Clinton's Fight Against Terrorism

Former President Discusses The War On Terror

Former President Bill Clinton told 60 Minutes that he questioned the timing of the start of the war in Iraq, at the expense of concentrating on al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

But did he do enough to fight al Qaeda and get Osama?

The 42nd president of the United States was in Australia when the Sept. 11 attack occurred. "I remember it vividly," recalls Mr. Clinton, who says his first thought was that "Osama bin Laden did this."

60 Minutes pointed out to the former president that the bipartisan commission looking into the Sept. 11 attacks is expected to criticize both the Clinton and Bush administrations for not preventing them. But could these attacks have been prevented?

"I don't want to comment on what happened on President Bush's watch. That's for the 9/11 Commission to do. We not only attacked his training camp in '98 and tried to get him. I signed several authorizations to use lethal force against bin Laden and his top lieutenants," says Mr. Clinton.

"We broke up about 20 al Qaeda cells. We arrested some of their people. We prevented several terrorist incidents, including attempts to blow up planes flying into Los Angeles -- to blow up the Los Angeles airport over the millennium, to blow up sites in the Middle East as well as in the United States over the millennium," adds Mr. Clinton.

"We worked hard, and I have thought a lot about your question, and I did my best to answer that to the 9/11 commission, and I think I will let them say whether it could have been prevented."

The commission's final report is expected to be released next month. Rather asked Mr. Clinton what his response was to commission member and former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey's comment that he had "let pass opportunities to arrest or kill the al Qaeda leadership."

"I don't believe that is true. There was a story which is factually inaccurate that the Sudanese offered bin Laden to us," says Mr. Clinton. "As far as I know, there is not a shred of evidence of that."

Mr. Clinton denies that his decision to launch missiles against bin Laden in Afghanistan and in the Sudan was an attempt to divert attention away from the Lewinsky scandal. He also told 60 Minutes that he launched the Afghanistan attack after the CIA told him bin Laden was in a training camp. It turns out he wasn't.

And what about Saddam Hussein?

"When you were President, you said the same thing as President Bush, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," Rather tells Mr. Clinton. "George Bush eventually invaded Iraq. You didn't. Did you make the right decision? And why didn't you make it?"

"The first President Bush, after the first Gulf War, made a decision that rather than overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the important thing was to contain his aggressive impulses. So, sanctions were imposed on Iraq and the inspections process was started," replies Mr. Clinton.

"Now when I became president in '93, I inherited that system. I actually thought it made pretty good sense. We had done a lot of good with those inspections. We uncovered more chemical and biological agents and other prohibited materials in the inspections process and destroyed them than were destroyed in the Gulf War."

President Clinton points out that when Hussein kicked U.N. weapons inspectors out of Iraq in 1998, he ordered a four-day bombing raid, but was unable to find out how many if any chemical and biological weapons were destroyed in those attacks. He says that the current President Bush should have pushed harder for new inspections.

"In terms of the launching of the war, I believe we made an error in not allowing the United Nations to complete the inspections process. Now, having said that, we are where we are," says Mr. Clinton. "And I think the most important thing now is for all of us to support a stable, peaceful, and pluralistic Iraq. And it looks to me like the administration is moving in that direction."

Does he agree with President Bush that the world is safer in terms of terrorism because U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq?

"Let me say this. I think the Iraqis are better off with Saddam gone, if they can have a stable government," says Mr. Clinton.

"There have been more terrorists move into Iraq in the aftermath of the conflict. I still believe, as I always have, that the biggest terrorist threat by far is al Qaeda and the al Qaeda network. And that the biggest long term destructive threat is the significant volume of chemical and biological agents all over the world that are not yet secure."

In his book, Mr. Clinton says he is "haunted" by the deaths of 18 Americans in Somalia, and calls the 1993 raid "a mistake." He also told 60 Minutes that he's had second thoughts about his controversial last-minute presidential pardon of financier Marc Rich – and admits that, looking back, he probably wouldn't have done it.

"Mostly because of all the grief I got that came out of it," says Mr. Clinton. "But on the merits, nobody's yet made a case to me that it was the wrong decision."

The president also looks back at the collapse of his final effort to broker a new Middle East peace agreement with Yasser Arafat.

"I'm sure that all the rest of us made our mistakes along the way. But this was an error of historic proportions. And the evidence of it is, that about a year after I left office, Mr. Arafat said he wanted to deal. He said, 'I'm ready to accept the parameters for final negotiation that President Clinton laid out,'" says Mr. Clinton.

"So I don't think I need to say anything else, to show that it was a mistake. And by the time he said he wanted it, he had an Israeli government that wouldn't give it to him, and an Israeli public that no longer trusted him. It's tragic."

But seven years earlier, before the historic Oslo Peace Accord was signed, Arafat was the cause, Mr. Clinton writes, of great laughter in the White House. He described to 60 Minutes what happened before the Palestinian leader and the late Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin signed the agreement.

"It seems so easy now, oh they'd do that, but at the time, it was revolutionary. You know, the idea that they were gonna come and sign a deal together before the whole world," says Clinton.

"So the first thing we had to deal with was, were they gonna shake hands at all? And I could tell Rabin didn't want to do it. Arafat was very unpopular in Israel. And I said to him, 'Yitzak, you know you're gonna shake his hand.' And he said, 'Oh,' you know, and he went through -- I said, 'Yitzak, you gotta shake his hand. You're gonna have a billion people looking at you on television.' … So he said in his wonderful deep voice, 'All right, all right. But no kissing.' Because, you know, the traditional Arab greeting is a kiss on the cheek."

"...I figured that if Rabin, if he didn't kiss me, he couldn't kiss Rabin. So, Tony Lake, my national security adviser, who has a wonderful sense of humor, says, 'Well, I know how to do this. Now, you be Arafat. And I will be you, and you try to kiss me,'" adds Mr. Clinton, who asked Rather to shake hands with him.

"So, I shook hands … and he put his hand like this, in my elbow. And he says, 'If you've got your hand in your elbow, he can't kiss you.' So, we practiced it. … It's like an affectionate thing. Like, I'm so happy. You know? If you can fake it, good. … It's not official, but you can't get in there for the kiss. So we practiced it, and we did it."

"It's just one of theose moments when you see it and you think, 'My God miracles are possible.' And the whole world was cheering when they shook hands," says Mr. Clinton. "It was one of the most magic moments in my entire lifetime."

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