March 26, 2004,
You, senator, I know, were the only person that I know of who suggested declaring war. In retrospect, you were probably right."
Those were the words of former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, on the first day of the 9/11-commission hearings, after being questioned by commissioner and former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D., Neb.) about the Clinton administration's tepid response to the terrorist attacks that occurred from 1993 to 2000. Despite all the attention paid to former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke's testimony on Wednesday, Albright's appearance on Tuesday said far more about the American response to terrorism during the years that Osama bin Laden was coming to power.
What Albright didn't say in her response to Kerrey was that back in the summer of 1998, at the time of al Qaeda's attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, there were a lot of people talking and talking and talking about war. For example, when the U.S. retaliated by firing cruise missiles at al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, one high-ranking Clinton-administration official said: "This is, unfortunately, the war of the future. This is going to be a long-term battle against terrorists who have declared war on the United States. That is what Osama bin Laden did. He basically made clear that all Americans and American facilities were potential targets, and he used the word 'war.'"
That certainly sounds like war talk. And the speaker was none other than...Madeleine Albright.
Back then, Albright was talking tough. So was her boss, President Clinton. Well, sort of. It's not easy to remember today that it actually took Clinton quite a while to master the tough-talk approach to terrorism. In the beginning, he was pretty shaky.
After the first World Trade Center bombing in March 1993, for example, Clinton warned Americans not to overreact, and, in an interview on MTV, described the bombing as the work of someone who "did something really stupid." That's not exactly tough talk.
The president had gotten the words down a bit better by June 1996, after the attack on the Khobar Towers barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. "The cowards who committed this murderous act must not go unpunished," Clinton said the day of the bombing.
But the next day, Clinton stumbled a bit. "Let me be very clear: We will not resist," he said before quickly realizing he had said something wrong. "We will not rest in our efforts to find who is responsible for this outrage, to pursue them and to punish them."
By October 2000, when al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole, Clinton had the routine down. "We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable," he said.
On Tuesday, Kerrey cut through all the talk. "From 1993 through 2001, the United States of America was either attacked or we prevented attack by radical Islamists close to a dozen times," Kerrey told Albright. "During that period of time, not only did we not engage in any single military attack other than the 20th of August 1998 there was no attack against al Qaeda during that entire period of time. Indeed, the presidential directive that was...written and signed in May of 1998, didn't give the military primary authority in counterterrorism. They were still responsible for supporting the states and local governments if we were attacked and they were still providing support for the Department of Justice and doing investigations. It seems to me that that was a terrible mistake."
Albright answered by saying the administration basically didn't know who or where to attack.
"Well, what the hell does that say to al Qaeda?" Kerrey responded. "Basically, they knew beginning in 1993, it seems to me that there was going to be limited, if any, use of military, and that they were relatively free to do whatever they wanted."
Now, it should be said that Kerrey was tough on Bush-administration officials, too, for their action (and inaction) on terrorism before September 11. But in the end, the eight-years/eight-months argument is a pretty compelling one.
Clinton bears a grievous responsibility for doing too little about terrorism during his eight years in office, in which there were several attacks. Bush, it seems, bears less responsibility for doing too little about terrorism during his eight pre-9/11 months in office, in which there were no attacks. And when the attack came, of course, Bush fought back.
These days, the best the former Clinton aides can say is that, at the end of their time in office, after they failed to adequately respond to the growing threat, they came up with a really great plan to strike back at al Qaeda. As they walked out the door, they handed it to incoming Bush officials and said, "Here do this."
How can they expect anyone to take them seriously?
Byron York is also a columnist for The Hill, where a version of this first appeared.