Former U.S. Ambassador Barbara Bodine Refutes The Path to 9/11
by Sam Kornell
Barbara Bodine was not one of the 13 million Americans who tuned in to ABC’s The Path to 9/11 last weekend. “I didn’t watch it,” the former Clinton administration official said Monday morning, “and I have no plan to watch it.” The two-part docudrama, which aired Sunday and Monday evenings, took to the airwaves amid a storm of controversy. The first big television miniseries about the 9/11 attacks, The Path was assailed as biased, inaccurate, and irresponsible by members of the former Clinton administration, the 9/11 commission, terrorism experts, and a collection of the nation’s most respected historians. ABC advertised the program — which was directed and partly financed by reported right-wing Christian evangelicals — as a “historic broadcast” based primarily on the findings of the 9/11 commission.
Yet according to critics — including Bill Clinton, Al Gore, former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, and the star of the film, Harvey Keitel — the docudrama crosses the line between dramatizing events described in the 9/11 commission report, and outright distorting and fabricating them. Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the 9/11 commission, watched the miniseries with several other members of the commission before it was aired. He told the New York Times, “As we were watching, we were trying to think how they could have misinterpreted the 9/11 commission’s finding the way that they had. They gave the impression that Clinton had not given the green light to an operation that had been cleared by the CIA to kill bin Laden.” In fact, the commission concluded that Clinton had indeed given the go-ahead to the operation.
One of the Clinton administration officials excoriated by The Path to 9/11 is Barbara Bodine. Bodine — who received her bachelor’s degree from UCSB and served as its Diplomat in Residence in 2002 — was Clinton’s ambassador to Yemen in 2000. During her posting, the destroyer USS Cole was bombed in an Al Qaeda terrorist attack at a Yemeni port, killing 17 sailors. In the ensuing investigation, Bodine came into conflict with FBI agent John O’Neill, the hero of The Path to 9/11. Bodine recently discussed her take on the miniseries, what actually happened in Yemen, and the failings of the Bush administration in the post-9/11 fight against radical Islamic terrorism.
You were ambassador to Yemen in 2000, when the Cole was hit. How does the miniseries portray the attack and its aftermath? And what, in your view, really happened? From what I understand, the miniseries conveys the notion that there was not an appreciation of the threat of terrorism to Americans; that the entire administration was slow, unable, and unwilling to react; that there was one person out there trying to do all the right things, who was thwarted by the bureaucracy; that the bureaucracy was largely the embassy and me; and that we were not cooperative and not supportive of the investigation.
It simply isn’t true. That is a fundamental misrepresentation of policy, my own actions, and the legal actions of the embassy in the time I was in Yemen. One element of the distortion that I find very unfortunate is the notion that there were very, very few people in the U.S. government who understood the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. In reality, the number of people who were working on and deeply committed to finding the people directly responsible for the Cole [i.e., Al Qaeda] was enormous — certainly larger than one or two. It’s a disservice to the very broad interagency effort that went into this process from the beginning. While that American mythology of John O’Neill as the lone hero riding into town might make great drama, it was really much broader and deeper than that. In the case of the Cole, our basic motivation was to make the investigation work, which meant looking at it long-term and recognizing that we had to cooperate with the Yemeni people and authorities.
So it was of the highest importance to establish a good working relationship with the people in whose country the attack occurred. What [then FBI Director] Louis Freeh understood when he showed up shortly after the attack was that the Yemenis could operate on the street. They did a very good job of identifying key places — the boat launch, the house where the bomb was made — and identifying some of the low-level people very quickly. There was no way we could do that. At the same time, the Yemenis had no forensic or technical capability, and they couldn’t take the case across borders, which we could. What you needed, obviously, was both sides. … It was an example of police work, diplomacy, and international cooperation coming together to help us combat terrorism.
