(CNSNew.com) - An increasingly bold series of terrorist attacks targeting American interests was met with tough talk from former President Bill Clinton but little action, according to terrorism experts asked to analyze the U.S. response to attacks between 1993 and 2000.
Larry Johnson, formerly with the CIA and the State Department and the current CEO of the Business Exposure Reduction Group, said he believes Clinton's weak response to the terrorist attacks that occurred during his presidency paved the way for the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
"The Clinton administration paid lip service to the notion of combating terrorism through some money added, but generally kept it as a very low priority," Johnson said.
1993 World Trade Center Bombing
On Feb. 26, 1993, a car bomb was detonated at the World Trade Center in New York City, killing six people and injuring thousands. The bomb caused extensive damage to the complex. Osama bin Laden is suspected to have been behind the attacks.
In reacting to the attack, Clinton urged calm.
"I would plead with the American people and the good people of New York to keep your courage up and go on about your lives. I would discourage the American people from overreacting to this," Clinton said.
Clinton assured Americans that he had put forth "the full, full resources of the federal law enforcement agencies - all kinds of agencies, all kinds of access to information - at the service of those who are trying to figure out who did this and why."
He also said he would implement a policy of "continued monitoring."
Clinton said the United States was "absolutely determined to oppose the cowardly cruelty of terrorists, wherever we can."
Despite his rhetoric, Clinton made no changes in policy to prevent additional attacks, Johnson said.
"From the time President Clinton took office until May of 1995, a Presidential Decision Directive, PDD 39, sat in the National Security Council, in the In Box of one of the officials with no action taken. The significance of PDD 39 is that it was the document defining what the missions and roles were of combating terrorism," Johnson said.
"Despite what happened at the World Trade Center in 1993, the Clinton administration did not finally act on [PDD 39] until after the attack in Oklahoma City," Johnson said, referring to the 1995 incident in which an American, Timothy McVeigh, detonated a bomb outside the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.
"The only reason for that is because in the two weeks prior to Oklahoma City, the front page of both Newsweek and Time Magazine carried the question: 'Is President Clinton Relevant?'"
Chuck Pena, senior defense analyst for the Cato Institute, agreed that Clinton's actions following the 1993 attack failed to match his words. But, Pena said, the circumstances were different than they are today.
"[Clinton's] actions were not necessarily 100 percent reflective of his rhetoric nor were they effective," however, "there are some reasons for some of that. At the time, we were not looking at four or five thousand casualties as a result of a single terrorist act."
1996 Khobar Towers Bombing
On June 25, 1996, terrorists attacked the U.S. military complex and Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Americans and wounding hundreds more.
Shiite militant terrorists with connections to bin Laden are thought to have been responsible for the attacks.
In a televised statement, Clinton addressed the nation with news about the bombing:
"The explosion appears to be the work of terrorists. The cowards who committed this murderous act must not go unpunished," Clinton said. "America takes care of its own."
Johnson said Clinton did nothing of the sort.
According to Johnson, early indications were that the explosive used in the bombing of the Khobar Towers came out of the Becca Valley in Lebanon. A year later, however, President Clinton restored full diplomatic relations with Lebanon including lifting travel restrictions and trade restrictions, Johnson said, "without requiring them to locate, arrest, apprehend or compensate U.S. citizens. He just let it go."
Pena said one must consider that terrorism was not the high-priority issue it is today.
"Part of it reflects, at that time, a certain tolerance for terrorism that was, compared to September 11, pretty small scale. I think the Clinton administration may have been overly cautious about not wanting to respond disproportionately to the terrorist acts that were perpetrated."
1998 Embassy Bombings
On Aug. 7, 1998, terrorists bombed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 258 people. More than 5,000 were injured.
The attacks were blamed on bin Laden's terrorist group, al Qaeda, which by this time had developed into a worldwide network.
On Aug. 20, 1998, President Clinton ordered cruise missile attacks on suspected terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan.
"Our target was terror. Our mission was clear: to strike at the network of radical groups affiliated with and funded by Osama bin Laden, perhaps the pre-eminent organizer and financier of international terrorism in the world today," Clinton said at the time.
Clinton told Americans that U.S. intelligence had uncovered information tying the bin Laden terrorist network to the embassy bombings.
"With compelling evidence that the bin Laden network of terrorist groups was planning to mount further attacks against Americans and other freedom-loving people, I decided America must act," Clinton said.
"Afghanistan and Sudan have been warned for years to stop harboring and supporting these terrorist groups, but countries that persistently host terrorist have no right to safe havens," he added.
Johnson said Clinton's tough talk again yielded no results.
"Clinton was always good about biting his lip, tears welling up in his baggy eyes and talking about, 'we're waging a new war on terrorism,' and yet also during this period he basically cut the heart out of CIA," Johnson said.
2000 USS Cole Bombing
On Oct. 12, 2000, terrorists bombed the USS Cole as it sat in the Yemeni port of Aden. The bomb killed 17 U.S. sailors. American officials quickly linked the attack to bin Laden and al Qaeda.
The Global News Wire reported President Clinton's response:
"If, as it now appears, it was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act, Clinton said.
"We will find out who was responsible, and hold them accountable. If their intention was to deter us from our mission of promoting peace and security in the Middle East, they will fail, utterly."
Clinton ordered U.S. Navy ships into the Yemeni region and directed ground forces to step up their security measures.
"They spent a lot of money but it was always a symbolic gesture without the substantive approach," Johnson said.
The Bush administration, according to Johnson, is handling the issue differently since Sept. 11. However, Johnson is waiting to see if Bush will keep his promise to continue the war on terrorism even after the campaign in Afghanistan is over.
"Bush is now drawing the line in the sand and going after the terrorist camps in Afghanistan. The proof will be if he goes after the next terrorist camps, which are in Lebanon. Those are the largest terrorist camps," Johnson said.
Robert Maginnis, vice president of policy at the Family Research Council, said, "There seems to be a willingness to confront the adversaries by Bush no matter where they may be and to keep everything on the table."
"This president has been serious. 'We are going to take everything that we have and whatever it takes will be available for the commander on the ground.' But Clinton seemed to have been so hesitant about using the power that was available to him to go after the bad guys. That, I think, sent the wrong sort of signal," Maginnis said.