The Washington Post did a fact check on Marco Rubio’s assertion that “The World Trade Center came down because Bill Clinton didn’t kill Osama bin Laden when he had the chance to kill him.”
Rubio also said that Clinton passed on the chance to kill bin Laden “Not once but four times….”
Let’s set aside the blame game. I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall particularly expecting Bill Clinton to kill him. I sort of knew who bin Laden was back in the ’90s and that he was a real problem for us, but this was well before it was an accepted thing that POTUS would have a kill list on his desk, à la President Obama.
I said something about this on Twitter and Facebook, and Jim Hammond reminded me of one incident that was well-covered at the time, and it started coming back to me.
That said, the fact that the Post identified nine incidents in which the U.S. nearly went after or nearly got bin Laden, not just four, is fascinating — not as fodder for blaming this president or that one, but because its interesting to review what was really going on in that relatively complacent, “end of history” decade. An excerpt:
1. May 1998: Tarnak Farms raid plan rejected
The CIA planned hard on an effort to capture bin Laden and to bring him to the United States for a trial. But at the last minute the CIA senior management lost its nerve and apparently never brought the plan to Clinton for a decision.
From the 9/11 Commission report:
A compound of about 80 concrete or mud-brick buildings surrounded by a 10-foot wall, Tarnak Farms was located in an isolated desert area on the outskirts of the Kandahar airport. CIA officers were able to map the entire site, identifying the houses that belonged to Bin Laden’s wives and the one where Bin Laden himself was most likely to sleep. Working with the tribals, they drew up plans for the raid. They ran two complete rehearsals in the United States during the fall of 1997. By early 1998, planners at the Counterterrorist Center were ready to come back to the White House to seek formal approval…
One group of tribals would subdue the guards, enter Tarnak Farms stealthily, grab Bin Laden, take him to a desert site outside Kandahar, and turn him over to a second group. This second group of tribals would take him to a desert landing zone …From there, a CIA plane would take him to New York, an Arab capital, or wherever he was to be arraigned. Briefing papers prepared by the Counterterrorist Center acknowledged that hitches might develop. People might be killed, and Bin Laden’s supporters might retaliate, perhaps taking U.S. citizens in Kandahar hostage.
But the briefing papers also noted that there was risk in not acting. “Sooner or later,” they said, “Bin Laden will attack U.S. interests, perhaps using WMD [weapons of mass destruction].” The CIA planners conducted their third complete rehearsal in March…The plan had now been modified so that the tribals would keep Bin Laden in a hiding place for up to a month before turning him over to the United States-thereby increasing the chances of keeping the U.S. hand out of sight. …On May 18, CIA’s managers reviewed a draft Memorandum of Notification (MON), a legal document authorizing the capture operation. A 1986 presidential finding had authorized worldwide covert action against terrorism and probably provided adequate authority. But mindful of the old “rogue elephant” charge, senior CIA managers may have wanted something on paper to show that they were not acting on their own….
Discussion of this memorandum brought to the surface an unease about paramilitary covert action that had become ingrained, at least among some CIA senior managers. Despite misgivings, the CIA leadership cleared the draft memorandum and sent it on to the National Security Council.
From May 20 to 24, the CIA ran a final, graded rehearsal of the operation, spread over three time zones, even bringing in personnel from the region. The FBI also participated. The rehearsal went well. The Counterterrorist Center planned to brief cabinet-level principals and their deputies the following week, giving June 23 as the date for the raid, with Bin Laden to be brought out of Afghanistan no later than July 23.
On May 20, Director Tenet discussed the high risk of the operation with Berger and his deputies, warning that people might be killed, including Bin Laden. Success was to be defined as the exfiltration of Bin Laden out of Afghanistan. A meeting of principals was scheduled for May 29 to decide whether the operation should go ahead. But the principals did not meet…The plan was never presented to the White House for a decision.
Working-level CIA officers were disappointed….No capture plan before 9/11 ever again attained the same level of detail and preparation. The tribals’ reported readiness to act diminished. And Bin Laden’s security precautions and defenses became more elaborate and formidable.