The Clinton Administration's Strikes on Usama Bin Laden: Limits to Power

By Ryan C. Hendrickson

From Contemporary Cases in U.S. Foreign Policy, ed. Ralph G. Carter. (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2002), 196-216.

Introduction: The White House Faces Terrorism

Occasionally foreign policy making occurs in an environment involving a high degree of secrecy, in which the public, the media, and even most members of Congress are not privy to the decision-making process. One such case was when President Bill Clinton decided in August 1998 to launch missile strikes against the alleged terrorist facilities of Usama Bin Laden in Sudan and Afghanistan in response to the bombing of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, earlier that month. The choice to use force, however, came at a controversial time for Clinton. Only three days before the strikes, the president had admitted to misleading the public about an extramarital affair he had with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Moreover, in the aftermath of the strikes investigative journalists uncovered information indicating that considerable disagreement had existed among Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and State Department officials over the intelligence gathered on Bin Laden and his supposed connections to the al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries plant, which the administration targeted on the grounds that it was involved in producing chemical weapons. Yet, with only a few exceptions, Clinton's decision to launch seventy-nine cruise missiles generated little controversy among members of Congress or opposition from other countries after the fact.

Background: Usama Bin Laden and the War Powers Resolution

During Bill Clinton's two terms as president, 1993 to 2001, the perceived threat of terrorism against U.S. interests grew to unsurpassed levels. Although the total number of terrorist strikes against the United States was higher in the 1980s than in the 1990s, Americans at home and abroad had been victims of a number of high-profile attacks that heightened the public's awareness. During the cold war, some U.S. presidents retaliated after such attacks with military force. When Usama Bin Laden's network struck U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, 1998, Clinton similarly employed the military as a foreign policy tool.

The Man and His Mission

Prior to the U.S. strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan, most Americans had never heard of Usama Bin Laden, who was, however, no stranger to the U.S. intelligence community. Bin Laden, the youngest of twenty children, was born in 1957 to a wealthy conservative family in Saudi Arabia.[1] His father earned an estimated $5 billion fortune in the construction business as a preferred client of the Saudi monarchy.[2] Two of his principal projects included the renovation of Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina. Usama Bin Laden received a degree from King Abdul Aziz University, and his first known foray into politics occurred after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1980 Bin Laden left Saudi Arabia to go to Afghanistan and support the mujahidin, the Afghan fighters resisting the Soviet takeover and occupation. He assisted in the construction of roads and hospitals and provided other financial assistance to the rebels. He also created a network of Islamic radicals known as al-Qaida (The Base). This organization served as the core of what would become Bin Laden's network of supporters willing to advance their fundamentalist version of Islam using any means necessary.[3] Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia after the Afghan war concluded in 1989. Upon his father's death, Bin Laden was estimated to have inherited between $200 million and $300 million, part of which he used to finance al-Qaida. In 1991, Saudi officials seized Bin Laden's passport after he was caught smuggling weapons into the country from Yemen. He then moved to Sudan, where he invested heavily in its impoverished economy and developed a close relationship with Sudanese president Umar Hassan al-Bashir of the National Islamic Front. Much of Bin Laden's financial support went toward Sudan's major export, gum, as well as pharmaceutical companies. He also assisted in the construction of an airport, a 750-mile highway, and a bank in the capital, Khartoum. While in Sudan, which was mired in civil war and whose government had little authority, Bin Laden may have also financed the training of three alleged terrorist groups.[4] During his years in Sudan, Bin Laden was suspected of being involved in a number of high-profile attacks around the world. The first strike occurred in 1992 in Aden, Yemen, when alleged Bin Laden associates planted a bomb in a hotel where American military personnel lived; the Americans left before the bomb exploded. There would be a series of attacks over the next five years. Bin Laden is also blamed for a 1994 attack on a Saudi National Guard station that resulted in the deaths of five American military personnel. Four of five people arrested and beheaded by Saudi authorities for involvement in the bombing maintained that they had acted under Bin Laden's orders. Bin Laden has also been loosely linked to the 1996 strike on the Khobar Towers military living quarters in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that took the lives of nineteen American soldiers. He was also thought to be responsible for an aborted assassination plot on President Clinton when the president traveled to the Philippines in 1994.[5] In addition to these events, Bin Laden's network is believed to have had connections to the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City in February 1993. Bin Laden's followers from the war in Afghanistan were also convicted of an attempt to bomb U.S. passenger jets 1995. His network was affiliated with a failed attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1995. The Islamic Group, which maintains an alliance with al-Qaida, also claimed responsibility in 1997 for the worst terrorist attack in Egypt, which claimed the lives of fifty-eight tourists. By the mid-1990s, Bin Laden's reach was global, and in 1997 al-Qaida was placed on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.[6] Bin Laden's radicalism reached new levels on August 23, 1996, when he publicly issued a fatwa, or a decree (usually issued by a recognized religious leader), calling for a jihad (holy war) against the United States to oppose the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia that began with the Persian Gulf War. He argued that Muslims had a "legitimate right" to drive the United States out of the Islamic homeland, and he criticized Saudi Arabia for its alliance with the United States.[7] Under diplomatic pressure from the United States, in 1996 Sudan expelled Bin Laden, who returned to Afghanistan.[8] In 1998 Bin Laden ascended the world stage and entered into U.S. foreign policy history. On February 23, he issued a second fatwa, in a fax to a London-based Arabic newsletter, in which he made three central points: the United States should leave the Muslim holy land; the United States should end the "great devastation inflicted" upon the Iraqi people through its continuation of economic sanctions; and the United States is engaged in a religious and economic war against Muslims, while simultaneously serving Israel's interests against the Muslim world. Bin Laden appealed to all Muslims to "kill the Americans and their allies--civilians and military" wherever possible.[9]

