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Clinton's Artless Equivocation on 'The Path to 9/11'

By Dennis Byrne

If the worst criticism of President Bush is that he lied to us about Iraq, then we just got a whopping reminder of Bill Clinton's extraordinary talents for deception.

In a letter to ABC's chief Bob Iger, Clinton's attorney, Bruce Lindsey, alleges that the network's program, The Path to 9/11 is "factually and incontrovertibly" inaccurate in suggesting that the Clinton administration let Osama Bin Laden slip through its fingers. Clinton's defenders, from their high horses, arrogantly have demand that the program be edited to their satisfaction, or be pulled entirely.

Bristling at evidence that Clinton and his administration were wavering and indecisive, the letter asserted that the president aggressively tried to "take a shot at Bin Laden." It cites the 9/11 Commission Report for supposedly giving credit to Clinton for approving "every request made of him by the CIA and the U.S. military involving using force against Bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

This is close enough to the truth to make the "I-didn't-inhale" and "I-didn't-have-sex-with-that-woman" Clinton think he can get away with it. But it is far enough away from the truth to be classified as, if not a bold lie, an artless equivocation.

As usual, Clinton figures that the rest of us are too stupid or lazy to look it up for ourselves. And having read the complete report when it came out more than two years ago, I think it is an inescapable fact that a vacillating, equivocating administration had more than one opportunity to take out terrorist mastermind Bin Laden, but blew it.

A good place to look is the report's "Chapter 4: Responses to Al Qaeda's initial assaults," Section 4.5, "Searching for Fresh Options." There you have details of how Bin Laden was ready to be plucked, but someone in the administration either ignored or nixed it. Or put it on an endless "you-decide, not-me" merry-go-round.

For example, the report said the CIA was receiving "reliable" reports that Bin Laden would be in the Sheikh Ali hunting camp in the Afghan desert south of Kandahar until at least midmorning of Feb. 11, 1999. The military was targeting him for a hit with cruise missiles, and only needed a green light. Yet, no missiles were launched, to the disappointment of field agents and the CIA's "Bin Laden" unit. By Feb. 12, Bin Laden had moved on, and the golden opportunity passed.

Still, the CIA hoped that Bin Laden would return to the popular camp, but Richard Clarke, the nation's counterterrorism chief, may have blown it by calling the United Arab Emirate to express his concern about the their officials associating with Bin Laden at the hunting camp. Being no fools, the terrorists within a week had "hurriedly dismantled" and deserted the camp, the report said.

In May, 1999, the report said, the administration may have missed the best and last opportunity to hit Bin Laden with cruise missiles as he was moving in and around Kandahar. "It was a fat pitch, a home run," a senior military official told the commission, confident of the intelligence and the possibility of minimal "collateral damage." The report picks up the story:

"He expected the missiles to fly. When the decision came back that they should stand down, not shoot, the officer said, 'We all just slumped.' He told [the commission] he knew of no one at the Pentagon or the CIA who thought it was a bad game. Bin Laden 'should have been a dead man' that night, he said."

From there, the story gets cloudy. Some told the commission that former CIA Director George Tenet nixed the strike, believing the chance of the intelligence being accurate was only 50-50. (He may have been the only one who thought the odds were that bad.) Tenet told the commission he didn't remember the details. Berger's memory at this historic moment also turned sketchy. "Berger remembered only that in all such cases, the call had been Tenet's. Berger felt sure that Tenet was eager to get Bin Laden. In his view, Tenet did his job responsibly," the report said. It quoted Berger: "George would call and say, 'We just don't have it.'"

Judge for yourself, but to me this sounds like Berger tying to "pin the tail on Tenet."

The report added this tidbit about the administration's inaction: "Replying to a frustrated colleague in the field, the [CIA's] Bin Ladin unit chief wrote: '...having a chance to get [Bin Laden] three times in 36 hours, and foregoing the chance each time has made me a bit angry.'" [Emphasis added.] The field officer opined that it was Tenet who was pushing for an attack, but was standing alone, with Berger adopting the cover-your-ass attitude that it was Tenet's decision, and "we'd go along" with whatever it was.

To be sure, the administration's approach was hesitant, if not overly cautious. Why? They were reflecting Clinton's policy, put into writing in several Memoranda of Notification that he wanted Bin Laden captured and treated humanely, but not killed, unless it was in the process of capture. He even personally edited one memorandum, making it more "ambiguous," the report said. "...[I]t is possible to understand how the former White House officials and the CIA officials might disagree as to whether the CIA was ever authorized by the President to kill Bin Laden."

There should be no disagreement on this: Lindsey's letter to ABC is mere word play. It is couched in equivocations such as Clinton "authorized the use of force" and that the president and Berger had authorized Tenet to "get" Bin Laden. None of it means that Tenet was ordered to kill Bin Laden when he had a chance.

Ahmed Shah Massoud, an Afghanistan Northern Alliance commander who offered to kill Bin Laden for the United States, put the capture-not-kill-decision more succinctly: "You guys are crazy." Lt. Gen William Boykin, a founding member of the elite Delta Force, told the commission, "...opportunities were missed because of an unwillingness to take risks and a lack of vision and understanding."

If they weren't describing the Clinton administration, then who?

A full reading of the report makes clear that the Clinton administration understood the seriousness of the Bin Laden threat, but failed to act decisively. In this, when ABC said "general indecisiveness" allowed the 9/11 attacks, it was correct to include the Clinton administration.

And why the indecisiveness? Rack it up to the idea that he need to prosecute, not kill, terrorists; that someone who has literally declared war on us should be tried with all the rights of American citizens. Maybe we should have tried negotiations instead.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist.

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