Juan Cole: Why Clinton Did a Better Counter-Terrorism Job Than Bush

Roundup: Historians' Take

Juan Cole, on his blog (March 28, 2004):

The pundits and politicians who keep saying that Clinton's anti-terrorism policies and Bush's are the same are missing a key piece of the puzzle. The policy outline was the same, but the implementation was very different.

Hint: The key piece of evidence is the Millennium Plot. This was an al-Qaeda operation timed for late December 1999. Forestalling this plot was the biggest counter-terrorism success the US has ever had against al-Qaeda.

the plot involved several key elements:

*Los Angelese International Airport would be blown up.

*(Possibly: The Needle in Seattle would be blown up).

* The Radisson Hotel in Amman Jordan, a favorite of American and Israeli tourists, would be blown up. A lot of the tourism for the millennium was Christian evangelicals wanting to be in the holy land.

* Bombs would go off at Mt. Nebo, a tourist site in Jordan associated with Moses.

* The USS The Sullivans would be targeted by a dinghy bomb off Yemen.

The story of how the LAX bombing was stopped on December 14 has been told in an important series in the Seattle Times. Extra security measures were implemented by US customs agents, leading to the apprehension of an Algerian, Ahmed Ressam, with a trunk full of nitroglycerin, heading for LAX (he wanted to start his journey by ferry from Port Angeles, Washington).

Ressam grew up fishing in the Mediterranean and going to discos. But like many Algerians, he was radicalized in 1991. The government had allowed the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an Islamist party, to contest elections. FIS unexpectedly won, however. The military feared that they would never allow another election, and would declare an Islamic state. They cancelled elections. FIS went into opposition, and the most radical members formed the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which got money from Usama Bin Laden, then in the Sudan. Ressam seems to have been GIA.

Ressam fought in Bosnia in the early 1990s. Then he settled in France and became part of the terrorist Groupe Roubaix, which carried out attacks in that city (pop. 98,000, near Lille in the north). In spring of 1998 he flew to Afghanistan and was trained in two camps under the direction of Palestinian-Saudi Abu Zubaida. Abu Zubaida recruited Ressam into an Algerian al-Qaeda cell headed from London by Abu Doha al-Mukhalif. Ressam was assigned to form a forward cell in Montreal, from which he and several other Algerians plotted the attack on LAX.

What Clarke's book reveals is that the way Ressam was shaken out at Port Angeles by customs agent Diana Dean was not an accident. Rather, Clinton had made Clarke a cabinet member. He was given the authority to call other key cabinet members and security officials to "battle stations," involving heightened alerts in their bureaucracies and daily meetings. Clarke did this with Clinton's approval in December of 1999 because of increased chatter and because the Jordanians caught a break when they cracked Raed al-Hijazi's cell in Amman.

Early in 2001, in contrast, Bush demoted Clarke from being a cabinet member, and much reduced his authority. Clarke wanted the high Bush officials or "principals" to meet on terrorism regularly. He couldn't get them to do it. Rice knew what al-Qaeda was, but she, like other administration officials, was disconcerted by Clarke's focus on it as an independent actor. The Bush group-think holds that asymmetrical organizations are not a threat in themselves, that the threat comes from the states that allegedly harbor them. That funny look she gave Clarke wasn't unfamiliarity, it was puzzlement that someone so high in the system should be so wrongly focused.

In summer of 2001 the chatter was much greater and more ominous than in fall of 1999. Clarke wanted to go to battle stations and have daily meetings with the "principals" (i.e. Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Powell, Tenet). He wanted to repeat the procedures that had foiled the Millennium Plot. He could not convince anyone to let him do that.

Note that an "institution" is defined in sociology as a regular way of getting certain collective work done. Clarke is saying that Clinton had institutionalized a set of governmental routines for dealing with heightened threats from terrorists. He is not saying that Clinton bequeathed a "big think" plan to Bush on terrorism. He is saying that he bequeathed the Bush administration a repertoire of effective actions by high officials.