Terrorism and the Powers of the President

According to the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the power to declare war and possesses a host of other enumerated powers associated with the military. The president is given the explicit authority to act as commander in chief. Most constitutional scholars concur, however, that the president is empowered to use force without congressional approval in order to "repel sudden attacks" against the United States.[10] Otherwise, the president must gain Congress's approval prior to using force. For much of U.S. history, Congress's war powers have been respected by the commander in chief.[11] With the onset of the cold war and the broad consensus that the Soviet Union and communism represented a threat to the United States, the president's perception of his power as commander in chief became increasingly omnipotent. Since 1945, presidents have asserted wide military powers, with few recognized limitations. Since Congress agreed that communism should be checked, and because it was politically safer to let a president assume full political responsibility for U.S. military endeavors, Congress often deferred.[12] This remained the norm until the 1973 passage of the War Powers Resolution, which was designed to reassert the authority that many felt Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had usurped from Congress during the Vietnam War. The resolution requires that the president "consult with Congress in every possible circumstance," both prior to and after the use of force.[13] The president must formally notify Congress within 48 hours after the use of force has been initiated and must obtain Congress's approval within sixty days of the operation if it is ongoing, or U.S. troops must be withdrawn. Despite its intent, the War Powers Resolution has proved to be a failure. All presidents since 1973 have maintained that it is unconstitutional; Congress has often refused to enforce it.[14] When dealing specifically with terrorist threats, U.S. presidents have on occasion responded with military force. In 1979, when Americans were being held captive by supporters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, President Jimmy Carter planned a military rescue operation. No member of Congress was included in Carter's inner circle of decision makers.[15] In 1986, when President Ronald Reagan bombed Libya--including the compound of Libyan leader Mu'ammar Qadhafi because of Libya's alleged involvement in an attack on a Berlin dance club frequented by Americans--a few members of Congress were notified of the forthcoming military action. These members, however, were notified of the strikes only three hours before they occurred.[16] Both of these actions produced outrage among some members of Congress who perceived them as violations of the War Powers Resolution, but no legislative steps were taken to address their concerns. As commander in chief, President Clinton also viewed his powers broadly. During his first term, Clinton bombed Iraq in 1993 for its association with a failed attempt to assassinate President George Bush in Kuwait and in 1996 for military actions against Kurdish rebels in the north, deployed 10,000 American troops to Haiti to assist in the return to power of elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, used aerial bombing under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to stop Bosnian Serb attacks on Sarajevo, and sent 20,000 American troops to Bosnia in a peacekeeping operation to enforce the Dayton Peace Accord. In all these cases, Clinton maintained that congressional approval was not required. When it came to the use of force, Clinton's behavior closely resembled that of his predecessors. In August 1998, however, his preference for presidential unilateralism as commander in chief was tested. On August 7, 1998, the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were bombed. The attackers detonated two truck bombs minutes apart. Two hundred sixty-three people were killed, including twelve Americans, and the embassies were severely damaged. These simultaneous strikes indicated the organizational capacity of the perpetrators, and in retrospect their global reach, while also illustrating the vulnerability of U.S. embassies abroad. Although the number of terrorist incidents against U.S. interests during the 1990s was smaller than in the 1980s, high-profile events in the United States and around the world captured the media and public's attention, heightening Americans' fear of attack. During Clinton's years in office, the world witnessed the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, terrorist bombings in France in 1995, the release of deadly chemical substances in a Japanese subway by the Aum Shinruki group, as well as the events noted above in New York City, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.[17] The mysterious crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of New York shortly after takeoff on July 17, 1996, produced additional concerns among the American public that terrorists were targeting the United States. A month after the crash, with its cause still unknown, 29 percent of Americans indicated that they were worried that "a close relative or friend might be the victim of a terrorist attack."[18] Another poll conducted by CBS News found that 80 percent of Americans felt that the federal government should have "more authority" to fight terrorism.[19] Congress reacted in 1996 by passing new laws that gave additional power to the secretary of state and the secretary of the Treasury and other law enforcement officials to pursue terrorists more aggressively.[20] President Clinton also continued to push for additional security measures to improve airport security as the 1996 election drew closer.[21] In mid-January 1997, opinion polls found that 32 percent of Americans viewed terrorism as one of the most important threats to world peace.[22] Later that month, 51 percent agreed that NATO should be used to combat terrorism,[23] and 63 percent in early April 1997 felt that U.S. anti-terrorism laws were too weak.[24] Thus, terrorism's place on the U.S. political agenda rose considerably as the Clinton administration entered its second term.

