As George W. Bush’s loyalists (and their friends in the Beltway media) continue to try to shoehorn Bush into the story of how the Obama administration made the calls that finally nabbed Osama bin Laden, reality keeps pushing back.
Richard Clarke, who served as a counterterrorism adviser to both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, told the English language version of Der Spiegel that the sense of mission simply wasn’t there in the previous administrations, either at the CIA or in the White House:
SPIEGEL: Why did the hunt for Osama bin Laden take so long?
Clarke: There were four phases in the effort to track down Osama bin Laden. We made the decision that bin Laden should be arrested in 1996. Then, in 1998, President Bill Clinton authorized the CIA to kill him. After 9/11, of course, there was the attempt to capture him when the US invaded Afghanistan. Then there was a period of looking for him after he left Afghanistan. During the 1990s, the CIA didn’t want to risk putting its own personnel into Afghanistan to go after bin Laden.
SPIEGEL: But they clearly had the authority to go after him.
Clarke: They were given the authority to capture and kill him, but they didn’t really try very hard. It wasn’t a priority. In fact, they really didn’t want to do it at the working level. They frankly were more concerned about the safety of their personnel.
SPIEGEL: Was it because they didn’t have the means with which to go after him?
Clarke: They tracked bin Laden using Afghan sources, and they paid Afghan groups to get him. Those Afghan groups realized, of course, that if they ever succeeded in getting him, they would be at risk — and their contract would be over, so they never really made serious attempts. The CIA never really developed an operation using its own sources or its own people, and the US military told the president it would be too risky to use the armed forces for the task. Afghanistan is a landlocked country, and you have to get in there from somewhere. For the US military to just fly in and find one man was difficult — not impossible, but difficult. The US military didn’t want to do it because they thought it would fail and their people would get killed. When the invasion occurred in October 2001, the US military leadership planned an invasion of a country rather than the capture of a single man. They went about the invasion of the country very well, but capturing bin Laden wasn’t one of their big priorities. It is hard to imagine in retrospect, but President Bush didn’t let his White House staff, including myself and others, sit down with the military before the invasion and say, “Let’s see your plan, and let’s see how, specifically, you’re going to get Osama.” So they let him slip through their fingers when they really could have captured him then.
SPIEGEL: After that he fled to Pakistan.
Clarke also discussed the Clinton era bin Laden hunt, and the uncomfortable moment when Clinton’s demand for a plan to rain cruise missiles down on a suspected bin Laden lair ran smack dab into his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Read the full interview here. Hat tip to Mediaite.