Does Bill Clinton bear any culpability for what happened on Sept. 11? Let me first anticipate some objections to the question. Obviously, the former president did nothing consciously to allow terrorists to blow up the World Trade Center. Like everyone else in this country, Clinton and his top officials had no notion that such a deed was possible, let alone being planned. I want to make it clear that in asking the question I’m inquiring into a level of responsibility that is decidedly tertiary, if it exists at all. Real blame lies with the terrorists, their witting accomplices, and their allies. And I’ll acknowledge that to focus the issue on Clinton–rather than on Congress, on our last several presidents, or on various federal agencies–is to apply the already suspect faculty of hindsight in a politically loaded way.
Nevertheless, the question hangs in the air because of Clinton’s executive proximity to the event. The attacks occurred on George W. Bush’s watch, but much of the groundwork for them was laid under Bush’s immediate predecessor. And the question is valid enough that former members of the Clinton administration are pretty clearly losing sleep over it themselves. Recent comments by former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Clinton himself are implicit responses to the contention that they could have done something to prevent the catastrophe. Clinton defenders who instinctively recoil from such an inquest should also think back a decade to the fuss over whether President George H.W. Bush bore some responsibility for not deterring Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It seems to me that in that case the evidence pointed strongly in the direction of Bush and his State Department being indirectly at fault. You can hardly accept that conclusion and avoid this inquiry.
To explore this issue in a serious way, we first have to break down the question. There are many kinds of failures that contributed in some way to the overall failure of terrorism prevention on Sept. 11, and each is a fit subject for chapter-length analysis. Without going into the deepest historical, cultural, and psychological causes, though, it seems to me that there are four clear failures of American policy that raise questions about the Clinton administration’s culpability. First, there was a massive foreign policy failure. We did not recognize the full terrorist hazard brewing abroad in general and in Afghanistan in particular. Second, there was a dramatic intelligence failure. We did not pick up on possible hints and signals that an attack was coming and aren’t well equipped now to know what else might be headed our way. Third, there was what you might call a failure of military pre-emption, which relates to the intelligence failure. We weren’t able to get Osama Bin Laden before he got us. Fourth and finally, there was a domestic security failure. We didn’t take the kind of precautions that might have stopped such an attack from being carried out. What part of these failures is it fair to deposit at Bill Clinton’s doorstep?
Let’s take the foreign policy failure first. Clearly, the contributing missteps in this area began well before Clinton became president. After the mujahideen rebels drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan in 1989, the United States withdrew its attention from the country as well, just as we did in Nicaragua, another country where the anti-Communist forces we supported proved victorious. It is impossible to know what might have happened if we had taken the responsibility of nation-rebuilding in Afghanistan more seriously. But there is at least a non-trivial chance that we might somehow have prevented the Taliban takeover that occurred in 1996 and Afghanistan’s subsequent devolution into a haven for international terrorists. There’s enough blame for that abandonment to go around: Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush deserve some of it for not seeing any continuing responsibility on our part. The American news media deserves some blame as well for not paying closer attention.
The Clinton administration deserves plenty as well for exacerbating this neglect. Shocking fact: Warren Christopher never publicly mentioned Afghanistan during his entire tenure as Secretary of State. While the Taliban were seizing power from 1994 to ‘96, U.S. policy was actually sympathetic to them, according to Ahmed Rashid’s invaluable book Taliban. Among their other reasons, American policymakers thought the Taliban could serve as a strategic counterweight to Iran and an ally against the heroin trade. It wasn’t until late 1997 that the Taliban’s grotesque oppression of women spurred Christopher’s successor Madeleine Albright to denounce the regime. Afghanistan only became a genuine foreign policy priority after the Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings in 1998. In an administration that could be inattentive to foreign affairs, a low priority problem like Afghanistan was a no-priority problem until disaster struck. You can make a version of this argument about the larger issue of domestic terrorism as well. The people who spent the 1990s arguing that we faced a bigger threat than we thought have been gruesomely vindicated. A president more instinctively inclined toward security issues, and less toward economic and social ones, might have made the country as a whole more concerned and vigilant.
That’s the foreign policy case against Clinton. The rejoinder is that but for the period of the Soviet occupation, the United States has always ignored and neglected Afghanistan, a country that has ever been a losing proposition for meddlesome superpowers. What’s more, there’s no evidence that a more engaged policy would have prevented the Taliban from coming to power or deposed it afterward. It’s even more of a guessing game to speculate on what might have become of Osama Bin Laden if we had somehow prevented Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist haven. Presumably he would have set up his training camps somewhere else. Who knows? It does seem to me reasonable, however, to criticize the Clinton administration for ignoring internal critics like former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphel and external ones like Barnett Rubin, both of whom warned us to pay more attention to Afghanistan long before 1998. Then again, I can’t make a case that a different administration would have behaved differently or that doing so would have produced a demonstrably different end result.
