The Miller Center at the University of Virginia has posted online more than 70 interviews that constitute the “William J. Clinton Presidential History Project.” The interviewees are for the most part members of the Clinton administration, or in any event sympathetic to it. Nevertheless, not all of the facts that the interviewees relate will be helpful to Bill Clinton’s memory or his wife’s presidential ambitions.
I haven’t had time to delve into the interviews in detail, but consider the center’s conversation with James Woolsey, Clinton’s first CIA director. His description of how he was selected and his first meetings with Clinton and his staffers confirm many of the negative stereotypes that still cling to Clinton. For example, Clinton interviewed Woolsey briefly but forgot to offer him the job. Then, when Woolsey met with Clinton and some of his key staffers just before the press conference where his appointment as CIA director was to be announced, it turned out that they had no clear idea of who he was:
What they were doing, which I had come in the middle of, was gaming the press conference. I learned later that this was a frequent subject of meetings: Suppose they ask this? Suppose they ask that?
One of them said, Well, suppose they say, “Isn’t this just a bunch of [Jimmy] Carter administration retreads?” Since we were Carter administration retreads, there was this silence. I figured they probably ought to know what Woolsey is like, so I said, “Governor, you could say that Woolsey served in the [Ronald] Reagan and [George H.W.] Bush administrations and maybe that counteracts the fact that I served in the Carter administration.”
Clinton laughed, and Dee Dee [Myers] said, “Admiral, I didn’t know you served in the Bush and Reagan administrations.” By now it is 12:25 and the press conference is 12:30. I said, “Dee Dee, I’m not an admiral. I never got above captain in the army.” She said, “Whoops, we’d better change the press release.”
Bill Clinton took office at a golden moment in American and world history, and a fair characterization of his administration is that after the first two years, he stopped trying very hard to screw it up. The frivolity of his attitude toward national security comes through clearly:
[T]hose of you who have worked on these issues, particularly foreign policy issues with respect to those who served in other years of the Clinton administration, will perceive that things occur that seem surprising now, given the salience and importance of a number of foreign policy and national security issues, such as terrorism. …
Further, the administration came in with a background in domestic policy for both the President and the First Lady. There was a heavy focus on the healthcare plan during those first two years. As a result, you will hear us from time to time, and I say it right up here in front without any sense of anger, almost always talking about circumstances in which intelligence is kind of on the back burner.
All of which led to this shocking fact: while Woolsey and Clinton agreed that the CIA director should advise the president “one-on-one,” the hour-long interview that Woolsey had with Clinton, beginning at around 12:30 a.m. on the night before Woolsey’s nomination was announced, was “the only time I ever saw him alone.”
Woolsey’s comments on the administration’s evolving understanding of al Qaeda and the terrorist threat are interesting:
[J]ust to focus on bin Laden for a second. He was in Sudan. We weren’t part of this history and this isn’t part of our period in office, but one thing for later things you’d want to go back and look at is the statements from the American Ambassador in Sudan in ’95, ’96, who was based in Kenya and would go in for a week at a time because the embassy wasn’t really open. … He was very much of the view that the Sudanese were willing to turn bin Laden over to the Americans. It seems as if in ’95 or even early ’96 you couldn’t pin anything on bin Laden by way of a crime. And since it was a law enforcement issue from the government’s point of view, apparently we turned down his being turned over.
That’s what happens if you view national security as a matter of law enforcement. Andy McCarthy now enters the story:
Then in ’96, you have the Blind Sheikh trial. Andrew McCarthy was the chief prosecutor, and one of the things that had to be given up to the defendants as a result of the criminal trial was the list of co-conspirators, not technically classified. … One of those was bin Laden. So when the Blind Sheikh gets this list of a hundred or so co-conspirators, and one of them is bin Laden, according to Andy anyway, within about three or four days, that’s in bin Laden’s hands in Sudan, and he takes that as the signal that he ought to get out of town, and leaves for Afghanistan.
Hillary’s friends on the Left don’t want to hear it, but it was the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that allowed the government to piece together what had been inadequate information about Islamic terrorism:
CIA Director for Intelligence Community Affairs Richard Haver:
The evidence evolving out of the World Trade Center bombing, the Blind Sheikh, the FBI investigations, the associations. As Jim [Woolsey] accurately described, these associations were not that well understood. Retrospectively, they now make a lot more sense than they did at the time. The debriefing of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has revealed a lot more about who was talking to whom, the relationships with Ramzi Yousef, the mass bombing over the Pacific Ocean. And there is a whole cadre of people who had served in the first Bush administration who were on the outside agitating—Paul Wolfowitz. There were people writing op-ed pieces, et cetera. The Agency established a counterterrorism center inside itself.
I haven’t begun to scratch the surface of the oral history of the Clinton administration, but it is evident that political operatives, as well as historians, will be combing through the transcripts in the coming months.