Accuracy in Media

With all the finger-pointing over, it’s time to review the Bill Clinton-Chris Wallace battle over responsibility for 9/11. It’s never too late to set the record straight.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not Clinton’s performance during his interview with Wallace on September 24 was genuine and unexpected, or calculated and staged, Clinton was factually challenged. The interview took place two weeks after the premier of ABC’s docudrama, “The Path to 9//11,” which Clinton and other leading Democrats sought to keep off the air. Veiled threats had been made to the Disney Corp., which owns ABC. But after some modest changes, the show aired, and deeply upset the Clinton supporters who claimed that it falsely portrayed the extent of his efforts to capture or kill Osama bin Laden.

In that context, when Wallace asked Clinton if he had done enough to hunt down bin Laden before 9/11, Clinton became visibly upset and hostile. His response, boiled down to this: When he was in office, right-wingers, neocons, conservatives?he invoked all three labels?accused him of being obsessed with bin Laden, particularly after his August 1998 missile-launching targeting bin Laden. At least he tried to kill or capture bin Laden, unlike President Bush in his first eight months, and if you want the truth on these matters, see what former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke had to say about it. Plus, Clarke was fired by the Bush administration. That was the Clinton line. 

But here are the problems. Following the 1998 missile attacks, Clinton received a lot of support, from people like then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former vice president Dan Quayle, Sen. Orrin Hatch, and even the neocon “prince of darkness,” Richard Perle. But there was some questioning of whether this was a “Wag the Dog” move on Clinton’s part, based on the proximity to his grand jury testimony about the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Gingrich wrote that “I think the United States did exactly the right thing. We cannot allow a terrorist group to attack American embassies and do nothing.” Gingrich’s remarks came one day after liberal columnist Clarence Page had joined the chorus of those calling on Clinton to step down from the presidency.

Regarding Clarke, he was not demoted and fired by the Bush administration. According to his own book, Against All Enemies, he “quit the Administration altogether.” Before that, he wasn’t demoted, but chose to become special adviser to the president for cyberspace security.

As to the question of whether or not Clarke really provided the evidence in his book that backed up Clinton’s claims, that doesn’t quite stand up, either. Clarke says that Clinton didn’t actually order the killing of bin Laden, but rather “had given the CIA unprecedented authority to go after bin Laden personally and al Qaeda, but had not taken steps when they did little or nothing.” In other words, there was no Clinton follow-up.

Clinton also said that he had passed a plan along to the Bush administration, and that they had done nothing to get bin Laden in those first months. But here are some of the points Richard Clarke made in an interview back in August, 2002, when he was still working for the Bush administration:

  • That “there was no plan on Al Qaeda that was passed from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration.”

  • That “the Bush administration decided?in late January, to do two things. One, vigorously pursue the existing policy, including all of the lethal covert action findings.”

  • And Clarke confirmed “that the Bush administration did not stop anything that the Clinton administration was doing while it was making these decisions, and by the end of the summer (of 2001) had increased money for covert action five-fold.”

These contradictions of the Clinton line were covered on some conservative talk shows and websites, but very little of it was discussed in the mainstream media. The most outrageous claims came from the often hysterical Keith Olbermann, who interviewed Clinton just minutes after he left the interview with Chris Wallace. In his hate-filled rant, he accused President Bush of “sleazy and sloppy rewriting of history, designed by somebody who evidently read the Orwell playbook too quickly,” of “being the worst presidency since James Buchanan,” and of cowardice and lying. It was a complete meltdown, live on national television.

Of Clinton, Olbermann had this to say:

“Bill Clinton did what almost none of us have done in five years. He has spoken the truth about 9/11, and the current presidential administration.

‘At least I tried,’ he said of his own efforts to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. ‘That’s the difference in me and some, including all of the right-wingers who are attacking me now. They had eight months to try; they did not try. I tried.’

Thus in his supposed emeritus years has Mr. Clinton taken forceful and triumphant action for honesty, and for us; action as vital and as courageous as any of his presidency; action as startling and as liberating, as any, by any one, in these last five long years.”

So Clinton gave Olbermann the green light to criticize Bush. Perhaps that was the purpose all along-to get the Clintonistas in the media to defend the former president, no matter what the facts ultimately were. Such  a campaign may help pave the way for another Clinton presidency.




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