The Magazine

Who Lost Osama?

From the April 12 / April 19, 2004 issue: Richard Clarke is far tougher on the Clinton failures than advertised.

Apr 12, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 30 • By DANIEL C. TWINING
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In addition to ending, purportedly, Iraqi terrorism against the United States by bombing Iraq's empty intelligence headquarters, Clarke also claims credit for ending Iranian terrorism against the United States after the Khobar Towers attack. Today's proponents of rapprochement with Tehran should pay close attention. Clarke has no doubt the Iranian government sponsored the Khobar bombing, which killed nineteen Americans: "The larger attack in Saudi Arabia at Khobar was conducted by Saudi Hezbollah under the close supervision of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Qods Force," he writes. At the time, the CIA judged that "further Iranian-sponsored terrorism against the United States was likely."

This should have been grounds for war, and we learn in Against All Enemies the White House considered it, examining options including a full-scale invasion, attacking Iranian-sponsored terrorist camps in Lebanon, persuading our allies to impose a multilateral economic boycott, and conducting an unspecified "intelligence operation."

Inevitably, the Clinton administration chose the lesser option of a covert operation against Iran, underscoring another theme of the Clinton years: hawkish instincts ("Clinton told us that if it came to using force against Iran, 'I don't want any piss-ant half measures'") that invariably devolved into a policy that did not accomplish the objective but gave the illusion of having acted decisively.

Clarke unwittingly highlights the Clinton administration's lack of credibility by linking Saudi Arabia's failure to cooperate on the Khobar Towers investigation to Saudi skepticism about Clinton's backbone: "Some in the Saudi royal family . . . reportedly welcomed the possibility of a U.S. war with Iran, if America could remove the Tehran regime. [Saudi Ambassador Prince] Bandar . . . suggested that all that was stopping the Saudis from implicating Iran was the fear that American retaliation would be halfhearted. If the U.S. could promise a full-scale fight to the finish, then the kingdom would probably tell all that it knew about the Iranian role in the Khobar attack."

Of course, Clinton did not take such measures, and Saudi Arabia never told us what it knew about the Khobar bombing. Clarke contradicts his own claim that the covert operation against Iran ended Iranian terrorism by acknowledging that "the Iranian security services continued to support escalating terrorism against Israel and allowed al Qaeda safe passage and other support"--including, I would add, after September 11, 2001.

BY FAR THE MOST FASCINATING PART of Against All Enemies, and the bulk of the book, chronicles the rise of al Qaeda as seen by the Clinton White House. As with Iraq and Iran, the best of intentions and initially sound instincts achieved brief tactical goals without defining a strategic course for victory. In sketching an image of an engaged president who, in his own words, believed that the United States was at war with al Qaeda, but who failed to weaken the organization, Clarke paints a portrait of Clinton in some ways more devastating than the caricature created by his political opponents.

The critique comes down to this fact: President Clinton, who commanded the world's most powerful military and presided over nearly a decade of peace between the world's great powers, knew al Qaeda was operating in fifty countries, running agents and sleeper cells inside the United States, seeking weapons of mass destruction, churning out terrorists from its Afghan training camps, attacking targets around the world, and planning major terrorist offensives against the United States.

Full awareness of al Qaeda was not some slow awakening that came only late in the Clinton presidency. Clarke explains that "because of the many known terrorism events of 1993, the Clinton team, from the president down, was seized with the issue by 1994." Presidential Decision Directive 39, the "United States Policy on Counterterrorism" issued in 1994, called for both offensive and defensive actions to "reduce terrorist capabilities" and minimize the nation's vulnerabilities. It stated that U.S. policy would have "no greater priority than preventing the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction" by terrorists.