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Clinton Defends His Bin Laden Strategy

September 24, 2006|From Times Wire Services

WASHINGTON — Former President Clinton, angrily defending his efforts to capture Osama bin Laden, accused the Bush administration of doing far less to stop the Al Qaeda leader in the eight months it was in office before the Sept. 11 attacks.

In a heated interview to be aired today on "Fox News Sunday," the Democrat defended the steps he took after Al Qaeda's attack on the destroyer Cole in 2000 and faulted "right-wingers" for their criticism of his efforts to capture Bin Laden.

Clinton had planned to discuss his climate-change initiative during his appearance, but he turned combative after host Chris Wallace asked why he hadn't "put Bin Laden and Al Qaeda out of business."

Clinton said that "all the conservative Republicans" who now criticize him for inattention to Bin Laden used to criticize him for over-attention to Bin Laden.

"I authorized the CIA to get groups together to try to kill him," Clinton said. He said he had drawn up plans to go into Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and launch an attack against Bin Laden after the attack on the Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. "But we needed basing rights in Uzbekistan -- which we got after 9/11."

Clinton complained at the time that the CIA and FBI refused to certify Bin Laden was responsible for the Cole attack, which he said "meant I would have had to send a few hundred Special Forces in helicopters, refuel at night."

"At least I tried," Clinton said. "That's the difference [between] me and some, including all of the right-wingers who are attacking me now. They ridiculed me for trying.

"They had eight months to try. They did not try. I tried. So I tried and failed. When I failed, I left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy and the best guy in the country, [Richard A.] Clarke, who got demoted."

By contrast, Clinton said, the Bush administration's neoconservatives "had no meetings on Bin Laden for nine months," believing Clinton had been "too obsessed with Bin Laden."

Clinton seemed particularly irked by Wallace's reference to his decision to pull troops out of Somalia in 1993, a move Bin Laden later described as a sign of American weakness.

Clinton argued that even though many Republicans demanded a withdrawal from Somalia the day after the downing of a Black Hawk helicopter, he kept a U.S. presence there for six more months to ensure an orderly transition to United Nations forces.

"There is not a living soul in the world who thought Osama bin Laden had anything to do with 'Black Hawk down' or was paying any attention to it, or even knew Al Qaeda was a going concern in October '93," he said.

He challenged Wallace for failing to ask administration officials why Clarke was demoted from his job as counter-terrorism chief. He criticized President Bush for focusing on Iraq instead of Afghanistan, and accused Republicans of "a serious disinformation campaign" to blame the Clinton administration for losing Bin Laden.

"I got closer to killing him than anybody's gotten since," Clinton said. "And if I were still president, we'd have more than 20,000 troops there trying to kill him."

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