'Losing bin Laden'

Posted: Sep 01, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

Atty. Gen. Reno, told by the FBI that the terrorists were still unidentified, argued that retaliation violated international law. Reno and the CIA's Tenet wanted more investigation. Secretary of State Albright is quoted as saying that with renewed Israeli-Palestinian fighting, "bombing Muslims wouldn't be helpful at this time." (Albright later told Miniter she would have taken a different position if she had "definitive" proof of bin Laden's involvement.)

Defense Secretary Cohen's position at the meeting is most surprising. The only Republican in the Clinton Cabinet was architect of missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan after the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa. Clarke remembers Cohen saying the attack on the Cole "was not sufficiently provocative" and that heavy bombing of Afghanistan might cause upheaval in neighboring Pakistan. When I contacted him, Cohen said he did not recall this meeting but that "certainly I regarded the Cole as a major provocation."

The State Department's Sheehan, formerly with Special Forces and now with the New York City Police Department, did not blame Bill Cohen. "It was the entire Pentagon," he told Miniter, adding he was "stunned" and "taken aback" by the lack of Defense Department desire to retaliate. After the meeting, Sheehan told Clarke, prophetically: "What's it going to take to get them to hit al Qaeda in Afghanistan? Does al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon?"

At the Cabinet-level meeting, only Dick Clarke wanted retaliation. Indeed, he was viewed as a hothead, always demanding bombs away. So much pain has been inflicted, and so much blood has been spilled since then, that the meeting has faded from the memory of its participants -- until stirred up by Clarke in Miniter's book.

Less than a month after the Cole disaster, CIA analysts had concluded bin Laden was behind it (though the FBI was still clueless). Osama bin Laden had virtually claimed credit for the most successful attack on a U.S. naval vessel since World War II. He and his gang had escaped to plan greater misery for America.

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