Last night I heard one of the talking heads slamming President Clinton’s lack of action regarding Bin Laden. Essentially the President was being accused of being too fearful of international criticism due to collateral damage. Well from reading the 9/11 report this accusation isn’t precisely accurate.
The 9/11 report has been advertised as being non-partisan and objective and from my reading of this report I concur in this assessment. This report essentially presents documented facts in chronological order that describe who did what, when, and why. The report draws no conclusions and makes no accusations but leaves that task up to the reader. In many ways by offering no interpretation the report is more damning than if they had offered some opinions but then that would have discredited the report. However, this report describes the various actions and plans regarding Bin Laden during the Clinton Administration.
It seems clear (at least to me) that President Clinton wanted to whack Bin Laden and had instructed his staff – on several occasions – to prepare plans to either capture or kill Bin Laden. None of these plans ever went anywhere for a variety of reasons. First, they were constrained by the congressional directive forbidding assassination, which meant that all plans had to be oriented toward capturing him. This was later amended but initially the plans focused on capturing him, which meant that we had to know his precise location. This required the CIA to locate him with some precision and they had to rely on “tribals” which turned out to be not very reliable.
Once plans were made – and there were many—they were consistently objected to the Presidential Staff. General Zinni objected because all of the plans were either too risky militarily or had too low of a probability of success. Reading between the lines it seems obvious that Zinni was afraid of repeating the desert debacle of the Carter Administration, consequently he wanted a foolproof plan. Not a very admirable quality in a General. When Zinni was not actively opposing the various plans Madeline Albright objected because various countries might be offended for various reasons. Even when Ms Albright was supportive Janet Reno was opposed. In fact Janet Reno opposed every plan for fear that some “innocent” bystander would get hurt. This reached its insane pinnacle when the last viable opportunity to whack Bin Laden was passed over because a Prince from the United Arab Emirates was with Bin Laden. Reno and Albright didn’t want to offend the UAE. The fact is that the Prince was consorting with a known and wanted terrorist in a known and identified terrorists training camp but this didn’t seem to excuse taking action and apologizing later.
The fact is that President Clinton was urging action and was being thwarted by his staff. Because he was in charge he can be accused of taking no action but the fact is he was trying but was being undercut by a very timid staff and he was too distracted by his personal affairs to deal with the situation more forcefully.
The 9/11 report clearly indicates that the CIA was ineffective for many reasons but mostly due to congressional directives that hampered the exchange of information. The determination to avoid any semblance of a secret police spying on the population resulted in such a level of compartmentalization that it was impossible to connect the intelligence dots. It seems ironic when President Bush moved to correct this situation the very people who created the problem opposed his actions to correct them even while they were demanding action. Nevertheless, my point is that President Clinton tried to do what needed to be done but he selected a staff that was too reactive to public opinion to be effective. This doesn’t seem to be a failing of President Bush.