The Clinton spin machine remains in full counter-attack mode, as evidenced by the former President's contentious interview today on Fox News Sunday. It was vintage Bill Clinton--almost like something out of a Michael Ramierz cartoon; purple-faced, eyes bugging, index finger pointing vigorously as he tried to defend his record in fighting terrorism. At one point, he told interviewer Chris Wallace "I see you have that smirk on your face."
Clinton's defense is based on the premise of "at least I tried" to do something about bin Laden. According to Mr. Clinton, he "authorized" the CIA to get groups together to kill the Al Qaida leader and prepared battle plans to invade Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban, after the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 1999. However, Clinton says a lack of basing rights in neighboring Uzbekistan prevented him from putting the plan into action. The U.S. gained basing rights in that country after 9-11.
Mr. Clinton believes these efforts are what separates him from the "right-wingers" who have criticized his anti-terrorism policies. "They had eight months to try. They did not try. I tried and failed."
Of course, it probably depends on how you define "try." There's plenty of evidence to suggest that some of Clinton's "attempts" left a lot to be desired. Let's begin with that basing issue in Uzbekistan. Is the former President suggesting that the full weight of American diplomacy--plus some well-timed financial aid--couldn't have convinced the Uzbeks to provide the required basing rights? And, what's the record of U.S. diplomatic efforts in the region during that period? I don't require any high-profile visits to Uzbekistan by Mr. Clinton or his Secretary of State, which might have helped secure the necessary basing arrangements.
But that's a relatively minor point. On the issue of "getting" bin Laden, Clinton recommends the recollections of former terrorism "czar" Richard Clarke, as an accurate record of his administration's efforts. But there are some problems with Mr. Clarke's version of events . By some accounts, Clarke was more pre-occupied with cyber-terrorism than the Al Qaida threat, no less a Bush critic than Michael Scheuer ( a retired CIA operative and author of Imperial Hubris) has serious problems with Clarke's recollections. Scheuer has even described Clarke as one of the "authors of 9-11." And, if that assertion is true, then some of the blame rests with Mr. Clinton as well.
Additionally, the former President has never offered a satisfactory explanation of why he turned down Sudan's offer to hand over bin Laden in the mid-1990s. Various members of his administration have suggested that rumors of a deal were exaggerated; critics paint a far different picture, indicating that the Clinton team rejected several offers that would have resulted in bin Laden's arrest or containment, years before 9-11.
Clinton's case is also undercut by his record on other terrorism-related issues. Former FBI Director Louis Freeh has excoriated Mr. Clinton for refusing to follow-up on critical leads in the 1996 bombing of the U.S. military Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia. Obviously, the Saudi plot didn't involve Al Qaida, but it is indicative of a President who was indifferent (at best) on the most important security issue faced by his administration.
In his mind, Clinton probably believes that he truly tried to battle terrorism. But his record shows that he didn't try hard enough. Confronted by tough questions on what he did and didn't do on terrorism, Mr. Clinton (instead) pointed an accusatory finger at the right-wing conspiracy. Sad--and utterly predictable.