustained attention to fighting terrorism.
At the time of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, his administration was just beginning, and he was embroiled in controversies over gays in the military, an economic stimulus plan, and the beginnings of Hillary Clinton’s health-care task force. Khobar Towers happened not only in the midst of the president’s re-election campaign but also at the end of a month in which there were new and damaging developments in the Whitewater and Filegate scandals. The African embassy attacks occurred as the Monica Lewinsky affair was at fever pitch, in the month that Clinton appeared before independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s grand jury. And when the Cole was rammed, Clinton had little time left in office and was desperately hoping to build his legacy with a breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Whenever a serious terrorist attack occurred, it seemed Bill Clinton was always busy with something else.
The First WTC Attack
Clinton had been in office just 38 days when terrorists bombed the World Trade Center, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000. Although it was later learned that the bombing was the work of terrorists who hoped to topple one of the towers into the other and kill as many as 250,000 people, at first it was not clear that the explosion was the result of terrorism. The new president’s reaction seemed almost disengaged. He warned Americans against “overreacting” and, in an interview on MTV, described the bombing as the work of someone who “did something really stupid.”
From the start, Clinton approached the investigation as a law-enforcement issue. In doing so, he effectively cut out some of the government’s most important intelligence agencies. For example, the evidence gathered by FBI agents and prosecutors came under the protection of laws mandating grand-jury secrecy — which meant that the law-enforcement side of the investigation could not tell the intelligence side of the investigation what was going on. “Nobody outside the prosecutorial team and maybe the FBI had access,” says James Woolsey, who was CIA director at the time. “It was all under grand-jury secrecy.”
Another problem with Clinton’s decision to assign the investigation exclusively to law enforcement was that law enforcement in the new administration was in turmoil. When the bomb went off, Clinton did not have a confirmed attorney general; Janet Reno, who was nominated after the Zoë Baird fiasco, was awaiting Senate approval. The Justice Department, meanwhile, was headed by a Bush holdover who had no real power in the new administration. The bombing barely came up at Reno’s Senate hearings, and when she was finally sworn in on March 12, neither she nor Clinton mentioned the case. (Instead, Clinton praised Reno for “sharing with us the life-shaping stories of your family and career that formed your deep sense of fairness and your unwavering drive to help others to do better.”) In addition, at the time the bombing investigation began, the FBI was headed by William Sessions, who would soon leave after a messy forcing-out by Clinton. A new director, Louis Freeh, was not confirmed by the Senate until August 6.
Amid all the turmoil at the top, the investigation missed some tantalizing clues pointing toward a far-reaching conspiracy. In April 1995, for example, terrorism expert Steven Emerson told the House International Relations Committee that there was information that “strongly suggests . . . a Sudanese role in the World Trade Center bombing. There are also leads pointing to the involvement of Osama bin Laden, the ex-Afghan Saudi mujahideen supporter now taking refuge in Sudan.” Two years later, Emerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the same thing. In recent years, according to an exhaustive New York Times report, “American intelligence officials have come to believe that [ringleader Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman] and the World Trade Center bombers had ties to al-Qaeda.”
But the Clinton administration stuck with its theory that the bombing was the work of a loose network of terrorists working apart from any government sponsorship. Intelligence officials who might have thought otherwise were left out in the cold — “I made repeated attempts to see Clinton privately to take up a whole range of issues and was unsuccessful,” Woolsey recalls — and some of the nation’s most critical intelligence capabilities went unused. In the end, the U.S. tried six suspects in the attack. All were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Another key suspect, Abdul Rahman Yasin, was released after being held by the FBI in New Jersey and fled to Baghdad, where he is living under the protection of the Iraqi government. Today, with many leads gone cold, intelligence officials concede they will probably never know who was behind the attack.
“In June of 1996, it felt like an entire herd was converging on the White House,” wrote Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos in his memoir, All Too Human. A herd of scandals, that is: In late May, independent counsel Kenneth Starr had convicted Jim and Susan McDougal and Jim Guy Tucker in the first big Whitewater trial; in June, the Filegate story first broke into public view, and Sen. Alphonse D’Amato issued his committee’s Whitewater report recommending that several administration officials be investigated for perjury. It was also in June that the White House went into full battle mode against a variety of allegations contained in Unlimited Access, a book by former FBI agent Gary Aldrich.
All these developments were heavy on the minds of Clinton, Dick Morris, and the other members of the re-election strategy team when the bomb went off at Khobar Towers on June 25. As it had after the World Trade Center bombing, a distracted White House gave the case to law enforcement. But there is significant evidence to suggest that the White House was even less interested in finding answers than it had been in the World Trade Center case. In the Khobar investigation, the Clinton administration not only failed to follow potentially productive leads but in some instances actively made the investigators’ job more difficult.
