In the Crosshairs

Blaming The FBI

Congressional hearings are revealing a great deal about the kind of intelligence the United States had on al Qaeda before Sept. 11. It is news to most Americans, but not to Dan Benjamin and Steven Simon.

They were at the center of America's counter-terrorism team during the Clinton Administration. Members of Congress are not scheduled to hear from them. But maybe they should.

In their new book, "The Age of Sacred Terror," Benjamin and Simon offer a first-ever look at the inner workings of the Clinton war on terrorism: where it succeeded, and why it ultimately failed. They blame not simply the FBI, but particularly former director Louis Freeh. Dan Rather reports.

"There were key, really essential national security issues in which the FBI simply refused to cooperate. We got very little information on terrorism," says Benjamin.

One would think Benjamin would have gotten the best information the FBI had. After all, he was the director of the National Security Council's counter-terrorism team in the Clinton administration.

Steve Simon says he was out of the FBI loop, too - and he was the senior director of the Clinton counter-terrorism team.

Both men worked for the White House, leading a group of foreign policy specialists responsible for coordinating American military, intelligence and diplomatic actions on behalf of the president and the national security advisor.

Says Benjamin: "We would come into the office every morning and we'd turn on our computers and we would see there would be 300 or so cables or messages that had come from the CIA or the State Department, that had come from the Defense Department. All of it with information that was relevant to our work. All of it about terrorism, all of it about things that were going on in the world, things that were being done by people that didn't like Americans. There was never one message from the FBI. We were not getting anything. This was America working with one hand tied behind its back."

What kind of information did Benjamin and Simon want? Anything they could get on people like Ayman Al-Zawahiri, long acknowledged as Osama bin Laden's right hand man. In 1998, Benjamin and Simon learned that Zawahiri had actually done some fundraising in the United States in the early '90s.
Benjamin says he checked with the FBI to see what the Bureau knew about it.

Says Benjamin: "In a meeting at the White House, we said to them: 'This is incredible. Zawahiri was here. He must have been fundraising, he had to have handlers. What can you tell us?' And the FBI official said, 'We got it covered. Don't worry about it.' And it was a blow-off."

What does Benjamin mean by "blow-off"? "It meant this was an FBI issue, they were dealing with it and if it needed our attention, they would bring it to us. It was not an exchange of information."

Benjamin and Simon say part of the problem with the FBI was personal. The fact that Louis Freeh didn't like President Clinton was no secret. But few suspected the personality clash could have consequences for national security.

"It's fairly clear that (Freeh) felt that the president was not a man of the stature he felt he should be," says Benjamin. "And he was rather scornful of the White House and didn't feel a need to heed its requirements or direction."

"I think (Freeh) did scorn the president. He held the president in contempt," says Simon.

Freeh's attitude affected the counterterrorism effort, both men say. "I think the main effect was in the way the White House and the FBI communicated on this crucial issue," says Simon. "If you have a situation that is so politically fraught where the president or people in the White House can't just call up Louis Freeh or his top people and say 'we need to know this or that, when the FBI is not coming forward and volunteering this national security information, it's going to have an effect on this country's ability to defend itself against this new and radical threat."

Benjamin and Simon put their accusations about the FBI, and their insights about terrorism, into their book, which is told from their perspective inside the Clinton White House. It is the story of a fight against terrorism, led by a president under fire, under investigation, and unable to control one of his own appointees, Freeh.

"When the FBI is investigating the president, you have an incredibly complicated political situation," says Benjamin. "And the fact of the matter is that the FBI was investigating the president for most of the president's term in office. And as a result, the ability to exert pressure on the FBI was very, very limited."

Some said Mr. Clinton became too entangled with personal problems, that he lost focus. Says Simon: "I think there's no question that the president's problems in that area created opportunities for his enemies to distract the public from what was an increasingly pressing problem."

"It's painful because we worked for him, and actually found him to be a good president," says Benjamin. "But this was a problem for the country. As someone who was in the White House, my own feeling is that his enemies bear a lot of the blame. But a lot of people will feel that he bears a lot of the blame."

