July 7, 2008 | National Review Online

Re: The Undecider

Rich, it’s good to see that Dan Benjamin and other top Clinton officials have become such sticklers for orderly process and gut-check decisions.  It wasn’t always so.

Recall the saga of capturing Osama bin Laden.  When the Clinton administration’s general indecisiveness was depicted a couple of years ago in the film “The Path to 9/11,” Democrats were piqued by a scene showing Sandy Berger (Dan Benjamin’s former-boss, the National Security Adviser) ”refusing to authorize a mission to capture bin Laden after CIA operatives and Afghan fighters had the al-Qaida leader in their sights.”  Berger claimed no such thing had ever occurred.  But Lt. Col. Buzz Patterson, a military aide to President Clinton, said the scene — though it conflated a series of events in order to streamline the dramatic narrative — was, as World Net Daily put it, ”similar to a plan the administration had with the CIA and the Afghan Northern Alliance to snatch bin Laden from a camp in Afghanistan.”  The WND story continues:

The scene in “The Path to 9/11,” as Patterson recalled from the preview version, unfolds with CIA operatives at the camp on the phone with Berger, who is expressing concern that an attack could result in innocent bystanders being killed. An agent says he sees swing sets and children’s toys in the area. The scene ends with Berger hanging up the phone.

Patterson says his recollection is that Clinton was involved directly in several similar incidents in which Berger was pressing the president for a decision. “Berger was very agitated, he couldn’t get a decision from the president,” Patterson said.

Patterson noted he wasn’t sure what Berger wanted to do – whether the national security adviser wanted the answer to be yes or no – but the frustration, at the very least, was based on the president making himself unavailable to make a decision.

In “Dereliction of Duty,” published by Regnery in 2003, Patterson recounts an event in the situation room of the White House in which Berger was told by a military watch officer, “Sir, we’ve located bin Laden. We have a two-hour window to strike.”  Clinton, according to Patterson, did not return phone calls from Berger for more than an hour then said he wanted more time to study the situation.  Patterson writes: “We ‘studied’ the issues until it was too late-the window of opportunity closed.”

In another “missed opportunity,” Patterson writes, Clinton was watching a golf tournament when Berger placed an urgent call to the president. Clinton became irritated when Patterson approached him with the message. After the third attempt, Clinton coolly responded he would call Berger on his way back to the White House. By then, however, according to Patterson, the opportunity was lost.

The 9/11 Commission painted a similar picture of Clinton providing deliberately ambiguous guidance to the Intelligence Community regarding whether he was giving the green-light to kill bin Laden.  For example, there’s this from p. 133 of the Commission’s final report (italics mine):

Policymakers in the Clinton administration, including the President and his national security advisor, told us that the President’s intent regarding covert action against Bin Ladin was clear: he wanted him dead. This intent was never well communicated or understood within the CIA. Tenet told the Commis­sion that except in one specific case … the CIA was authorized to kill Bin Ladin only in the context of a capture operation. CIA senior man­agers, operators, and lawyers confirmed this understanding. “We always talked about how much easier it would have been to kill him,” a former chief of the Bin Ladin unit said.


In February 1999, another draft Memorandum of Notification went to Pres­ident Clinton. It asked him to allow the CIA to give exactly the same guidance to the Northern Alliance as had just been given [in December 1998, with Clinton’s approval] to the [Afghan] tribals: they could kill Bin Ladin if a successful capture operation was not feasible. On this occasion, however, President Clinton crossed out key language he had approved in December and inserted more ambiguous language. No one we interviewed could shed light on why the President did this. President Clinton told the Com­mission that he had no recollection of why he rewrote the language. 

Later in 1999, when legal authority was needed for enlisting still other col­laborators and for covering a wider set of contingencies, the lawyers returned to the language used in August 1998, which authorized force only in the con­text of a capture operation. Given the closely held character of the document approved in December 1998, and the subsequent return to the earlier language, it is possible to understand how the former White House officials and the CIA officials might disagree as to whether the CIA was ever authorized by the Pres­ident to kill Bin Ladin.

Yup, nuthin’ like decisiveness.

Read in National Review Online