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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Republicans and Islamic terrorism during the Clinton presidency

(updated below)

The principal reason why Bush supporters are so gleefully celebrating ABC's 9/11 propaganda film is because, according to them, it blames the Clinton administration for being insufficiently attentive to the terrorist threat during the 1990s. Writing on David Horowitz's Front Page, Govindini Murty, for instance, oozes with praise for Path to 9/11, calling it the "most pro-American miniseries I've ever seen on TV" for documenting the "Clinton-era irresponsibility and incompetence." Understandably, Murty urges that "conservatives should support it and promote it as vigorously as possible."

But it is rank, deceitful revisionism to attempt to blame the Clinton administration for failing to be insufficiently aggressive with regard to Al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism generally. To make this argument with any plausibility, Bush supporters would have to be able to point to complaints made by Republicans at the time -- and especially during the 2000 election -- that the Clinton administration should have been more attentive or aggressive towards Islamic terrorists. The threat posed by Al Qaeda and bin Laden was well known throughout the 1990s. To pretend that Republicans wanted a more aggressive stance than Clinton took is blatant revisionism.

Prominent Republican elected officials were not criticizing Clinton for paying insufficient attention to Al Qaeda. George Bush barely said a word about Islamic terrorism during the entire presidential campaign -- throughout 1999 and then through all of 2000 -- and to the extent Republicans spoke about Clinton's anti-terrorism efforts at all, it was to criticize them for being too bellicose, too militaristic, and just unnecessary.

The 2000 Republican Party Platform contains 13 specific criticisms of the Clinton Administration's foreign and military policies. Not a single one mentions or refers in any way to Al Qaeda or terrorism generally. After that, there is an entire section entitled "The Middle East and Persian Gulf" that deals extensively with Iraq and the alleged threat posed by Saddam Hussein, but it does not say a word -- not a single word -- about Islamic extremism, Al Qaeda, or Osama bin Laden.

Even the section of the Platform entitled "Terrorism, International Crime, and Cyber Threats" makes not one reference to Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, or Islamic extremism. It does not contain a single claim that the Clinton administration was insufficiently aggressive towards Islamic terrorists, nor does it advocate increased militarism in the Middle East or against terrorists. In fact, to the extent Republicans advocated a new approach at all, it was to emphasize the need for the very "law enforcement" and "domestic preparedness" approaches which they now claim to disdain:

Republicans in Congress have led the way in building the domestic preparedness programs to train and equip local, state, and federal response personnel to deal with terrorist dangers in America. The administration has not offered clear leadership over these programs. They remain scattered across many agencies, uncoordinated and poorly managed. . . . We will ensure that federal law enforcement agencies have every lawful resource and authority they require to combat international organized crime.

George Bush's 2000 Republican National Convention acceptance speech contained a slew of specific criticisms of the Clinton administration, along with a series of specific foreign policy goals. He never mentioned or even alluded to the threat of terrorism, Islamic extremism, or the need for increased aggression against Middle Eastern supporters of terrorism. In fact, to the extent Bush criticized the use of military force at all, it was to imply that it was not used sparingly or discriminatingly enough:

A generation shaped by Vietnam must remember the lessons of Vietnam: When America uses force in the world, the cause must be just, the goal must be clear, and the victory must be overwhelming.

Then-Governor Bush also engaged in three lengthy presidential debates with Al Gore and never once criticized the Clinton administration's handling of terrorism. He never once advocated increased aggression or urged that more attention be paid to that threat. Again, to the extent he criticized the Clinton administration's foreign policy, it was to criticize the excessive use of military force.

In the third presidential debate, Bush was asked about what his foreign policy would be in the Middle East. He spoke of the need to confront Iraq, but did not utter a word about Al Qaeda or terrorism generally. The criticism he made of the Clinton administration's use of military force was this: "I'm concerned that we're overdeployed around the world."

In the second presidential debate, Bush was specifically asked what differences there would be between his foreign policy and the Clinton administration's policy towards the Middle East:

MODERATOR: People watching here tonight are very interested in Middle East policy, and they are so interested they want to base their vote on differences between the two of you as president how you would handle Middle East policy. Is there any difference?

