News - That awful sucking sound

Terror attacks raise hard questions about the Clinton years

When 19 terrorists manage to elude detection at four different airports and hijack four passenger jetliners on the same morning, it's clear that the problems with American aviation security, intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism must be long-standing and systemic.

True, the heartless terrorists themselves must bear the full blame for the recent carnage at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But we also must look to find where responsibility rests for allowing the vacuums to develop that made such attacks more possible. And, based on news coverage of the aftermath of the tragedy, a common and disturbing thread has emerged.

Exhibit A: The Federal Aviation Administration, during the Clinton years, was repeatedly warned by experts of the big holes that existed in security systems designed to protect commercial planes from terrorists. In a recent report on "60 Minutes," an expert involved in a clandestine project to check the system found that security was breached more than 90 percent of the time during some tests. Yet the FAA continued to insist that security was adequate.

Exhibit B: Clinton's CIA director issued an edict that prohibited the agency from employing anyone suspected of human rights abuses or serious criminal activity as an informant overseas. Given that terrorists don't generally travel in circles of sweetness and light, many intelligence analysts believe this prohibition made it almost impossible to infiltrate their networks.

This restriction forced us to rely more on electronic surveillance (which can tell us where people and stuff are) and less on human intelligence (which we need to tell us what those people plan to do with that stuff). Thus did squishy liberal idealism backfire in the heat of the real world. As usual.

Exhibit C: Some experts who have probed the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center found links between that attack and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein — links critics insist were downplayed by the Clinton administration to avoid a potentially sticky and dangerous crisis with our old foe. We don't yet know if Saddam had anything to do with the recent attacks. If it turns out he did, we might conclude that our tepid response eight years ago wasn't helpful.

Exhibit D: After the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa, in the midst of the Clinton impeachment battle, the United States launched an attack on Osama bin Laden, sending cruise missiles to blow up a few of his tents. He survived and, with no further action taken against him, apparently struck again with much more ferocity and closer to home.

There was a lot of speculation after the 1998 attack on bin Laden that Clinton launched his missiles to draw attention away from the domestic political problems. Administration officials strongly denied at the time that Clinton was wagging the dog. Given that cabal's track record for honesty, it was — and is — difficult to accept the denial at face value. Clinton was clearly responding to bin Laden amidst an atmosphere of distraction born of his own malfeasance and misdeeds. And his actions against bin Laden were, in hindsight, clearly not enough.

What can we take away from all of this? That it should be more and more apparent to the American people that the Clinton administration was asleep at the switch on various and sundry fronts — an argument that President Bush and the Republicans made during the 2000 campaign to haughty pooh-poohing of Democrats. The Clintonistas want us to believe that the 1990s were a time of peace (discounting, of course, all those bombs dropped on Serbia), a time of prosperity (if you didn't have a 401K that went in the toilet during 2000) and a time of competence.

Some of us could see, as it was happening, that the Clinton administration was a hurricane of spin covering up a drought of substance — and that lurching from scandal to scandal wasn't helping the cause of effective governance. But we now know, tragically, that it may have been worse than anybody could have imagined. I shudder to think what we are yet to uncover and discover.

The only good news is that Dubya, Dick and Colin are on the scene to clean up the mess.

Clinton did not hijack those planes and ram them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Those 5,000 people are not dead by his hand. But even as his wife strikes a sympathetic pose amidst the rubble, the critical gaze of history must hold him responsible for what was done — and left undone — on his watch. As the old saying goes, the fish rots from the head down. And something clearly smells.

Richard Shumate is a writer and Internet consultant living in Sandy Springs.??

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