Newspaper readers have been treated in recent days to an orgy of gut-spilling by Clinton administration officials rather painfully eager to show that when they were in office they, too, exerted themselves mightily to get rid of Usama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network.
The fact that they didn’t succeed is just the beginning of the problem. The Washington Post articles on the Clinton officials also reveal the officials’ unsavory willingness — for the sake of self-promotion — to compromise the intelligence community by betraying secret ways the community tracked bin Laden. Most of all, though, the Clinton articles are a roadmap of failure, a textbook on how not to conduct an anti-terrorist campaign.
From a reporter’s perspective, new details on how the U.S. went after bin Laden are a goldmine, and more power to the newspaper that can dig them up. The trouble is that the details are potentially harmful. Consider the Clinton-era leak that U.S. intelligence was tracking bin Laden’s telephone calls. Former CIA director James Woolsey has said the leak tipped off bin Laden and led him to stop communicating by phone. Given such consequences, ex-administration officials are duty-bound to resist the temptation to brag about U.S. capabilities.
The new leaks involve, among other things, planned Pakistani and Uzbek commando raids, sensors for caves inside Afghanistan, a person close to the Taliban leadership spying for the U.S., and possible U.S. landing sites in Afghanistan. These leaks risk tipping off future foes about U.S. methods, harming some foreigners who have cooperated with the U.S. or shaking the resolve of others who fear being exposed in the U.S. media, and ratcheting up the vigilance of U.S. foes. We may never learn whether any of these negative consequences are triggered by the Clinton officials’ efforts to cast themselves in a good light.
What’s more, the officials don’t come out looking good at all. Instead their efforts add up to a long list on what not to do in a campaign against terrorism. Among the “don’ts” :
—Don’t let states off the hook. Clinton officials sought to “criminalize” terrorism, presenting bin Laden as a murderer who needed to be strung up in court and Al Qaeda as a global terror mafia, and doing little more than criticize verbally the Taliban and other terror-supporting regimes. This tactic let the regimes that harbor and assist terrorists off the hook, allowing them to build the terrorists up still further. Yet the Afghanistan war shows that the Bush doctrine of attacking states that harbor terrorism robs the terrorists of safe quarter. Ideally, the doctrine of ousting regimes that harbor terrorists will deter other states from doing what the Taliban did, eventually leaving terrorists with no state helpers.
—Don’t use half measures. The Clinton administration decided a priori to rule out ground forces in any war on terrorism, to operate from a great distance from their targets, and to avoid confronting states. They stopped short of rolling up the financial underpinnings of Al Qaeda that they knew about. And while they doubled the budget for counterterrorism on the one hand, they were overly gentle with the other. Who can forget Madeleine Albright’s move to change the term “rogue states” to “states of concern” ? Yet laboring mightily below a certain threshold of effort is as bad as not laboring at all; it aggravates the adversary but does little to actually defeat him. By contrast, the Bush administration declared war on the terrorists and so far has prosecuted it fully. And while bin Laden is not yet eliminated, much of the Al Qaeda network has been felled.
—Don’t dilute U.S. air power. The Clintonites tried to strike particular targets with one-time assaults, despite recognizing that their information about people at the targets was always half a day out of date. Using air power in this piecemeal fashion rendered it ineffective. For example, flinging a handful of cruise missiles at an Al Qaeda training site in 1998 reached the targets too late, serving only to waste expensive weaponry, embarrass the U.S., and embolden the adversary by signaling that the U.S. has tied its own hands behind its back. Yet if used properly in sufficient quantities, U.S. air power can now win wars. Afghanistan shows how sustained precision strikes from U.S. aircraft, called in by a minimal number of soldiers on the ground, can rout an adversary.
It’s no surprise that Clinton administration officials have sought to talk up their role in stopping terrorism. After Sept. 11, what past government official wouldn’t claim having done all he or she could? Nonetheless, the Clinton officials might have stayed silent if they’d only realize how bad their own revelations would make them look.
Melana Zyla Vickers writes on national security, foreign policy and global economic issues for Techcentralstation.com. She has a Master's degree, focused on strategic studies and economics, from the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.