Bill Clinton, September 10, 2001: I could have killed Bin Laden once but called it off because of civilian casualties

A time capsule from Australia via MSNBC, captured for posterity at what would have been around 11 p.m. New York time. The hijackers may have been ritually shaving themselves as he said it. Previewing the audio, the host says Clinton “almost brags” about his decision. Of course he does; at the time, it would have been a no-brainer for a politician to congratulate himself for sparing a terrorist in the name of also sparing dozens (or, if you believe Clinton, hundreds) of civilians, even if that terrorist was responsible for the U.S.S. Cole attack. Twenty-four hours later, I guarantee you he wasn’t bragging anymore. In fact, you can draw a straight line from this audio to America’s drone policy today. These 20 seconds or so are precisely why Obama ended up pulling the trigger on Anwar al-Awlaki and why he continues to pull the trigger on Al Qaeda’s bigger fish even if it means incinerating civilians in Waziristan or Yemen in the process. He’s never going to let a statement like this come back to haunt him. Post-9/11, when you’ve got a big fish on the hook, you reel him in come what may. A presidency can survive anger from doves and civil libertarians that the White House was overly aggressive in targeting jihadis. It can’t survive having skyscrapers knocked over by someone who, you’re sheepishly forced to admit, you had a clear shot at killing years before. By the same token, if the FBI had announced on the morning of 9/11 that they’d busted a spectacular Al Qaeda plot to fly planes into the Twin Towers, plenty of people would have chortled that that’s the most ludicrous, Michael Bay-ish nonsense yet cooked up by a government eager to find pretexts to roll back civil liberties. There’s a reason why the term “September 10th mentality” exists, and Bill Clinton’s not the only one who was guilty of it.

To be fair to the guy, I’m willing to believe he’d like a do-over on this today. Or am I being too fair? A Twitter buddy reminds me that, according to Michael Scheuer, Clinton’s administration had “about 10 chances” to kill Bin Laden in 1998 and 1999 and passed on all of them because the intelligence supposedly wasn’t good enough. I’d also like to know more specifics of what Clinton says here about his best shot at OBL. He says he could have taken him out in a “little town” called Kandahar in Afghanistan but would have killed 300 people in the process. But Kandahar’s not a little town; it’s a city, population 500,000. Is he thinking, perhaps, of … Tarnak Farms? Tarnak Farms was located near Kandahar but it wasn’t a “little town.” It was Bin Laden’s training camp for terrorists. There may have been women and children there, but you could have cut a swath through AQ by bombing it at the time. In fact, the CIA might have had Osama himself onscreen from drone surveillance in 2000; drones weren’t equipped with missiles at the time, but an airstrike could have been called in. Is that what Clinton’s thinking of here? Any enterprising reporters out there want to ask him?

Here’s the clip. Click the image to watch, then skip to 5:30 for the key audio. Exit question: Clinton says at one point that, had he bombed Bin Laden with civilians around him, “I would have been no better than him.” Does he still feel that way? Does he think Obama is no better than Al Qaeda for trying to neutralize threats from terrorists who take civilians as their main targets? Does Hillary think that? It’s 3 a.m. and the phone is ringing.