On August 2, 1996, the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, commonly known as the Gore Commission, was appointed by Bill Clinton to analyze America's vulnerability to airborne terrorism and make recommendations for improvement. Unfortunately, the commission's final recommendations, issued in February 1997, were fought by both the airlines, who didn't want to spend the money necessary to make the improvements, and powerful members of the Congressional GOP, particularly folks like Trent Lott, Tom DeLay, and Bob Barr, who accused the Clinton administration of trying to use the entire terrorism issue as a "smokescreen" to obscure the "real" issue of the day, the Whitewater/Lewinsky investigation. The Gore report produced over 50 specific and tangible recommendations for airline flight security. These proposals would have cost the airlines and the U.S. government at least $429 million and possibly as much as $2.5 billion -- a significant amount of money that the airlines did not want to spend. And the airlines knew where their friends were: in the Republican wing of Congress. Eight of nine GOP senators serving on the Senate Aviation Subcommittee received campaign contributions from the airlines, whereas only one of the eight Democrats received money from the same sources. Ten of the twelve members on the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation -- the committee that funds the FAA -- received campaign funds from the airlines. The airline industry and the right-wing press leaped to attack the Gore Commission reports as "overstepping its bounds" and "a partisan effort to scare the American people into spending money unnecessarily."
One particularly interesting article in the March 1997 New Republic reported an amazingly misleading "actuarial breakdown" of the costs of the Gore Commission's recommendations as costing the airlines "a cost per life saved of well over $300 million." It's obvious that the airlines, along with their Republican friends, were far more interested in an (inaccurately calculated) cost-analysis of the potential lives that could be saved by following these recommendations, along with the usual accusations of partisan politics and smokescreening to divert attention from the "far more important" issue of whether or not President Clinton was receiving sexual favors from an intern. In the end, the congressional GOP forced the tabling of most of the Gore Commission's key recommendations, instead sending them back for "further study" -- then, presumably, going home to cash their checks.
"It's an obscene comparison, but there was a time in South Africa when people would put flaming tires around people's necks if they dissented. In some ways, the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tire of lack of patriotism put around your neck." -- Former CBS anchor Dan Rather on the muzzling of the American press, quoted by Greg Palast
Contrary to the spin from the Bush White House, the GOP, and the right-wing media, Bill Clinton worked hard to control terrorism and eradicate the bin Laden/al-Qaeda organization, at least in comparison to the efforts of either Bush administration. As early as 1993, the Clinton administration authorized retaliatory strikes against the Iraqi Mukhabarat security forces for their abortive attempt to assassinate former President George Bush. After the August 1998 bombings of two American embassies in Africa, Clinton ordered massive air strikes against Osama bin Laden's camp in Afghanistan and a Sudanese chemical plant. In both instances, the congressional GOP was harshly critical of Clinton's responses, characterizing them as being "illegitimate" without congressional approval as well as feeble attempts to redirect the American people's collective attention away from the Paula Jones case and the September 1998 impeachment proceedings. The 1998 attacks came within a couple of hours of killing bin Laden, who fled the target site shortly before the missiles hit. After the attacks, Taliban officials stated that Clinton "should be stoned to death" for the attacks. Additionally, Clinton's decision to authorize the assassination of bin Laden came under heavy criticism from the right.
The corporate media still loves to talk about the chances that the Clinton administration had to collar Osama bin Laden that it supposedly "turned down." Not true. In March and April of 1996, the administration brokered an agreement with the government of Sudan to arrest bin Laden and turn him over to Saudi Arabia. For ten weeks, Clinton tried to persuade the Saudis to accept the offer. They refused. With no cooperation from the Saudis, and no case to mount indictments with in the US judicial system, the deal fell apart. and the Sudanese sent bin Laden to Kabul, Afghanistan. (This was mischaracterized by Rush Limbaugh as a blatant refusal by Clinton to take bin Laden from the Sudanese.) Two years later, the CIA was directed by Clinton to train and equip five dozen commandos from Pakistan to enter Afghanistan and capture bin Laden. The efforts failed when a military coup overthrew the Pakistani government and installed a new one. That same year, as noted above, Clinton unleashed a major air strike against bin Laden in Afghanistan and the Sudan, following the terrorist bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Of course, Republicans leapt to accuse Clinton of firing missiles just to divert media attention from the Lewinsky hearings. In 1998, Clinton sponsored legislation to freeze the financial assets of international organizations suspected of funneling money to bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. GOP Senator Phil Gramm killed the bill on behalf of the banking industry, who wanted to keep the money flowing. (After 9/11, Bush called for identical legislation.) In August 1998, the United States conducted a bombing run against bin Laden's facilities in Afghanistan and the Sudan. Part of the reason why the Clinton adminstration was reluctant to deal with the Sudanese was the Sudanese government's insistence that they would only cooperate with the US in fighting terrorism if the US would end economic sanctions against its government, sanctions placed in effect due to Sudanese genocidal campaigns against black Christians. After meeting time and again with Sudanese intelligence officials, both the FBI and the CIA concluded that the Sudanese could not provide anything valuable about either bin Laden or al-Qaeda. The entire scheme was a clumsy disinformation scheme by the Sudanese, unwittingly perpetrated by right-wing American critics such as Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.