He thinks going to such a heightened level of alert and concerted effort in 2001 might have shaken loose much earlier the information that the CIA knew that Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi were in the US. As it is, the INS wasn't informed of this advent and did not start looking for them until Aug. 21, 2001, by which time it was too late. Since they made their plane reservations for September 11 under their own names, names known to the USG, a heightened level of alert might have allowed the FBI to spot them.

So it just is not true that Bush was doing exactly the same thing on terrorism that Clinton was. He didn't have a cabinet-level counter-terrorism czar; he didn't have the routine of principals' meetings on terrorism; he didn't authorize Clarke to go to 'battle stations' and heightened security alert in summer of 2001 the way Clinton had done in December, 1999.

The key to understanding Clarke's argument is to understand how exactly the Millennium Plot was foiled.

Meanwhile, the Bush slime machine has thrown up the charge that Clarke admitted that there was an al-Qaeda-Saddam connection in Sudan in the early 1990s. This is such a non-story that it is incredible to me that anyone even bothers with it.

Clarke is straightforward that he suspected an Iraq-Bin Laden link in the very early 1990s in Khartoum. He also admits that Saddam tried to have Bush senior assassinated in Kuwait in 1993. What he told Wolfowitz in spring of 2001 was that there hadn't been any Iraqi terrorism against the US in ten years. Note that he does not say "there never had been." I am personally skeptical that even the early 1990s Khartoum-Baghdad links are based on good intelligence. But Clarke is entirely consistent if you read him knowing the whole story of al-Qaeda in the 1990s. His critics still don't get it.

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Mitch S McKenzie - 4/27/2004

Why is this site's editor rewriting history, even after they cite articles by the Seattle newspapers report the inacuracies in Richard Clarke's "shaking the tree's" inference.

The Editor on this site states correctly: "The key to understanding Clarke's argument is to understand how exactly the Millennium Plot was foiled."

So let me post a rare interview that aired today on CNN's Wolf Blitzer show, and I might add, the Editor on the HNN site has firmly planted his foot in his mouth.

With out further here is the transcript of the interview, and remember, the Editor here suggests the articles in the seattle papers told the story as Richard Clarke's book did, which is 100% not true, in fact the Seattle Papers counted at least 5 factual inaccurieces in Clarkes book telling of Agent Deans arrest of Raseem.

From Wolf Blitzer on CNN:


BLITZER: Who prevented the millennium bomb plot targeting Los Angeles International Airport? It's Just one of a number of disagreements between the Bush administration and its former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke. In just a moment, a rare interview with the customs ought who caught the would-be bomber.

First, though, the facts.


BLITZER (voice-over): On December 14, 1999, customs officials arrested Algerian-born Ahmed Ressam at Port Angeles, Washington, as he arrived on a ferry from British Columbia. Hidden in the trunk of his car agents found 130 pounds of explosives, along with timing devices. His plan was to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on or around New Year's Day 2000.

But the millennium bomb plot as it came to be known was thwarted. And Ressam and an accomplice were both convicted, a pre-9/11 success story in the fight against terrorism. But there's disagreement over how it happened.

Richard Clarke, the former White House antiterrorism chief under Presidents Clinton and Bush, credits the Clinton administration.


BLITZER: He says it had border agents on high alert and was aggressively flushing out terror information or shaking the trees, as he puts it. In his tell-all book, "Against All Enemies," Clarke says the Bush administration failed to do that in the summer of 2001, that terrorism was a low priority before 9/11, which he says might have been prevented.

But his former boss, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, has a different version. She says the Clinton administration had nothing to do with Ressam's capture, that there was no alert. Instead, Rice says it was just luck and the keen eye of one woman.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: It was because a very alert customs agent named Diana Dean and her colleagues sniffed something about Ressam. They saw that something was wrong. I don't think it was shaking the trees that produced the breakthrough in the millennium plot.

It was that you got a -- Dick Clarke would say a lucky break. I would say you got an alert customs agent who got it right.


