Did Osama Try to Kill Bill Clinton?
According to a new book by a professor at Duquesne University Law School, Osama bin Laden tried to assassinate President Bill Clinton during a 1996 visit to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in the Philippines. This is something of a scoop, for although Ramzi Yousef confessed to plotting the assassination of Clinton in the Philippines in 1994–a plot that he said he abandoned because of tight security–and although Khalid Sheik Muhammed included a plot to kill Clinton during the 1996 visit among his confessions, this is the first published account that makes it seem that Clinton had something of a narrow escape.
The story appears in The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, by Ken Gormley, a thoroughly researched retelling of the investigations into Clinton’s finances and sexual habits that will be published in February. In the book, Gormley recounts a story told to him by Louis Merletti, the former director of the Secret Service. During the 1996 visit, Clinton was scheduled to visit a Filipino politician. The route he was to take required him to cross a bridge in downtown Manila. As the motorcade was about to depart, Merletti received “a crackly message in one earpiece” informing him that intelligence operatives had picked up a transmission that used the words ‘bridge’ and ‘wedding’ in the same sentence. Since ‘wedding’ was known to be a code word for assassination, Merletti ordered that the motorcade be re-routed. An intelligence team then discovered that a bomb had been planted under the bridge. No estimate is given in the passage for how soon the motorcade would have crossed the bridge, but the implication is that the bridge was not far away. (Oddly, David Sanger, covering the trip for The New York Times, wrote in almost as an afterthought to a dispatch that authorities had uncovered two bombs– “one in the passenger terminal of Manila’s airport and another at Subic Bay, the former American naval base where the 18 leaders will meet on Monday.” Could this have been the bomb at the bridge? If not, it’s wild to think that three bombs had been planted. Sanger mentioned the bombs within the context of a still-active communist insurgency in the Philippines, and said that authorities were investigating.
“The thwarted assassination attempt was never made public,” writes Gormley. “It remained top secret except to select members of the U.S. intelligence community. The American government’s subsequent investigation of this plot to kill Clinton, however, revealed that it had been masterminded by a Saudi terrorist living in Afghanistan–a man named Osama bin Laden.”
If Merletti’s account is correct, this raises a number of interesting questions:
Why is this the first time we are hearing of this?
Why did Clinton not reveal that he was a target of this attack? Surely the incident, in combination with the embassy bombings and other attacks, could have helped create the basis for a vigorous response. In particular, why was this plot still a secret as late as 1998, when Clinton’s presidency was in jeopardy, and especially in August 1998, when the missile attacks he ordered on al Qaeda training bases were suspected of being a `Wag the Dog’-type ploy designed to deflect attention from his legal problems?
Most importantly, how does this change our view of the low priority the Bush administration placed on responding to the al Qaeda threat prior to September 11, 2001? After all, the Bush administration has been largely been given a pass for its failure to thwart the attacks, for after all, no one could have predicted that terrorists would hijack planes and fly them into buildings. But now we see al Qaeda, in addition to the embassy bombings, the attack on the Cole, and the thwarted airport plot in 2000, had actually attempted to assassinate an American president. “Chatter,” we’ve been told, was high throughout the month of August; shouldn’t security apparatus been placed on a higher level of alert?