By Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Former president Bill Clinton angrily defended his administration's counterterrorism record during a Fox News interview to be aired today, while accusing "President Bush's neocons" and other Republicans of ignoring Osama bin Laden until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Clinton had planned to discuss his climate change initiative during his appearance on "Fox News Sunday," but he turned combative after host Chris Wallace asked why he hadn't "put bin Laden and al-Qaeda out of business." Clinton shot back that "all the conservative Republicans" who now criticize him for inattention to bin Laden used to criticize him for over-attention to bin Laden.
Clinton said he authorized the CIA to kill bin Laden, and even "contracted with people to kill him." He also said he had a plan to attack Afghanistan, overthrow the Taliban and hunt for bin Laden after the attack on the USS Cole, but the CIA and FBI refused to certify that bin Laden was responsible, and Uzbekistan refused to allow the United States to set up a base. By contrast, Clinton said the Bush administration's neoconservatives "had no meetings on bin Laden for nine months," believing he had been "too obsessed with bin Laden."
"At least I tried," Clinton said. "That's the difference [between] me and some, including all of the right-wingers who are attacking me now. They ridiculed me for trying. They had eight months to try. They did not try. I tried. So I tried and failed. When I failed, I left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy and the best guy in the country, [Richard] Clarke, who got demoted."
Clinton seemed particularly irked by Wallace's reference to his decision in 1993 to pull troops out of Somalia, a move bin Laden later described as a sign of American weakness. Clinton argued that even though many Republicans demanded a withdrawal from Somalia the day after the downing of a Black Hawk helicopter, he kept a U.S. presence there for another six months to ensure an orderly transition to United Nations forces.
That's when the interview got testy, as a Fox transcript reflects:
Clinton : There is not a living soul in the world who thought Osama bin Laden had anything to do with Black Hawk down or was paying any attention to it, or even knew al-Qaeda was a going concern in October '93.
Wallace : I understand.
Clinton : No, no, wait. Don't tell me that -- you asked why didn't I do more to bin Laden, there was not a living soul, all the people who now criticize me wanted to leave the next day. You brought this up, so you get an answer. But you -- secondly,
Wallace : -- Bin Laden says, but it showed the weakness of the United States.
Clinton : Bin Laden may have said it -- but it would have shown the weakness if we left right away. But he wasn't involved in that, that's just a bunch of bull. That was about Mohamed Aideed, a Muslim warlord, murdering 22 Pakistani Muslim troops. We were all there on a humanitarian mission; we had no mission, none, to establish a certain kind of Somali government or keep anybody out. He was not a religious fanatic --
Wallace : Mr. President --
Clinton : -- there was no al-Qaeda --
Wallace : With respect, if I may, instead of going through '93 and --
Clinton : No, no -- you asked it. You brought it up.
Wallace, a 30-year broadcast veteran who worked at NBC and ABC before Fox, is not usually considered part of the network's conservative commentariat, but Clinton accused him of doing "Fox's bidding" by preparing a "conservative hit job."
He attacked Wallace for failing to ask Bush administration officials why Clarke was demoted from his counterterrorism job: "Tell the truth, Chris. Tell the truth, Chris. Did you ever ask that?" He also complained that Wallace had lured him to the interview "under false pretences," but when Wallace offered to discuss his climate change project, he replied: "No, I want to finish this now."
And so he did, attacking President Bush for focusing on Iraq instead of Afghanistan, urging Americans to read Clarke's book and accusing Republicans of "a serious disinformation campaign" to blame the Clinton administration for losing bin Laden.
"I got closer to killing him than anybody's gotten since," Clinton said. "And if I were still president, we'd have more than 20,000 troops there trying to kill him. . . . You got that little smirk on your face and you think you're so clever, but I had responsibility for trying to protect this country. I tried and I failed to get bin Laden. I regret it, but I did try and I did everything I thought I responsibly could."