How Clinton decided on the attack, while concealing it from the nation Public statements contained no more than hints of issue

Aftermath Of Attack

August 22, 1998|By James Bennet | James Bennet,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- In retrospect, the only public hint of the assault to come -- the only moment when President Clinton's intense, parallel preparations for his political survival and for a strike against terrorists might have crossed -- came Monday night.

After he grimly admitted his intimate relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the president tried to turn the nation's attention to more noble subjects -- to "important work to do," including "real security matters to face."

That was it. The president did not mention his meeting that afternoon in the White House solarium to discuss future counterterrorist missile strikes, even as prosecutors were arriving downstairs to grill him under oath about Lewinsky.

He did not mention that before he went to face the prosecutors, he ordered National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger to convene the government's top security officials Tuesday for one more run-through of the mission. That meeting came just before the president left on what the world and even most of his aides expected to be a 12-day vacation, spent mostly in seclusion with his wife, daughter and dog.

In fact, at his borrowed estate on Martha's Vineyard. Clinton's telephone conversations to outside political advisers to discuss the dismal reaction to his speech about his relationship with Lewinsky were interspersed with calls to his security aides about the mission.

On Wednesday night, the president and his family went out to celebrate his 52nd birthday. He returned at 11: 30 p.m. to more telephone calls to advisers, including Vice President Al Gore, to chew over a last, troubling question about the targets.

He made up his mind about the targeting, then gave his final go-ahead in a talk with Berger at 3 a.m. Thursday.

Never has Clinton's fabled ability to compartmentalize his life been more starkly demonstrated than in the last two weeks.

As the one man in the world who held all the information, he walled off meetings with his lawyers to prepare for his testimony from meetings with his national security advisers to plan one of the largest military operations of his presidency -- simultaneous strikes seas apart by about 75 cruise missiles.

No political meddling

Anticipating accusations of political manipulation, the national security team took pains to avoid any appearance of political meddling. Berger, who headed the meetings to plan the mission, kept the operation a secret until the middle of this week from all but two of the president's top political advisers, chief of staff Erskine Bowles and his deputy, John D. Podesta.

White House advisers scoffed at suggestions that politics played a role in the assault. Several said that the recommendation for the attack was based on very strong intelligence and was unanimous. They said Pentagon and intelligence officials with no record of partisanship joined strongly in the recommendation.

Clinton's lawyers were said by White House aides to have complained last week that they were not getting enough time with him to prepare. They learned the reason why only when the rest of the world did, as the president appeared at 1: 55 p.m. before reporters gathered in an elementary school gymnasium on Martha's Vineyard and announced, "Today we have struck back."

Talk of a possible mission began Aug. 7, after powerful bombs exploded outside U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Twelve Americans and nearly 300 Africans were killed. The senior officials who would ultimately plan the strike held their first meeting. Sketchy intelligence reports already pointed at a culprit, Osama bin Laden, an exiled Saudi millionaire living in Afghanistan who had declared a terrorist war on the United States.

Gingrich was briefed

The White House also began what would be a series of briefings for House Speaker Newt Gingrich on the intelligence findings about the bombing.

On Aug. 10, Clinton departed on a political fund-raising trip to California, with White House officials insisting that he was going about business as usual despite his approaching date with prosecutors.

But the president cut short his trip to fly back to the White House the next night, arriving after dawn. Some political commentators surmised that Clinton was returning to prepare his defense. In fact, his stated reason was the real reason: He wanted to meet with his national security team.

The meeting lasted for an hour in the Situation Room in the White House basement, for a briefing on the investigation into the bombings and diplomacy with Africa. Then top White House, Pentagon, State Department and CIA officials -- what came to be called the small group -- moved up to the Oval Office with the president for a 45-minute talk about retaliation.

Further intelligence had confirmed links between bin Laden and the bombings, officials said, and suggested that a group of high-level terrorists would be gathering Thursday at a large compound in Afghanistan that was associated with him.

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