Benjamin and Simon give the Clinton administration credit for foiling terrorist plots around the world

"The CIA was doing a great job, particularly around 1998 and 2000, in rolling up cells around the world, working with other countries,finding terrorists, having them arrested, having them put in jail," says Benjamin.

Terrorists in the U.S. were rounded up as well. Benjamin and Simon point to the foiling of the Millennium Plot to blow up LAX. But they say America faced a galaxy of problems in fighting terrorism, including legal obstacles.

For example: Most Americans didn't know that five years after the first World Trade Center bombing, bin Laden was indicted for his involvement. It turns out the White House didn't know either. The grand jury indictment, by law, had to be kept secret.

"All these facts were being uncovered in the context of a grand jury investigation, which under the laws of procedure couldn't be divulged to anyone else, even if that anyone else is in the White House," says Simon. In other words, bin Laden was safe, unless he turned up in midtown Manhattan, because the White House didn't know about the indictment; it didn't know there was legal standing to go after him in Afghanistan.

After bin Laden was connected to the bombing of two American embassies in Africa in August 1998, the Clinton administration ordered missile strikes against what they believed to be his training camps. The attack came just three days after the president finally confessed to his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, raising suspicions that the assault on bin Laden was actually an elaborate attempt to change the subject.

Benjamin and Simon say the cruise missiles were part of an ongoing Clinton push for more aggressive action in Afghanistan, to either kill bin Laden or bring him out.

According to Benjamin, on two occasions, the White House asked the Pentagon for options. General Henry Shelton came back with a massive plan calling for months of buildup and billions of dollars. They say Mr. Clinton then asked for a special operations package.

"But there was still a considerable fear among the senior officers that this could become Desert One, like 1980 in Iran: a disaster that costs a lot of American lives and several helicopters," says Benjamin. It was President Clinton who was pushing the military to do more and the military was saying no, they say.

"The military had very good reasons for not wanting to do this. It was a mission that had no public support. It was a mission that would be difficult. It would be dangerous. But the pressure was on, from President Clinton, from Sandy Berger, from the White House entirely," says Benjamin.

How big a factor was the animosity of military officers toward President Clinton? "At lower levels… the problem was huge. It was terrible," says Simon.

Benjamin and Simon say that by the late 1990s, getting bin Laden had become an obsession. They say there were about 20 or so meetings between Clinton officials and the Taliban, trying to reach an agreement to bring bin Laden out of Afghanistan. One day in the middle of the negotiations,a fax came rolling in at the White House from Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Says Simon: "It was a fax addressed from Mullah Omar to President Clinton. 'Dear President Clinton, we're all on the same side here. The Muslims and the Christians have a common enemy, the Jews. Therefore it's incomprehensible to me that the U.S. would make the Taliban an enemy. In truth, we should join together and fight the common foe.'"

"One fax said that," says Benjamin. "Another was complaining again about how the Taliban was being treated and saying, 'Don't you understand we're doing what's Islamically correct? And how dare you criticize us for doing what is Islamically correct. And just remember that no one who's ever confronted Islam before has ever survived and if you're not careful, there'll be terrible storms and earthquakes coming your way.'"

The Clinton years ended with a disputed election and an abbreviated transition. Benjamin and Simon say fighting terrorism took a back seat to bitterness, on both sides.

"The outgoing members of the Administration made numerous attempts to flag the importance of the issue for the new team, and there was a real feeling on the part of the new team that they didn't want to have anything to do with the preoccupations of the previous administration, which they felt were misplaced," says Simon. "There was a lot of distrust and a lot of, well, almost contempt. A lot of feeling that the other guys just don't know."

There is an old saying that "politics ends at the water's edge," that partisan fights and political distrust shouldn't infect foreign policy or national security. But Benjamin and Simon say that is exactly what happened throughout the 1990s. They say Americans have paid for it dearly.

"I think one of the points of our book is that is the kind of thing that a great country simply cannot afford," says Benjamin. "We really need to attend to the threats at hand. It's just too dangerous out there."