The Strikes on Bin Laden

Immediately after the bombings of the U.S. embassies, intelligence experts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the CIA rushed to the scene to determine responsibility for the attacks. In cooperation with the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments, they and other U.S. intelligence specialists examined the evidence.[25] Meanwhile, another group of experts from the CIA, National Security Agency (NSA), Defense Intelligence Agency, and other executive offices met at the White House to sift through the available information.[26] Senior administration officials soon began to argue that the evidence pointed to Bin Laden. Most of what the American public, foreign policy analysts, and journalists would initially know about the internal activities in the White House during the days before the U.S. military response came from a joint press conference by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Samuel "Sandy" Berger, who answered a host of questions regarding the decision to use military force and the process by which this decision was made.[27] On August 12 President Clinton flew home from a fund-raising trip to California to meet with his principal foreign policy advisers in the White House Situation Room, where evidence was presented on Bin Laden's links to the attacks. Later that day, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Henry Shelton and Secretary of Defense William Cohen presented the president with preliminary plans in the event that a military response was approved. According to Berger, Secretary Albright was also being consulted as policy was being developed. Two days later, August 14, at another meeting at the White House, CIA director George Tenet presented his agency's analysis to the president. According to Berger, Tenet reached a "judgement about responsibility," indicating that Bin Laden was responsible for the attacks.[28] According to the CIA, there was evidence that Bin Laden was planning another attack on Americans, and that a large meeting of Bin Laden associates would take place in Afghanistan on August 20. At this meeting, Clinton gave tentative approval to a military response and authorized his senior military advisers to move forward with operational plans.[29] The bombings and their aftermath occurred at a difficult time for Clinton. On August 17, he testified to the Office of the Independent Counsel and a grand jury by video conference, acknowledging that he had an extramarital relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Later that evening in a national address, Clinton admitted that he had "misled" the American people about his relationship with Lewinsky.[30] Opinion polls following Clinton's admission found that one-third of Americans felt the president was "too damaged" by the Lewinsky affair to stay in office, and nearly one-half felt that Clinton might have lied when he told the nation that he encouraged no others to perjure themselves in their grand jury testimonies.[31] Thus, Clinton had created for himself a serious credibility crisis with the American public. After his address, Clinton and his family left for a vacation on Martha's Vineyard, but planning for the military strikes continued. On Wednesday, August 19, while on Martha's Vineyard, Clinton discussed the strikes with Vice President Al Gore. Senior congressional party leaders were also notified of the possible strikes. Throughout the day, Clinton spoke on four occasions by phone with National Security Adviser Berger, who was in Washington. In a call around 2:00 a.m. Thursday, Clinton gave approval for the strikes. Once the decision was made, Donald Kerrick, an air force brigadier general and National Security Council staffer, arrived at Martha's Vineyard on a 6:00 a.m. flight to be with Clinton when the strikes began.[32] The strikes, which began on August 20 around 1:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, involved the launching of seventy-nine cruise missiles at targets in Afghanistan and Sudan from ships stationed in the Arabian and Red Seas. The targets included the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, which the United States alleged was a chemical weapons factory. Six other sites were struck simultaneously in Afghanistan. Secretary Cohen declared that al-Shifa was chosen because Bin Laden was heavily involved in Sudan's military-industrial complex and had an interest in acquiring chemical weapons.[33] The Pentagon added that Bin Laden had excellent relations with the Sudanese military and that the plant was heavily guarded by Sudanese soldiers. A senior intelligence official noted that the CIA had found empta, a chemical compound used only in the production of chemical weapons, near the plant.[34] In discussing the sites hit in Afghanistan, General Shelton said that one "base camp" was struck, which served as the headquarters for Bin Laden's organization. Other targets included a support camp, which served as a weapons storage facility, and four other weapons and tactical training camps.[35] Approximately twenty-five minutes after the strikes took place, Clinton addressed the nation and provided four justifications for his actions. First, he announced that "convincing evidence" indicated Bin Laden's responsibility for the attacks on the embassies. Second, the president pointed to Bin Laden's long history of terrorist activities. Third, Clinton argued that "compelling information" suggested that Bin Laden was planning another attack against the United States. Fourth, he said that Bin Laden sought to acquire chemical weapons.[36] Due to the gravity of the situation, Clinton flew back to the White House to phone foreign leaders, speak with congressional leaders, and prepare for a more comprehensive address to the nation that same evening. In his second speech, Clinton expanded on Bin Laden's previous declarations and activities and said that his senior military advisers had given him a "unanimous recommendation" to go forward with the strikes.[37] That evening, in response to a question from CNN talk show host Larry King, Secretary Albright reiterated that universal agreement existed among Clinton's senior foreign policy advisers in support of the attacks. "There's absolutely no disagreement about this," said the secretary.[38] Similar sentiments were expressed by White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry in his first briefing with the press, when he noted that the "president acted on a unanimous recommendation" from his national security advisers.[39] As the War Powers Resolution requires, Clinton sent letters to congressional leaders, notifying them of his actions within the forty-eight-hour time limit. He wrote that Article 51 of the United Nations Charter--which allows member states to exercise "self-defense"--as well as his powers as commander in chief justified his actions.[40] The press asked if any analogies existed between the recently released movie Wag the Dog and Clinton's strikes. In the movie, an American president hires a marketing specialist to create a fictional war in an effort to boost support for him in an upcoming election. A war involving U.S. participation is then concocted in Albania, which in 1998 was considered remote to many Americans.[41] After the president uses force in Wag the Dog, his approval ratings receive a quick boost, which is usually what happens in actual cases of the president using force abroad or when the United States becomes involved in a foreign policy crisis; the American public "rallies around the flag."[42] Clinton officials responded vehemently with denials that any linkages existed between the president's domestic troubles and the strikes on Bin Laden.[43]

