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By MARTIN SCHRAM
Ever since 9/11, the Bush-Cheney mantra, uttered most frequently in campaign seasons, was that Osama bin Laden was emboldened to attack America due to the failure of President Bill Clinton’s administration to forcefully and fully respond to earlier terror strikes — especially the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.
Indeed, Vice President Cheney was the self-appointed chanter-in-chief of this mantra, uttering it at virtually every stop.
But this week, we were dished new evidence that the blame for the failure to retaliate forcefully after the CIA pinned the USS Cole bombing on al Qaeda falls to Clinton’s successors — President Bush and Cheney.
Since this is another election season, this new policy evidence was surfaced in a way that hinted at more than a whiff of political payback. But in the great Washington tradition of politics, shmolitics, we focus on the real substantive story — whether past Bush-Cheney assertions were fact or demagogic deception.
On Monday night, a Democratic member of the 9/11 Commission, Richard Ben-Veniste, revealed to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and the world details we had never heard before about the commission’s Oval Office interview with Bush and Cheney. Details the 9/11 Commission had voted in a split decision to withhold from its report.
First, the policy background: The USS Cole was bombed at port in Yemen in October 2000. It was not until December 2000, in the last weeks of the Clinton presidency, that the CIA was finally able to tell Clinton that al Qaeda perpetrated the bombing. The 9/11 Commission report disclosed that Clinton’s administration warned Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers on at least three occasions that if al Qaeda struck the United States, America would retaliate against the Taliban. (Months later, Bush’s PR machine would label the notion of no sanctuaries for terrorists the "Bush doctrine.") With just weeks before inauguration, Clinton passed the retaliation responsibility to his successor. In January 2001, then-CIA Director George Tenet told Bush that al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole.
And the political background: Clinton chafed for years at those assertions that he failed to forcefully respond against al Qaeda’s past attacks. ABC’s recent semi-fiction cloaked as documentary news made the same case. Then, on "Fox News Sunday," anchor Chris Wallace, normally one of the most evenhanded stars in the Fox constellation, asked Clinton a series of accusative, assumption-loaded questions, including: "Why didn’t you do more to put bin Laden and al Qaeda out of business when you were president?"
Clinton popped his famous cork, saying firmly that he authorized the CIA to kill bin Laden but the CIA failed to get it done. (Former Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin supported Clinton’s version, telling CNN: "President Clinton did aggressively pursue Osama bin Laden. I give the Clinton administration a lot of credit for the aggressiveness with which they went after al Qaeda and bin Laden.") Clinton also told Wallace: "After the Cole, I had battle plans drawn to go into Afghanistan, overthrow the Taliban, and launch a full-scale-attack search for bin Laden. But we needed basing rights in Uzbekistan" _ and the United States did not get that until after the attacks of 9/11.
Now the news: One day after Clinton’s Fox fusillade, Ben-Veniste revealed that Bush’s decisions and lack of response were a major topic of the 9/11 Commission’s interview with Bush and Cheney. "One of the questions we had _ and I specifically had _ was why President Bush did not respond to the Cole attack," said Ben-Veniste. "And what he told me was that he did not want to launch a cruise-missile attack against bin Laden for fear of missing him and bombing the rubble. And then I asked him … ‘Well, why wouldn’t you go after the Taliban in order to get them to kick bin Laden out of Afghanistan?’ " Bush’s response? "He said that no one had told him that we had made that threat (to the Taliban)," said Ben-Veniste. "And I found that very discouraging and surprising."
This we know: Bush ordered no retaliation for the USS Cole, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, says she saw no such plans.
Can it be that no one told the new president of the old president’s threat that America would attack a sovereign nation for giving sanctuary to the terrorists who attacked America? Or showed him the alleged battle plan to do the job? If true, it is the most grievous failing by an outgoing administration in the history of presidential transitions of power. If false, it is the most grievous example of deceit and buck-passing by an incoming administration.
There can be no middle-ground truth.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)