Clinton comes off somewhat better, it seems to me, in an analysis of the intelligence failure of Sept. 11. In the wake of the attack, there has been a near-universal demand for better “humint,” the human intelligence-gathering and black bag capability that the CIA supposedly once had. It’s nice to think that in its heyday, the agency might have been able to make Osama Bin Laden’s beard fall out or at least pass on a clue about the jeopardy we were in from his suicide butchers. But those skills have been in decline for 30 years and may never have been very good. We know now that a huge proportion of our Soviet-realm agents recruited during the Cold War were in fact double agents. The CIA was unable to draw a bead on Saddam Hussein when a former CIA director named George Bush was president.
Perhaps a very modest contributing factor in this loss of proficiency was the now much-criticized Clinton-supported regulation that required higher-level approval for putting bad hats on the CIA’s payroll. But even that change was a reflection of other more significant factors: the agency’s own screw-ups, the decline of its old “cowboy” culture, the tension between democracy and secrecy, and so on. Some people, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, spent the 1990s arguing that we didn’t need a CIA at all. Clinton, however, never bought into this argument. His administration consistently supported a robust budget for the CIA, reportedly in the range of $30 billion. And Clinton’s final choice to head the agency, George Tenet, was popular enough with George W. Bush to keep his job in a Republican administration. In short, it’s hard to make a convincing case that our failure to know what Bin Laden was up to had much to do with policies specific to the Clinton administration.
Related to our intelligence failure is a military failure: that we didn’t capture or kill Bin Laden before Sept. 11. A piece that appeared earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal contended that Clinton passed up a clear opportunity to nail Bin Laden in 1996. That article is based on a less charged account in the Washington Post that described what happened when Bin Laden wore out his welcome in Sudan, his base of operations until 1996. The facts are muddy, but apparently the otherwise hostile government in Khartoum was willing to deport Bin Laden to Saudi Arabia, where National Security Council officials hoped he would be beheaded. The Saudis, however, didn’t want him back. U.S. officials eager to have Bin Laden uprooted from Sudan settled for his being deported to Afghanistan. Though it’s not clear that the unfriendly Sudanese government would have been willing to hand him over to us directly, we apparently did not press for it to do so. Nor did we try to eliminate Bin Laden en route to Afghanistan. We might also have leaned harder on Riyadh to accept him.
With hindsight, of course, we should have stopped at nothing to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden in 1996. But that’s like saying we should have assassinated Hitler in 1929. In 1929, Hitler wasn’t Hitler. Though Bin Laden had been implicated in a failed attempt to blow up a hotel where U.S. troops were stationed in Yemen in 1992, he hadn’t at that time yet succeeded in killing any Americans. As a result, Sandy Berger says that the FBI lacked the evidence to indict him. What’s more, our rules of engagement in those days were peacetime rules, not the wartime ones we have now that would allow us to shoot down a chartered plane taking Bin Laden from one country to another.
The Clinton administration clearly did make a very serious effort to kill Osama Bin Laden after the African embassy bombings in 1998. Much of this ongoing effort was detailed in a Sept. 30 article in the New York Times that serves as a counterpoint to the Post piece. On Aug. 20, 1998, our cruise missiles apparently missed him by an hour. The Clinton administration also made an aggressive effort to block Bin Laden’s money. William Wechsler, a former NSC official who ran an interagency working group charged with undermining Bin Laden’s financial network, notes that the details of this effort remain mostly invisible, since they often involved diplomatic efforts to get foreign banks and governments to not deal with Bin Laden and his various enterprises. One public success he points to is the Clinton administration’s successful effort to shut down the Taliban-run Ariana Airlines, which had been a major vehicle for Bin Laden. Even critics of Clinton policy don’t deny that his administration came to focus very intently, if unsuccessfully, on Bin Laden himself. Indeed, Bush’s top Afghan official Zalmay Khalilzad has argued that Clinton was too Bin Laden-obsessed, to the exclusion of all the other terrible things happening in Afghanistan. In any case, there’s not much basis for thinking that a different president, such as George H.W. Bush or Bob Dole, would have done things any differently either in 1996 or in 1998.
Next comes our domestic security failure. It now seems obvious that our airport and airplane security were catastrophically lax; that the FBI failed to investigate crucial leads; and that interagency cooperation, such as that between the INS and FBI, was woefully inadequate. These retrospective scandals continue to unfold. One might think that an administration devoted to “reinventing government” would have homed in on precisely these kinds of management and coordination issues. But by not doing so, it hardly distinguished itself for carelessness. Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge is now discovering the daunting bureaucratic obstacles to greater cooperation among the dozens of federal agencies with law enforcement and security functions. Nor is there much of a case that Clinton failed to give law enforcement agencies the appropriate tools to catch terrorists because he was overly solicitous of civil liberties. Eight years’ worth of outraged Anthony Lewis columns testify that our former president couldn’t have cared less about the issue.
On balance, I’d say that before 1998, the Clinton administration was negligent about Osama Bin Laden, Afghanistan, and the threat from terrorism generally. But so were lots of others, including almost all of those blaming Clinton now. And there’s no way to prove that a higher level of concern would have been substantially likely to prevent or mitigate what happened on Sept. 11. Clinton could have done more. But whether it would have made any difference, no one can really say.