The Spine

The Real "path To 9/11"


I am in New York to welcome my granddaughter into the world. It is an auspicious day: sunny, comfortably warm, but with a cool under-breeze and with many taxis on the streets, since people are taking in the air instead of riding in the city's normal daytime snail's pace traffic. Yesterday was September 11, and the weather, like today's, was as balmy as the 9/11 of history, when a half-million hapless people, most of them dazed and many in near-trauma, were walking, mostly northward, on the long journey home. But yesterday and the evening before, Manhattan was densely packed with automobiles, police cars, emergency vans and what seemed at least to me to be vehicles carrying light munitions. Maybe not. President Bush was in town, and he was being protected up and down the island, from the Waldorf Astoria to ground zero to a firehouse on the Lower East Side where he attended a memorial for "first responders" who lost their lives in the murderous wake-up call. The congested traffic was blamed by many grumpy folk in the city on Bush, as is the ongoing and global Muslim terror also debited to him.

In his desperation for ongoing favorable attention from the media and his churlishness about any negative trope about him, Bill Clinton and his minions have made an enormous fuss about an ABC docudrama, "The Path to 9/11," and its treatment of his administration's almost nonchalant response to a series of Al Qaeda assaults on American targets: the first attempted bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, various attacks on U.S. personnel in Somalia and Saudi Arabia from 1992 to 1995, the 1996 truck bomb murder of 19 American troops that also wounded 379 other servicemen at the Khobar Towers in Dhahran (apparently a rare ecumenical venture between Shia Hezbollah and Osama bin Laden's Sunni fanatics), the plan to shoot down civilian American aircraft over the Pacific, the 1998 carnage at our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam with 234 fatalities and more than 5000 maimed and wounded, and the successful targeting of the USS Cole in October 2000 that claimed 17 dead and at least 40 wounded. This list does not exhaust the strikes, actual and failed, by organized Sunni jihadists during the Clinton years.

I have not seen "The Path to 9/11." I do not usually find political documentaries and docudramas rewarding, and they certainly magnify and distort basic facts. I imagine that is the case with this production, too. After all, it was made, some critic alleges, by a friend of Rush Limbaugh. Not a reassuring fact. But, after all, we liberals (OK, not me, and maybe not you either) troop to view films aspiring to teach their audiences "history," films that are made by Michael Moore and Oliver Stone. I don't care who their friends are. They are certified crackpots whose work I shudder to think I might one day encounter in a scholarly footnote. It's hard to imagine that people who idolize Moore (and Stone for that matter, too) have standards by which to judge historical work. But one can hear the smug outrage seeping through the high culture in a way that it never did for Fahrenheit 9/11.

According to what seems like a fair and balanced article by Edward Wyatt in today's New York Times, there had been incidents depicting Clinton administration figures that did not actually happen. At least two of them have been removed. One involves the anti-terrorism crusader Richard A. Clarke suggesting that Clinton was impeded by his ongoing saga with Monica Lewinsky from pursuing Osama bin Laden. The other, first reported by the AP and then in the Times, shows Sandy Berger, the president's national security adviser and someone I've long distrusted (for whatever it's worth), hanging up the phone on CIA Director George Tenet. The second episode may not have happened. But Clarke's allegation about Clinton's hesitancy to pursue bin Laden early and to the death suffuses the report of the 9/11 Commission. The Commission account was quite delicate about Lewinsky. But she was the virtual subtext of the Report dealing with the pre-9/11 period.

Now, it is not a surprise that Clinton, Berger, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have complained shrilly about the series. (Apparently, Al Gore also wrote loyally in criticism of the film. The Report does not contain a word in any way suggesting that he could be faulted in his performance of duty. He was not completely in the loop, however, and one wonders why. He was as tough on terror in the air as he is in protecting the environment. He took on the chair of the commission on airline security long before 9/11, and its first draft was felt by the big interests to be, well, against their interests. And the recommendations would have cost money besides. The Washington lobbyists picked them to pieces. Oh yes, they would have prevented the hijackers from entering the cockpit.) But from the published accounts of the controversy, the film is essentially true and correct if you take the Report as true and correct. And who has charged that it is not? Well, yes, there are those who blame 9/11 on the Mossad.

Here is how Cyrus Nowrasteh, the screenwriter, characterized the parts of the film dealing with the Clinton administration's attitudes and actions with reference to Al Qaeda: My script "dramatizes the frequent opportunities the administration had in the 90's to stop bin Laden in his tracks but lacked the will to do so." A little stark, certainly. But it's how I read the 9/11 Commission Report, as well.

