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Jewish World Review Sept. 24, 2003 / 27 Elul, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Bin Laden and Boy Bill | Few Americans outside the government knew it, but in 1992 the country was already at war with Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist cells. In "Losing Bin Laden: How Bill Clinton's Failures Unleashed Global Terror," investigative reporter Richard Miniter makes his case that the Clinton administration put America at risk by refusing to wage a serious war against terrorism throughout the 1990s. (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR)

This week when I talked by telephone to Miniter -- a self-described constitutionalist who believes passionately in limited government, free speech and social tolerance -- his book was ranked 21st on's sales list.

Q: What, in a sound bite, is your book about -- or does the subhead say it all?

A: My book is an attempt to analyze what Clinton knew about (Osama) bin Laden, when he knew it, and what he did about it. It's a detailed history based on hundreds of interviews with top administration officials, intelligence officials in the United States, Western Europe, the Middle East and East Africa, as well as congressmen, senators, State Department officials and former National Security Council officials and so on. It's a detailed history of the things Clinton did and didn't do.

Q: For example?

A. Some of them are kind of surprising. I reveal the real reason he didn't meet with his CIA director, because he was approached by Bruce Lindsey, the president's lawyer, about putting a "Friend of Bill" on the payroll of the CIA. Jim Woolsey, the CIA director, refused, and after that Clinton froze him out and did not have a private meeting with him for the next two years.

Q: And this was 1993?

A: Yes, January 1993, just after President Clinton was sworn in as president. Freezing out Woolsey had enormous consequences, one of which was that Woolsey realized that the CIA had a real shortage of Arabic language translators. Only about 10 percent of the intelligence that the CIA was gathering from the Middle East was being translated because of the shortage.

So Woolsey went to Congress and asked for the money. Most of the congressmen in the decision-making loop were very much in favor of providing those funds, but Sen. Dennis DiConcini, a Democrat from Arizona, now a former senator, opposed the measure.

He and Jim Woolsey had a very bad chemistry. He said he would only agree to provide the funding for translators for the CIA if President Clinton told him it was a presidential priority. Neither President Clinton nor National Security Adviser Tony Lake would call Sen. DiConcini and tell him it was a priority.

Q: Others have said that 9/11 and bin Laden's success during the 1990s was a result of our intelligence failures or the Clinton administration's disinterest or unwillingness to go after bin Laden. What specifically is new about your book?

A: First of all, the bit about the translators is new. It has never been reported before. The real reason why Clinton did not meet with his CIA director is also news that's never been reported before.

Also what's never before been reported is that I destroy the myth that the CIA ever funded bin Laden, based on interviews with named CIA sources, including two CIA station chiefs who were in charge of funding Afghanistan against the Soviets.

My book also establishes for the first time, using on-the-record sources, that bin Laden armed and trained the Somali warlords and showed them how to bring down American Black Hawk helicopters in September and October 1993.

There's more breaking news in the book as well. I could go on and on.

Q: Is it really fair to single out President Clinton for the failure to stop Osama?

A: Well, presidents are responsible. They take an oath of office to defend America against all threats, foreign and domestic. Bin Laden emerged as a threat on Clinton's watch. The first documented attack by bin Laden on Americans, as I show in my book, was in December 1992. It was an attempt to murder 100 U.S. marines who were based in Yemen in two towering hotels on Aden Harbor.

Those attacks by bin Laden on Americans escalated throughout the Clinton years. Fifty-nine Americans were killed during the Clinton administration -- 59 people. He's clearly responsible for appointing these people -- the Albrights, the Cohens, the Renos, and he could ask for their resignations at any time. Also, he's president of the United States. He can certainly call them, meet with them, and tell them he'd like a much more aggressive response on terrorism, but he didn't.

Q: Why didn't he? Why did he do virtually nothing?

A: "Virtually nothing" is a little too strong. He did do a lot. As I document in the book, Clinton did a lot more actions than people realize. He had a very successful effort to break up the "Millennium plots," which was a cruel scheme to murder thousands of Americans on the Millennium Night in 1999.

In the White House, they forced the FBI, CIA and other agencies to work together, and they ended up arresting dozens of people both inside and outside the United States and foiled a major series of plots that could have been on the same scale of 9/11.

But why didn't he act? That's the difficult question.

Clinton denied numerous entreaties I made to him for an interview. But the people who worked for him cite a number of things. Number 1, that he was scarred by the experience in Mogadishu. He saw how quickly a national security crisis could hurt him in the polls and tarnish his image, and he wasn't willing to take those risks.

Another thing is, he needed to mollify the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. They were the most loyal wing that stood behind him throughout all of the scandals -- and I don't just mean Monica Lewinsky.

If the liberal wing deserted him, he wouldn't have just been impeached; he could well have been removed. So he couldn't alienate that liberal wing by having an aggressive foreign policy. If you want the McGovern wing of the party to support you, you have to conduct your foreign policy as if you're George McGovern.

Q: You've been accused of being a tool of the right-wing Clinton-hating crowd. What's your defense?

A: Well, I think it shows increasing desperation on the part of my critics. The fact is, this is a two-year investigation. It's based on hundreds of interviews, including many top Clinton administration officials. Those interviews are on the record and were recorded and transcribed. A mountain of research supports what's in this book.

Q: President Bush had almost a year to seek out and destroy Osama bin Laden. Was he as vigilant or as aggressive as he should have been?

A: Well, Bill Clinton had eight years to go after bin Laden. George Bush had eight months. My next book is actually going to deal with Bush and what he knew about bin Laden before and after 9/11 and what Bush did about it. So I'm going to apply the same scrutiny to Bush as I have to Clinton.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald