You DO want to make sure this never happens again...right Crash??? You know...finding the ROOT cause of our intelligence breakdown? Isn't that what you are interested in?
National Review, November 30, 2001
On June 25, 1996, a powerful truck bomb exploded outside the Khobar Towers barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, tearing the front from the building, blasting a crater 35 feet deep, and killing 19 American soldiers. Hundreds more were injured. When news reached Washington, President Bill Clinton vowed to bring the killers to justice. "The cowards who committed this murderous act must not go unpunished," he said angrily. "Let me say again: We will pursue this. America takes care of our own. Those who did it must not go unpunished." The next day, leaving the White House to attend an economic summit in France, Clinton had more tough words for the attackers. "Let me be very clear: We will not resist" the president corrected himself "we will not rest in our efforts to find who is responsible for this outrage, to pursue them and to punish them."
As Clinton spoke, his top political strategist, Dick Morris, was hard at work conducting polls to gauge the public's reaction to the bombing. "Whenever there was a crisis, I ordered an immediate poll," Morris recalls. "I was concerned about how Clinton looked in the face of [the attack] and whether people blamed him." The bombing happened in the midst of the president's re-election campaign, and even though Clinton enjoyed a substantial lead over Republican Bob Dole, Morris worried that public dissatisfaction with Clinton on the terrorism issue might benefit Dole.
Indeed, Morris's first poll showed less support for Clinton than he had hoped. But by the time Morris presented his findings to the president and top staffers at a political-strategy meeting a few days later, public approval of Clinton's response had climbed something Morris noted in his written agenda for the session:
SAUDI BOMBING recovered from Friday and looking great
Approve Clinton handling 73-20
Big gain from 63-20 on Friday
Security was adequate 52-40
It's not Clinton's fault 76-18
The numbers were a relief for the re-election team. But soon there was another crisis when, on July 17, TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on its way from New York to Paris. There was widespread suspicion that the crash was the result of terrorism (it was later ruled to be an accident), and Morris's polling found the public growing uneasy not only about air safety but also about Clinton's performance in the Khobar investigation. Morris found that the number of people who believed Clinton was "doing all he can to investigate the Saudi bombing and punish those responsible" was just 54 percent, while 32 percent believed he could do more. Morris feared that White House inaction would allow Dole to portray Clinton as soft on national security.
"We tested two alternative defenses to this attack: Peace maker or Toughness," Morris wrote in a memo for the president. In the "Peacemaker" defense, Morris asked voters to respond to the statement, "Clinton is peacemaker. Brought together Arabs and Israelis. Ireland. Bosnia cease fire. Uses strength to bring about peace." The other defense, "Tough ness," asked voters to respond to "Clinton tough. Stands up for American interests. Against foreign companies doing business in Cuba. Sanctions against Iran. Anti-terrorist legislation held up by Republicans. Prosecuted World Trade Center bombers." Morris found that the public greatly preferred "Toughness."
So Clinton talked tough. But he did not act tough. Indeed, a review of his years in office shows that each time the president was confronted with a major terrorist attack the February 26, 1993, bombing of the World Trade Center, the Khobar Towers attack, the August 7, 1998, bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the October 12, 2000, attack on the USS Cole Clinton was preoccupied with his own political fortunes to an extent that precluded his giving serious and sustained attention to fighting terrorism.
At the time of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, his administration was just beginning, and he was embroiled in controversies over gays in the military, an economic stimulus plan, and the beginnings of Hillary Clinton's health-care task force. Khobar Towers happened not only in the midst of the president's re-election campaign but also at the end of a month in which there were new and damaging developments in the Whitewater and Filegate scandals. The African embassy attacks occurred as the Monica Lewinsky affair was at fever pitch, in the month that Clinton appeared before independent counsel Kenneth Starr's grand jury. And when the Cole was rammed, Clinton had little time left in office and was desperately hoping to build his legacy with a breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Whenever a serious terrorist attack occurred, it seemed Bill Clinton was always busy with something else.
The First WTC Attack:
Clinton had been in office just 38 days when terrorists bombed the World Trade Center, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000. Although it was later learned that the bombing was the work of terrorists who hoped to topple one of the towers into the other and kill as many as 250,000 people, at first it was not clear that the explosion was the result of terrorism. The new president's reaction seemed almost disengaged. He warned Americans against "overreacting" and, in an interview on MTV, described the bombing as the work of someone who "did something really stupid."
From the start, Clinton approached the investigation as a law-enforcement issue. In doing so, he effectively cut out some of the government's most important intelligence agencies. For example, the evidence gathered by FBI agents and prosecutors came under the protection of laws mandating grand-jury secrecy which meant that the law-enforcement side of the investigation could not tell the intelligence side of the investigation what was going on. "Nobody outside the prosecutorial team and maybe the FBI had access," says James Woolsey, who was CIA director at the time. "It was all under grand-jury secrecy."
Another problem with Clinton's decision to assign the investigation exclusively to law enforcement was that law enforcement in the new administration was in turmoil. When the bomb went off, Clinton did not have a confirmed attorney general; Janet Reno, who was nominated after the Zoë Baird fiasco, was awaiting Senate approval. The Justice Department, meanwhile, was headed by a Bush holdover who had no real power in the new administration. The bombing barely came up at Reno's Senate hearings, and when she was finally sworn in on March 12, neither she nor Clinton mentioned the case. (Instead, Clinton praised Reno for "sharing with us the life-shaping stories of your family and career that formed your deep sense of fairness and your unwavering drive to help others to do better.") In addition, at the time the bombing investigation began, the FBI was headed by William Sessions, who would soon leave after a messy forcing-out by Clinton. A new director, Louis Freeh, was not confirmed by the Senate until August 6.
Amid all the turmoil at the top, the investigation missed some tantalizing clues pointing toward a far-reaching conspiracy. In April 1995, for example, terrorism expert Steven Emerson told the House International Relations Committee that there was information that "strongly suggests . . . a Sudanese role in the World Trade Center bombing. There are also leads pointing to the involvement of Osama bin Laden, the ex-Afghan Saudi mujahideen supporter now taking refuge in Sudan." Two years later, Emerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the same thing. In recent years, according to an exhaustive New York Times report, "American intelligence officials have come to believe that [ringleader Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman] and the World Trade Center bombers had ties to al-Qaeda."
But the Clinton administration stuck with its theory that the bombing was the work of a loose network of terrorists working apart from any government sponsorship. Intelligence officials who might have thought otherwise were left out in the cold "I made repeated attempts to see Clinton privately to take up a whole range of issues and was unsuccessful," Woolsey recalls and some of the nation's most critical intelligence capabilities went unused. In the end, the U.S. tried six suspects in the attack. All were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Another key suspect, Abdul Rahman Yasin, was released after being held by the FBI in New Jersey and fled to Baghdad, where he is living under the protection of the Iraqi government. Today, with many leads gone cold, intelligence officials concede they will probably never know who was behind the attack.
"In June of 1996, it felt like an entire herd was converging on the White House," wrote Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos in his memoir, All Too Human. A herd of scandals, that is: In late May, independent counsel Kenneth Starr had convicted Jim and Susan McDougal and Jim Guy Tucker in the first big Whitewater trial; in June, the Filegate story first broke into public view, and Sen. Alphonse D'Amato issued his committee's Whitewater report recommending that several administration officials be investigated for perjury. It was also in June that the White House went into full battle mode against a variety of allegations contained in Unlimited Access, a book by former FBI agent Gary Aldrich.