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August 16, 2005
NYT: State Warned Clinton In '96 To Stop Bin Laden

The New York Times leads again with another revelation from secret government files about al-Qaeda and the American response to its development into a worldwide organization of terror. In response to a FOIA request, the State Department has declassified internal documents showing that it warned President Bill Clinton to stop Osama bin Laden from relocating to Afghanistan, presciently predicting dire consequences if al-Qaeda established bases among the battle-hardened mujahedin:

State Department analysts warned the Clinton administration in July 1996 that Osama bin Laden's move to Afghanistan would give him an even more dangerous haven as he sought to expand radical Islam "well beyond the Middle East," but the government chose not to deter the move, newly declassified documents show.

In what would prove a prescient warning, the State Department intelligence analysts said in a top-secret assessment on Mr. bin Laden that summer that "his prolonged stay in Afghanistan - where hundreds of 'Arab mujahedeen' receive terrorist training and key extremist leaders often congregate - could prove more dangerous to U.S. interests in the long run than his three-year liaison with Khartoum," in Sudan.

The declassified documents, obtained by the conservative legal advocacy group Judicial Watch as part of a Freedom of Information Act request and provided to The New York Times, shed light on a murky and controversial chapter in Mr. bin Laden's history: his relocation from Sudan to Afghanistan as the Clinton administration was striving to understand the threat he posed and explore ways of confronting him.

Before 1996, Mr. bin Laden was regarded more as a financier of terrorism than a mastermind. But the State Department assessment, which came a year before he publicly urged Muslims to attack the United States, indicated that officials suspected he was taking a more active role, including in the bombings in June 1996 that killed 19 members American soldiers at the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Would this be the same Bill Clinton who sobbed to New York Magazine this week that he wished that the FBI could have told him for sure that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda attacked the USS Cole in 2000? Well, the State Department certainly told him that Osama likely masterminded Khobar Towers, and told him to stop bin Laden from digging into some of the most difficult terrain in which to get him later. Let's also not forget that the FBI told him that bin Laden backed the dual bombings of our African embassies in 1998. What stopped him from going after bin Laden then, except by shooting a few missiles at a training camp?

And one more point needs to be made about these new documents. They do not appear anywhere in the 9/11 report -- not in the voluminous and supposedly definitive history of the American response to al-Qaeda. We have plenty of descriptions about how concerned Clinton was with bin Laden, as well as how inept American intelligence was about collecting data on AQ capabilities and intentions. These documents show exactly the opposite: the State Department had analyzed the situation correctly, and Clinton did nothing about it.

We keep seeing more and more holes in this 9/11 Commission report. I wonder what else we might see tomorrow (besides my column), and the day after that. By this time next week, the narrative of this report will demonstrate nothing but an attempt by the bureaucrats to hang the blame on the operatives that actually had it right all along. It isn't about Democrats vs Republicans; it's about turf protection for civil servants and their masters.

Addendum: What's missing in the Times' timeline from this paragraph?

Two years after the State Department's warning, with Mr. bin Laden firmly entrenched in Afghanistan and overseeing terrorist training and financing operations, Al Qaeda struck two American embassies in East Africa, leading to failed military attempts by the Clinton administration to capture or kill him in Afghanistan. Three years later, on Sept. 11, 2001, Al Qaeda struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in an operation overseen from the base in Afghanistan.

How about the attack on the USS Cole?

Here's what the 9/11 Commission has to say about Clinton in 1996 and his concern about bin Laden:

President Clinton issued a classified directive in June 1995, Presidential Decision Directive 39, which said that the United States should deter, defeat and respond vigorously to all terrorist attacks on our territory and against our citizens.The directive called terrorism both a matter of national security and a crime, and it assigned responsibilities to various agencies.Alarmed by the incident in Tokyo, President Clinton made it the very highest priority for his own staff and for all agencies to prepare to detect and respond to terrorism that involved chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.

During 1995 and 1996, President Clinton devoted considerable time to
seeking cooperation from other nations in denying sanctuary to terrorists. He proposed significantly larger budgets for the FBI, with much of the increase designated for counterterrorism. For the CIA, he essentially stopped cutting allocations and supported requests for supplemental funds for counterterrorism. When announcing his new national security team after being reelected in 1996, President Clinton mentioned terrorism first in a list of several challenges facing the country.

In 1998, after Bin Ladins fatwa and other alarms, President Clinton accepted a proposal from his national security advisor, Samuel Sandy Berger, and gave Clarke a new position as national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection, and counterterrorism. He issued two Presidential Decision Directives, numbers 62 and 63, that built on the assignments to agencies that had been made in Presidential Decision Directive 39; laid out ten program areas for counterterrorism; and enhanced, at least on paper, Clarkes authority to police these assignments.

The report provides not a single mention of the State Department warning, nor does the Commission record any action Clinton took as a result of it. His deep concern reflected only in getting Richard Clarke a position in the White House in charge of counterterrorism -- two years later.

UPDATE: Tigerhawk notes that Richard Clarke's credibility takes a big hit with this release as well.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 16, 2005 10:35 PM

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