Clinton's do-nothing terror policy

Posted: Oct 16, 2003 12:00 AM

If only President Bush had listened to Bill Clinton. The former president, who is now the Second-Guesser in Chief, told an audience the other day that he had warned President Bush about Osama bin Laden in an "exit interview" as he left office in early 2001. "In his campaign, Bush said that he thought the biggest security issue was Iraq and national missile defense," Clinton said. "I told him that in my opinion, the biggest security problem was Osama bin Laden."

Oh, the Delphic wisdom of the Arkansas bubba! He's a Metternich with an eye for the interns. Clinton was right, of course. Bin Laden was a big security threat, who became steadily bigger during Clinton's years in office. What else could Bush have learned from Clinton during that exit interview? He could have learned how to retreat, how to apologize, how to slap wrists and how to temporize. He could have learned, in short, everything that would need to be reversed in U.S. terror policy within months of his taking office.

Al-Qaida-trained Somali fighters downed American helicopters in the Black Hawk Down battle in 1993. Eighteen Americans died, which was enough for a jumpy Clinton to order a hasty retreat. Bin Laden took notes. "The youth realized," he later explained, "that the American soldier was a paper tiger." By way of explaining the bug-out, a former top Clinton official told me in my new book, "Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years," "We didn't know we were at war with those guys at the time." Oh, well.

The next attack against U.S. interests came in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen. In the midst of the investigation that focused on Iran, which was clearly implicated, Clinton made a quasi-apology to Tehran. "Iran," he said, "has been the subject of quite a lot of abuse from various Western nations." The poor mullahs. Both the Saudis and the FBI became convinced that the administration didn't want to pursue the Khobar investigation because hard evidence of Iranian involvement might force a military response -- and who would want to subject Iran to more "abuse"?

After al-Qaida nearly leveled two American embassies in Africa in 1998, Clinton responded militarily, but with two inconsequential cruise-missile attacks. One was against a probably mistaken target in Sudan. The other was against a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. "We used kid gloves after the embassy bombings," retired Gen. Wayne Downing, former commander of U.S. Special Forces, told me. "Cruise missiles -- that's the coward's way out."

And why attack just one Afghan training camp? Mike Rolince, former chief of the international terrorism division of the FBI, explained to me: "We never went back to the camps and dismantled the neighborhood where these people were allowed to train, test chemicals, recruit, plan operations. On a regular basis, we saw intelligence that documented what they were, where they were, how big they were, how many people were going through there, and the administration lacked the political will to go in there and do something about it."

Amazingly, the Clinton administration didn't even designate Afghanistan a state sponsor of terror. That would have been too bellicose. By 2000, various government reports had recommended what were consensus measures to address the terror threat, from squeezing state sponsors of terror, to cutting off funding, to tightening visa policy, to loosening restrictions on the CIA and FBI. Clinton did none of it.

He was, fundamentally, the do-nothing president about terrorism, although he knew -- as he tells us now -- the grave nature of the threat. It was Bush who could have told Clinton a few things about how to respond to terror in their exit interview, since his instincts were so much sounder. After the al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, Bush as a candidate said that "there must be a consequence." Common sense, right? Not for Clinton. He let the attack go unanswered.