Jewish World Review March 26, 2004 / 4 Nissan, 5764

Robert Robb

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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 attacks.

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 some time.

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 CIA.

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 capture him.

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.

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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 year.

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 occurred.

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 national interest.

JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.


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