GORE: I haven't heard a big difference in the last few exchanges.

BUSH: That's hard to tell. I think that, you know, I would hope to be able to convince people I could handle the Iraqi situation better. . . .

Not a word about terrorism, Al Qaeda or Islamic extremism. In the same debate, Bush again said: "I'm worried about overcommitting our military around the world. I want to be judicious in its use. . . . It needs to be in our vital interest, the mission needs to be clear, and the exit strategy obvious." It is in that debate where he also famously said: "And so I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war."

How is it justifiable for Bush supporters now to claim that the Clinton administration was insufficiently attentive to, or aggressive against, Al Qaeda when they said nothing of the sort at the time? They didn't spend the 1990s criticizing Clinton for failing to confront the terrorist threat. Quite the contrary; if anyone was attempting to urge the country to take the threat of Al Qeada more seriously, it was the Clinton administration.

Here is what James Bennett reported in The New York Times on August 21, 1998, the day after President Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on what the CIA believed were Al Qaeda sites in Afghanistan and the Sudan in retaliation for the bombings, two weeks earlier, of two American embassies in Africa:

In his speech Mr. Clinton warned Americans that the strike would by no means put an end to terrorism. ''This will be a long, ongoing struggle,'' he said. ''America is and will remain a target of terrorists.'' . . . Repeatedly he said Mr. bin Laden presented an imminent threat, quoting his pledge this week to wage a war in which Americans were ''all targets.''

That bin Laden posed a serious terrorist threat was well-known. From the same article:

''What they shared with us made it crystal clear that terrorism had escalated against us,'' Senator Gordon Smith, a Republican from Oregon, said in a telephone interview . . . . President Clinton signed an executive order that placed Mr. bin Laden on the Treasury Department's list of terrorists and their sponsors, clearing the way for officials to seize his assets.

Despite the well-known threat posed by bin Laden, most Republicans were not criticizing the President for being insufficiently attentive to it. To the extent they were criticizing his attacks on Al Qaeda, it was to question whether those attacks were really necessary. Some leading Republicans endorsed Clinton's response -- "Speaker Newt Gingrich expressed firm support, and the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, said, 'Our response appears to be appropriate and just'" -- but numerous Republicans criticized the strike on bin Laden as an unnecessary diversion from what really mattered: the Clinton sex scandals which they were obsessively pursuing.

The revisionism at the heart of the praise which Bush supporters are lavishing on this mini-series is manifest. The notion that Republicans wanted a stronger and more aggressive approach to terrorism than the Clinton administration took is pure fantasy. During Clinton's second term, Republicans were focused on Monica Lewinsky, not Osama bin Laden. When Clinton was President, and during the Bush presidency prior to the 9/11 attacks, Bush supporters couldn't have cared any less about Islamic terrorism. Even Clinton's attacks on Al Qaeda were immediately used as a tool to focus more attention on Ken Starr's investigation.

George Bush ran in 2000 on a platform of reining in the use of military force, not expanding it. He wanted a more "humble" and restrained foreign policy, not a more aggressive one. If all one knew about the world came from listening to the Bush campaign in 2000 -- or Republicans during the 1990s -- one would barely have known that terrorism existed. The notion that Republicans wanted a more aggressive posture against Al Qaeda and terrorism during the Clinton administration is pure, unadulterated fantasy. And, by definition, any narrative which lends support to that myth -- as Bush supporters claim Path to 9/11 does -- is (in addition to its other factual inaccuracies) pure fiction.

UPDATE: Bush supporter Mark Coffey fairly considers the evidence and concludes that parts of this film are almost certainly inaccurate, and then draws exactly the right conclusion: "Again, the partisan aspect interests me not at all; this is 9/11, and ‘reasonably accurate’ isn’t good enough. Either go completely fiction or stick to the facts."

All "docudramas" dramatize and even fictionalize part of what they depict, but it is hard to imagine a more inappropriate venue for fictionalizing events than a film which purports to document the events leading up to the 9/11 attacks and assign blame for those attacks. It becomes particularly egregious when it is claimed -- falsely -- that the film is based upon the bipartisan 9/11 Commission Report, rather than a highly partisan and factually false rendition of events.

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