TCS Daily

The Commission, the Democrats and Terrorism

By Melana Zyla Vickers - March 30, 2004 12:00 AM

Until a few days ago, presidential candidate John Kerry was able to take all the shots he wanted at President Bush's record in the war on terror, while remaining out of critical range himself. But last week's 9/11 commission hearings changed all that.

The hearings presented a Democratic record on terrorism that is marred by fundamental policy fumbles and ultimately fatal misjudgments. Of course, some of the errors in fighting terrorism in the 1990s could have been -- and were -- made or repeated by the Republican administration of George W. Bush. But a top-five list drawn from the testimony before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States and the reports prepared by commission staff, reveals errors that stemmed from what might be described as the post Cold War, Democratic world-view. They include:

  • Unwillingness to use force to retaliate against terrorism or pre-empt attacks.
  • Inaction in the face of legal obstacles
  • Animus toward the intelligence community
  • Fear of unpopularity in the court of domestic and foreign public opinion
  • Failure to improve the effectiveness of bilateral relations with Arab states and Pakistan.

This world-view would be unlikely to change as the party's foreign-policy mantle changes hands from Clinton-Gore to Kerry. Unless, of course, candidate Kerry says it would and explained how. Here's a detailed enumeration of the mistakes:

Error No. 1: Unwillingness to use force to retaliate against terrorism or pre-empt attacks.

The Clinton administration resisted using force against Al Qaeda or in retaliation against terrorist attacks, despite Osama bin Laden's declaration of war against the U.S. in 1998, despite having the terrorist in its sights three times, and despite the president's declaration in 1996 that the terrorists represented the threat of our generation.

The administration never launched a military attack against the terrorist group after it bombed the U.S.S. Cole on Oct. 12, 2000, killing 17 U.S. sailors. Yet CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks presented the administration with 14 military options, according to the commission staff report. Clinton administration officials defended their record, with SecDef William Cohen saying that "we did not have specific information that this was bin Laden" (attacking the Cole) and that military retaliation against Al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan "would not have been effective."

The administration also resisted sending Special Forces to Afghanistan. Cohen stood by that decision at the hearings last week, arguing that "the futility" of using Special Forces to root out Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan before 9/11 "has been amply demonstrated" by the fact that U.S. troops have not caught him yet. Listeners were left wondering: Does that mean Cohen thinks it was a bad idea to send in the SF after 9/11 as well? In addition, the administration retaliated with one, minimal set of airstrikes after the embassy bombings in 1998. When questioned on why they didn't attempt to strike Al Qaeda targets on the numerous occasions when the administration had specific information about terrorists' whereabouts, Cohen argued, as did other Clinton officials, that such efforts would "not have either gotten bin Laden or have resulted in a positive reaction by either Pakistan... or any others in the region."

Is the resistance to using force a characteristic of the political party? Recall that the same group of Democratic strategists retreated from Somalia after the under-equipped force it sent met opposition, and ruled out using anything but a few days' airstrikes against Iraq's weapons violations and assassination attempt against George Bush Sr. The administration chose to use force only in peacekeeping operations, in Kosovo, Bosnia and Haiti.

Consequence: Whatever one may think of the rationale for resisting using force, opting out had two results: It diminished from "slim" to "none" the chances of hobbling or destroying Al Qaeda in Afghanistan before the group struck the U.S. on 9/11. Second, it emboldened the terrorist group, giving its leadership the sense that Americans don't fight back after they're attacked.

Error No. 2: Inaction in the face of legal obstacles. Clinton administration NSC Adviser Samuel Berger and counterterrorism group chair Richard Clarke decided in 1996 not to bring Osama Bin Laden to the U.S. from his hideout in Sudan. There was no legal basis for bringing him to the U.S. nor holding him here, Berger told the commission. Berger, a lawyer, said he was not aware of any intelligence that bin Laden was responsible for any act against a U.S. citizen, and consequently bin Laden could not be indicted.

