August 17, 2005

Asleep at the Switch

Eric Lichtblau writing in the NYT:

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....

...Critics of the Clinton administration have accused it of ignoring the threat posed by Mr. bin Laden in the mid-1990's while he was still in Sudan, and they point to claims by some Sudanese officials that they offered to turn him over to the Americans before ultimately expelling him in 1996 under international pressure. But Clinton administration diplomats have adamantly denied that they received such an offer, and the Sept. 11 commission concluded in one of its staff reports that it had "not found any reliable evidence to support the Sudanese claim."

The newly declassified documents do not directly address the question of whether Sudan ever offered to turn over Mr. bin Laden. But the documents go well beyond previous news and historical accounts in detailing the Clinton administration's active monitoring of Mr. bin Laden's movements and the realization that his move to Afghanistan could make him an even greater national security threat.

Several former senior officials in the Clinton administration did not return phone calls this week seeking comment on the newly declassified documents.

The Clinton Administration, shall we say, had other priorities. Meantime, of course, George Bush is castigated for not somehow divining via the August 6 PDB that, you know, 9/11 was in the offing. Recall, the salient language from the PDB read:

We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [redacted] service in 1998 saying that Bin Ladin wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft to gain the release of the "Blind Shaykh" 'Umar' Abd al-Rahman and other U.S. held extremists.

Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for
hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of
federal buildings in New York.

Via Dowdification, perhaps, one could arrive at "hijack...U.S. aircraft..attacks....buildings in New York..." Why, Bush shoulda known UBL was orchestrating a bulls-eye direct hit on Towers 1 and 2--but instead he sat around Crawford and didn't do diddley-squat about it. For shame! Well, no, not really. An intel brief hit his desk that made vague reference to federal buildings in New York being staked, that there was some "sensational threat reporting" about possible hijackings (that didn't reference turning the aircraft into flying missiles--the PDB was more by way of signaling some conventional hijacking as some trade to gain release of Rahman) and so on.

Don't miss the beginning of the PDB either:

"Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate Bin Ladin
since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the United States
." Since '97? Hey, when did Dubya assume office remind me again? And weren't such 'clandestine, foreign government and media reports' coming in just half a year after the State Department was indicating to the Clinton White House that UBL's move to Afghanistan would enhance his operational capability and prove potentially perilous to the U.S.? So what did we do about it in '97, '98, '99 and '00? Not much at all. Yeah, I know, old news. But Lichtblau's piece brought back memories...apologies for this little time capsule journey. But, hey, next time some charlatan-like revisionist yells 'Bush Knew' and "August '01 PDB" in the same breath--give him or her a little reality check, OK?

Posted by Gregory at August 17, 2005 02:51 AM | TrackBack (0)

Thanks for this inconvenient reminder to the Bush Derangement Syndrome folks. Add to this the troubling info coming out on Able Danger, the refusal to allow investigation of Moussaoui's computer, Stephanopoulos' veto of canceling driver's licenses of expired visa holders, and we start to realize how many opportunities to get a grip on this problem were aborted by our hair-trigger, hypersensitive view of civil liberties.

Posted by: wayne at August 17, 2005 04:10 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Yup, bin Laden/been forgotten was a threat but somehow never found the opportunity to do anything until incumbent knuckleheads came in and started their missile defense/old school Cold War theatrics.

In the same vein as correcting revisionist historians claiming "Bush knew" recall that Rice was prepared to give a speech on missile defense the same morning, as bin Laden's minions were converting airliners into missiles.

if you think the current administration's policies and/or actions before and after 9/11 have been consistent with a safer world and more secure homeland, I don't see how. It sounds to me like the same old "Clinton bad" knee-jerkery.

Posted by: paul at August 17, 2005 05:41 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't blame Clinton any more than Bush for the failure to prevent 9/11. Nor do I blame Kimmel for parking fighters wingtip-to-wingtip at Hickam Field on 12/6/41, or the Secret Service for letting the President ride thru Dallas in a convertible on that fateful day in Nov. '63.

If al Queda had been stopped on 9/11 it would have been some other knuckleheads' turn to have a go at us at another place or time. The wake-up call could have been worse....No?

Posted by: Chuck Betz at August 17, 2005 06:41 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What's the point of pointing the finger at what could have been done about Bin Laden in 1997, when it pales in comparison to what should have been done to him since 9/11? Crimes are much easier to solve after they have been committed.