Consulting Congress

National Security Adviser Berger noted "some degree of collective pride" in the secrecy that had been maintained throughout the entire planning and operational aspects of the strikes. The media learned of the attacks only after they had occurred.[44] As noted above, prior to the strikes the Clinton administration had contacted leading congressional Democrats and Republicans. The night before the attacks, Berger phoned Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Senate majority leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and presented them with the evidence implicating Bin Laden. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was phoned the morning of the bombing before the strikes occurred and were made public. Berger also attempted to call House minority leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., but Gephardt was traveling in France and was unable to establish a secured phone, so Berger could not speak directly with him; instead, Gephardt's staff was notified. Clinton also phoned the leaders, with the exception of Gephardt, as he flew back to Washington to deliver his second address to the nation.[45] Some reports contend that Gingrich had been consulted and was privy to intelligence on Bin Laden before Berger's first phone calls were made.[46] In their press briefings, Berger and McCurry both stressed the "consultation" that took place between the president and Congress. McCurry specifically noted that all requirements of the War Powers Resolution had been met by the president.[47] Clinton's actions were markedly different from other presidents who have used force against "terrorist actors," such as when Reagan launched missiles against Libya and Carter attempted to rescue the hostages in Iran. In the aftermath of Clinton's use of force against Bin Laden, there were no complaints about violations of the War Powers Resolution or Congress's war-making powers. Congress gave essentially universal support to the president on constitutional grounds. In addition to its constitutional backing, Congress also provided broad political support to Clinton. The vast majority of members, including nearly all of Clinton's harshest critics in the Republican Party, stood behind the president, including House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas and House minority whip Tom DeLay of Texas, who had frequently displayed profound partisan differences with the president. Senator Lott called the strikes "appropriate and just."[48] To help solidify support for the president, Speaker Gingrich made a conference call to senior Republicans, urging them not to criticize Clinton. Gingrich also delegated one of his closest Washington political consultants, Rich Galen, to contact all major conservative media critics of the president, urging them not to negatively spin the issue.[49] Among Republicans in the Senate, two notable exceptions existed. Sens. Dan Coats of Indiana and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania suggested that the president might be using the military to divert the public's attention from his considerable domestic political troubles with Monica Lewinsky. Recognizing that Coats and Specter posed a political threat to the administration, senior administration officials immediately began briefing in closed meetings all members of Congress who sought further information on the decision to bomb. Hours after their initial criticism, Coats and Specter had rethought their position and sided with the president. On August 21, only one day after the attack, Coats noted, "There does seem to be credible evidence to suggest that targeting an Usama Bin Laden terrorist training site was necessary."[50] Like Congress, the public approved overwhelmingly of the attacks. A poll conducted by CNN found that 66 percent of the American public favored the strikes,[51] as a USA Today poll also found, while a Los Angeles Times poll found that 75 percent of Americans approved of the action.[52] Thus, Clinton faced almost no domestic criticism for the strikes.

International Response

As president, Bill Clinton frequently sought multilateral approval for major uses of force and deployments abroad. In the case of Bin Laden, however, the strikes were launched unilaterally and without seeking prior approval from the UN Security Council or NATO. Because U.S. forces fired on Afghanistan from the Arabian Sea, which entailed using Pakistan's airspace, the administration sent the air force's Gen. Joe Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to meet with Pakistani military leaders prior to the attacks.[53] After leaving Martha's Vineyard, the president did phone leaders around the world to request their support.[54] A number of states quickly condemned the attacks. Of course, Afghanistan and Sudan were the first to denounce the administration's actions. In 1996, the United States had recalled its diplomatic corps from Khartoum for fear of terrorist strikes against Americans.[55] Ninety percent of Afghanistan was controlled by the Taliban, an Islamist group that had come to power in 1996 and had no formal diplomatic relations with the United States.[56] The Sudanese and Afghan complaints were soon followed by those of Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen--all states whose diplomatic relations with the United States could best be characterized as "poor" (or virtually nonexistent).[57] Sudan maintained that the pharmaceutical plant targeted by the United States was a legitimate business and had no links to Bin Laden. The twenty-two-member Arab League, of which Sudan is a member, also rebuked the United States for its military aggression against Sudan and for the attack's potentially destabilizing effect on the region. Outside the league forum, however, many of these states were much more reserved in their sentiments. For example, Egypt initially withheld public judgment on the strikes, and later, without openly criticizing the United States, spoke about the need to limit terrorism and suggested that the matter of the bombings be turned over to the United Nations for investigation. Syria condemned the United States for the strikes, but also denounced those who attacked the U.S. embassies. Saudi Arabia and Jordan were also noticeably restrained in their response to Clinton's actions.[58] Most states in the Western world offered speedy and unconditional support for the U.S. action. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, among others, stood beside the United States. Russian president Boris Yeltsin indicated his displeasure about being left out of consultations by the United States during the decision-making process but did not appear to be concerned about the actual strikes.[59] According to U.S. sources, China, through Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao, also signaled early support, but later criticized the administration for its actions in a press release.[60] China never verbally objected to the attack and was slow to respond to its spokesman's earlier apparent misstatement. At the United Nations, Sudan called for an international investigation of the attack on al-Shifa, but other than tentative backing from the Arab world, it received only limited support in the General Assembly. In the Arab League, Bahrain had criticized the United State for its actions, despite its generally good diplomatic relations with Washington. From its rotating seat in the Security Council, however, Bahrain proved hesitant to push forward with an investigation.[61]