Clinton ignored the conservative carping and attempts to bring down his administration over Whitewater and Lewinsky, and continued to focus the US government's efforts to fight terror. After the Oklahoma City bombings of April 1995, he began a nationwide initiative to improve home front security. After 1995, Clinton dramatically increased federal spending on counterterrorism initiatives. The government ends up allocating over $12 billion annually on counterterrorism spending, including increasing the FBI's budget for counterterrorism from $78 million in 1996 to $609 million in 2000, tripling the number of agents assigned to counterterrorism duties and creating a new Counter-terrorism Center at the FBI's Washington headquarters. Unfortunately, much of that money was wasted due to the incompetence of FBI director Louis Freeh. Freeh, a spectacularly inept administrator, was appointed as a sop to conservatives by Clinton. Freeh spent most of his time cooperating with Clinton's enemies in Congress. After his public alignment with Clinton's detractors, Clinton felt that to fire Freeh would look like an instance of political revenge, so Freeh stayed aboard. It wasn't until the end of Clinton's second term that the deterioration of the FBI under Freeh became clear. Other initiatives included a sweeping program to deter possible biological and chemical terrorist attacks. Overall, spending on "domestic preparedness" topped out at $1.2 billion in 2000, giving George W. Bush an important advantage in his own efforts to stop terrorism -- efforts that did not begin under Bush until after the 9/11 attacks.
Most notably, in late 1999, the Clinton administration issued a major alert that al-Qaeda would try to explode a suitcase bomb in the Los Angeles airport as part of a wave of attacks on US targets over the New Year's weekend. American intelligence agencies and security forces stopped bin Laden's "Millennium Plot" cold. Similar plots to bomb the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, and the UN building, in New York City were also thwarted on Clinton's watch, as was a plot to blow up the Israeli embassy in Washington. Dozens of terrorist cells overseas were neutralized by quiet prosecutions, extraditions, and executions undertaken at the Clinton administration's behest by governments from Albania to the Phillippines.
Certainly the Clinton administration's efforts to hunt down bin Laden were not uniformly successful, nor were they always well-thought out or consistent. The attack on the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant came under heavy criticism after questions arose about the plant's real role in producing chemical weapons. A planned December 2000 strike against bin Laden was shelved after top-level review determined that the information used in planning the strike was "stale," may not have done real damage to al-Qaeda or bin Laden, and may have resulted in casualties among innocent civilians. Another possible opportunity to arrest bin Laden was declined when administration officials decided that there were insufficient legal grounds to make the arrest, probably the worst mistake made by the Clinton administration in trying to end the threat of terrorism. Accusations that the Clinton administration didn't focus hard enough and early enough on dealing with bin Laden and global terrorism in general are true enough, though the same accusations could be leveled at the previous Bush administration (both of which apparently tried to "straddle the fence" between hounding al-Qaeda and keeping Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan happy). But, as NSC chief Sandy Berger said, "This was a top priority for us over the past several years, and not a day went by when we didn't press as hard as we could." Not so for the second Bush administration.
Comparing the two in the Washington Post, Lt. General Donald Kerrick, who had come from top posts on the Joint Staff and the Defense Intelligence Agency to manage Clinton's National Security Council staff and remained at the NSC nearly four months after Bush took office, noticed a big difference on the approach the two administrations took towards terrorism: "Clinton's Cabinet advisers, burning with the urgency of their losses to bin Laden in the African embassy bombings in 1998 and the Cole attack in 2000, had met 'nearly weekly' to direct the fight, Kerrick said. Among Bush's first-line advisers, 'candidly speaking, I didn't detect' that kind of focus, he said. 'That's not being derogatory. It's just a fact.'" The Clinton administration worked hard and long, if not always effectively, to capture bin Laden.
