David Martosko, US Political Editor - Eight months after he ordered the destruction of Osama bin Laden’s camp in Afghanistan and a suspected chemical weapons facility in the Sudan, President Bill Clinton doubted that the al-Qaeda leader posed a serious threat to the United States, judging from a hand-written note made public.
The William J Clinton Presidential Library released its latest trove of documents, including a hand-written note from the president to his national security adviser, Sandy Berger, on April 14, 1999.
Clinton was reacting to a New York Times story the day before that questioned whether bin Laden was behind a pair of August 7, 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. ‘Sandy - If this article is right,’ he wrote to Berger, ‘the CIA sure overstated its case to me - what are the facts?’
Berger is now co-chair of Albright Stonebridge Group, a commercial consultancy he runs with Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and George W Bush Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez.
‘Intelligence on those responsible for the embassy bombings in Africa was continually developing,’ he told MailOnline. ‘At the time of the attacks in Afghanistan and Sudan, we were confident that it was al-Qaeda.’
That position likely coloured Berger’s followup communications with his two National Security Council underlings most closely associated with Middle East issues and transnational threats, Richard Clarke and Daniel Benjamin. Those conversations were redacted when the library released the documents on Friday since they were classified. Clarke and Benjamin couldn’t be reached for comment.
Reactions online and in print to the publication of Clinton’s 1999 note have generally been negative, focusing on Clinton’s indecisiveness in the face of a mortal enemy who would mastermind the deaths of thousands of Americans a few years later with the 9/11 attacks.
‘While al Qaeda was planning the Sept 11 attacks, President Clinton dashed off a note doubting that Osama bin Laden was a major threat,’ author and Middle East expert Richard Miniter told MailOnline.
Al-Qaeda also bombed the USS Cole in October 2000, killing 17 American sailors. Miniter’s 2004 best-seller ‘Losing Bin Laden’ chronicles the Clinton Administration’s earlier failures to corral the bin Laden, including its refusal of a back-channel offer from Sudanese intelligence to hand him over in 1996.
Susan Rice, then a junior State Department officer, was involved in those discussions. They culminated, Miniter writes, with Sudan’s vice president asking a US intelligence official if the United States wanted bin Laden.
It’s unclear if Clinton himself was ever made aware of the overture. But bin Laden had publicly declared war on the US six times between 1995 and 1998, making some of those declarations in public press conferences.
Two weeks after the August 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, the president green-lighted a series of cruise missile attacks against six terror camps in Afghanistan. Bin Laden was uninjured. He was at the time operating in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban.
Clinton also ordered a missile attack on the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan. One worker died under the rubble. ‘Today, we have struck back,’ Clinton said that day.
Defence Secretary William Cohen told reporters then that there would be ‘no sanctuary for terrorists and no limit to our resolve to defend American citizens and our interests.’ The White House argued at the time that al-Qaeda was using the Al-Shifa factory to produce VX nerve gas that its militants could use against Western populations. Clinton’s spokespeople said the plant was heavily guarded, but that soil samples collected outside indicated the presence of EMPTA - short for O-ethylmethylphosphonothioic acid.
That toxic chemical compound, US intelligence officials said then, was a nerve gas component that had no known commercial use.
A British engineer who worked in the plant later told reporters that EMPTA was used at Al-Shifa, but to manufacture antibiotics and fungicides. And the administration later walked back claims from Cohen, who had said after the factory was levelled that bin Laden had ‘a financial interest in contributing to this particular facility.’
The most damning criticism Clinton received at the time came from dovish Democrats in Congress, who suspected that he had ordered the attacks in Afghanistan and Sudan to draw attention away from his sex scandal that had monopolized newspaper headlines and news broadcasts.
In Washington, the attacks were widely seen as a ‘Wag The Dog’ episode, a name drawn from a popular movie about a political consultant who distracts voters from a sex scandal by hiring a Hollywood filmmaker to create and film a fake US war with Albania. ‘Wag The Dog’ premiered just weeks before Clinton’s own sex scandal, about a White House intern he had seduced, made international news.
Clinton’s 1999 note to Berger indicates that he doubted the intelligence that preceded his cruise missile order. It may also lend credence to the ‘Wag The Dog’ scenario, since it suggests that Clinton ordered the cruise missile attacks despite lacking what he considered a complete intelligence assessment.
A US intelligence source told MailOnline on Friday that Clinton ‘certainly saw the CIA’s evidence that bin Laden was behind the first World Trade Center bombing’ in 2001. ‘Clinton saw everything they had, at least what they could prove,’ he said.
The agency quickly established a section dedicated to finding the terror ringleader in 1996, the same year mid-level talks with Sudan fell through, once that information was deemed authentic.
On June 8, 1998, two months before the embassy bombings, a federal grand jury issued a sealed criminal indictment against bin Laden and other terrorists including Ayman al Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s current leader.
The indictment, which made national news, charged them with six crimes including ‘conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction against nationals of the United States.’ –Daily Mail