Evolving intelligence: President Clinton and the CIA
by James D Boys
As Republicans swept the 2002 mid-term elections, they did so by wrapping themselves in the flag and by portraying the Democrats as weak on National Security. Though hardly a new claim, this has taken on new significance since September 11. What, then, should we make of Republican claims relating to the culpability of President Bill Clinton for the worst terrorist attacks in history?
Since leaving office in January 2001, former President of the United States Bill Clinton has repeatedly referred to the events of September 11 as "the dark side of Globalism,"  the antithesis of a world enhanced by improved telecommunications, scientific advances and increased democracy. Globalism, of course, had been Clinton's vehicle to enhance US exports in the early 1990s as he sought to strengthen the American economy. Clinton had made economic competitiveness the centrepiece of his 1992 presidential campaign and had vowed to "make the economic security of our nation a primary goal of our foreign Policy."  As president, Clinton was adamant that all the organs of government - including the Central Intelligence Agency - be directed to assist him in this task.
Since the descent of the two towers on September 11, many have questioned the apparent lapses in security that allowed such a catastrophe to occur. Indeed, the smoke was still billowing and the fires were still burning in downtown Manhattan when the political repercussions began in earnest, with some attempting to blame the attacks on budgetary cuts and codes of conduct imposed on the CIA by Bill Clinton. Clearly the attacks changed much, but not Bill Clinton's capacity to draw criticism. Congressman Rohrabacher, of California, blamed Clinton for "letting the Taliban go, over and over again."  Rush Limbaugh pressed that Clinton "be held culpable for not doing enough when he was Commander in Chief."  Former Senator Bob Kerrey said that Clinton had erred in his response to previous attacks and "should have treated them as an attack on the United States." 
When considering President Clinton's dealings with the CIA, one must recall that at the time of Clinton's election in 1992, the Cold War was over and the future role of America and the CIA was under discussion. In this environment, when even Henry Kissinger noted, "the new President must find a role for an America that can neither dominate nor retreat,"  many of the Cold War certainties were being called into question. The end of the Cold War placed in jeopardy the notion that whilst presidents came and went, bureaucracies survived, and in this new geopolitical era, the CIA was under great pressure to justify its budget. The CIA would have been forced to change, regardless of who was in the White House, and Clinton's focus on domestic matters only served to exacerbate the situation.
Though change was rife, so was a need for stability, and it was to the Clinton Administration that the world turned for leadership. To quell concerns of a potential isolationist stance, the president reassuringly promised "an essential continuity in our foreign policy."  One area that exemplifies this was Clinton's relationship with the CIA and its place in the bureaucratic structure. In the early 1990s, President George Bush had conducted an examination of the intelligence community and instigated a steady series of budgetary cuts from its historic high of $30 billion per annum in 1991, to $28 billion by 1993.  With Clinton's 1992 election, many believed the CIA would be curtailed, as its ability to provide accurate intelligence in the past had raised questions about its future role. Indeed, many in Congress felt the CIA had "lost its traditional enemy without finding a new role."  Reflecting these concerns, Clinton's team "discussed plans to cut the Intelligence budget by about a quarter of the total by 1998."  Bureaucracies, however, are resistant to change, and the CIA was no exception, insisting that the world was now more dangerous and that America needed to increase its intelligence capabilities! Despite these claims, CIA recruitment was frozen and staff levels were cut by 24% by 1994, twice the rate recommended by the National Performance Review. "By 1997, 1,000 analysts had retired from the CIA, scaling the agency back to 1977 levels." 
Ironically, it was Bush who had initiated many of the changes that Clinton would implement, particularly the policy of moving the CIA towards the area of economic intelligence. In 1991, President Bush began the reallocation of resources "away from old Cold War concerns toward new economic targets, as the world marketplace became an ever more important battlefield for America."  During the Cold War, 50%-60% of its resources had been targeted on the Soviet Union. By 1993, that figure had dropped to 13%.  CIA analysts would continue to examine issues such as weapons proliferation, counter-terrorism and traditional espionage activities. However, given the economic situation that Clinton inherited, the CIA would now develop a greatly enhanced role in the area of economic espionage.