In contrast, the Bush administration stood down and let the terrorists operate virtually undaunted. The Bush administration halted drone tracking of bin Laden; it ceased the previous administration's covert deployment of missile strike forces that could, if ordered, strike against bin Laden's group almost instantly; it abandoned federal oversight of terrorist money laundering and offshore banking operations; it refused to mount an offensive against bin Laden's forces after determining that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack on the U.S.S. Cole; and it ordered federal agencies to "back off" investigating the bin Laden family. (While the Bush administration likes to paint Osama bin Laden as the rogue "black sheep" of the bin Laden family, the FBI has evidence showing that at least two other members of the family, both of whom resided in the US before 9/11, are affiliated with terrorist organizations, and that most of the family, along with much of Saudi royalty, are quite cozy with Osama and his terrorist organizations.) Another damning indictment of the Bush administration's policy towards both the bin Laden family and al-Qaeda comes from a book, "BinLaden: The Forbidden Truth," co-written by a former member of French intelligence, asserts that the Bush administration "went easy" on al-Qaeda in the interest of building an oil pipeline through Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia.
1996 also saw the Clinton administration attempt to pass stringent anti-terrorism legislation through the Republican-led Congress, but GOP efforts to dilute and defang the legislation was successful. (After 9/11, Congress passed the same legislation without argument.) Republican senator Orrin Hatch termed one provision, the study of "taggants," which was opposed by the NRA, "a phony issue," and fellow GOP senator Trent Lott disparaged the entire bill, preferring to push study of the proposed legislation to a later date. The Gore Commission's recommendations were widely disparaged by the right as wasteful and unnecessary, and few of them were implemented until after 9/11.
As Randy Risener wrote in September 2006, "[T]he Clinton administration went beyond the commission and proposed expansive legislation to increase security in various arenas including airports and international financial transfers. Republicans, responding to airline and banking interests, defeated or watered down much of those efforts." Locating and shutting down the terrorists' financial support networks is critical to countering terrorist groups, say intelligence and counterterrorism experts. Risener writes, "Clinton was trying to do just that and wanted to prohibit American banks from doing business with foreign banks that were cooperating with al-Qaeda. The banking lobby opposed that so the Republican leadership did to. And it wasn't just banks. As it was later revealed during the Enron scandal that company was also using many of the same financial networks as terrorists to launder money. Republican senator Phil Gramm, chair of the banking committee, used his position to attack Clinton's financial counterterrorism efforts. Gramm's wife at the time sat on Enron's board of directors." And Risener adds, "Near the end of his term Clinton had been negotiating an arrangement through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development aimed at shutting down al-Qaeda financial havens in some 20 countries, but as of when he left office it was not yet a completed deal. As soon as the Bush administration came into office they put a stop to those efforts."
Similarly, the United States Commission on National Security, chaired by Democrat Gary Hart and Republican Warren Rudman, released in January 2001 a huge report on the state of international terrorism and what steps it thought the Bush administration should take to ensure the safety of this country and its citizenry. The White House pushed aside the report, preferring instead to have Vice President Dick Cheney study the potential problem of domestic terrorism with a task force of his own (said task force met exactly once and produced no documentation). Bush also reassigned responsibility for dealing with the issue to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and promptly proposed cutting FEMA's budget by $200 million. That same day, Bush announced that Cheney would direct a government-wide review on managing the consequences of a domestic attack, and stated, "I will periodically chair a meeting of the National Security Council to review these efforts." Neither Cheney's review nor Bush's ever took place. Bush officials terminated the Predator drone tracking of Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders. And after two briefings on terrorist threats between Attorney General John Ashcroft and acting FBI director Thomas Pickard, according to his own testmony to the 9/11 Commission, "the Attorney General told him he did not want to hear this information [on the danger of terrorist attacks] anymore." Richard Clarke, the former head of counterterrorism under both Clinton and Bush, told CBS after testifying to the commission, "He [President Bush] ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11. Maybe. We'll never know."
Perhaps most appalling is the fact that the Bush administration actually protected a known terrorist training camp in northern Iraq for political purposes. During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Bush officials pointed repeatedly at an al-Qaeda training camp run by Abu Musab Zarqawi as "proof" that the Hussein regime was operationally involved with al-Qaeda. But there was more information about this camp that was not acknowledged, or shared, with the public. It is generally known that the area of Iraq that the camp was located in was not under Hussein's control, but in the northern no-fly zone, and that fact was used to attempt to refute Bush's claim about complicity between Iraq and al-Qaeda. What was not generally known was that twice in 2002 and once in 2003 the US military asked to "take out" Zarqawi's camp. Each time the Bush administration refused each request, while at the same time using pictures of the camp to buttress their arguments of an Iraq/al-Qaeda connection. And this is not the only time Bush officials knowingly sabotaged national security for political purposes; in August 2004, Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, a Western "mole" inside al-Qaeda, was deliberately outed by senior Bush officials as part of their attempt to buttress the credibility of a terror alert that reporters had questioned.