Yet the Democratic officials' apparent legal bind was not really a bind at all. A year earlier, in 1995, Congress had passed a law that allowed the Secretary of State to designate groups such as Al Qaeda as threats to the national security of the country -- a designation that triggers "criminal consequences" in the U.S., the commission staff report says. The Clinton administration did not designate Al Qaeda a threat until the fall of 1999.

In another case, in January 2000, once the CIA was working more closely with Afghan agents to track Osama bin Laden, the Agency informed Afghan Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud that bin Laden was in his sights at a particular camp. Massoud then relayed to the CIA that his fighters were on their way to fire rockets at bin Laden. The CIA - spurred by panicked lawyers, according to reporter Steve Coll - messaged Massoud that it had no legal authority to be involved in the operation, and demanded that Massoud call it off. (In the end, bin Laden was not killed.) NSC advisor Berger was questioned about the incident by commissioner John Lehman, but answered only that Lehman was better off asking the director of central intelligence about it.

Previous terrorism hunts reveal how the Democratic administration's preoccupation with legal obstacles led it to paralysis, and drove the national intelligence community into caution and hedging as well. According to the commission staff reports, After the 1996 Khobar Towers truck bombing, the FBI pointed fingers at the Iranian government and the Lebanese and Saudi Hizbollah. (It's still unclear whether Al Qaeda played a role in the bombings, the report says.) The Clinton administration chose not to respond to the findings -- no indictments were made until the Bush administration, in June 2001. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright explained the inaction by arguing that "even if some individual Iranian officials were involved, this was not the same as proving that the Iranian government as a whole should be held responsible for the bombing." The report adds that NSC Adviser Berger had a similar view and that they needed greater legal certainty because "the evidence might be challenged by foreign governments." At the time, Berger said, he left it up to the directors of central intelligence and the FBI to make definitive judgments on the terrorist case.

Not surprisingly, the intelligence community reacted to this passing of the policy buck by being more cautious than ever. "Their written work was conservatively phrased and caveated. Evidence was catalogued in neutral detail." In terrorist cases, "the time lag between terrorist act and any definitive attribution grew to months, then years."

Consequence: Legal obstacles caused paralysis in the Democratic administration, preventing it from taking Osama bin Laden from Sudan into custody when the getting was easy in 1996, and engendering a culture of overcaution in the counterterrorism community.

Error No. 3: Animus toward the intelligence community. It's no state secret that President Clinton did not meet with his Director of Central Intelligence. Nor is it a secret that the Democratic administration's principal view of the CIA was as an institution that needed to be purged of such practices as cooperating with human-rights violators, and took action accordingly. NSC Advisor Tony Lake even brought related criminal charges against CIA officers. Spending on the intelligence community's counterterrorism efforts was flat until well after a customs agent singlehandedly foiled the Millennium terrorism attacks. Even such seemingly low-key intelligence efforts as targeting terrorist fundraising were waved off by the Clinton administration: The commission staff report says that after NSC advisor Berger read an internal January 2000 warning that "'sleeper cells' with links to foreign terrorist groups had taken root in the United States," the administration still did not act on many counterterrorism proposals. For instance, President Clinton did not sign a draft directive on terrorist fundraising, the report says.

Added to this hostile climate toward the intelligence community was the administration's preoccupation with having evidence that would stand up in a court of law before taking action against terrorists.

And, lest this detail was missed in the recent TV coverage, the Clinton administration rebuffed NSC group head Richard Clarke's proposals for targeting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

In such a discouraging, demoralizing climate, it's not surprising that the CIA retreated into caution and inaction. The CIA did not have a single source inside the Al Qaeda network, for instance. Its budget was strained, as described above. And its counterterrorism investigations were, as a result of political pressure, cautious and neutralized.

Consequence: The Democratic administration's animus toward the intelligence community hurt morale and contributed to the CIA's inadequate grappling with Al Qaeda. The absence of a hand-in-glove relationship between the CIA and administration officials may have had other, specific harmful consequences, but the public may never learn about them.

