Playing the Terrorist Blame Game: Clinton Scapegoated for 9/11

When it comes to the terrorist blame game, there is plenty to go around, both inside and outside the Oval Office.

I enjoyed watching Bill Clinton joust with Chris Wallace on Fox News yesterday, and could appreciate the former president's frustration at being the scapegoat for 9/11. 

As a critic of President Clinton's counter-terrorism efforts (see New York Times op-ed by Milton Bearden and Larry C. Johnson), I welcomed the arrival of the Bush Administration because Clinton, in my view, had not made combating terrorism a top priority during his tenure.  For example, he left the position of the Coordinator for Counter Terrorism vacant for several months during his presidency. He could have done more. However, it was also true that the number of terrorist attacks steadily declined during Clinton's tenure.

To Clinton's credit he did allow Richard Clarke to become the de facto terrorism czar at the National Security Council. That was due principally to Clarke's skill as a bureaucratic infighter. He made himself indispensable. In that position, he was viewed by many as an aggressive and abrasive coordinator. Several of my friends in various parts of the intelligence and policy community complained at the time that Clarke was a "chicken little" and a "pain in the ass." Those same friends, however, came to lament his absence because he brought a focus and energy and could get the president's ear. 

It also is true that counter terrorism fell off the table as a policy priority in the Bush Administration. The Clinton years appeared by comparison an era of relative intense activity. Someone on the Bush team-I don't know if it was the president or Condi Rice-made the decision to downgrade Clarke and shunt him aside. The NSC did not hold an interagency deputies-level review of our nation's terrorism policy until September 10, 2001.

While there is plenty of blame for both Clinton and Bush, both have been blamed for inaction caused by the military, law enforcement and intelligence communities. For instance, several U.S. citizens were kidnapped in the Philippines by groups with ties to Osama bin Laden, but neither the Clinton nor Bush Administrations responded effectively because the military-specifically Admiral Dennis Blair's CINCPACOM-opposed efforts to deploy special operations forces to the region to oversee search and rescue efforts. The case of Gracia and Martin Burnham, two U.S. missionaries that were kidnapped by an Al-Qaeda affiliated group in May 2001, illustrates the problem. State Department and some elements of the U.S. military special operations community wanted to intervene directly in looking for the two Americans. The effort was blocked by Admiral Blair and Donald Rumsfeld, who was more preoccupied after 9/11 with Afghanistan and Iraq. The rescue was left in the hands of the Philippine army, which botched the attempt, killing Martin and wounding Gracia. 

In February of 2001, the U.S. embassy in Quito, Ecuador proposed that an inter-agency U.S. government team and a U.S. special-operations element be deployed to assist with the search and rescue of four U.S. oil workers held hostage by Colombian insurgents.  Richard Clarke chaired a meeting at the National Security Council to consider the request. Everyone but the Department of Defense, specifically the Deputy J-3, supported the recommendation. The military vetoed action because, they said, "it is too dangerous."

The truth of the matter is that bureaucracies-DOD, CIA, FBI, and State-failed at various times and on several occasions to give presidents viable options. And it is also true that presidents have not acted forcefully and aggressively to deal with the threat of terrorism.

I believe there both Clinton and Bush have been unfairly blamed for inaction that was actually the fault of the Department of Defense or the CIA. However, in terms of what is going on right now, there is mounting evidence that the Bush Administration, despite tough talk and posturing, is doing little to fix the problem of how we combat terrorism.

Since 9/11, for example, the bureaucratic infighting and confusion has worsened. Just last week, the new CIA director, General Michael Hayden, "discovered" that CIA analysts and field operators did not get along and should work together more closely. As Homer Simpson is wont to say, "doh!" What is so appalling about this so-called discovery is that the Counter Terrorism Center (CTC), which was set up in 1986, brought analysts and field operators together for the express purpose of overcoming these obstacles.

However, the CTC is in disarray and on the verge of extinction because of the creation of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC).  When the NCTC was established most of the terrorism analysts were removed from the CTC and sent to NCTC Headquarters, (two miles west of CIA headquarters). The operators have remained at CIA and they are leaving CTC and returning to work in the traditional regional bureaus. It is no surprise that the unit responsible for hunting Bin Laden was disbanded last year and has not been reconstituted.

The current chaos in the bureaucracies will be the grist for the next round of the "blame game", which will come some day, hopefully not too soon, in the aftermath of another terrorist attack here in the homeland. The next blow will be laid at Bush's feet and he will deserve a large share of the blame. But the failure to effectively combat terrorism is not just the fault of a president.

Larry Johnson served in the CIA during the Presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He served at the State Department during the Presidencies of George H.W. Bush and William J. Clinton.  He continues to consult on security and counter-terrorism matters for the U.S. military.