President Clinton realised that the CIA could assist his policy of engagement and enlargement, by aiding American companies in the global market. During the Cold War, economic intelligence had accounted for 10% of CIA activity: under Clinton that figure would rise to 40%. The intelligence community had always engaged in economic intelligence gathering, but under Clinton, this new role would help justify the CIA budget and assist the President in his efforts to forge domestic renewal. Seizing the initiative, the CIA introduced the Daily Economic Intelligence Briefing for White House consumption. In the first 17 months of the Clinton Administration, the CIA identified 72 cases of unfair competition. It was then discovered that between 1986 and 1992 the CIA "had identified 250 cases of aggressive lobbying by foreign governments on behalf of their domestic industries that were competing against US firms for business overseas."  This finding convinced officials that the CIA should be tasked with commercial espionage, and reveals the extent of economic espionage before Clinton's election.
What Clinton did was to make past practices official, if sometimes undeclared, policy. This was done in part through a 1995 National Security Strategy statement that noted "collection and analysis can help level the economic playing field by identifying threats to U.S. companies from foreign intelligence services."  The CIA also acquired economic data which affected the broader economic interests of the United States. In 1993, the Agency was believed to have stolen the French delegation's position papers near the conclusion of the Uruguay Round of international trade negotiations, helping US diplomats in their bargaining positions.  The CIA claims to have uncovered bribes affecting $30 billion in foreign contracts from 1992 to 1995.  These findings gave credence to Secretary of State Christopher's declaration that "Our national security is inseparable from our economic security."  The weight of America's national security apparatus was brought to bear in maintaining economic security, as under Clinton, economic intelligence gathering became policy. Economic intelligence became one of the few growth areas at the CIA in the 1990s, proving the Agency could adapt to ever changing circumstances. If "It's the economy, stupid!" was the mantra of Clinton's campaign in 1992, in office, "within the government's community of national security planners, the slogan seemed to be, 'It's economic security, stupid!'" 
Whilst economic security was the priority of the Clinton White House, the Administration was not immune to the horrors associated with National Security. Clinton had been in office just 38 days when the World Trade Centre in New York was bombed, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000. Three years later, the US barracks at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia were destroyed, killing 19 American soldiers. Other terror attacks would claim the lives of over 200 people, including 29 Americans following explosions at US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, Tanzania, and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. Warren Christopher would summarise the situation perfectly: "Fanatics would plan attacks in one country, execute them in another and flee to a third when the deed was done."  This statement read like a prophecy on the afternoon of September 11, 2001.
It is important to note, however, that whilst such attacks occurred, grand-scale terrorism remained a hypothetical danger throughout Clinton's time in office. Despite this, Clinton doubled counter-terrorist spending across 40 departments and agencies  and devoted some of his highest-profile foreign policy speeches on the subject, including an addresses to mark the United Nations' 50th anniversary, when he spoke of the terrorists who had "plotted to destroy the very hall we gather in today."  It is clear that Clinton identified terrorism as a threat, but neither the president nor his administration felt it was their main concern, because it was not. In the 1980s and 1990s, 871 Americans died in terrorist attacks at home and overseas, an average of less than 44 a year. Paul R Pillar, of the CIA's counter-terrorism centre, observed, "fewer Americans die from it than drown in bathtubs."  That is not to say that the Administration did not consider the threat from terrorism, merely that it was one of a series of threats that had to be considered.
Presidential Decision Directive 35 set out the Clinton administration's intelligence collection priorities on March 2, 1995. This represented an elevation in status for a danger that had previously received little attention. This marked the Clinton Administration as "the first to undertake a systematic anti-terrorist effort, in terms of resources and anti-terrorist activity."  Both in office and since his time in the White House, Clinton has had a practical and pragmatic approach to terrorism. "Terror has never succeeded and it won't this time. I can't say there won't be more terrorist attacks, there probably will be, but I can say for sure it won't prevail unless we decide to give it permission and I do not believe we are about to make that decision." 