Maybe we were still living in innocence. In an eloquent and touching online piece for The New Republic, Mark Lilla shows us the new world that 9/11 revealed. But it was with us for nearly a decade before. That is another of the stark truths the Commission unveiled. The innocence of Clinton and his team are the basic subject of the more or less hundred pages after page 95. Below is a seriatim sampler:

1. Secretaries of State after George Shultz took less personal interest in terrorism. Albright's predecessor, Warren Christopher, was so oblivious to terrorism that he wanted to subsume it under "a new bureau that would have also dealt with narcotics and crime" (p. 95). "The role played by the Department of State in counterterrorism was often cautionary before 9/11" (p. 95).

2. The State Department was "focused more on lessening Indo-Pakistani nuclear tensions, ending the Afghan civil war, and ameliorating the Taliban's human rights abuses than on driving out Bin Laden." Marine General Anthony Zinni agreed with State's views (p. 111). And why would a general be having influence over political decisions?

3. "Berger focused most ... on the question of what was to be done with Bin Laden if he were actually captured. ... [T]here was a danger of snatching him and bringing him to the United States only to have him acquitted" (p. 113).

4. "On May 20, Director Tenet discussed the high risk of the operation with Berger and his deputies, warning that people might be killed including Bin Laden. Success was to be defined as the exflitration of Bin Laden out of Afghanistan ... Cabinet officials thought the risk of civilian casualties--'collateral damage'--was too high ... They were ... worried that 'the purpose and nature of the operation would be subject to unavoidable misinterpretations and misrepresentation--and probably recriminations--in the event that Bin Laden, despite our best intentions and efforts, did not survive" (p. 114).

5. "They had reason to worry about failure: millions of dollars down the drain; a shoot-out that could be seen as an assassination; and, if there were repercussions in Pakistan, perhaps a coup" (p.114).

6. Attorney General Reno "expressed concern about attacking two Muslim countries at the same time" (p.117).

7. In 1998, Albright refused to designate Pakistan as a "state sponsor of terrorism" despite the fact that, in the face of Pakistan's assurances to the contrary, "the country's military services continued activities in support of international terrorism" (p. 123). Her refusal came just two days before the embassy bombings in Africa.

8. Some administration officials questioned whether a proposal to ask the Saudis to give a huge bribe to the Taliban would pass muster with "either Secretary Albright or First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton--both critics of the Taliban's record on women's rights" (p. 125).

9. "I am sure we'll regret not acting last night," a professional wrote to a colleague, criticizing superiors for "worrying that some stray shrapnel might hit the Habash mosque and 'offend' Muslims" (p. 131).

10. Janet Reno argued against assassinating bin Laden, warning of "possible retaliations" (pp. 132, 144).

11. The president's guidelines about bin Laden were that he "preferred that Bin Laden and his lieutenants be captured," not killed by the "tribals." Moreover, "he would receive a trial under U.S. law and be treated humanely (p. 132). If bin Laden couldn't be taken alive, he could be killed.

12. In February 1999, pending a similar deal with the Northern Alliance, Clinton removed the killing option (p. 133).

13. "Policymakers were concerned about the danger that a strike might kill an Emirati prince or other senior officials who might be with Bin Laden or close by" (p. 138).

14. "In his handwritten notes ... Berger jotted down the presence of 7 to 11 families in the Tarnak Farms facility, which could mean 60-65 casualties" (p. 141).

15. Funding was an orphan in the administration's efforts at countering the mobility of terror (pp. 185-187).

16. Even after Berger and Richard Clarke, the administration's top terrorist expert, had assured the president that "al Qaeda had planned and directed the bombing" of the USS Cole and on evidence from CIA Director Tenet and Reno, the White House "didn't really want to know." A State Department counterterrorism official queried Defense officials, "Does al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon to get their attention?" Albright was counseled--and accepted the counsel--that a military response might inflame the whole Islamic world. Defense Secretary Cohen shared her misgivings. And here's a howler: Since the assault on the Cole was the subject of a criminal investigation, the administration was fearful bin Laden's defense attorneys might obtain evidence in court that the government would not want them to have (pp. 195-196).

On the evidence, "President Clinton, Berger and Secretary Albright were concentrating on a last minute push for a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis." They wanted nothing to interfere with this enterprise. This is reported by the Commission as Clarke's insight. The fact is that Clinton and company assumed that settling the historical and religious conflict between the two sides would buy peace in the entire region and in the Islamic orbit beyond. But settling this conflict would be possible only if Israel were to imperil its very life. Still, and even if it did precisely that, the wars of the Arabs and of the non-Arab Muslims, too, would not cease. They will fester and flare up, as the routine mass killings in Iraq are still with us after a thousand years.

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