Toward the end of his second term, President Clinton was frustrated that the CIA didn't have the capability to take out Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. According to the Sept. 11 commission report, Clinton told Gen. Hugh Shelton, "You know it would scare the s--- out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp."
But there was no movie-grade crack ninja team that knew where to go to get bin Laden -- without killing innocent women and children. Instead, there were squabbles over which agency or department would pay for the Predator drones that flew over Afghanistan in search of bin Laden and arguments over which risks were acceptable to get a man who had declared war on America.
Even when a drone found bin Laden at a favored compound, there was no decisive movie moment in which the reluctant president ordered action heroes to get the bad guy. Instead, there were officials who chimed in on the unreliability of intelligence and lawyers who explored if it would be legal for a U.S. team to kill bin Laden -- on purpose or by accident.
After President Bush took office in 2001, the same forces dished up inaction. Officialdom put off attacking al Qaeda in retaliation for the October 2000 terrorist attack on the destroyer Cole that killed 17 because the attack was, by then, "stale" and, the advisers said, they wanted to devise a new, more effective plan of attack. In the meantime, they had no plan.
The simple fact is, until Sept. 11, 2001, it is doubtful either president could have garnered the support needed, domestically or internationally, to stop Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.
U.S. intelligence operatives lacked the knowledge needed to wage a surgical attack. Neither president was eager to risk failure. Why should he?
A potent weapon in bin Laden's arsenal was America's success: Its leaders in Washington and its top bureaucrats were in that fat and happy sphere, analogous to middle age, in which it is easier to do nothing new than to do something new, and where risk presents more possibility of loss than gain. What the commission called "a failure of imagination" was also a fear of innovation.