Bill Clinton On Eve Of 9/11: I Passed On Killing Bin Laden Because Civilians Would Have Died

Some words from the past, apparently uttered mere hours before the world changed forever.

Bill Clinton

Australia’s Sky News is out with what it says is a tape it received from an Australian politician of former President Bill Clinton speaking on September 10, 2001, literally hours before the September 11th attacks began, about why he aborted on an effort to kill Osama bin Laden when he was President:

Hours before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, former President Bill Clinton told an audience in Australia about his missed chance to kill attack mastermind Osama bin Laden, according to audio released this week.

Clinton was speaking at a business meeting in Melbourne when the topic turned to terrorism.

“I’m just saying, you know, if I were Osama bin Laden … He’s a very smart guy. I spent a lot of time thinking about him. And I nearly got him once,” Clinton said in the audio, which was recorded by former Liberal Party head Michael Kroger and aired by Sky News.

“I nearly got him. And 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.”

Hours after Clinton spoke, a hijacked Boeing 767 slammed into the north tower of New York City’sWorld Trade Center. A second plane struck the south tower 18 minutes later. Other planes crashed in Washington, D.C., and western Pennsylvania. The attacks, organized by bin Laden, killed more than 3,000 people.

You can watch the Sky News report here.

On some level, of course, this isn’t news since it was something that was revealed in the investigation of the 9/11 Commission. Nonetheless, there’s something quite striking about hearing it directly from the former President himself, mere months after he had left office, and mere hours before the world would be changed forever.

Not surprisingly, the release of this report is causing many on the right to unload on Clinton. However, I think that perhaps the criticism is just a little bit unfair. Obviously, if Bill Clinton had known in the mid-90s that striking at the heart of al Qaeda could have prevented a terrorist attack that would have resulted in the death of 3,000 Americans and set in motion a course of events that would lead to two wars, massive changes in the way we view civil liberties, and a whole host of other events that we are still dealing with today he likely would have acted differently. Judging the situation based on the way the world was before 9/11, though, the decisions that were made at the time were fully in line with the rules of engagement that the United States had been using for decades prior to the embassy attacks in Africa. Looking back with what we know now, perhaps we could argue that we should’ve done things differently but I’m not sure its correct to say that Clinton did anything wrong himself. If anything, the failure of the U.S. government to recognize just how much of a threat bin Laden was, something that continued right up until the eve of 9/11 itself, is the real problem, and we ought to be asking ourselves whether we’ve really solved that problem.

More broadly, I have no doubt that some people will try to use this revelation to attack Hillary Clinton somehow. While she didn’t say it herself, her husband remains her most prominent political booster and no doubt someone who will be campaigning vigorously for her if she does end up running for President. When that happens, I’m sure we will see Republicans try to bring this up to push back against him. Given that Bill Clinton remains the most popular living former President, it seems unlikely that any such attack will work, of course, but the right has been using pointless and ineffective attacks on Bill Clinton for two decades now, so there’s no reason to think they won’t do it again.

FILED UNDER: Africa, National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Barry says:

    The comparison is rather bad for the Republicans; Bush and Cheney didn’t kill Osama Bin Laden *****after**** he killed thousands of Americans.

  2. anjin-san says:

    I think we all remember the shrieking of “wag the dog” from Republicans when Clinton did go after terrorists…

  3. MR X says:


    No but I do remember Sandy Berger stealing classified documents and destroying some of them from the archives prior to testifying before the 911 commission.

    Berger destroyed copies of the Millennium After-Action Review, a binder-sized report prepared by Richard Clarke in 2000—a year and half before the 9-11 attacks. The review made a series of recommendations for a tougher stance against bin Laden and terrorism. There are 13 or more copies of this report. But only one contains hand-written notes by President Bill Clinton. Apparently, in the margin beside the recommendations, Bill Clinton wrote NO, NO, NO next to many of the tougher policy proposals.

  4. anjin-san says:

    @ MR X

    Try using the googles. You will find lots of them:

    Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-NV):
    “‘Look at the movie Wag the Dog. I think this has all the elements of that movie,’ Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., said. ‘Our reaction to the embassy bombings should be based on sound credible evidence, not a knee-jerk reaction to try to direct public attention away from his personal problems.’” [Ottawa Citizen, 8/21/98]

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    If the GOP should try and attack Clinton with this, he has an easy reply; “At least I never said, ‘OK, you’ve covered your a$$es now.'”

  6. wr says:

    Yes, it’s entirely Clinton’s fault that both Bush and Condi Rice chose to ignore an intelligence briefing titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.”

    Darn that Clinton!

  7. MR X says:


    You made another stupid comment with your usual swipe at republicans
    Your hero Clinton was getting his knob polished while bin laden was getting strength.
    Is that what you mean by wagging the dog ?

  8. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Truly bizarre. I wonder how Bill Clinton feels 1) about that decision, and 2) giving that statement.

  9. mantis says:

    Clinton: “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.”

    Bush: I really just don’t spend that much time on him, to be honest with you.

    One before, one after 9/11. You decide.

  10. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @mantis: One before, one after 9/11. You decide.

    Why not give the Bush quote a little context? Oh, yeah, because that would be honest and fair, and that’s rather unfamiliar to you.