From the beginning, the administration ran into significant Saudi resistance (the Saudis quickly identified a few low-level suspects and beheaded them, hoping to end the matter there). According to a long account of the case by Elsa Walsh published earlier this year in The New Yorker, FBI director Louis Freeh on several occasions urged the White House to pressure the Saudis for more cooperation. More than once, Walsh reports, Freeh was frustrated to learn that the president barely mentioned the case in meetings with Saudi leaders.
Freeh — whose own relations with the White House had deteriorated badly in the wake of the Filegate and campaign-finance scandals — became convinced that the White House didn’t really want to push the Saudis for more information, which Freeh believed would confirm strong suspicions of extensive Iranian involvement in the attack. Walsh reports that in September 1998, Freeh, angry and losing hope, took the extraordinary step of secretly asking former president George H. W. Bush to intercede with the Saudi royal family. Acting without Clinton’s knowledge, Bush made the request, and the Saudis began to provide new information, which indeed pointed to Iran.
In late 1998, Walsh reports, Freeh went to national security adviser Sandy Berger to tell him that it appeared the FBI had enough evidence to indict several suspects. “Who else knows this?” Berger asked Freeh, demanding to know if it had been leaked to the press. Freeh said it was a closely held secret. Then Berger challenged some of the evidence of Iranian involvement. “That’s just hearsay,” Berger said. “No, Sandy,” Freeh responded. “It’s testimony of a co-conspirator . . .” According to Walsh’s account, Freeh thought that “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.”
Ultimately, Freeh never got the support he wanted from the White House. Walsh writes that “by the end of the Clinton era, Freeh had become so mistrustful of Clinton that, although he believed he had developed enough evidence to seek indictments against the masterminds behind the attack, not just the front-line suspects, he decided to wait for a new administration.” Just before Freeh left office, Walsh reports, he met with new president George W. Bush and gave him a list of suspects in the bombing. In June, attorney general John Ashcroft announced the indictment of 14 suspects: 13 Saudis and one Lebanese. It is not clear whether any of them are the “masterminds” of Khobar; none is in American custody and no Iranian officials were named in the indictment.
Both the Khobar investigation and the World Trade Center bombing presented Clinton with daunting challenges; there were sensitive political issues involved, and in each case it was not immediately clear who was behind the violence. But in neither instance did Clinton press hard for answers and demand action; Berger would not have taken the position he did if the president fully supported a vigorous investigation. In the coming years, Clinton would be faced with clear acts of terrorism carried out by an organization with undeniable state support. But again, busy with other things, he did little.
On August 7, 1998, bombs exploded at U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. More than 200 people were killed, including 12 Americans. The morning of the attacks, Clinton said, “We will use all the means at our disposal to bring those responsible to justice, no matter what or how long it takes. . . . We are determined to get answers and justice.”
Investigators quickly discovered that bin Laden was behind the attacks. On August 20, Clinton ordered cruise-missile strikes on a bin Laden camp in Afghanistan and the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. But the strikes were at best ineffectual. There was little convincing evidence that the pharmaceutical factory, which admin istration officials believed was involved in the production of material for chemical weapons, actually was part of a weapons-making operation, and the cruise missiles in Afghanistan missed bin Laden and his deputies.
Instead of striking a strong blow against terrorism, the action set off a howling debate about Clinton’s motives. The president ordered the action three days after appearing before the grand jury investigating the Monica Lewinsky affair, and Clinton’s critics accused him of using military action to change the subject from the sex-and-perjury scandal — the so-called “wag the dog” strategy. Some of Clinton’s allies, suspecting the same thing, remained silent. Even some of those who, after briefings by administration officials, publicly defended the strikes privately questioned Clinton’s decision.
The accusations came as no surprise to the White House. “Everyone knew the ‘wag the dog’ charge was going to be made,” recalls Daniel Benjamin, a terrorism expert on the National Security Council. But Benjamin and others believed — mistakenly, as it turned out — that they could convince the skeptics the attacks were fully justified. “I remember being shocked and deeply depressed over the fact that no one would take seriously what I considered a grave national-security problem,” says Benjamin. “Not only were they not buying it, they were accusing the administration of essentially playing the most shallow and foolish kind of game to deflect attention from other issues. It was astonishing.”
In particular, reporters and some members of Congress were not convinced by the administration’s evidence that the al-Shifa plant was involved in chemical-weapons production. The attack came to be viewed, by consensus, as a screw-up. In a new article in The New York Review of Books, Benjamin suggests that that skepticism, particularly on the part of reporters, scared Clinton away from any more tough action against bin Laden. “The dismissal of the al-Shifa attack as a blunder had serious consequences, including the failure of the public to comprehend the nature of the al-Qaeda threat,” Benjamin writes. “That in turn meant there was no support for decisive measures in Afghanistan — including, possibly, the use of U.S. ground forces — to hunt down the terrorists; and thus no national leader of either party publicly suggested such action.”
