recent days, as it has become increasingly clear that Islamic terrorist
Osama bin Laden is behind the terrorist attacks in New York and
Washington, former president Bill Clinton has made a series of public
statements claiming his administration came close to killing bin
Laden during a cruise-missile raid in 1998.
rubble of lower Manhattan on September 13, Clinton said, "The
best shot we had at him was when I bombed his training camps in
1998. We just missed him by a matter of hours, maybe even less than
A few days
later, on NBC, Clinton said, "We had quite good intelligence
that he and his top lieutenants would be in his training camp. So
I ordered the cruise-missile attacks, and we didn't tell anybody,
including the Pakistanis, whose airspace we had to travel over,
until the last minute. And unfortunately we missed them, apparently
not by very long....We never had another chance where the intelligence
was as reliable to justify military action."
president's statements left the impression that he was hot on the
trail of bin Laden and came excruciatingly close to killing him.
But one of Clinton's top military commanders, who was deeply involved
in the Afghanistan operation, has a different recollection. In an
interview with National Review Online, retired general Anthony Zinni,
commander of U.S. forces in the region at the time, described the
1998 cruise-missile raid as a "million-to-one-shot."
was a possibility [bin Laden] could have been there," Zinni
recalls. "My intelligence people did not put a lot of faith
in that....As I was given this mission to do, I did not see that
anyone had any degree of assurance or reliability that that was
going to happen."
defends the decision to strike. "In weighing that out, without
great intelligence, it's a million-to-one shot," he says. "Should
you take it? Yes. You might get something, but in the absence of
that, you can send [bin Laden] a message, maybe cause him to go
off balance and set him back a little bit."
In the past,
Clinton's critics assailed the Afghanistan raid plus another
attack on a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan as ineffective
maneuvers whose main value was as a "Wag the Dog" diversion
from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. (Clinton ordered the attacks at
the height of the scandal, three days after testifying before independent
counsel Kenneth Starr's grand jury.) Now, whatever Clinton's motivation,
George W. Bush has made it clear he sees the action as a model of
how not to strike back at terrorism. "When I take action,
I'm not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and
hit a camel in the butt," Bush reportedly told a group of senators.
"It's going to be decisive."