The Magazine

Not in Command

Bill Clinton's military aide tells all.

Apr 21, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 31 • By BENJAMIN SCHEMMER
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Dereliction of Duty

The Eyewitness Account of How Bill Clinton Endangered America's National Security

by Robert Patterson

Regnery, 219 pp., $27.95

BILL CLINTON FACES SOME ARTFUL DODGING if his memoir, due this fall from Random House, is to answer the charges in "Dereliction of Duty," a compelling account of the White House by Clinton's senior military aide from May 1996 to May 1998. Lieutenant Colonel Robert "Buzz" Patterson was a battle-tested pilot who flew in Grenada, Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, and Bosnia, but his time with Clinton so disillusioned him, he turned down a promotion and retired after twenty years of service.

Only one other military aide in recent history has written about his work in the White House. That was Chester V. "Ted" Clifton Jr., President Kennedy's senior military aide. (Clifton stayed on to serve Lyndon Johnson from 1963 to 1965.) But Clifton's "The Memories, 1961-1963, JFK" was essentially a nostalgic, photographic history of the social environment in the Kennedy White House. Patterson's "Dereliction of Duty," by contrast, is all substance--and that substance forms a compelling indictment of Bill Clinton as America's commander in chief.

In 1998, for instance, a watch officer in the White House situation room notified national security adviser Sandy Berger that Osama bin Laden had been located and was vulnerable for two hours to an attack by Tomahawk cruise missiles. "Amazingly," Patterson writes,

President Clinton was not available. Berger tried again and again. . . . The window of opportunity was closing fast. For about an hour Berger couldn't get the president on the line. . . . Though the president was always accompanied by military aides and the Secret Service, he was somehow unavailable. . . . Finally, the president accepted Berger's call. There was discussion, there were pauses--and no decision. . . . Berger was forced to wait. . . . The president eventually called back. He was still indecisive. . . . We didn't pull the trigger. We "studied" the issue until it was too late.

Patterson contends this "lost bin Laden hit typified the Clinton administration's ambivalent, indecisive way of dealing with terrorism," which amounted to "gross negligence." In another example, Patterson relates how in September 1996 the president, watching a golf tournament in Manassas, Virginia, refused to take three urgent phone calls from the White House. Sandy Berger needed a decision on launching the airstrike against Iraq that Clinton had warned of two days earlier when he told a California audience, "action is imminent." Pilots were in their cockpits, but Clinton refused to take Berger's call, irritated his hobnobbing in the VIP tent had been interrupted. Berger called twice more; Clinton's responses were "I'll call Berger when I get a chance" and "Tell Berger that I'll give him a call on my way back to the White House." By the time Clinton climbed into his limousine, "we'd missed our opportunity," Patterson mourns. "The president was watching golf."

Clinton's disdain of the military permeates this book, as does Hillary Clinton's, whose "harsh, difficult, and unpredictable" manner and "rudeness" included "every vulgar word you've ever heard." But Clinton's casual approach to his responsibilities as commander in chief was far worse. Early in 1998, he lost the card containing the nuclear-launch codes, which he usually bound with rubber bands to credit cards in his pants pockets. "I'll track it down, guys," he promised his aides. It was never found.

The premier symbol of American military prowess, Air Force One, became Clinton's favorite toy. No president in American history traveled more; he made 133 trips to 74 foreign countries (more than Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon combined). But the "Clinton administration didn't just visit a foreign country; it invaded."

On Patterson's last trip to Africa with Clinton in 1998, "The accompanying staff totaled 1,302 federal officials." Military Airlift Command flew 144 cargo missions and 110 aerial refueling missions to support them. During 1995 and 1996, the Clintons invited at least 477 guests to accompany them (and that isn't counting staff, family members, and the press). One trip to southern Asia in 2000, after Patterson left the White House, required 354 scheduled airlift missions, enough to move two Army divisions with all their supplies and equipment.