According to the Gore Commission's final report, released on February 12, 1997, "[t]he federal government should consider aviation security as a national security issue, and provide substantial funding for capital improvements. The Commission believes that terrorist attacks on civil aviation are directed at the United States, and that there should be an ongoing federal commitment to reducing the threats that they pose." The Bush administration categorically ignored almost every recommendation made by both the Gore and the Hart-Rudman commissions. Interestingly, after 9/11, a group of similar proposals from the National Commission on Terrorism were enacted almost immediately. According to chairman Paul Bremer (now the civilian leader of Iraq), "...since Sept. 11 almost every one of our recommendations has either been enacted by the executive branch or been put into law by Congress, which suggests that we probably had a pretty good menu of things to do before Sept. 11." The commission's report was issued in June 2000 and was largely ignored up until 9/11.
In 1999 and 2000, Clinton sent two secret delegations to Saudi Arabia with lists of Saudi royal family members and other prominent Saudis who are donating money to al-Qaeda. The delegations both told the Saudis that such activities would stop immediately. The Saudis promised to comply, but delayed doing so until the January 2001 installation of George W. Bush as US President. Under Bush, those demands ceased. Bush also disbanded the intelligence unit tracking Saudi involvement in Middle East terrorism. Bush's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Barbara Bodine, even yanked the visas of the FBI al-Qaeda investigation team in Yemen, forcing them to return to America. (Greg Palast/Buzzflash
On September 10, less than 24 hours before the attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft proposed major cutbacks in federal monies for state and local anti-terrorism efforts. One proposed $65 million cut was for a program that gives state and local counterterrorism grants for equipment, including radios and decontamination suits and training to localities for counterterrorism preparedness. (Needless to say, after the attacks, the funding was retained.) He also sent a memo to his department heads that stated his seven priorities: counter-terrorism was not on the list. He turned down an FBI request for hundreds more agents to be assigned to tracking terrorist threats. According to a Newsweek report, Ashcroft and outgoing FBI Louis Freeh had a fundamental difference in their priorities, with Freeh wanting to continue the Clinton administration's focus on anti-terrorism and Ashcroft determined to focus on domestic crime and drugs. "[W]hen Mr. Freeh began to talk about his concern about the terrorist threat facing the country, [according to a participant in the Freeh-Ashcroft meeting] 'Ashcroft didn't want to hear about it.'" Ashcroft was also curiously defensive about the rights of suspected terrorists to own guns; he blocked the FBI's attempts to investigate gun-purchase records to see if any of them had recently bought weapons. And over at the Defense Department, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wasn't particularly interested in counter-terrorism measures, but rather in getting the "star Wars" missile shield established. Rumsfeld killed a request to shift $800 million from the missile-defense budget to counterterrorism, as well as ordered the grounding of the Predator drones sent up by the Clinton administration to track and possibly assist in assassinating Osama bin Laden.
In spite of all the Bush administration officials who didn't show a strong interest in dealing with terrorism, according to Joe Conason, "[i]n fact, it was two officials held over from the previous administration -- counterterror chief Richard Clarke and CIA director George Tenet -- who tried to direct the government's attention to the looming threat from Al Qaeda in the weeks and months before Sept. 11." Not surprisingly, neither Tenet nor Clarke were given much of a hearing by Bush and his officials.
"September 11th was the biggest security failure in American history and it was George W. Bush who neglected the issue and was the president that failed," wrote former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal. "The right is trying to blame President Clinton and Democrats generally for the lapses of the Bush administration. Bush has spent his whole life ducking responsibility, having his father's friends cover up his escapades and advance his career and portfolio, and having a political machine blame others and make excuses for his incompetence while hailing him as a great leader. But it's Bush who bears the responsibility. The buck stops there." (Buzzflash)
I think this proves without a doubt that before the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration had little interest in fighting terrorism, finding and neutralizing Osama bin Laden and other well-known terrorist figures, or securing the safety of this country and its citizenry. After 9/11, we have seen an apparent 180-degree turn by the Bush administration towards a full-fledged, loudly trumpeted "war against terrorism." And in true Orwellian fashion, the administration insists that it has always been fighting against terrorism, it always will fight against terrorism, and any attempts to say otherwise, no matter what the facts prove, is traitorous and un-American.
"The truth is useless. You can't deposit it in the bank. You can't eat it. It's absolutely useless." -- Iran-Contra conspirator Oliver North