Raising Questions

Although Clinton had the backing of Congress and the American public for the strikes against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan, in the days and months following the attacks journalists and others began to raise questions about the intelligence used to justify the action in Sudan. In response, Clinton administration officials in off-the-record interviews began suggesting that the Iraqi chemical weapons program had close ties to the Sudanese government and al-Shifa. In background discussions, intelligence officials suggested that Iraqi scientists were assisting Sudan in developing the nerve gas VX, of which empta is a key ingredient. The plant was already being investigated by the CIA and NSA before the August attacks on the U.S. embassies and had emerged as a source of serious concern for U.S. officials. Emad al-Ani, an Iraqi weapons specialist, was specifically noted as one individual whose links with the plant were strong.[62] A number of scientists who worked for al-Ani had attended the grand opening of the plant in 1996. Other pharmaceutical plants in Sudan had been frequently visited by Iraqi scientists. Other intelligence that quietly surfaced subjected the Clinton administration to additional scrutiny. On August 29, the New York Times reported that the CIA's intelligence on al-Shifa may have been flawed, and at minimum incomplete. It was unclear whether the agency had reported to the president that al-Shifa had a pharmaceutical contract with the United Nations and was Sudan's largest producer of medicines. Moreover, the report suggested that the plant was not the tightly guarded facility described by Pentagon officials in the hours immediately following the strike. While journalists had begun exposing some of the controversial aspects of the intelligence gathered by the CIA, defenders of the strike continued to maintain that al-Shifa was a legitimate target and that even with questionable evidence it still would have been targeted.[63] The questions raised, however, were convincing enough for former president Carter to call for an investigation of the plant and the United States' decision to target it.[64] The last major challenge in 1998 to the administration's actions again came from the New York Times. Reporters Tim Weiner and James Risen reiterated concerns about Bin Laden's precarious connection to al-Shifa and raised further questions about U.S. policy toward Sudan, which had been a major source of disagreement among Clinton officials during the preceding two years.[65] In 1996, the CIA pulled all its operatives from the country after concluding that its Sudanese informants had been supplying false information. The agents' withdrawal left the United States without any intelligence in Sudan. Some administration officials suggested that the information gathered on al-Shifa may have been outdated or simply wrong. Previously, tensions had risen over information passed along in 1995 from CIA informants who warned that Sudanese terrorists were planning an assassination on then-national security adviser Anthony Lake. The CIA's source for this information disappeared. Yet, in response, Lake had to move into the Blair House, the vice president's residence, and to other undisclosed locations to protect himself. Weiner and Risen contend that this information, coupled with earlier flawed intelligence, created a "climate of fear" among National Security Council staffers when it came to Sudan. In 1996 Secretary Albright had referred to Sudan as a "viper's nest of terrorists."[66] The recall of U.S. embassy staff in 1996 produced considerable debate within the State Department about the appropriateness of such an action. Some preferred to isolate Sudan, while others continued to lobby for engagement. Thus, the journalists maintained, it was inference--not conclusive data--about al-Shifa and Bin Laden, coupled with internal disagreements over how to best deal with Sudan, that informed the Clinton administration's policy. The New York Times report prompted Congressman Edward Whitfield, R-Ky., to call for an investigation of the decision to strike al-Shifa, but no other members of Congress sought further enquiry.[67] The vast majority of members of Congress busied themselves with other issues--debate over whether to impeach Clinton for actions concerning the Lewinsky affair and congressional midterm elections, which were only two and a half months away. Many members had campaigns to conduct and constituents to see. For the next year, questions about al-Shifa disappeared from the political map, but further concerns about the plant were raised in a front-page article by James Risen in the New York Times on October 27, 1999. Although a number of off-the-record interviews were again cited to confirm the differences among Clinton administration officials, this report provided names and specifically expressed concerns, which added credibility to its analysis. The CIA maintained that in 1995 Bin Laden had gained approval from Sudan to develop chemical weapons. In 1997, the al-Shifa plant surfaced as a site with which Bin Laden might have connections. That same year, the CIA obtained Sudanese soil samples taken from near the plant, which contained 2.5 times the normal amount of empta. The samples, however, were taken approximately sixty feet from the plant and from across the access road to the facility, on land that was unlikely to be owned by al-Shifa. Risen reported that in the month prior to the embassy attacks, the CIA believed that more information was needed before conclusive links could be drawn between Bin Laden and the plant.[68] On August 4, 1998, an additional CIA report was presented to the administration, indicating that Bin Laden might be planning a chemical weapons attack. When the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) learned of the report, doubts about its content were raised, as well as concerns about the validity of the soil samples.[69] Risen also reported that during the planning sessions on how and where to strike Bin Laden after the embassy attack, CIA director Tenet told senior national security advisers that Bin Laden's relationship to al-Shifa was only inferential, and that the CIA was still working to firmly establish a link. National Security Adviser Berger continued to deny that any disagreement existed over Bin Laden's connection to al-Shifa but did admit that significant "geopolitical" differences existed about where to strike. Berger may have been alluding to concerns expressed by General Shelton and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On August 19, it was determined that two sites in Sudan, al-Shifa and a tannery, would be included on the target list. According to Risen, Shelton protested the inclusion of the tannery because of risks to civilians and because it had no association with chemical weapons. When he proved unable to convince other senior officials to eliminate the tannery from the list, Shelton expressed his concerns to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The JCS supported their chairman. Shelton then phoned the White House to reiterate the military's opposition to striking the tannery, which was apparently enough to make Clinton change his mind.[70] Risen also pointed to a meeting, among NSC staffers on the evening before the strikes, in which there was apparently opposition to striking al-Shifa. Richard Clarke, an NSC official, had called in NSC staff to help prepare the "paperwork" for the planned strikes. At the meeting, a number of the staff expressed surprise that al-Shifa was to be hit. Clarke, however, denied that any such discussions took place, although Risen's sources indicated otherwise.[71] After the strikes, INR expressed concerns about the intelligence on al-Shifa and asked Assistant Secretary of State Phyllis Oakley if it could proceed with its own investigation. Oakely relayed these concerns to Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, who told her that no such report was necessary. Secretary Albright likewise added her opinion that no further review was needed. Oakley relayed the decisions, which were followed. Meanwhile, according to Risen, some CIA analysts were asking the same questions as INR.[72] A piece of evidence creating more skepticism was the United States' dealings with Salah Idris, the owner of al-Shifa. The CIA maintained that information gathered after the strike indicated that Idris had financial connections to Islamic Jihad, a group affiliated with Bin Laden. At the time of the strike, however, CIA officials had said that they did not know that Idris owned the plant. The Treasury Department froze $24 million of Idris's assets in Bank of America branches worldwide after the strike, but after Idris filed suit against the United States, Treasury released his holdings. Had hard evidence existed connecting Idris to Bin Laden or Islamic Jihad, it is doubtful that the United States would have released his assets. James Risen found numerous reasons to question the Clinton administration's decision to strike al-Shifa, yet Congress remained silent. Risen indicates that the small group of officials who made the decision to strike al-Shifa was convinced that the circumstantial evidence still pointed conclusively to Bin Laden. The doubts expressed by midlevel administration officials were not convincing to senior Clinton officials, notably CIA director Tenet and Secretary of State Albright, especially with evidence suggesting that another attack seemed possible.

