Bill Clinton admitted in 2001 that he had passed up the chance to kill Osama Bin Laden because he was concerned about potential civilian casualties, according to a newly unearthed audio tape recorded just hours before the 9/11 attacks on the US. In the recording, the former President addresses a group of business leaders at a paid engagement in Australia, on 10 September 2001.
“Osama bin Laden [is] a very smart guy,” Mr Clinton says. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about him, and I nearly got him once… I could have killed him, but I would have had to destroy a little town called Kandahar in Afghanistan and kill 300 innocent women and children. And then I would have been no better than him. And so I didn’t do it.”
The tape was released to Sky News Australia this week by Michael Kroger, the former state president of the Liberal Party in Victoria, who said he had not deliberately kept its existence a secret, but had simply forgotten about it until now. Mr Kroger added that the recording was made with Mr Clinton’s permission, when the former President spoke to an audience of about 30 people at the Melbourne offices of the investment bank JT Campbell. Mr Clinton was reportedly paid $150,000 (£89,000) for the appearance.
Although Mr Clinton has rarely spoken about the subject in public, it has long been known that the US had several opportunities to target the al-Qa’ida leader before the 11 September attacks. Mr Clinton’s account matches a 2004 report by NBC News, which suggested the CIA had bin Laden in its sights in late 2000, shortly before Mr Clinton left the White House.
At the time, bin Laden was thought to be living at a compound in Kandahar, which is not the “little town” Mr Clinton described but a city of some 400,000 people. CIA drones had recorded video footage from the compound of a tall man in white robes surrounded by guards, who resembled the elusive terrorist.
But in her 2008 book The Dark Side, the journalist Jane Mayer wrote that Mr Clinton was “haunted” by the sight of a child’s swing in the compound, which “suggested innocent children lived there”.
Some later criticised Mr Clinton’s decision not to strike, including President George W Bush’s counter-terrorism chief, retired General Wayne Downing, who told NBC in 2004: “We were not prepared to take the military action necessary… We should have had strike forces prepared to go in and react to this intelligence.”
In 2012 the CBS news programme 60 Minutes reported that this was one of many chances that the Clinton administration had to assassinate bin Laden, but that the evidence was never considered strong enough, nor did the President wish to risk civilian deaths.
An anonymous Clinton administration official later told The Washington Post that before 9/11 “the objective was to render this guy to law enforcement”. Following the al-Qa’ida bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, Mr Clinton ordered a Tomahawk cruise missile strike on bin Laden’s suspected training camps in Afghanistan. At the same time, however, the US fired several missiles at what it believed was an al-Qa’ida chemical weapons factory. It turned out to be a pharmaceuticals plant.
Bin Laden evaded capture for almost 10 years following the 9/11 attacks, and was finally killed at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on 2 May 2011, in a raid ordered by President Barack Obama. Mr Clinton swiftly congratulated Mr Obama.