Asleep at the Switch?

This is a partial transcript from The War on Terror: The Hunt for the Killers. For a complete transcript of the entire broadcast click here.


WILLIAM J. CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The best shot we had at him was when I bombed — Usama bin Laden, was when I bombed his training camp in 1998. And we just missed him by a matter of hours, maybe even less than an hour.


SCOTT: But did Bill Clinton come a lot closer to catching bin Laden than he admits? Reports say Clinton went soft on terrorism and turned down three offers from Arab nations seeking to help extradite bin Laden to the United States.

Here with reaction to that, former deputy secretary of state under Bill Clinton, Strobe Talbott. He is currently director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and he's also co-editor of a new book The Age of Terror: America and the World After September 11th.

Strobe Talbott, welcome.


SCOTT: So these reports are that the Sudan made repeated attempts -- not just once but in '96, '97, '98 tried to offer bin Laden to the U.S. government, and the Clinton administration, it is said, turned it down. True?

TALBOTT: That's cheap Monday-morning quarterbacking. There was a lot of stuff in the air. I'm not going to comment on the exact specifics here, but I can tell you that, in general, with the wisdom of hindsight, it's a lot easier to connect the dots on raw intelligence and overtures and that kind of thing than it was at the time.

The Clinton administration took the problem of terrorism very seriously, as you just showed in a clip of former president Clinton himself. We used military force on a number of occasions. Now, that said, Jon, if anybody had known then what we know now about what intended and what these characters were capable of, we would have done more, of course. That goes without saying.

But we did everything that we felt we could and that was responsible, given what we knew at the time.

SCOTT: But what...

TALBOTT: And given, by the way, what the support was in the international community, on the part of the American people, and the advice of the intelligence community and the military.

SCOTT: Well, according to this article in The Times of London, there were the repeated offers from the Sudanese government, and the Clinton administration looked at them and said, you know, "Gee, we'd like to have the guy, but we just don't think we have a case that'll stick against him in court."

TALBOTT: A lot of 20-20 hindsight here, and some it I think partisan in motivation. It's very important that the United States, and for that matter, its international partners, do a lot of analysis about what went wrong here, why this threat was able to continue. There is plenty of responsibility to go around among a numb of previous administrations, but let's do it in the spirit of actually improving the system and looking forward, rather than trying to assign blame.

Having been in the administration, having been with the president, the secretary of state, the national security adviser, I can tell you rarely a day went by, literally, no matter what else was on the agenda, that they were not very focused on the problem of terrorism in general and Usama bin Laden in particular.

SCOTT: Even in the book, though, that you co-edited, there is criticism by Charles Hill, a gentleman who says that in the years of Clinton administration, there was effectively no real retribution for some of the major terrorist acts that went on, the bombing of the Khobar Towers, the bombing of the USS Cole. He said justice was always promised but never delivered.

TALBOTT: Well, it's a terrific essay. I don't agree with everything in it. The point of the book is to bring together a number of serious people who want to make their own contributions to the debate. The fact of the matter is — and once again, you just quoted President Clinton as saying this himself — military force was used. There was plenty of effort to get at the root of the problem. We came very close. And obviously, had we known then what we know now, we probably would have done more. We certainly would have done more, if we had been able to figure exactly out what would have worked.

SCOTT: There is another case, this one from a government which wanted to sort of deliver bin Laden quietly to the United States using Mansoor Ijaz, a Pakistani-American journalist, businessman, and so forth. He's also a Fox News contributor. We had him on the air the other day, and here's what he had to say.


MANSOOR IJAZ, COUNTERTERRORISM EXPERT: It was at that time very clear to the Clinton administration that he was a threat of some sort. And what we tried initially to do was to get him before he became a much bigger and much larger problem. And that was where the Sudanese offer came in in '96 and then again in '97, and then again in 1998, and they just never responded to it.


SCOTT: Is that a fair criticism?

TALBOTT: Nope, it's not. Again, it's using the wisdom of hindsight to connect dots that couldn't be connected at the time. Not least, in a lot of cases, because of the dubious nature of a lot of the offers and the sources.

SCOTT: Part of the theme, the overarching theme of the new book is that, you know, if we get bin Laden, there — he has sort of opened the door for this whole new kind of operation, this — this non-governmental kind of terror that could be with the world for a very long time.

TALBOTT: Right. A number of the authors make the case that one of the thresholds we crossed here, certainly the United States, having experienced this kind of thing for the first time, is that traditionally, we have thought of other states and countries being potential enemies or actual enemies in a war. And in this case, we're dealing with the ultimate NGO, which has its cells in a lot of different countries, including quite a number of countries that are ostensibly, at least, friends of the United States, which makes it much tougher to go after them.

Afghanistan, which has been an immense success militarily, was in some ways the easy case because it was the most extreme example of state- sponsored terrorism. We now have to face up to problems like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are politically in many ways close to the United States, yet nonetheless have not only tolerated terrorism, but in the case of Saudi Arabia, paid a kind of protection money to terrorists as long as they kept their terrorism away from Saudi Arabia itself.

SCOTT: We've also got the problem today, four months after September 11th — we've got the problem of the threat of war between India and Pakistan. And we've got the exacerbating problems between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I mean, it's a vastly more complicated world.

TALBOTT: Yeah, but to the credit of the Bush administration, they are stepping up to the plate in both cases. They've been very active diplomatically with India and Pakistan, which, by the way, was an extremely dangerous situation before September 11th. India and Pakistan went to the bridge of war during of the Clinton administration, too, over a Pakistani incursion into India. And with regard to the Middle East, it would be very wrong, I think, to in any sense say that September 11th happened because the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nonetheless...

SCOTT: Bin laden says so.

TALBOTT: Well, he's an utter cynic in this respect and every other. I mean, Palestinian flag. I think he was much more concerned about driving the infidels, as he sees it, out of his native land of Saudi Arabia.

SCOTT: The new book is The Age of Terror, the co-editor Strobe Talbott. Good of you to be with us.

TALBOTT: Thank you, Jon.

Be sure to watch The War on Terror: The Hunt for the Killers every weeknight live at 10 p.m. ET on the Fox News Channel for all the very latest news on America at War.