Jewish World Review March 26, 2004 / 4 Nissan, 5764
Knock off the high-stakes blame game
Does the United States really want to play the blame game about 9/11?
Right now, the focus is on whether President Bush and his administration
were aggressive enough against al-Qaeda prior to the hijacked airplane
That charge has been made explicitly by former Clinton and Bush
counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke. And while the activities of both
the Clinton and Bush administrations are under review by the National
Commission on Terrorist Attacks, those of the Bush administration are
receiving most of the media attention.
However, a similar charge that the Clinton administration was lax in
fighting terrorism has been a cottage industry in conservative circles for
Obviously, in retrospect, it would have been better to have done more to
incapacitate al-Qaeda earlier. But the charge that either the Clinton or
Bush administrations didn't take al-Qaeda seriously, or weren't taking
obviously warranted action based upon what was then known, isn't supported
by the record.
Among some on the right, claims by Sudanese officials to have offered to
turn over Osama bin Laden to the U.S. before he set up operations in
Afghanistan are taken at face value. But Clinton administration officials
deny that such an offer was ever made. And spurning it doesn't square with
the rest of what the administration was trying to do about al-Qaeda.
Under Clinton, a special section devoted to Bin Laden was set up in the
The administration got Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to exert significant
pressure on the Taliban to give up Bin Laden to the United States or some
other country that would bring him to justice. Or, at a minimum, expel him
so he wouldn't have a safe haven.
Local Afghan groups were enlisted to try to capture Bin Laden.
Consideration was given to using U.S. forces to do the same.
And, of course, there was an effort to kill bin Laden with cruise missiles.
There is a dispute between Clinton national security officials and the CIA
over the extent to which lethal force had been authorized. Clinton
officials say it was explicit and unrestricted. CIA officials believed that
they were authorized to kill bin Laden only in the course of trying to
Regardless, the Clinton administration took bin Laden seriously, tried to eliminate his safe haven diplomatically, and to dislodge or kill him through direct U.S. military and covert action.
Clarke's charge that when the Bush administration took over, it reduced the
urgency of dealing with al-Qaeda also does not square with the record.
Almost immediately after taking office, the Bush administration began
working on an even more aggressive strategy. This was a tiered approach
that began with intensifying the diplomatic pressure the Clinton
administration brought to bear, but then moved on to deposing the Taliban
and taking direct military action against al-Qaeda.
This did take nine months to develop. But by governmental standards, that's
not particularly long, especially since key administration officials
weren't confirmed until March and even extending into the summer of that
Moreover, Clarke's charge has been thoroughly impeached by a press briefing
he gave in 2002 in which he said that all of the Clinton administration's
efforts against al-Qaeda had been "vigorously" continued while this more
aggressive strategy was developed.
Clarke urged basically two courses of more aggressive action: aid to the
Northern Alliance that was fighting the Taliban and more consistent,
small-scale bombing of al-Qaeda facilities.
The Clinton administration rejected both. Aid to the Northern Alliance, in
conjunction with similar assistance to the Taliban's Pashtun opposition,
was under consideration by the Bush administration when the 9/11 attacks
Today, we know the domestic reach of al-Qaeda and wish more had been done.
But at the time, al-Qaeda, while a serious disruptive force in the region,
had only attacked U.S. foreign embassies and the USS Cole. Total American
deaths from these attacks had numbered less than 30.
The threat was almost universally regarded as foreign, not domestic.
As opposed to the drama of high officials being put on the spot at these
commission hearings, the real lapses that made 9/11 possible were rather
banal. The visa applications for most of the hijackers should have been
rejected because they were incomplete.
Moreover, by March of 2000, federal security agencies knew that two
al-Qaeda operatives who later played key roles in the 9/11 attacks were in
the country. They were not apprehended or surveilled. And their presence
was not made known to senior officials in either administration.
Perhaps there is value in getting the narrative leading up to 9/11 on the
public record. But the high-stakes blame game going on doesn't serve the
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