After the cruise-missile raids, the administration restricted its work to covert actions breaking up terrorist cells. Benjamin and others say a significant number of terrorist plots were short-circuited, preventing several acts of violence. “I see no reason to doubt their word on that,” says James Woolsey. “They may have been doing a lot of stuff behind the scenes.” But breaking up individual cells while avoiding larger-scale action probably had the effect of postponing terrorist acts rather than stopping them. Woolsey believes that such an approach was part of what he calls Clinton’s “PR-driven” approach to terrorism, an approach that left the fundamental problem unsolved: “Do something to show you’re concerned. Launch a few missiles in the desert, bop them on the head, arrest a few people. But just keep kicking the ball down the field.”
The last act of terrorism during the Clinton administration came on October 12, 2000, when bin Laden operatives bombed the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen. Seventeen American sailors were killed, 39 others were wounded, and one of the U.S.’s most sophisticated warships was nearly sunk.
Clinton’s reaction to the Cole terrorism was more muted than his response to the previous attacks. While he called the bombing “a despicable and cowardly act” and said, “We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable,” he seemed more concerned that the attack might threaten the administration’s work in the Middle East (the bombing came at the same time as a new spate of violence between Israelis and Palestinians). “If [the terrorists’] intention was to deter us from our mission of promoting peace and security in the Middle East, they will fail utterly,” Clinton said on the morning of the attack. The next day, the Washington Post’s John Harris, who had good connections inside the administration, wrote, “While the apparent suicide bombing of the USS Cole may have been the more dramatic episode for the American public, the escalation between Israelis and Palestinians took the edge in preoccupying senior administration officials yesterday. This was regarded as the more fluid of the two problems, and it presented the broader threat to Clinton’s foreign policy aims.”
As in 1998, U.S. investigators quickly linked the bombing to bin Laden and his sponsors in Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. Together with the embassy bombings, the Cole blast established a clear pattern of attacks on American interests carried out by bin Laden’s organization. Clinton had a solid rationale, and would most likely have had solid public support, for strong military action. Yet he did nothing. Perhaps he didn’t want to endanger the cherished goal of Middle East peace. Perhaps he didn’t want to disrupt the 2000 presidential campaign, then in its last days. Perhaps he didn’t know quite what to do. But in the end, the ball was kicked a bit farther down the field.
In early August 1996, a few weeks after the Khobar Towers bombing, Clinton had a long conversation with Dick Morris about his place in history. Morris divided presidents into four categories: first tier, second tier, third tier, and the rest. Twenty-two presidents who presided over uneventful administrations fell into the last category. Just five — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt — made Morris’s first tier.
Clinton asked Morris where he stood. “I said that at the moment he was at the top of the unrated category,” Morris recalls. Morris says he told the president that one surprising thing about the ratings was that a president’s standing had little to do with the performance of the economy during his time in office. “Yeah,” Clinton responded, “It has so much to do with whether you get re-elected or not, but history kind of forgets it.”
Clinton then asked, “What do I need to do to be first tier?” “I said, ‘You can’t,’“ Morris remembers. “‘You have to win a war.’“ Clinton then asked what he needed to do to make the second or third tier, and Morris outlined three goals. The first was successful welfare reform. The second was balancing the budget. And the third was an effective battle against terrorism. “I said the only one of the major goals he had not achieved was a war on terrorism,” Morris says. (This is not a recent recollection; Morris also described the conversation in his 1997 book, Behind the Oval Office.)
But Clinton never began, much less finished, a war on terrorism. Even though Morris’s polling showed the poll-sensitive president that the American people supported tough action, Clinton demurred. Why?
“He had almost an allergy to using people in uniform,” Morris explains. “He was terrified of incurring casualties; the lessons of Vietnam were ingrained far too deeply in him. He lacked a faith that it would work, and I think he was constantly fearful of reprisals.” But there was more to it than that. “On another level, I just don’t think it was his thing,” Morris says. “You could talk to him about income redistribution and he would talk to you for hours and hours. Talk to him about terrorism, and all you’d get was a series of grunts.”
And that is the key to understanding Bill Clinton’s handling of the terrorist threat that grew throughout his two terms in the White House: It just wasn’t his thing. Clinton was right when he said history might care little about the prosperity of his era. Now, as he tries to defend his record on terrorism, he appears to sense that he will be judged harshly on an issue that is far more important than the Nasdaq or 401(k) balances. He’s right about that, too.