Brian Ross of ABC News reported last week that the FBI was poised to capture Osama bin Laden back in 1998, but the plan was quashed by then-Attorney General Janet Reno.
“There was concern that people around the bin Laden compound would be killed,” said former FBI agent Jack Cloonan, a member of a secret team of federal investigators assembled solely for the purpose of apprehending the Al Qaeda leader.
“We had information, pretty good information on the particular house where he was,” said Cloonan. But, he added, when the plan worked its way up the chain of command, Reno killed it.
Describing the incident as classified, the former attorney general declined to respond to Cloonan’s charge.
The story, first broadcast on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” made its way to some wire-service accounts but otherwise was pretty much downplayed by the media. Imagine, by contrast, the uproar that would ensue were a similar story to come out about a president named Bush and an attorney general named Ashcroft – the saturation coverage, the breathless reporting, the outraged editorials – and then try to take seriously the argument, advanced by certain lefty pundits, that the notion of a “liberal media” is mere exaggeration or myth.
The indecisiveness that characterized the Clinton White House is spelled out in even more damning detail in Dereliction of Duty: The Eyewitness Account of How Bill Clinton Endangered National Security, which has been sitting at or near the top of the bestseller lists for a couple of months now. The book, however, has been virtually ignored by the “prestige” media, no doubt because it would be difficult for Clinton apologists to portray the author, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Patterson, as some agenda-driven conspiracy monger.
Patterson, who served as Clinton’s senior military aide from 1996 to 1998, describes this missed opportunity to kill Osama bin Laden: “The White House Situation Room was buzzing. It was fall 1998 and the National Security Council (NSC) and the “intelligence community” were tracking down the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, the shadowy mastermind of terrorist attacks on American targets overseas. “They’ve successfully triangulated his position,” yelled a “Sit Room” watch stander….The watch officer notified National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, “Sir, we’ve located bin Laden. We’ve got a two-hour window to strike.”
“….Berger ambled down the stairwell and entered the Sit Room. He picked up the phone at one of the busy controller consoles and called the president. Amazingly, President Clinton was not available. Berger tried again and again. Bin Laden was within striking distance. The window of opportunity was closing fast….For about an hour Berger couldn’t get the commander in chief on the line. Though the president was always accompanied by military aides and the Secret Service, he was somehow unavailable. Berger stalked the Situation Room, nervous and impatient.
“Finally, the president accepted Berger’s call. There was discussion, there were pauses – and no decision. The president wanted to talk with his secretaries of defense and state. He wanted to study the issue further. Berger was forced to wait. The clock was ticking. The president eventually called back. He was still indecisive. He wanted more discussion….The NSC watch officer was convinced we had the right target. The intelligence sources were conclusive. The president, however, wanted a guaranteed hit or nothing at all. This time, it was nothing at all. We didn’t pull the trigger. We “studied” the issue until it was too late – the window of opportunity closed. [Bin Laden] slipped through the noose.”
Patterson also recounts how Clinton twice lost the card containing the nuclear-launch codes, which presidents keep on their person at all times. The first time Clinton misplaced the codes, the president’s valets eventually found them in the White House residence. On a later occasion, however, Clinton had to admit to Patterson and another military aide, ?I just can?t find it…don?t know where it is.”
An embarrassed Clinton assured the aides, “I’ll track it down, guys, and get it back to you.”
Of course, he never did.
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org