Almost immediately after 9/11, President Bush began referring to the fight against terrorism as a war. Is that an apt approach? Is it an issue to be addressed primarily by the military? I don’t think military might is a sufficient tool. I think we are increasingly seeing that, with terrorism, trying to address an unconventional threat with conventional military means is not really going to work, and is certainly not going to work in the long term. At one point [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld, in a very famous memo to his staff, asked if we were killing them [terrorists] faster than they were being created. And the answer, of course, is that we will never be able to kill them that fast, because we’re not getting at the roots of the problem.
Personally, I do think we can win this. But we have to bring a range of tools. There are times when you have to bring the military — certainly to get rid of the Taliban and to shut down the camps in Afghanistan. There are other times when you don’t. I think an excellent example of this would be the British success in breaking the airline plot. That was law enforcement, intelligence, and even a bit of diplomacy. You could not have used a military approach to get at that plot, unless we were planning on bombing London. I think using war language gives a false promise to the American people that there are a finite number of terrorists, and that therefore, at some very distinct point, we will have killed 873 terrorists and taken care of the problem. It’s the canard, “We’ve eliminated two-thirds of the leadership,” which implies that the leadership structure is static. But as we’ve seen in Iraq, when you get rid of one leader, another comes forward. We need to be using far subtler tools. The Bush administration recently embarked on a public relations campaign in which they strenuously argue that Iraq is part of the larger fight against terrorism. If you simply look at the report that just came out of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence — the 9/11 report — and almost every other report out there, it’s clear that when we went into Iraq in 2003, Iraq was not part of the terrorism problem. There was no relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda; there was not even common cause. If we were really launching a war on terrorism — if you grant the Bush administration that — Iraq was not part of the problem. But now Iraq is at the epicenter of jihadism. It is certainly one of the major recruiting tools. It’s one of the basic, on-the-job training camps. It’s the best thing that has ever happened to the jihadis. So we have made Iraq the core element of the war on terrorism, but it was not when we invaded in 2003.
When we assign responsibility for 9/11, where should we look? First to the Bush administration, then the Clinton administration? The reverse? Both equally? Neither? There’s enough responsibility to go around. There’s not one even small series of cataclysmic steps. I’m not sure I would get overly focused on finding one or two people to blame for 9/11. I don’t think it takes us forward. One of the things about Al Qaeda is that they were probably the most adaptive terrorist group anyone has ever seen. They were well beyond the envelope of innovation. Were there things we could have done about how we were checking who was getting on the planes, for instance? You can tear that apart forever. I think it’s more important to sit down and try to figure out why Al Qaeda and jihadism have been so resilient over the last five years. The administration talks about how they’re obviously doing something right because we haven’t been hit. Well, you could have used that argument on September 10, 2001. I think we would be much better served by trying to figure out why, despite — or perhaps because of — everything we have done, jihadism is as prevalent and strong as it is five years later. We’ve had five years to address 9/11, and we haven’t successfully.
How do we successfully address jihadism? The analogy I use sometimes is of a neighborhood that suddenly becomes crime-infested. The cops come in and pick up the bad guys immediately. But if they don’t figure out why this neighborhood has suddenly become infested, they’re going to be picking up bad guys forever. What are the conditions that have allowed jihadism to survive and even grow in the last five years? I know to some people this question sounds mushy, but we need to know. What are the political, economic, and ideological drives behind this, and what can reasonably be done? Is it a question of political marginalization? Is it a question of economic stagnation? Is it a question of personal alienation? I know these sound like big, fluffy words. But something drives people to join the jihadi movement. What are those reasons? Why are they susceptible to recruitment? Until we clearly and honestly ask those questions, we’re going to be chasing bad guys forever. This is soft power, diplomacy, that whole range of non-quantifiable tools.
The other side of it is: Do we really understand this part of the world? I don’t think we do. I’m not sure we really look at the Middle East with the kind of nuance it needs and deserves. The administration’s new term of art — Islamo-fascism — continues to send a signal that we have declared war on an entire culture and religion. If we have, we need to think about the consequences. And if we haven’t, we need to think about our language.