President Bush’s former counter-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke, who also served under Presidents Reagan, Bush Senior, and Clinton, has charged that the current administration was, in effect, asleep at the wheel prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. These allegations will no doubt play themselves out over the next several weeks. But Clarke has also, inadvertently, provided an unflattering glimpse behind the scenes of the Clinton presidency.
In an interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press Sunday morning, Clarke was asked why Clinton, whom Clarke has praised for his attentiveness to the threat of terrorism, didn’t bomb al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan after the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors — despite Clarke’s recommendation that he do so.
Defending Clinton, Clarke replied (emphasis added): “The FBI and the CIA refused to say who did it in October of 2000. The president was therefore faced with the problem: ‘Can I go ahead and bomb somebody in retaliation for the attack on the Cole when my CIA director and my FBI director won’t say who did it?’ Now this is the same president who, when he [previously] bombed … al Qaeda camps, because George Tenet and I and Sandy Berger recommended he do it, in order to get bin Laden and the leadership team, where we thought they were going to be meeting, the reaction he faced to that was the so-called wag-the-dog phenomenon.… [The media and Congress] said ‘This is all about Monica Lewinsky. This is all about your political problems.’ So now the same president, who had that experience the last time he fired cruise missiles at bin Laden, wants to fire cruise missiles at bin Laden, but now he’s got a CIA director and an FBI director who won’t say bin Laden did it. I would still have done it. I recommended doing it. Do I think it was a mistake that we didn’t do it? Yes. But let’s understand the context.”
The key line is italicized. Clarke asserts that President Clinton wanted to fire cruise missiles into Afghanistan to kill bin Laden, on Clarke’s own recommendation, but finally decided against it because of wag-the-dog accusations he had encountered during the Lewinsky scandal.
That’s worth bearing in mind the next time Clinton defenders argue that his personal indiscretions were his own business. If the fallout over the Lewinsky scandal in any way colored his decision not to go after bin Laden in 2000 — as Clarke alleges — then history will judge Clinton’s inability to keep his pants zipped in a far different light.