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Cohen criticizes 'wag the dog' characterization

Former defense secretary testifies before 9/11 panel

Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen testifies Tuesday before the 9/11 commission.

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Bill Clinton
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former Defense Secretary William Cohen on Tuesday defended President Clinton's use of the military to protect national security interests, returning to a sharp GOP-led criticism of Clinton at a time when he was embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

At that time, some GOP lawmakers used the phrase "wag the dog" to describe Clinton's military actions, saying he was using conflicts abroad to deflect attention from the domestic scandal. A movie of the same name came out in 1997, and the plot involves a presidential administration that launches a war as a political ploy.

Testifying before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Cohen said the U.S. military was prepared to kill or capture al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden whenever there was "actionable intelligence."

But he also said trying to capture bin Laden and his associates was like "mercury on a mirror."

Clinton came under intense criticism in 1998 by the GOP after he launched an attack on suspected terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. Intelligence indicated bin Laden and his top associates were meeting at a training camp when U.S. missiles were fired at it, just weeks after al Qaeda terrorists bombed U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

The attack was launched on the same day Lewinsky, a former White House intern, wrapped up her testimony before a grand jury investigating whether Clinton lied under oath about their relationship or encouraged anyone else to do so.

"During that time when the attack was launched in Afghanistan and Sudan, there was a movie out called 'Wag the Dog,' " Cohen testified Tuesday. In the movie, an administration launched a fake war as a political ploy. "There were critics of the Clinton administration that attacked the president, saying this was an effort on his part to divert attention from his personal difficulties.

"I would like to say for the record under no circumstances did President Clinton ever call upon the military and use that military in order to serve a political purpose."

Cohen served as a Republican U.S. senator from Maine before Clinton appointed him to the defense post.

Cohen said the the military objective on August 20, 1998, was "to kill as many people in those camps as we could" and to "take out" a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that was believed to have been used by terrorists.

"We went after as many as we could and as high as we could. We didn't know whether [bin Laden] would be there for sure. We hoped he would be there. He slipped away apparently."

A few months later, the accusations of Clinton's use of the military arose anew when the United States and Britain launched Operation Desert Fox, a four-day bombing campaign against Iraq. That operation came as House debated Clinton's impeachment.

Cohen testified he was called to the House on the day the operation began to defend Clinton against a "boiling" rage.

"I put my entire public career on the line to say that the president always acted specifically upon the recommendation of those of us who held the positions of responsibility to take military action," he said. "And at no time did he ever try to use it or manipulate it to serve his personal ends."

He added: "I think it's important for that to be clear because that 'wag the dog' cynicism that was so virulent [then], I'm afraid is coming back again."

In the wake of the twin embassy bombings, Cohen said Clinton gave the military the authority to kill bin Laden if the opportunity arose.

"Whenever there was 'actionable intelligence,' we were prepared to take action to destroy bin Laden or the targets," he said.

But he said he didn't think a large military action was realistic -- even after the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole -- because Congress most likely wouldn't have supported it and neither would Pakistan, Tajikstan and other key nations in the region.

Commissioner Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, blasted Cohen's responses.

"We had a round in our chamber and we didn't use it. That's how I see it," he said. "I don't buy it."

Cohen again reiterated he thought an invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2000 was "unrealistic."

"We can be faulted for that," Cohen said. "I just don't think it was feasible."

Kerrey then responded: "I'll just say for the record, better to have tried and failed than to have not tried at all."

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