WASHINGTON -- On Oct. 12, 2000, the day of the devastating terrorist attack on the USS Cole, President Clinton's highest-level national security team met to determine what to do. Counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke wanted to hit Afghanistan, aiming at Osama bin Laden's complex and the terrorist leader himself. But Clarke was all alone. There was no support for a retaliatory strike that, if successful, might have prevented the 9/11 carnage.
This startling story is told for the first time in a book by Brussels-based investigative reporter Richard Miniter to be published this week. "Losing bin Laden" relates that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and CIA Director George Tenet all said no to the attack. I have contacted enough people attending the meeting to confirm what Miniter reports. Indeed, his account is based on direct, on-the-record quotes from participants.
Miniter, who was part of the Sunday Times of London investigation of Clinton vs. bin Laden, has written a bitter indictment of the American president (its subtitle: "How Bill Clinton's Failures Unleashed Global Terror"). But by the time of the Cole disaster with only weeks left in his presidency, Clinton had focused on the terrorist threat. The problem of the Oct. 12 meeting was the caution common to all councils of war. Arguments by participants sound valid, but collectively they built a future catastrophe.
Al Qaeda's bombing of the billion-dollar U.S. destroyer fulfilled Dick Clarke's prediction of the terrorists seeking U.S. military targets. Hours after the attack, Clarke presided over a meeting of four terrorism experts in the White House Situation Room. He and the State Department's Michael Sheehan agreed this almost certainly was bin Laden's doing, but the FBI and CIA representatives wanted more investigation.
That deadlock preceded a meeting of Cabinet-level officials that same day. Clarke proposed already targeted retaliation against bin Laden's camps and Taliban buildings in Kabul and Kandahar. At least, they would destroy the terrorist infrastructure. A quick strike might also get Osama bin Laden. "Around the table," Miniter writes, "Clarke heard only objections." As related by Clarke, the meeting exemplified ministerial caution.