The Jihad Continues

In November 1998, approximately two and a half months after the strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan, a federal grand jury indicted Bin Laden on 224 counts of conspiracy to commit murder and charged him and his top military commander with orchestrating the bombings of the U.S. embassies. The United States also issued a $5 million reward for information leading to Bin Laden's arrest.[73] The United States, believing that Bin Laden remained in Afghanistan, put pressure on the Taliban to turn him over.[74] Their efforts failed, and Bin Laden remained at large throughout the Clinton presidency. On October 21, 2000, a former sergeant in the U.S. Army stated in a federal district court in New York City that he had provided information to Bin Laden on the U.S. embassy in Kenya in 1993 and 1994 and that Bin Laden had specifically indicated where a bomb could be placed.[75] As 2000 had approached, Bin Laden was suspected of planning a number of attacks against U.S. citizens. According to reports, Bin Laden's associates were involved in terrorist activities to be carried out amid New Year celebrations, but they were foiled when they were uncovered by U.S. and Jordanian intelligence officials.[76] More recently, Bin Laden has been suspected of involvement in the attack on the USS Cole. On October 12, 2000, as the destroyer was refueling in the Yemeni port of Aden, a small boat pulled alongside it and two men in the boat on a suicide mission detonated explosives that killed seventeen Americans and injured thirty-nine others. In the days following the attack intelligence experts maintained that the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group that had been associated with al-Qaida, might have been responsible. Yemeni president Ali Abdallah Salih claimed initially that the attackers were Afghans who had fought in the war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Given Bin Laden's support of the mujahidin, his alledged connections to the Islamic Jihad, and his familial ties to Yemen, Bin Laden became a suspect.[77] Whether Bin Laden was responsible for the attack on the Cole remains unknown. Many analysts maintained that his network remained quite functional, despite the various policy approaches employed by the Clinton administration to limit his influence.

Conclusion: Deference to the President

The foreign policymaking process prior to the strikes on Usama Bin Laden demonstrates that the postcold war era brought little change in how the United States deals militarily with terrorist challenges. President Clinton, after consulting with his closest security advisers, made the decision alone to use force against Bin Laden. Only a few government actors were involved in the decision-making process, and no non-governmental players played a role. In fact, Clinton's closest advisers went to great lengths to keep information from the public about the strikes. The process was not "pluralistic," as in other cases in this book. Clinton's level of consultation with Congress prior to the strikes was somewhat different from past presidents when they chose to use military force against perceived terrorist threats. Clinton reached out to Speaker Gingrich, and to a lesser extent to Senate majority leader Lott, prior to the strikes to discuss the security issues surrounding Bin Laden. Yet, akin to cold war politics, Congress largely backed Clinton, with very little criticism of the president even though he was acting during precarious domestic political conditions. With the perceived threat of terrorism so high on the U.S. and international agenda, few politicians and foreign leaders questioned the missile strikes. While the decision-making process produced little controversy among members of Congress, and the strikes themselves were politically popular, the media coverage in the aftermath raised questions about the targets chosen. Some administration officials quietly questioned the wisdom of striking the al-Shifa plant. Other administration officials and reporters implied that a serious mistake had been made in targeting the plant. Despite these reports, Congress did little to address these concerns. Clearly, Congress showed little interest in "checking" the president when it came to using force against terrorists, even if a serious mistake seemed possible. Despite the strikes, Bin Laden's influence appears unabated. He is alive and well, and it appears probable that he has been involved in other attacks since August 1998. Perhaps the 1998 military actions prevented the "second strike" that Clinton alluded to in his first address to the nation. That response, however, did not eliminate Bin Laden as a long-term threat to the United States.