Bin Laden is still at large and Bush is on vacation for 5 weeks. The priorities seem pretty obvious to me. I doubt Bin Laden takes vacations, although it would be nice if he would take a really, really long one. Preferably somewhere with a large weight chained to his leg in a pool of water just deep enough so that he can barely keep his nostrils above water by tipping his head back.

Blame the Clenis is so last century.

Posted by: eep at August 17, 2005 07:01 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


What's the point of pointing the finger at what could have been done about Bin Laden in 1997, when it pales in comparison to what should have been done to him since 9/11? Crimes are much easier to solve after they have been committed.

The point is that “crimes were committed” to our African embassies, to our military barracks in Saudi Arabia, and to the USS Cole in the Gulf well before 9/11. Our inadequate response to those crimes played a part in 9/11 happening.

It’s important to understand how our decisions and policies created situations or made them worse. If, for example, the Clinton Administration declined Sudan’s offer to hand over OBL, that was a tragic mistake we should acknowledge. If the Able Danger team was repeatedly denied permission to discuss suspected AQ members on US soil with the FBI, then we need to know.

Greg is correct that the press went ape over the story Bush had been specifically briefed on the 9/11 scenario prior to it happening, and I supported knowing exactly what that briefing contained. As we later learned, it contained nothing – and many of these allegations may ultimately contain nothing either.

In the attempt to ensure neither party gets a political advantage out of 9/11, I fear we’ll paper over the past mistakes and end up making some of them again. Simply saying “times have changed and we’d never operate like that again” is very convenient, but also stops serious root cause analysis and its benefits from occurring.

Posted by: kevin at August 17, 2005 08:00 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What is the problem? the Problem is that large sections of the government, media, and academia then and still to this day deny that Terrorism is a problem. The mindset of the Clinton Administration is best described by Larry C. Johnson:

Judging from news reports and the portrayal of villains in our popular entertainment, Americans are bedeviled by fantasies about terrorism. They seem to believe that terrorism is the greatest threat to the United States and that it is becoming more widespread and lethal. They are likely to think that the United States is the most popular target of terrorists. And they almost certainly have the impression that extremist Islamic groups cause most terrorism.

"None of these beliefs are based in fact. ... While terrorism is not vanquished, in a world where thousands of nuclear warheads are still aimed across the continents, terrorism is not the biggest security challenge confronting the United States, and it should not be portrayed that way."

--Larry C. Johnson, "The Declining Terrorist Threat," New York Times, July 10, 2001. Johnson, a former CIA officer, was deputy director of the U.S. State Department's Office of Counterterrorism from 1989 to 1993.

Another version here

That was the view then, and DoD lawyers basically did not want to disclose the rather iffy nature of Able Danger (questionable funding and oversight, data mining on US Citizens and Legal Residents) hence the refusal to alert the FBI to the "Brooklyn Terror Cell" which included Atta and his boys. The main concern was abating negative press over civil liberties, ESPECIALLY if they were people of color or Muslims. The Waco disaster died down because the Press did not like the White Christian Cultists. The political danger was high and Clinton's own people were telling them terror was no threat (see above). [Larry C. Johnson is the Dem's main National Security Expert]. Telling the FBI might have led to no action except jail time for folks in the Pentagon. That was the political reality at the time.

Ever wonder why the Bush Administration was so willing to let the 9/11 Commission be stacked with Clintonites, some of whom went off the reservation and attacked Bush? Why the Clinton-Bush lovefest, and Bill's curious reluctance to criticize GWB, and vice-versa?

It's probably no accident that Sandy Burglar stuffed the documents down his pants right when Able Danger folks met with the 9/11 Commission. It's probably likely that Bush was also told by the Able Danger folks at least up to Rumsfeld that yes, this "Brooklyn terror cell" is a danger and needs dealing with. Probably the same response as Clinton as well.

Recall against this attitude, including Johnson's above, that the failed Bojinka plot was uncovered back in 1996. It included a plot to assassinate the Pope, bomb 12 airliners out of the Sky, and crash other airliners into the CIA at Langley, the Pentagon, White House, and yes the WTC. It was discovered when Ramzi Yusef ( 1993 WTC Conspirator and nephew of 9/11 Architect Khalid Sheik Mohammed who paid for at least part of the 1993 attack) set fire to his Manila Apartment and had to flee (whilst bomb making) leaving his laptop with the plans on it. Also involved as Abdul Rahman Yassin, another relative of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and the only 1993 WTC conspirator still at large. Last seen in Baghdad btw right before the Iraq War. All these guys are supposedly Baluchis from Pakistan who were in Kuwait at the time Saddam invaded. Of course the 1998 indictmentn of Osama by Clinton's Justice Dept. accused Osama of conspiring with Saddam to cook up WMDs. That may be questionable but there it is. Funny isn't it how Bush and his Administration never mention it?