Despite the elevated status afforded to terrorism, a common sentiment following September 11 was that under Clinton, the CIA had failed to do enough to prevent the atrocities. Clearly, the terrorists achieved their mission despite the best efforts of the US Intelligence services. This success meant, "Those measures, which were hardly insignificant, were by definition not enough."  However, Clinton's second-term National Security adviser, Samuel Berger, rejects the notion that Clinton paid scant attention to terrorism: "This was an urgent priority for the Clinton Administration and the intelligence community specifically engaged in an intensive effort directed at bin Laden across a range of fronts."  The fronts that Berger mentions covered a wide range of options, including the 1998 authorisation for the CIA to use lethal force in covert operations to pre-empt terrorist attacks on America planned by bin Laden. News reports at the time made much of the decision not to revoke the Executive Order outlawing the murder of foreign leaders. It should be noted, however, that such a directive was not required, as bin Laden was not a head of state, merely the leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist group.
Following September 11, CIA successes in thwarting terrorist attacks have been forgotten.  In December 2001, Clinton said, "we worked hard to prevent a day like September 11th ever happening. Far more terrorist attacks were thwarted at home and around the world than succeeded."  However, Clinton's critics denounced him for budget cuts and a controversial 1995-recruitment directive  which compelled CIA case officers to notify headquarters of violent recruits. Yet the directive did not prohibit the CIA from working with terrorists to uncover data; CIA case officers merely had to receive official clearance. Long before September 11, CIA spokesman Bill Harlow denied that the guidelines unduly restricted the agency: "The CIA has never turned down a request to use someone with a record of human rights abuses, if we thought that person could be valuable in our overall counter terrorism program."  It is possible, however, that case officers, made cautious by scandal, "no longer dare to launch operations that could get them hauled before a congressional inquisition." 
One element of Clinton's war on terrorism that remained concealed was a secret operation to expel terrorists to nations that had less stringent human rights policies than America, where local laws would deal with them. Beginning in 1996, the Clinton Administration persuaded allies to arrest members of Al Qaeda and ship them to a third country, without legal process, in a move called 'rendition.' In Albania, American intelligence officers guided authorities to five members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, who were then flown to Egypt and executed after a military trial. More than 50 Al Qaeda terrorists were forcibly removed in this fashion with a view to "breaking the organization brick by brick." 
Al Qaeda was not a constant threat throughout Clinton's term in office and became a major threat only in later years, ironically, when Clinton was in a weakened position. Internationally, his pleas for Saudi Arabia to deal with bin Laden had been rejected, and at home, a Republican-dominated Congress was moving to impeach him. As Senator Daschle has stated, many who lamented Clinton's inability to eliminate bin Laden, lambasted Clinton efforts to strike at the Al Qaeda leadership as attempts to divert attention from his own domestic political concerns. "He was criticized for those cruise missile attacks," the Senate Majority leader stated. "He was accused of doing things that had nothing to do with foreign policy as he was trying to respond."  Also, many who now champion President George W Bush's attacks on bin Laden as "the evil one,"  previously attacked Clinton for concentrating to heavily on bin Laden in the fight against terrorism. Those who assert that Clinton should or could have been more assertive in office are guilty of forgetting, or conveniently ignoring, their response at the time.
September 11 2001 did not mark the first assault on Clinton's foreign policy, and many felt American foreign policy to be "at prey to the whims of the latest balance of forces."  In his first two years, Clinton certainly paid too little attention to foreign policy, as he moved to ensure the domestic economy recovered, and "domestic affairs consumed 75% of his time, foreign affairs less than a quarter."  However, those who blame President Clinton for the attacks on the World Trade Centre are choosing to forget that terrorists had targeted America for decades. Clinton has personally admitted that a higher priority could have been placed on defeating the terrorist during his administration, but his predecessors were also remiss in their attention to the threat posed by terrorism. During the Reagan years, Muslim radicals killed 49 people at the US embassy in Beirut, 241 people in the 1983 destruction of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, several soldiers in a 1986 Berlin disco bombing, and 270 people perished when Pan Am flight 103 was brought down in 1988.
