'The Age Of Sacred Terror'

USA map alarm terror alert target CBS/AP

The high school textbooks say the president of the United States runs the executive branch of government and rides herd on a vast bureaucracy assigned to carry out his directives.

Well, that's not quite the way it works, say Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, who describe the travails of President Clinton in trying, often unsuccessfully, to get the Pentagon and the FBI to pursue Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.

The two authors, both Clinton-era National Security Council experts on terrorism, share their thoughts in a new book, "The Age of Sacred Terror."

They say Clinton wanted to do something about al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan late in his second term, his cruise missile attacks on the group's facilities in August 1998 having achieved little.

He approached Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and said, according to the book, "It would scare the (expletive) out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters in to the middle of their camp. It would get us an enormous deterrence and show those guys we're not afraid."

The Pentagon feared a debacle similar to April 1980 when President Carter dispatched helicopters to Iran in hopes of rescuing 52 American hostages. The result was the incineration of two helicopters and the deaths of eight servicemen.

The authors suspect that Pentagon's reservations about the Clinton plan ran deeper. The Pentagon, they point out, had an uneasy relationship with Clinton virtually from Day 1, when the White House began pushing to end discrimination against homosexuals by the military.

They quoted a senior political appointee at the Pentagon as saying that Defense was "particularly unwilling to go out on a limb for Clinton."

Also, the authors say, Thomas Pickering, No. 3 at the State Department under Clinton, worried that someone at Defense would put out the story that the Clinton plan would "hazard the lives of young Americans in a wild goose chase. The Pentagon has a great capacity to let things leak to keep from doing them."

Clinton's "black ninja" plan never got off the ground.

Lee Edwards, who follows presidential politics at the Heritage Foundation, says all presidents have had difficulty with balky bureaucracies.

He recalled that President Truman, shortly before Dwight D. Eisenhower's succession in 1953, said, "Poor Ike. He's going to come in, give an order and think it's going to be carried out."

Paul Light, a government analyst at the Brookings Institution, said he was not surprised that Clinton found resistance at the Pentagon. "DOD fights everybody," Light said, using the shorthand term for the Pentagon. For a president to get a bureaucracy to move, Light said, "sometimes he has to use a two-by-four."

Norman Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, said the culture of the Pentagon and the FBI is "to be suspicious of everybody else and to be proprietary about everything they do."

Benjamin and Simon say Clinton had difficulty with what they described as the independent streak of FBI Director Louis Freeh.

The authors say the FBI "was at its most difficult in refusing to share investigative material that had a critical bearing on foreign policy."

The agency, despite a wealth of information, "contributed nothing to the White House's understanding of al-Qaida," they wrote.

Freeh insisted his hands were often tied because of rules requiring confidentiality in cases involving criminal investigations, a position the authors say caused frustration throughout the government.

And anger over the pre-Sept. 11, 2001, performances of the FBI and other federal agencies prompted congressional inquiries last month.

On Oct. 9, after "Sacred Terror" was completed, Freeh offered a defense before Congress of the FBI's role in the counter-terror effort.

"There is an absolute misperception if there is a notion that we have a culture where information is not shared," Freeh told a congressional hearing.

He said the FBI could have done a better job if Congress had approved the agency's request in 2000 for an additional 864 people. He said he got only five.

"To win a war, it takes soldiers," he said.

By George Gedda
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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