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'Clinton did not have the will to respond'

International | INTERVIEW: Author Richard Miniter chronicles how the Clinton White House passed up opportunities to seize Osama bin Laden

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

AN AMAZON SEARCH FOR CURRENT books on Osama bin Laden turns up 50 or so choices. But search for books about the terrorist mastermind and Bill Clinton, and you will find precisely one. Losing bin Laden is the first book to explicitly overlay the ephemeral plottings of al-Qaeda with the chimera that was the 42nd president.

George Bush may absorb all current heat for failing to score decisively in the global war on terror, but, in the words of author Richard Miniter, Osama bin Laden "is the unfinished business of the Clinton administration."

During the Clinton years the number of Americans who fell victim to terrorist plots grew steadily and Mr. bin Laden publicly declared war on the United States at least five times. At the same time, Mr. bin Laden learned that his forces could strike prime U.S. targets-the World Trade Center, U.S. soldiers (in Somalia), U.S. warships (USS Cole), and U.S. embassies (Nairobi, Dar es Salaam)-without drawing a serious counterattack from the White House.

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Mr. bin Laden progressed from "a small-time funder of militant Muslim terrorists in Sudan, Yemen, and Afghanistan" at the beginning of Mr. Clinton's term to operating a "terror network ... in more than 55 countries and already responsible for the deaths of thousands" by 2000, Mr. Clinton's last year in office. The worldwide network by then was well along with plans for the 9/11 attacks.

It's old news that Mr. Clinton was distracted by poll readings and impeachment proceedings, leaving the war on terror to law-enforcement agencies and obscure State Department bureaucrats. But Mr. Miniter, a former Wall Street Journal editor, has a few new things to say about the license for liberty Mr. Clinton handed al-Qaeda. Relying on intelligence documents from Sudan and a Clinton donor-turned-Islamic-power-broker named Mansoor Ijaz, Mr. Miniter describes too many opportunities when the Clinton administration had Mr. bin Laden within its grasp-and refused to take him.

More remains to be said about Mr. Ijaz, a highly successful Pakistani-American businessman and millionaire contributor to the Clinton and Gore campaign war chests. When Mr. Ijaz first exposed Clinton administration bungling in the war on terror, he became an overnight darling of the right, appearing on places like Fox News and in National Review to tout his own attempts to bring in Mr. bin Laden. Some think Mr. Ijaz-who shuttled between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sudan right up until 9/11-has too many friends in the wrong places. But Mr. Miniter has sifted the Ijaz material through an impressive list of longtime intelligence and counterterrorism sources to ably document the Clinton White House's pre-9/11 passivity-a fond hope that its mastermind would simply go away.

WORLD: What started you down this trail, picking up the empty traps where Bill Clinton had let the bin Laden rabbit get away?

RM: On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I almost lost my brother, Brendan. Brendan Miniter works at The Wall Street Journal on the tip of Manhattan, across the street from the World Trade Center towers. Every morning, he takes the 8:30 a.m. train into the city and gets off underneath the North Tower of the World Trade Center around 8:45 a.m. As you know, the first plane hit at 8:48 a.m. By the time the second plane hit, I was frantically calling New York City from Brussels, Belgium, where I was based, also working for The Wall Street Journal. Like thousands of other Americans, I was only getting busy signals-and the gnawing sense that I might have just lost my brother. Within hours my prayers were answered and I learned that my brother had been spared.

But the 9/11 attacks got me thinking. So I queried intelligence sources that I had developed over the years and was surprised to learn that the planning for the 9/11 attacks began in May 1998 (Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the 9/11 operational commander, now says the planning started in 1996). In other words, the planning for the 9/11 attacks began during the Clinton years. That led me to ask three questions: (1) What did Bill Clinton know about bin Laden? (2) When did he know it? (3) What did he do about it?

Losing bin Laden is the result of a two-year investigation to answer those three questions.

WORLD: You describe Bill Clinton as waging a private war against terrorism. In doing so, was he not simply reflecting the will of the 1990s electorate, saturated with economic prosperity and preoccupied with dot-com mania?

RM: Clinton pollster Dick Morris told me that polls in the Clinton years consistently showed strong public support for taking military action against terrorists. Indeed, public support was usually north of 60 percent in favor of such action. So the will of the electorate was actually to the right of President Clinton.

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