Syndicated Washington Post columnist and FOX News Channel contributor Charles Krauthammer falsely claimed that the 9-11 Commission report shows that the Clinton administration refused to attack Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan "because they were afraid Osama might actually be killed, which might have been illegal or upset sensitivities." The report says nothing of the sort.
Krauthammer's remark came in a discussion of Vice President Dick Cheney's attack on Senator John Kerry over a speech in which Kerry called for a "more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror that reaches out to other nations and brings them to our side." Krauthammer invoked the 9-11 Commission report to argue that Kerry's remark (which, as Media Matters for America has documented, conservative pundits have repeatedly distorted, while failing to mention numerous instances of Bush administration officials similarly urging sensitivity in the conduct of military policy) is indicative of Democrats' overly timid approach to fighting terrorism.
From the August 12 edition of FOX News Channel's Special Report with Brit Hume:
KRAUTHAMMER: We have got examples of the sensitivity in waging the war in the 1990s three times. If you read the 9-11 report, three times CIA operatives recommended a plan to attack Osama [bin Laden] in Afghanistan, using agents on the ground and tribal locals. Three times the Clinton administration refused and said no. Why? Because they were afraid Osama might actually be killed, which might have been illegal or upset sensitivities.
In fact, the 9-11 Commission report says nothing like that. The report does discuss three occasions on which former President Bill Clinton was close to ordering attacks on bin Laden with Tomahawk cruise missiles (pp. 130-31, 137-38, and 140). But in each case, the reason administration officials advised Clinton not to order the strikes was not fear that "Osama might actually be killed," but rather fear of collateral damage combined with doubts about the accuracy of the intelligence. In at least one such case, later intelligence appeared to vindicate this decision, showing that bin Laden "had left his quarters before the planned strike would have occurred."
The Clinton administration also discussed using U.S. Special Operations Forces to attack bin Laden in Afghanistan (pp. 134-37, 143) but rejected that option largely because of the difficulty of obtaining basing and fly-over rights from neighboring countries like Pakistan and Uzbekistan, whose authoritarian regimes had friendly relationships with the Taliban. Lack of actionable intelligence was also a difficulty with this option. The commission never mentioned fear of killing bin Laden or other forms of "sensitivity" as obstacles to this course of action.
The report does discuss the Central Intelligence Agency's use of a band of Afghan tribal mercenaries for intelligence and a possible ambush or raid on bin Laden's hideout (pp. 111, 127, 131-33). Unlike the proposed missile strikes, however, the Afghan tribals had standing authority to attack bin Laden if and when the opportunity arose. And contrary to Krauthammer's suggestion that the Clinton administration was overly timid in utilizing them, the report describes in detail how the Clinton administration revised an August 1998 order in December 1998 "to give the tribals more latitude" than the original version of the order to use lethal force against bin Laden, if attempts to capture him "seemed impossible to complete successfully." The report subsequently explained, however, that this expanded authority turned out to be meaningless, since the tribals ultimately proved unable or unwilling to launch an attack.
Finally, the 9-11 report chronicles the Clinton administration's attempts to hire a different Afghan tribal group, the Northern Alliance, to capture bin Laden. The report indicates that effort may indeed have been hampered by Clinton's decision to authorize operations by the Northern Alliance using the language of the August 1998 order, which authorized the CIA's tribal assets to undertake only a capture operation (p. 139).