Did Clinton Do Enough?

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Clinton meets with his foreign policy team in 1998

Earlier this month, Bill Clinton returned to Washington to try to convince the 9/11 commission that as President he did what he could to stop Osama bin Laden. Others who have testified before the commission—particularly National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke—did so before a phalanx of reporters and opponents hoping to see them eviscerated on live TV. But like George W. Bush, who will meet with the commission (together with Dick Cheney) at an undisclosed time, Clinton was allowed to appear in private—in a secret, bugproof room called, in a typical Washington solecism, a SKIF—a secure-conference intelligence facility.

It's a disservice to history that Clinton's four hours of testimony on April 8 went unrecorded—and that the commission has offered the same cloak of secrecy to Bush—but sources close to the panel briefed TIME on the session. One commissioner described the atmosphere in the SKIF as "clearly not hostile." Clinton brought along Sandy Berger, his affable National Security Adviser, and Bruce Lindsey, his longtime friend and White House consigliere. The former President offered to stay "as long as any of you want," according to commission chairman Thomas Kean, a Republican, who wouldn't reveal anything else Clinton said.

But people familiar with the meeting say Clinton told the panel he not only read every scrap of intelligence on the leader of al-Qaeda but became obsessed with bin Laden and wanted him dead after al-Qaeda terrorists bombed U.S. embassies in East Africa in August 1998, murdering 224 people.

If Clinton was so focused on bin Laden, why did he fail so spectacularly in his efforts to catch him? The ex-President told the commission he lacked "actionable intelligence," and a U.S. intelligence official agrees. "We didn't have actionable information about where we knew he would be that we could take him out," the official says. Others suggest the real problem was that Clinton's takedown orders were slathered in legalisms.

As the commission's staff members noted in a report, "CIA senior managers, operators and lawyers uniformly said that they read the relevant authorities signed by President Clinton as instructing them to try to capture bin Laden ... They believed that the only acceptable context for killing bin Laden was a credible capture operation." To be sure, White House aides and CIA managers understood that a mission to capture bin Laden would probably turn into a mission to kill him, given that the jihadist would almost certainly never go quietly. But according to numerous officials, the CIA officers who would be leading the covert operations wanted ironclad, unrestricted language in presidential memos—which are known, rather redundantly, as Memorandums of Notification (MONs)—that killing bin Laden would be legal. (Ever since Iran-contra and other scandals, covert ops have routinely been lawyered in advance.) As Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll points out in his new book, Ghost Wars, Attorney General Janet Reno, among others, wouldn't allow a Bond-style license to kill, so Clinton's MONs would say things like, "apprehend with lethal force as authorized."

One source of ambiguity in the Clinton MONs was that they had to be written differently for the various proxy groups the CIA was using to help hunt bin Laden, according to an official familiar with the documents. At the time, proxy groups such as Afghanistan's Northern Alliance were considered the best hope for catching al-Qaeda's leader. But intelligence officials wanted to give some proxies less leeway to kill bin Laden in order to minimize the danger that they might use U.S. power to try to eliminate tribal rivals instead of bin Laden.

Clinton told the 9/11 panel he thought his order to kill bin Laden was unmistakably clear. After all, the Justice Department had ruled that the U.S. government's ban on assassinations didn't apply to bin Laden because he was a military target. Even the commission's chairman is convinced that Clinton wanted to kill bin Laden and that the CIA balked over the slightest ambiguities in his orders: "Some of the people who had to carry that out were part of an agency that had been accused of assassinations in Central America not too long before and who had gotten in deep trouble for that," says Kean. "What [they] wanted [was] all the t's crossed and all the i's dotted." The most memorable part of Clinton's testimony may turn out to be what he said to his successor. The panel quizzed Clinton in detail about a meeting he had with President- elect Bush during the truncated transition period after the 2000 election. Clinton said he told Bush in that meeting that bin Laden would be his No. 1 national-security problem. Clarke, who recounts this episode in his book Against All Enemies, writes that the incoming Administration found this assessment "rather odd." Commissioners are planning to seek Bush's side of the story. He too will have to explain why bin Laden is not yet dead.