President Clinton's relationship with the CIA was indicative of the times in which he served, of the manner of presidency he aspired to and of the place that the CIA now occupies in American political life. With the end of the Cold War, the CIA was forced to change in order to remain credible. However, the more one examines much of President Clinton's program and his relationship to the CIA, the more one sees a policy of continuation rather than change. Increases in the use of CIA for economic surveillance began under President Bush, as did the cutbacks in the CIA budget. Indeed, in May 1989, Bush made a statement that Clinton would echo many times in his presidency. Referring to the findings of National Security Directive NSD-23, Bush declared, "we hope to move beyond containment, we are only at the beginning of our new path." 
During the 1990s, the question of what comprised the national interest remained ambiguous. President Clinton came to office with the three main pillars of his foreign policy in mind: "security, domestic economic renewal and enlarging the community of democracies."  Building upon Bush's calls to progress beyond containment, Clinton espoused a policy of engagement and enlargement with which to address the new geopolitical landscape. Rejecting calls to eliminate the CIA as "profoundly wrong,"  the new environment called for new security priorities; and whilst Clinton was not elected to dwell on foreign issues, the CIA was used to advance the cause of the Clinton presidency - domestic renewal. "Clinton rearranged the traditional priorities, raising economic issues to the same level of importance as strategic affairs."  However, the end of the Cold War removed any unifying thoughts from the minds of policy makers in Washington. Lacking consensus at home over the challenges of the post-Cold War world, the clarity of vision and consistency of purpose so crucial to a successful foreign policy failed to crystallise.
That changed on September 11, 2001. During the 1990s, the events of September 11 were perceived as unthinkable, abstract possibilities devised by players of war games at the Pentagon. As such, it would have required incredible political leadership to muster government agencies and political enmities to fight terrorism and harder still to persuade the American people and civil liberties groups that new powers were necessary to prevent catastrophe. Clinton could have done more, and has admitted as much. However, "it is difficult to locate another American President who was able to rouse a happy, populace to sacrifice their lives in the service of an abstraction."  In light of the attacks, Clinton's critics have suggested that as president, he could have mustered a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan to capture the Al Qaeda leadership. This, however, is to forget that at the time, the Congressional majority was seeking to impeach him. "People talk about Bill Clinton's unwillingness to engage. But low-risk, long-distance assaults were all that the public, and the military, and many of our allies would tolerate - and I didn't hear very many Republicans screaming about the need for close-work then, either."  Before September 11 there was no public support for losing American lives to suppress terrorism, or for the federalising of airport security. Bill Clinton could not change these elements, and neither could George W Bush. It took a disaster of epic proportions to shock America into the reality of the 21st century.
In 1862, Abraham Lincoln told America, "we cannot escape history."  One hundred and thirty years later, President Clinton came to office with hopes of re-defining America for the 21st century. Increasingly, however, he found himself the prisoner of decisions made years beforehand, as he discovered the long-term costs of fighting the Cold War. Clinton proved unable to escape the legacy of US foreign policy and its Faustian pacts made around the globe. While there was no doubt a multiplicity of contributing factors, the events of September 11 should be viewed as an example of blowback; reciprocity for the policies of successive US administrations and the CIA who trained, funded, supported, and armed the group alleged to have carried out the attack. "The lesson should be that it is dangerous and potentially costly to align oneself with terrorist groups and that pacts with obviously brutal and treacherous groups and individuals in violent parts of the world are likely to come back to haunt you." 
