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Bill Press is a syndicated columnist and the co-host of CNN's Crossfire, which airs Monday-Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Bill Press: Don't blame it on Bill Clinton

By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services

WASHINGTON (Tribune Media Services) -- Here is one of the first rules of politics: It’s not enough that I do well; I must also destroy my enemy.

Sadly, even in America’s war against terrorism, that rule still drives a lot of Republicans. I see it on the op-ed pages. I get avalanches of it in my e-mail. I hear it in their public statements. For them, it's not enough that most Americans give George W. Bush credit for doing a good job in leading the nation against Osama bin Laden. They're not satisfied unless everybody also holds Bill Clinton responsible for getting us into this mess.

Yet the evidence shows his detractors have more to answer for than he does.

The attacks of September 11 were only a few hours old when conservative Congressman Dana Rohrbacher, R-California, blamed Clinton, not the terrorists: “We had Bill Clinton, backing off, letting the Taliban go, over and over again.”

Talk-show host Rush Limbaugh trumpeted on the pages of the Wall Street Journal: “Mr. Clinton can be held culpable for not doing enough when he was commander-in-chief to combat the terrorists who wound up attacking the World Trade Center and Pentagon.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who resigned in disgrace, also chimed in, citing Clinton’s “pathetically weak, ineffective ability to focus and stay focused.”

Don't you love it? Gingrich and company derail the president and the country for two whole years over a minor sex scandal in the White House -- magnifying one act of oral sex into a full time, $50 million Independent Counsel investigation, weeks of House Judiciary Committee hearings, impeachment by the House of Representatives and trial in the Senate -- and then they accuse Clinton of not staying focused on government business!

Have they no shame?

The truth, of course, is just the opposite. Given how distracted he was by the Lewinsky scandal, (which was of his own making, but blown out of proportion by his political enemies), it’s amazing Clinton was able to continue governing at all. And during that time, as The Washington Post reveals, he did a great deal to combat terrorism, much of it behind the scenes.

Clinton’s most public response, of course, were the cruise missile attacks of 1998, directed against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and the Sudan, following the terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Operating on limited intelligence -- at that time, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tazikistan refused to share information on the terrorists whereabouts inside Afghanistan -- U. S. strikes missed bin Laden by only a couple of hours.

Even so, Clinton was accused of only firing missiles in order to divert media attention from the Lewinsky hearings. A longer campaign would have stirred up even more criticism.

So Clinton tried another tack. He sponsored legislation to freeze the financial assets of international organizations suspected of funneling money to bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network -- identical to orders given by President Bush this month -- but it was killed, on behalf of big banks, by Republican Senator Phil Gramm of Texas.

Those actions, we knew about. Others, we did not, until recently. Starting in 1998, for example, Clinton gave the CIA a green light to use whatever covert means were necessary to gather information on Osama bin Laden and his followers, and to disrupt and preempt any planned terrorist activities against the United States.

As part of that effort, the CIA, under Clinton, trained and equipped some 60 commandos from Pakistan to enter Afghanistan and capture bin Laden. The operation collapsed when Pakistan experienced a military coup and a new government took over.

In 1998, Clinton also signed a secret agreement with Uzbekistan to begin joint covert operations against Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. U.S. Special Forces have been training there ever since, which is why the Pentagon was immediately able to use Uzbekistan as a staging area for forays into Afghanistan.

Clinton targeted bin Laden even before he moved to Afghanistan. In 1996, his administration brokered an agreement with the government of Sudan to arrest the terrorist leader and turn him over to Saudi Arabia. For 10 weeks, Clinton tried to persuade the Saudis to accept the offer. They refused. With no cooperation from the Saudis, the deal fell apart.

Conclusion: Rohrbacher, Limbaugh, Gingrich are dead wrong when they blame Bill Clinton for September 11. Did Clinton get Osama bin Laden “dead or alive?” No, but he came close, several times -- long before tracking down terrorists became a national priority.


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