In Midst of Scandal, Clinton Planned Action
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 1998; Page A01
Nine days ago, President Clinton flew overnight from a political trip in California for a White House meeting at which his national security team laid out planning for a military attack against a terrorist network linked to Osama bin Laden.
The next day Clinton sent word to some of his advisers that he had decided, after months of stalling, that he had no choice but to address the nation about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky.
The day after that, last Friday, he met again with the security team and gave approval for yesterday's retaliatory missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan. Then he spent the weekend closeted in the White House, preparing to meet with prosecutors for queries about the extramarital affair.
On Monday, before his meeting with prosecutors and his speech that night, there were discussions with advisers about preparations for the military strike.
On Tuesday, the president flew to Martha's Vineyard, Mass., for what aides said would be two weeks of family healing. All the while, he and a few national security officials knew the truth: Clinton planned to return to Washington so he could speak again to the nation, this time about the U.S. military action he had ordered to avenge the Aug. 7 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
And so it went for nearly two weeks, several close presidential advisers said yesterday, as Clinton's schedule and thoughts hurtled back and forth between two crises of a very different nature. Even as Clinton was preparing to acknowledge a difficult truth about one secret in his private life, he was harboring another secret dealing with the most difficult responsibility of any president's public life -- when to use military force against an enemy.
The White House yesterday asserted that Clinton's decision to bomb suspected terrorist installations was in no way linked to or affected by the Lewinsky controversy. At a minimum, however, the response to Clinton's action showed how his legal and personal problems have altered the prism through which his presidential decisions are viewed.
Several Republicans yesterday raised the issue expressly. Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said: "After months of lies and deceit and manipulations and deceptions -- stonewalling -- it raised into doubt everything he does and everything he says," Coats said.
Administration officials said yesterday they had anticipated criticism that Clinton was following a "Wag the Dog" strategy -- so-named after the recent movie in which a president tries to draw attention away from a sexual scandal by staging a phony war -- but had no choice but to ignore it.
The same speculation arose last February made when Clinton contemplated military action against Iraq.
To the contrary, Clinton aides said the president's schedule in recent weeks highlights a remarkable ability to separate his public duties from his personal woes.
"He's got his priorities straight," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry. Even as the Clinton family is "working through some issues," he said, the president realizes "that his first responsibility . . . is always commander in chief."
That responsibility, national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said yesterday, even involved an element of subterfuge -- behaving as if a vacation was underway when in fact Clinton was very much working. "One of the things that was indispensable to this operation was secrecy," Berger told reporters. "I have to say I have some degree of collective pride on the part of my colleagues that we were actually able to, for once, do that."
Even though Clinton had approved the concept of strikes last Friday, Berger said the president could have stopped execution until about 6 a.m. yesterday. Clinton spent Wednesday, his birthday, on Martha's Vineyard taking calls from Vice President Gore, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Berger and others about the impending mission.
After returning from a small birthday party to his borrowed vacation estate about 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, aides said Clinton stayed up until about 3 a.m. taking calls about the operation. He went to sleep with all systems go. Shortly after 7 a.m., a military jet spirited Air Force Maj. Gen. Donald Kerrick, the No. 3 official on the National Security Council, to Martha's Vineyard so he would be with Clinton when the strikes were launched. While the president waited, Hillary Rodham Clinton reviewed his planned speech.
Earlier this week, the circle of people in the White House who knew of the impending attack had begun to widen. Speechwriters had begun drafts on Clinton's Oval Office address. McCurry said he had learned that a military strike was probable several days ago. On Wednesday, Berger had alerted a handful of congressional leaders in both parties.
But, unlike many military actions in recent years, the news media was thoroughly unprepared for the prospect of a strike.
Early yesterday afternoon, White House officials alerted the pool of reporters waiting outside Clinton's vacation spread that his motorcade was getting ready to move. Reporters assumed that Clinton would be driving to a nearby golf course. As it happened, the video recorder in the press tent at the end of Clinton's driveway was at that very moment playing "Wag the Dog."
Clinton, of course, was not going golfing. The first stop for his motorcade was the main press filing center at the nearby Edgartown school. A few minutes earlier, in the middle of his daily briefing, McCurry had received a page -- his signal to let stunned reporters know Clinton would soon arrive to make a statement on an unspecified national security matter.
Moments later, Clinton walked into the elementary school gymnasium and announced the strikes, and said he was returning immediately to Washington. Aboard Air Force One, Clinton had a scratchy, broken conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Once on the ground, he called Blair again as well as other foreign leaders, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
While Clinton had the secure communications necessary to stay on Martha's Vineyard if he wanted, administration officials said his reason for returning to Washington was twofold. The White House has better facilities for him to examine enlarged, high-quality intelligence images, officials said. The principal reason, however, was symbolic: He considered the Oval Office the right setting to make what he regarded as a major statement about the modern-day peril of terrorism and what the United States is prepared to do about it.
"Look very carefully at what the president said and the seriousness of his speech, which is why it was very appropriate that it be done here in Washington in the Oval Office," Albright said. "Because I think that we are embarked on a venture in which we have to deal over the long run with what is the very serious threat to our way of life at the end of this century and the next one."
Staff writer Terry M. Neal in Edgartown, Mass., contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company