1. Much of the information on Bin Laden's biography comes from Tim Weiner, "U.S. Hard Put to Find Proof Bin Laden Directed Attacks," New York Times, April 13, 1999, A1.
2. The current ruling family of Saudi Arabia, the Al Sauds, took power in 1902, when King Abd al-Aziz enlisted the support of local Wahhabis--believers in a strict, conservative interpretation of Islam--in taking control of its major city, Riyadh, later the birthplace of Bin Laden. His father came from Hadhramaut, an eastern province of Yemen known for its intense Wahhabism. See Michael C. Hudson, Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 171; John F. Burns, "Remote Yemen May Be Key to Terrorist's Past and Future," New York Times, November 5, 2000.
3. See Vernon Loeb, "A Global, Pan-Islamic Network; Terrorism Entrepreneur Unifies Groups Financially, Politically," New York Times, August 23, 1998, A1.
4. The mostly substantive reports researched by the Washington Post and New York Times provide different conclusions on the presence of terrorist training sites in Sudan. See Weiner, "U.S. Hard Put," and Loeb, "A Global, Pan-Islamic Network." Loeb states that Bin Laden supported terrorist camps in northern Sudan "for radicals from Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia, as well as Palestinians."
5. Weiner, "U.S. Hard Put."
6. Loeb, "A Global, Pan-Islamic Network."
7. "Saudi Militant Is Said to Urge Forced Ouster of U.S. Troops," New York Times, August 31, 1996, A2.
8. See Loeb, "A Global, Pan-Islamic Network."
9. For a reprint and analysis of the declaration, see Magnus Ranstorp, "Interpreting the Broader Context and Meaning of Bin-Laden's Fatwa," Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 21 (1998): 321330. See also Bernard Lewis, "License to Kill: Usama bin Laden's Declaration of Jihad," Foreign Affairs (November/December 1998): 1419.
10. For example, see David Gray Adler, "The Constitution and Presidential Warmaking," Political Science Quarterly 103 (1988): 136; and Charles A. Lofgren, "War-Making under the Constitution: The Original Understanding," Yale Law Journal 81 (1972).
11. Francis D. Wormuth and Edwin B. Firmage, To Chain the Dog of War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989).
12. Louis Fisher, Presidential War Power (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995).
13. PL 93148.
14. Michael J. Glennon, "Too Far Apart: The War Powers Resolution," University of Miami Law Review 50 (1995): 1731; Edward Keynes, "The War Powers Resolution: A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come and Gone," University of Toledo Law Review 23 (1992): 343362.
15. Robert A. Strong, Working in the World (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), chap. 9. The absence of consultation within the administration prompted Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to resign.
16. Pat Towell, "After Raid on Libya, New Questions on the Hill," Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, April 19, 1986, 838.
17. Walter Enders and Todd Sandler, "Transnational Terrorism in the PostCold War Era," International Studies Quarterly 43 (1999): 145.
18. Question 003, Roper Center, University of Connecticut, Public Opinion Online, August 5, 1996, Lexis-Nexis.
19. Question 008, Roper Center, University of Connecticut, Public Opinion Online, July 29, 1996, Lexis-Nexis.
20. PL 104-132. See also Holly Idelson, "Terrorism Bill Is Headed to President's Desk," Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, April 20, 1996, 1044.
21. Peter Baker, "President Takes on Terrorism; Congress Challenged to Improve Package," Washington Post, September 10, 1996, A10.
22. Question 011, Roper Center, University of Connecticut, Public Opinion Online, January 18, 1997, Lexis-Nexis.
23. Question 006, Roper Center, University of Connecticut, Public Opinion Online, January 24, 1997, Lexis-Nexis.
24. Question 055, Roper Center, University of Connecticut, Public Opinion Online, April 11, 1997, Lexis-Nexis.
25. David L. Marcus and Andrea Useem, "Death Toll in Blasts Rises to 148," Boston Globe, August 9, 1998, A1.
26. Marc Lacey, "The U.S. Embassy Bombings," Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1998, A18.
27. "Press Briefing on U.S. Strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan," August 20, 1998,
28. Ibid.
29. Ibid.
30. Bill Clinton, "Address to the Nation on Testimony before the Independent Counsel's Grand Jury," Public Papers of the Presidents, August 17, 1998, 1638; James Bennet, "Testing of a President: The Overview," New York Times, August 18, 1998, A1.
31. Douglas Turner, "Credibility of President Is in Crisis, Polls Show," Buffalo News, August 19, 1998, 1A.
32. "Press Briefing on U.S. Strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan," August 20, 1998.
33. DefenseLINK News, DoD News Briefing, August 20, 1998,
34. DefenseLINK News, Background Briefing, "Terrorist Camp Strikes," August 20, 1998,
35. DoD News Briefing, August 20, 1998.
36. Bill Clinton, "Remarks on Departure for Washington, DC, from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts," Public Papers of the Presidents, August 20, 1998, 1642.
37. Bill Clinton, "Address to the Nation on Military Action against Terrorist Sites in Afghanistan and Sudan," Public Papers of the Presidents, August 20, 1998, 1643.
38. Interview on CNN, Larry King Live, August 20, 1998, www/statements/1998.
