For months now, many on the right ... no, scratch that, the stupid and the lazy on the right have resorted to the easy stratagem of painting a black and white rendering of recent counter-terrorism policy. Everything under Bill Clinton was feckless or negligent and everything under George W. Bush was serious and determined.
There were some mistakes under the former president. I spent the last couple months before 9/11 reporting on one of them: the failure to roll-up bin Laden in Sudan in 1996. This was a screw-up. What seldom gets mentioned is that the screw-up was more a matter of being too inflexible toward terrorists and those who harbor them, not too lenient. But more on that later.
But as this example implies, the mistakes mainly came early. Those who have a sense of what was afoot in the late Clinton years know that counter-terrorism became a major focus of concern and more or less constant activity. The president himself became preoccupied with the possibility of al Qaida-linked terrorists mounting a chemical or biological attack.
Now, one of the unintentional effects of the recent revelations about missed 9/11 clues is that this reality is beginning to come out.
For instance, see this clip from the newly-released article from Newsweek ...
...under Attorney General John Ashcroft, the department was being prodded back into its old law-and-order mind-set: violent crime, drugs, child porn. Counterterrorism, which had become a priority of the Clintonites (not that they did a better job of nailing bin Laden), seemed to be getting less attention. When FBI officials sought to add hundreds more counterintelligence agents, they got shot down even as Ashcroft began, quietly, to take a privately chartered jet for his own security reasons.or later ...
The attorney general was hardly alone in seeming to de-emphasize terror in the young Bush administration. Over at the Pentagon, new Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld elected not to relaunch a Predator drone that had been tracking bin Laden, among other actions. In self- absorbed Washington, the Phoenix memo, which never resulted in arrests, landed in two units at FBI headquarters but didnât make it to senior levels. Nor did the memo get transmitted to the CIA, which has long had a difficult relationship with the FBIâand whose director, George Tenet, one of the few Clinton holdovers, was issuing so many warnings that bin Laden was âthe most immediateâ threat to Americans he was hardly heeded any longer.
By the end of the Clinton administration, the then national-security adviser Sandy Berger had become âtotally preoccupiedâ with fears of a domestic terror attack, a colleague recalls. True, the Clintonites had failed to act decisively against Al Qaeda, but by the end they were certain of the danger it posed. When, in January 2001, Berger gave Rice her handover briefing, he covered the bin Laden threat in detail, and, sources say, warned her: âYou will be spending more time on this issue than on any other.â Rice was alarmed by what she heard, and asked for a strategy review. But the effort was marginalized and scarcely mentioned in ensuing months as the administration committed itself to other priorities, like national missile defense (NMD) and Iraq.Of course, there were always other signs of this difference in emphasis and failed interpretation. Richard Clarke -- Clinton's point-man at NSC for counter-terrorism -- was the only person kept on by Bush at NSC. George Tenet -- the only principal hold-over from Clinton's watch -- was apparently the only one who had a clear view of how critical an issue al Qaida was. Then there was the veto threat from the President in September when Senate Democrats tried to trim $1.3 billion in Missile Defense funding and shift $600 million of it to counter-terrorism (In fairness, that was basically a fight over NMD. But that in itself makes the point about priorities.)
There's more to come like this.
As they say, glass houses ...And one other thing, take a look at the mention of George Tenet toward the end of the first passage and compare it to Bill Safire's column in today's Times.