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Talking Points: Fighting Terrorists, Then and Now

Echoing administration arguments, Giuliani claimed Clinton's handling of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing led to other strikes.

During a speech yesterday at Pat Robertson’s Regent University, former mayor Rudy Giuliani indirectly blamed President Clinton for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Echoing arguments offered frequently by Bush administration officials, Giuliani claimed that Clinton treated the 1993 World Trade Center bombing “as a criminal act instead of a terrorist attack,” which “emboldened other strikes” on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, in Kenya and Tanzania, and later on the USS Cole. “The United States government, then President Clinton, did not respond,” Giuliani said. “Bin Laden declared war on us. We didn’t hear it.” The claim that President Clinton “did not respond” to global terrorism during his administration is demonstrably and flagrantly false. (Giuliani himself knows this. Just last year, before he became a presidential candidate, he said, “The idea of trying to cast blame on President Clinton [for the 9/11 attacks] is just wrong for many, many reasons, not the least of which is I don’t think he deserves it.”) Giuliani’s fundamentally misguided approach to counterterrorism is evidenced not only by his dishonest smears of President Clinton, but by his embrace of the same national security strategy as President Bush, under whom global terrorism is rising, Osama bin Laden is resurgent, the Middle East is deeper in violent unrest, and the U.S. military is in the midst of a readiness crisis.

  • The Clinton administration record on terrorism was forceful, aggressive, and successful. Richard Clarke, who served as counterterrorism czar for Bush I, Clinton and Bush II, detailed Clinton’s counterterrorism record after Vice President Cheney claimed in 2004 that the United States had “no great success in dealing with terrorists” during the 1990s: “It’s possible that the vice president has spent so little time studying the terrorist phenomenon that he doesn’t know about the successes in the 1990s,” Clarke said. “There were many. The Clinton administration stopped Iraqi terrorism against the United States, through military intervention. It stopped Iranian terrorism against the United States, through covert action. It stopped the Al Qaeda attempt to have a dominant influence in Bosnia. It stopped the terrorist attacks at the millennium. It stopped many other terrorist attacks, including on the U.S. embassy in Albania. And it began a lethal covert action program against Al Qaeda,” including military strikes against Al Qaeda targets. Giuliani claims Clinton “did not respond” to bin Laden. In fact, Roger Cressy, former NSC director for counterterrorism, has written, “Mr. Clinton approved every request made of him by the CIA and the U.S. military involving using force against bin Laden and Al Qaeda.”
  • Terrorism is a matter of national security and law enforcement. Guliani’s criticism that the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was considered “a criminal act instead of a terrorist attack” shows a deeply flawed understanding of counterterrorism. In fact, the United States “has long regarded [terrorist] acts as criminal,” according to the 9/11 Commission Staff Report. This practice continues under President Bush; last year, for example, Bush introduced a plan to “improve national legal and regulatory frameworks to ensure appropriate criminal and civil liability” for nuclear terrorists. However, it was under President Clinton that terrorism was first treated as a national security threat. The 1993 World Trade Center attack, which occurred one month after President Clinton took office, “called attention to a new kind of terrorist danger.” Not until July 1995 did the U.S. intelligence community identify this “new terrorist phenomenon” characterized by “loose affiliations of Islamist extremists” who were “more fluid and multinational than the older organizations.” Clinton had already taken action. A June 1995 Presidential Decision Directive issued by Clinton for the first time emphasized concern about terrorism “as a national security issue,” not just a matter of law enforcement. By 1997, U.S. intelligence confirmed “the existence of Al Qaeda as a worldwide terrorist organization,” and for the last three years of his presidency Clinton “raised the issue of terrorism in virtually every important speech he gave.
  • The Bush administration’s early focus on Iraq took away from the fight against Al Qaeda.  When President Bush came into office, his administration was warned that no foe but Al Qaeda posed “an immediate and serious threat to the United States.” Yet in May 2001, Bush declared that “today’s most urgent threat” was not terrorism but “ballistic missiles” in the hands of rogue states, specifically Iraq. In June 2001, Bush “outlined the five top defense issues” to NATO allies, and the “only reference to extremists was in Macedonia.” Within three months of the 9/11 attacks, Bush began drawing up plans for the Iraq invasion. This singular, ideological focus culminated in a policy that has consumed countless resources that could have been used to elimate global terrorist networks and bolster homeland security. Yet to this day, Giuliani remains supportive of Bush’s approach. He said recently that invading Iraq was “absolutely the right thing to do” and claimed the war would “help reduce the risk for this country.”