BLITZER: And joining us now is that alert customs agent, Diana Dean.

Diana Dean, thanks very much for joining us.

Let me take you back to that night in December 1999. What exactly happened when you were on duty along the border?

DIANA DEAN, FORMER U.S. CUSTOMS INSPECTOR: Well, we were on our last ferry of the evening. It was supposed to come in at 5:30 at night. It came in around 6:00. It was a very light load. There were only about 20 cars on the boat that night. Mr. Ressam was in the very last car that came off the ferry and he came through my lane.

He -- his car had B.C. license plates and he presented me with a passport from -- a Canadian passport and a driver's license from Quebec. So I started asking him our normal custom questions. I asked him where he was going. And he said Seattle. I detected a French accent and he didn't appear to be English. And I asked him why he was going to Seattle, and he said, visit.

I asked him where he lived. And he said Montreal. I asked him who he would visit in Seattle. And he said hotel. By this time, he was getting very, very nervous and he was very agitated. And I knew we were going to take a closer look at him to make sure that everything was OK with him. So I asked him to turn his car off and complete a customs declaration for us, which is something we always do prior to a secondary inspection.

And by that, I just mean taking a closer look at the -- what he's carrying with him. He completed the declaration. And we asked him to step out of his car. By this time, there were other inspectors around. We asked him to step out of the car and pop open his trunk. We finally encouraged him to get out of the car. Another inspector took Mr. Ressam over to a table, because he was wearing a very large coat. He wanted to go through the coat and make sure he didn't have anything in his pockets.

And everybody else went to the -- either the interior of the car or the trunk of the car, opened the trunk and there was only one suitcase in the trunk. Another inspector took that out to look through it. And a third inspector unscrewed the cap over the spare tire. And as soon as did he that and lifted it up, we saw, you know, there were big bags of powder in there.


BLITZER: Diana, let me interrupt and ask you this question. The fact that you were doing all of this, this screening, was it the result of some orders that you got from Washington to be on heightened alert in advance of the millennium or was this just business as usual?

DEAN: This was just business as usual. That's what we do. We look for somebody out of the ordinary that just needs a little closer look. And that's what he was at that time.

BLITZER: But it was only two weeks before the millennium. Were you along the border with Canada on a heightened state of alert, knowing that there were terror threats that were widely reported coming at the end of the year?

DEAN: You know, we weren't on higher state of alert. We did not have an alert system at that time. And, no, we weren't. We were -- it was pretty much business as usual for us.

BLITZER: So how much longer did it take to discover there were explosives in that car? What exactly did you discover?

DEAN: Well, at first, to make a long story short, I went in to start making phone calls and Mr. Ressam slipped out of his jacket and ran. As soon as he saw that we had uncovered what he had in there, he was able to get away. He was chased down and eventually returned to the port. That probably took about 15 minutes.

And then we started testing what was in the bags for drugs because that was the first thing on our mind. It's really all we had experience with. We had never had a terrorist or seen bombmaking materials before. It didn't take us too long to realize that what was in those bags was not drugs. So we started looking around and there were also some timers. They were like electrical outlets. And when somebody unscrewed one, we saw the watches and we saw the wires.

We realized immediately that what we had was something that we weren't prepared to deal with. And so we started making all the appropriate phone calls to different agencies to come and help us.

BLITZER: Did you realize at that time this was al Qaeda?

DEAN: You know, it was purely speculation, but we talked about that amongst ourselves, yes.

BLITZER: Diana Dean, you did good work out there. You saved a lot of people. You realize, of course, what was in store for LAX. Now looking back, do you understand what you did?

DEAN: We do. We do. We're very thankful that we were able to stop him at the border.

BLITZER: We're very thankful as well. Diana Dean, thanks very much for joining us.

DEAN: Thank you.

BLITZER: This note. We tried to reach Richard Clarke today to get his reaction to Diana Dean's story. We've been unable to speak with him so far. We hope to speak with him at some point.