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BOOK EXCERPT: Losing bin Laden

"BOOK EXCERPT: Losing bin Laden" Continued...

Issue: "Sciavo: Saved by the bill," Nov. 1, 2003

In 1998, bin Laden wanted a provocation that even Clinton could not ignore. He had already selected the martyrs for the operation. One of them was a short, bearded man named Mohammed Rasheed Daoud al-Owhali. Unknown to the journalists gathered to listen to bin Laden in May 1998, al-Owhali was among the crowd of gunmen that day. Soon he would be on his way to Nairobi to murder and mangle thousands.

LANGLEY, VIRGINIA-Instead of fighting bin Laden, President Clinton spent 1998 fighting for his own political survival, as he faced a series of devastating scandals that involved accusations of witness tampering, obstruction of justice, perjury, sexual harassment, and illegal campaign contributions. By May, Clinton's lawyers were filing endless, futile motions to stop an array of government officials from testifying before a federal grand jury. The Monica Lewinsky scandal began when the former White House intern filed a false affidavit, claiming she never had a sexual relationship with Clinton, on January 7, 1998. A few days later, Linda Tripp turned over tapes of phone calls with Lewinsky revealing that the former intern had knowingly filed a false affidavit-and appeared to have done so at the behest of the president. Witness tampering and obstruction of justice are both serious crimes, if proven. But Clinton did not stop there. On January 17, Clinton denied under oath that he accepted sexual favors from any employee. This would later prove to be false, adding another serious crime-perjury-to the charges against him. On January 26, Clinton had famously said that he "never had sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." This was no crime, merely an expedient lie. Politics as usual.

Other scandals would quickly follow. On February 3, a Democratic campaign contributor was taken into custody by the FBI. Another Clinton-Gore campaign donor, Maria Hsia, was indicted on February 18, on charges stemming from illegal contributions raised at a Buddhist temple in California. More questionable campaign contributors would come to light when Johnny Chung struck a plea bargain in March. On March 15, Kathleen Willey appeared on 60 Minutes, saying that Clinton groped her in a room near the Oval Office. This would appear to demonstrate a pattern of sexual harassment-the very pattern that former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones was trying to establish in court.

While Clinton was consumed by scandal, the CIA and the FBI tried to fight bin Laden. Referring to bin Laden and other terror masters, the Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, had testified before a closed-door session of the Senate Appropriations Committee in May 1997. "I think we are already at war," he said. "We have been on a war footing for a number of years now."

What this "war footing" amounted to was a series of vital, but small, bureaucratic steps. The CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) had established a special bin Laden unit in January 1996. By 1998, more than one hundred case officers and intelligence analysts were serving on the bin Laden station. With the help of the CTC, forty terrorists from the former Yugoslavia were captured and turned over to Arab governments, usually Egypt. Egyptian security is believed to have tortured, tried, and executed many of them. In this way, al-Qaeda cells were quickly smashed in Albania, Bosnia, and elsewhere.

But these small successes were not followed by broader and stronger measures. These would have required presidential decisions and Clinton was too sapped by scandal to make them. Instead, American intelligence agencies spent their time gathering data, information that would never drive Clinton to act....

Al-Qaeda had been planning to attack the embassy in Nairobi since 1993. Ali Mohammed, the double agent who worked for both the FBI and al-Qaeda, confessed to taking surveillance pictures of the U.S. embassy during a visit to Nairobi in 1993 and providing them to bin Laden in that year. Mohammed also trained many of the terrorists involved in the August 1998 attacks.

On their drive toward the target, Al-Owhali and Assam sang religious songs to keep up their morale.

The van glided around the corner of the embassy and headed to the rear parking lot.

Now came al-Owhali's task. He opened the passenger door, stepped out, and threw a hand grenade at the Kenyan guards. The defective grenade did not explode, but the guards fled anyway.

Al-Owhali was supposed to get back in the van and die, but, instinctively, he started to run away instead.

Assam, the driver, drove on toward martyrdom.

Seconds later, the van exploded. The blast reached out in all directions. It punched upward into the embassy's chancery building, tearing it apart from the bottom up. It smashed the face of a seven-story bank building near the embassy and shattered windows for blocks. The crowds on the sidewalks were smacked to the ground or buried under tons of concrete rubble.

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