Error No. 4: Fear of unpopularity in the court of domestic and foreign public opinion. Since the moment they left office, members of the Clinton administration have criticized the Bush administration for insufficient attention to the opinion of foreign governments. Yet too much attention to public opinion can be harmful as well. NSC Advisor Samuel Berger told the commission he did "not believe before Sept. 11th that the American people or the international community would have supported an invasion and occupation of Afghanistan," and that's why the Clinton administration didn't use greater force against the Taliban regime. Yet the Clinton administration had its counterterrorism envoy Mike Sheehan threaten the Taliban with a military assault in 1998, according to the staff report. The threat was clearly empty from the start, judging from Berger's comments last week.

When commissioner Bob Kerrey pointed out to Berger that the administration did rally public opinion to its side when it wanted to -- to intervene in Kosovo with an air war, for example -- Berger again responded by saying that in that instance the administration had 19 NATO countries on its side.

There are other examples of foreign opinion being foremost in cabinet members' minds: A 1999 State Department Counterterrorism Office strategy, which threatened certifying Pakistan as non-cooperative on terrorism, and which pressured other countries as well, was watered down "to the point that nothing was then done with it," according to the staff report. Similarly, Defense Secretary Cohen explained hesitation in striking Afghan targets in terms of worries about how Pakistan would react. And the Secretary of State's concern about tarring the Iranian one-party-state's reputation with any indictment resulting from the Khobar Towers investigation further reveals the Democratic Administration's preference for remaining in good odor internationally.

Consequence: The inclination to follow rather than lead domestic and international public opinion led the Clinton administration to take terrorism-fighting options off the table completely. In the most egregious case, this resulted in Osama bin Laden's continued free rein to train and equip his terrorists for 9/11 and other attacks. More philosophically, the "follower" bias prevented the Clinton administration from using the explicit intel it was gathering to educate the U.S. public about the severity of the Al Qaeda threat. Finally, the damage done from making threats that the administration knew to be idle threats can only be guessed at.

Error No. 5: Failure to improve bilateral relations with Arab states and Pakistan. On several occasions, the governments of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Pakistan, among others, were in a position to work with the U.S. to dismantle the terrorist threat that affected all the countries. Yet secrecy on the part of the given Arab state, inconveniently close ties between the state and some element of Al Qaeda, or inconstancy in friendship or pressure by the U.S., led to failures. For instance, in 1998 Saudi Arabia failed to tell the U.S. that it had disrupted Al Qaeda strikes against U.S. forces there. Afterwards, cooperation against Al Qaeda improved. But then it fell back again after the Saudis failed to persuade the Taliban to give up bin Laden in 1998. Rather than explore new channels for keeping up pressure, the administration retreated from its cooperation with the Saudis on counterterrorism. The staff report calls 1998 "the high-water mark for diplomatic pressure on the Taliban.

In another instance, Al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan were not hit because members of the UAE royal family were within killing range. And finally, the Clinton administration had a see-saw relationship with Pakistan, on the one hand beating the country up for its nuclear weapons tests, on the other resisting applying too much pressure on the government, for fear that the country's restive, pro-Taliban elements might topple it.

Clearly, periodically inept relations with Arab states and Pakistan have existed for decades. And the Bush administration, despite making great progress in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Qatar, and Central Asia, is not immune to the ineptness. But the fact that both sides deserve blame does not absolve them from working hard to make these critical relationships serve the U.S. national interest.

Consequences: Opportunities to capture or kill Al Qaeda terrorists, including bin Laden, fell through the cracks of secrecy, overly ginger diplomacy, and lack of follow-through.

Other errors abound. The largest is of course that neither the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton, nor the Republican administration of George W. Bush felt enough urgency about Al Qaeda to wage all-out war against the group before 9/11. And that's despite the fact that Al Qaeda had -- as both administrations knew - publicly declared war against the U.S. in February 1998.

Beyond such collective guilt, though, lie great differences. The Bush record on fighting terrorism is as it stands. Meanwhile, voters who wonder "how would a Kerry administration prosecute the war on terror?" need to look no further than this list for some idea of the answer. Unless, of course, Kerry disassociates himself from the policies of his Democratic predecessors, or criticizes them as forcefully as his fellow Democrat on the 9/11 commission, Bob Kerrey, did last week.

Melana Zyla Vickers recently wrote for TCS about the ongoing transformation of the military.


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