Missed opportunities

Debra J. Saunders

3/23/2004 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders

Staffers and supporters of then-President Bill Clinton used to enjoy repeating the old adage, "No good deed goes unpunished."

Now, they're proving the old adage true, as Clinton administration biggies are signifying their intent to finger the Bush administration for not heeding their warnings on al Qaeda.

The worst of it is, President Bush could have passed on to President Clinton some of the blame for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that shocked America some 230 days into his administration. After all, Clintonia was warned about al Qaeda -- by al Qaeda. Al Qaeda was linked with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six and wounded 1,000. Clinton was president when al Qaeda bombs killed 231 people at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Seven years after terrorists tried to destroy the World Trade Center, the Clinton administration failed to prevent Osama bin Laden's operation from attacking the destroyer Cole in 2000, an attack that left 17 dead.

Bush didn't point the finger at Clinton. As former Gov. Pete Wilson, who is on the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, noted, "Bush was willing to give them a pass on this because he thought this was a time for unity, not partisan sniping."

Dubya's reward for not faulting Clinton? The Clinton machine is blaming Bush. On Saturday, The New York Times reported that big fish in the Clinton pond were planning on telling the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks that they had warned the Bushies about al Qaeda but that the Bush White House was slow to react.

Then, on "60 Minutes," Richard Clarke, a former counterterrorism official under both Bush and Clinton, essentially blamed Bush for letting Sept. 11 happen. Said Clarke, "Frankly, I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop Sept. 11. Maybe. We'll never know."

It should tell you something that Clarke doesn't blame the Clinton administration, even though Clinton failed to curb al Qaeda over eight event-rich years. As former Gov. Wilson noted, Clintonia is wandering into dangerous territory if it tries to paint Bush as somehow culpable for the Sept. 11 deaths.

If it were preventable, Wilson asked, "Well, then, why didn't Clinton prevent it?" Clinton, after all, had eight years to fight Osama bin Laden and avenge the deaths of Americans killed in service to their country. Added Wilson, "There's a long record of the (Clinton administration) having ignored escalating acts of terrorism and making an inadequate response."

Consider the words of former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., who told The New York Times, "There was no contemplation of any military action after (the feds discovered how close al Qaeda terrorists had been to coordinated attacks in America during millennium festivities), and there should have been."

Kerrey added that the attack on the Cole was "even worse," because, "it was an Islamic army against our Navy. Just because you don't have a nation-state as your adversary doesn't mean you should not consider a declaration of war."

Last week, NBC's Lisa Myers reported that a CIA plane produced a satellite video of a man believed to be Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan a year before the Sept. 11 attacks. The tape, Myers reported, "illustrates an enormous opportunity the Clinton administration had to kill or capture bin Laden. Critics call it a missed opportunity."

It was an opportunity the Clinton government didn't grab.

Do I blame Clinton for the Sept. 11 attacks? No, absolutely not.

I blame al Qaeda.

I think Clinton could have done things differently. He was too quick to bomb terrorist targets but lax when it came to doing all that needed to be done to fight Osama bin Laden. It would have been nice if Bush were Osama savvy sooner, if he were strong where Clinton was not, but I'm not sure what Bush could have done differently that would have prevented some 3,000 deaths.

I know that America -- Clinton, Bush, Democrat and Republican -- had a wholly different attitude before Sept. 11. Osama bin Laden had declared holy war on America. And America barely noticed.

Not even Clarke seems to have foreseen the carnage to come. And before he started writing his book, that was his job.