1 President William Jefferson Clinton, "Remarks as transcribed," Labour Party Conference, Winter Gardens, Blackpool, October 2, 2002 [Back]
2 Bill Clinton, "A new era of peril and promise." [Back]
3 John Harris, "Conservatives sound refrain: it's Clinton's fault," Washington Post, October 7, 2001, sec. A. p15. [Back]
4 Ibid. [Back]
5 Ibid. [Back]
6 Henry Kissinger, "Clinton and the world," Newsweek, February 1, 1993, 12. [Back]
7 Bill Clinton, "A new era of peril and promise," Georgetown University, January 18, 1993. [Back]
8 Loch K Johnson, Secret Agencies. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996) 49. [Back]
9 Christopher Andrew, For the President's Eyes Only. (London: Harper Collins, 1995) 541. [Back]
10 Andrew, For the President's Eyes Only, 540. [Back]
11 Loch K Johnson, "The CIA's weakest link," The Washington Monthly, July/August 2000. [Back]
12 Loch K Johnson, Secret Agencies: US Intelligence in a Hostile World, 147. [Back]
13 Loch K Johnson, Secret Agencies: US Intelligence in a Hostile World, 54. [Back]
14 Robert Windrem, "US steps up commercial spying," NBC News, 7 May 2000 [Back]
15 Robert Windrem, "US steps up commercial spying," NBC News, 7 May 2000 [Back]
16 Mark Suzman, "CIA rehearses for sleepless night in Seattle," Financial Times, August 14, 1999. [Back]
17 James Risen, "Clinton reportedly orders CIA to focus on trade espionage," Los Angeles Times, July 23, 1995, A1. [Back]
18 18 Loch K Johnson, Secret Agencies, 173. [Back]
19 Loch K Johnson, Secret Agencies, 147. [Back]
20 Loch K Johnson, Secret Agencies, 231. [Back]
21 Barton Gellman, "Struggles inside the Government defined campaign," Washington Post, December 20, 2001; A01 [Back]
22 President Bill Clinton, "Remarks by the President to the UN General Assembly," United Nations Headquarters, New York, October 22, 1995 [Back]
23 Barton Gellman, "Struggles inside the Government defined campaign." [Back]
24 Ibid. [Back]
25 Bill Clinton, "The struggle for the soul of the 21st century," Dimbleby Lecture Address. [Back]
26 Joe Conason, "Media blame game requires a mirror," New York Observer, January 7, 2002, 5. [Back]
27 Harris, "Conservatives sound refrain: it's Clinton's fault." [Back]
28 These include foiling plots to bomb New York City's Lincoln and Holland tunnels in 1993, efforts to crash 11 American airliners in 1995 and planned attacks around the millennium on the West Coast. [Back]
29 Bill Clinton, "The struggle for the soul of the 21st century," Dimbleby Lecture, London, 14 December 2001. [Back]
30 The 1995 guidelines were introduced after revelations that a Guatemalan military official involved in the murder of a rebel leader, married to an American, was on the CIA payroll. [Back]
31 David Corn, "Did we handcuff the CIA?" The Slate, September 18, 2001. [Back]
32 Evan Thomas, "The road to September 11," Newsweek, October 1, 2001. [Back]
33 Barton Gellman, "Broad effort launched after attacks," Washington Post, December 19 2001, A01. [Back]
34 Tom Daschle, Interview transcript: Meet The Press, NBC News, December30, 2001. [Back]
35 Willis Witter, "Masking bin Laden," The Washington Post, February 19, 2002. [Back]
36 Larry Berman & Emily Goldman, "Clinton's foreign policy at midterm," in The Clinton Presidency First Appraisals. Eds. Colin Campbell and Bert Rockman. (New Jersey: Chatham House, 1995) 291. [Back]
37 David Gergan, "Eyewitness to power," 276. [Back]
38 David Gergan, "Eyewitness to power," 508. [Back]
39 Bill Clinton, "A New era of peril and promise." [Back]
40 Bill Clinton, "Remarks to the staff of the CIA and the Intelligence Community," (CIA, McLean, Virginia, July 14, 1995) [Back]
41 Joe Klein, "The Natural," 78. [Back]
42 Joe Klein, "The Natural," 72. [Back]
43 Ibid, 192 [Back]
44 David Herbert Donald, "Lincoln," (London: Pimlico Books, 1996) 398. [Back]
45 Mary Anne Weaver, "Blowback," The Atlantic Monthly; May 1998, 34. [Back]