39. "Holds News Briefing Aboard Air Force One; Air Force in Route to Washington," FDCH Political Transcripts, August 20, 1998, Lexis-Nexis, transcripts file.
40. Bill Clinton, "Letter to Congressional Leaders Reporting on Military Action against Terrorist Sites in Afghanistan and Sudan," Public Papers of the Presidents, August 21, 1998, 16501651.
41. The research on such "diversionary military actions" by U.S. presidents is mixed at best, with a number of analysts concluding that no evidence indicates that presidents act in this manner. See Joanne Gowa, "Politics at the Water's Edge: Parties, Voters, and the Use of Force Abroad," International Organization 52 (1998): 307324; James Meernik, "The Myth of the Diversionary Use of Force by American Presidents," Political Research Quarterly 49 (1996): 573.
42. Patrick James and Jean Sebastien Rioux, "International Crises and Linkage Politics: The Experiences of the United States, 19531994," Political Research Quarterly 51 (1998): 781812; John T. Rourke, Ralph Carter, and Mark A. Boyer, Making American Foreign Policy (Madison, Wis.: Brown and Benchmark, 1996), 193.
43. For example, see Secretary Albright's statements, "Interview on NBC-TV Today Show with Katie Couric," August 21, 1998,; Bruce Westbrook, "War or a 'Wag'?" Houston Chronicle, August 25, 1998, 1; Marcella Bombardieri, "Wagging Dog? Fine, Some Say," Boston Globe, August 22, 1998, A8.
44. "Press Briefing on U.S. Strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan," August 20, 1998.
45. Ibid.
46. Mike McCurry, Office of the Press Secretary, "Remarks in Gaggle," August 20, 1998; see also Chuck McCutcheon, "Lawmakers Back Missile Strikes Despite a Bit of GOP Skepticism," CQ Weekly, August 22, 1998, 2289.
47. See McCurry, "Remarks in Gaggle."
48. Quoted in Guy Gugliotta and Juliet Eilperin, "Tough Response Appeals to Critics of President; Several Question Clinton's Timing of Raids," Washington Post, August 21, 1998, A17.
49. Ibid. See also Ryan Hendrickson, "American War Powers and Terrorists: The Case of Usama Bin Laden," Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 23 (2000): 161174.
50. Quoted in Steven Lee Meyers, "President Swears to Use 'All Tools' against Terrorism," New York Times, August 23, 1998, 1.
51. Brian McGrory, "US Calls Terrorists' Losses Significant," Boston Globe, August 22, 1998, A1.
52. Bill Nichols, "U.S. Strikes Back: Hits Sudan, Afghanistan," USA Today, August 21, 1998, 1A; Mark Z. Barabak, "The Time Poll," Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1998, A1.
53. James W. Crawley, "U.S. Attacks on Bin Laden Detailed," San Diego Union-Tribune, August 20, 1999, A1.
54. "Press Briefing on U.S. Strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan," August 20, 1998.
55. Thomas Lippman and John M. Goshko, "U.S. Begins to Withdraw Personnel from Sudan," Washington Post, February 1, 1996, A4.
56. Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).
57. John Daniszewski and Dexter Filkins, "Attack on Terrorism," Los Angeles Times, August 22, 1998, A19; Howard Schneider, "Radical States Assail Act," Washington Post, August 22, 1998, A22.
58. Elizabeth Bryant, "Targeting Terrorism," Houston Chronicle, August 22, 1998, A19.
59. Tim Butcher and Hugh Davies, "US Strike Was 'First Blow in War of Future,'" Daily Telegraph, August 22, 1998, 1.
60. Frank Ching, "China Feels Let Down by US," Australasian Business Intelligence, September 24, 1998, 38.
61. Craig Turner and Doyle McManus, "Sudan Gets Little Support for a U.N. Probe of U.S. Attack," Los Angeles Times, August 25, 1998, A6.
62. Steven Lee Meyers, "U.S. Says Iraq Aided Production of Chemical Weapons in Sudan," New York Times, August 25, 1998, A1; for the National Security Agency's role in gathering the intelligence on Iraq, see John Diamond, "U.S. Links Sudan Plant to Iraq," Chicago Sun-Times, August 26, 1998, 40.
63. Tim Weiner and Steven Lee Meyers, "Flaws in U.S. Account Raise Questions on Strike in Sudan," New York Times, August 29, 1998, A1.
64. "Carter Urges Inquiry into U.S. Raid on Sudan," New York Times, September 18, 1998, A4.
65. Tim Weiner and James Risen, "Decision to Strike Factory in Sudan Based on Surmise Inferred from Evidence," New York Times, September 21, 1998, A1.
66. Ibid.
67. Congressional Record, September 23, 1998, H8508.
68. James Risen, "Question of Evidence: A Special Report," New York Times, October 27, 1999, A1. See also Vernon Loeb, "Role of Targeted Plant in Making Nerve Gas Was Questioned by CIA," Buffalo News, August 21, 1999, 5A.
69. Risen, "Question of Evidence."
70. Ibid.
71. Ibid.
72. Ibid.
73. John J. Goldman and Ronald J. Ostrow, "U.S. Indicts Terror Suspect Bin Laden," Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1998, A1.
74. John J. Goldman, "U.S. Seeks Sanctions to Force Taliban to Expel Bin Laden," Los Angeles Times, October 7, 1999, A9.
75. Benjamin Weiser, "Bin Laden Linked to Embassy Blast by an Ex-Soldier," New York Times, October 21, 2000, A1. The sergeant, Alia A. Mohamed, pled guilty to participating in a terrorist conspiracy against the United States.
76. Stephen Kinzer, "Jordan Links Terrorist Plot to Bin Laden," New York Times, February 4, 2000, A4; David Storey, "U.S. Helped Foil Terrorists in 8 Countries, Berger Says," San Diego Union-Tribune, January 7, 2000, A8.
77. Alan Sipress and David A. Vise, "Cole Blast Probe Drawing Closer to Bin Laden," Washington Post, October 26, 2000, A1.

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