Point being the Bojinka plot by 1996 had well established that the threat was serious. Massive. Aimed at killing thousands of people (the 1993 Conspirators had hoped to topple one tower onto another and kill over 20,000 people, even enlisting Muslim structural engineers). Johnson and others had to WILLFULLY close their eyes to the reality of the situation in order to tell themselves the story they wanted to hear. That Terrorism was not a threat, just a lie that folks tell to whip up frenzies and get more police powers (echoed in BBC's "Power of Nightmares" or Daily Kos).

What is weird, and very puzzling, is how the Bush Administration has consistently refused to push the connections between the 1993 WTC attacks and the 2001, including the same people showing up in both attacks. The only conclusion I can get is that Rummy or someone like Rice was told flat out that these folks were dangerous and ignored it.

That being said, Clinton bears the most blame because by 1996 the Bojinka plot had uncovered the danger. He trusted merely to good luck and would not spend political capital. Weird though how the Clinton-Bush lovefest or mutual CYA continues to this day. Sorry for being so cynical.

Posted by: Jim Rockford at August 17, 2005 09:56 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

BD is the one snoozing and losing. Why aren't you flooding the zone with Able Danger? Don't you see this can be the excuse to get rid of Rumsfeld? You can blame him for, well, not the crime (lawyers stopping AD from targeting Atta), but for the coverup, i.e the commission and post--. Any cowflops on DoD can pass right upstairs if you play your cards right.

Should Rummy have changed this? The legal culture of the Pentagon? How?

Posted by: Nichevo at August 17, 2005 10:02 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well into GWB's second term, the temptation to blame Clinton remains irresistable ... when will this promised era of responsibility begin? Or is being a Republican a sufficient substitute for being responsible.

Posted by: Doug at August 17, 2005 10:46 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Got it the first time. Anyway, does this mean Clinton's policies are off limits?

Considering the incessant micro-analysis that the Bush administration has had to deal with since 9/11, a little perspective on the Clinton administration's role in the current state of the world
seems appropriate. Not to mention necessary, unless you believe that all of our problems really started in January 2000.

I mean, no one really believes that, right Doug?

Posted by: paul at August 17, 2005 02:52 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Paul, You know that our problems didn't start in January 2000, it was January 2001!

Posted by: Mike at August 17, 2005 03:44 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Oops. I guess I'm just a dumb, irresponsible Republican!

Posted by: paul at August 17, 2005 03:49 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Congratulations, you've definitely proven that Clinton was not the source of all things good/safe and Bush is not the source of all things bad/dangerous. And that Bush didn't have pre-knowledge of 9/11. And so?

Apart from the simples pleasures of Clinton-bashing, how is this analysis useful? The only vaguely forward-looking comments I notice are warnings against "hair-trigger, hypersensitive view[s] of civil liberties."

Anyone who's been reading BD should be know that's not a huge risk right now. The Bush administration has many failings, but hypersensitivity to civil liberties is not among them.

Posted by: Jon at August 17, 2005 11:05 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think it's high time that we realize that our system of selecting leaders is very, very broken.

Posted by: fling93 at August 18, 2005 01:33 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Actually, all our problems started when Carter decided to support the Muhajadin in Afghanistan and then Reagan upped the ante by sending billions to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The chickens have come home to roost.

I used to think we live in a country that was progressing towards a better future.

Posted by: eep at August 18, 2005 07:28 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Transcript: Clinton Adds $300 Million to Anti-terrorism Funds Request

"We are joined today by the Ambassador from Jordan to the United States, Dr. Warwan Muasher. He's sitting here behind me; he's an excellent representative of his country. And I want to tell you a story that, unfortunately, will not be the last example you will have to face.

Last December, working with Jordan, we shut down a plot to place large bombs at locations where Americans might gather on New Year's Eve. We learned this plot was linked to terrorist camps in Afghanistan, and the organization created by Osama bin Ladin, the man responsible for the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, which cost the lives of Americans and hundreds of Africans.

A short time later, a customs agent in Seattle discovered bomb materials being smuggled in to the U.S. -- the same materials used by bin Ladin in other places. Thankfully, and thanks to Jordan, New Year's passed without an attack. But the threat was real, and we had to cooperate with them, with the Canadians, with others throughout the world."

Posted by: Ryan at August 26, 2005 09:58 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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