    “Who knows if he’s hiding in some cave or not. We haven’t heard from him in a long time. The idea of focusing on one person really indicates to me people don’t understand the scope of the mission. Terror is bigger than one person. He’s just a person who’s been marginalized. … I don’t know where he is. I really just don’t spend that much time on him, to be honest with you.”

    A bit more mature and intelligent than “Bin Laden’s dead and GM is still alive.”

  11. anjin-san says:

    @ Jenos

    The idea of focusing on one person really indicates to me people don’t understand the scope of the mission.

    America is a country with a lot of resources, we can do more than one thing at once. Remember when we fought a war in Viet Nam AND landed on the moon? It’s sad that we had a President who did not make it a priority to see that Bin Laden answerd for thousands of murdered Americans.

    Conservatives have been in hysterics (you among the most hysterical) for years now because four Americans who were trained professionals choosing to serve in a dangerous place were killed by our enemies. But thousands of citizens slaughtered on our own soil gets a shrug?

    Gee, he’s hiding. Finding him might be hard. We have not heard from him in a while, so let’s just forget about it and focus on Iraq, a nation that did not attack us or threaten our national security.

    In the cartoon world of conservative politics, this is “mature and intelligent.” Or perhaps just a stupid person’s idea of what a leader sounds like.

    I want justice…There’s an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, “Wanted: Dead or Alive.”
    George Bush, before he realized justice can require hard work and sustained effort.

  12. bill says:

    boy, the monday morning quarterbacking there….. so in a lame effort to avoid at most a few hundred casualties we wound up with how many?! its not his fault though, he wasn’t liable for much back then- as is our current one.

  13. anjin-san says:

    @ bill

    So trying to avoid killing innocents is lame in your book?

    Wow. Just wow.

  14. HelloWorld! says:

    I don’t understand why this is news/ Bill Clinton has made this same statement a dozen times sinse 9/11. I remeber him saying this on th Daily Show, as well as at a speach in Constitution Hall. I guess its because its supposedly the day before 9/11? Sure, that coincidental but we can’t go around killing people because we “think” they might be a threat, that would be a return to the Bush years, and no one wants that!

  15. Eric Florack says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: Indeed. Clinton is an idiot, and this confirms it. it also exposes a giant hole in the ‘logic’ of the left.
    The people around BinLaden were at the least, passive enablers.

    As are those “palistinians” who watch weapons being set up in schools.

  16. @Jenos Idanian #13: Rumsfeld refused to go into Pakistan to kill Ayman al-Zawahri along with other top level members of al Qaeda in 2005.

  17. OzarkHillbilly says:


    its not his fault though, he wasn’t liable for much back then- as is our current one.

    Funny… considering many said that exact thing about the sitting President, George W. Bush, at the time of the attack. Now you are saying it about the President who put in the resources necessary to find, then ordered the attack, that actually made sure that Bin Laden could never again attack America.

    Your statement gives a whole new meaning to the word “stupid.”

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @anjin-san: He is one with the Israeli’s on a hill over Gaza cheering the explosion of every shell there.

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Eric Florack: Glad to know that if a mass murderer moves in next to you, you are willing to take responsibility for every one of his victims.

  20. Eric Florack says:

    If a mass murderer moves in next to me he will likely not be of the rock star status that Bin Laden had.

    They knew he was there.

    Else, what we have is you being willing to sacrifice thousands of American lives so you can feel morally superior.

  21. Guarneri says:

    Gen Clark seems to remember things a bit differently……a ground attack that Clinton thought required too much logistics. But would not have leveled Kandahar. No matter the merits, we ought to juxtapose the two real options, and not a falsely easy one.

  22. Sejanus says:

    @anjin-san: 1) During the first year of Operation Enduring Freedom thousands of Afghan civilians died. Does that make you condemn the American military response to the 9/11 attacks?

    2) If your answer to the above question was negative, why would it have been wrong for Clinton to order an attack on Bin Laden that could have resulted in several hundred civilian deaths?

  23. anjin-san says:

    @ Sejanus

    why would it have been wrong for Clinton to order an attack on Bin Laden that could have resulted in several hundred civilian deaths?

    I never said it would be “wrong.” What would be wrong is not to consider civilian casualties when ordering military action. A President wields terrible power, and is often faced with no-win decisions. If US military action is being contemplated, I always want the President to loose a little sleep over civilian deaths, in spite of the fact that he may feel it is necessary to move ahead with the use of force.

  24. Eric Florack says:

    @anjin-san: But you apparently forgot your own screaming about “false pretenses”.

  25. anjin-san says:

    @ Florack

    Are you referring to the false pretenses under which Bush/Cheney launched a war of aggression and profiteering against a country that did not attack us or threaten our national security? A war that killed hundreds of thousands, squandered trillions of our national treasure, and altered the balance of power in the region in a manner unfavorable to our interests?

    You are mistaken. I remember that.

  26. Eric Florack says:

    @anjin-san: Im talking about your charges of it… charges which have been disproved so often as to make you out a total fool, that you keep spouting them. Wagtghe dog, indeed.

  27. anjin-san says:

    @ Florack

    charges which have been disproved so often

    And how are things on Fantasy Island? Do you hang out with “Tatoo”?

  28. Eric Florack says:

    @anjin-san: Saddam had WMD, most of which got shipped off to Syria in the hours before our invasion. That Saddam had WMD was confirmed by every intel agency in the world. also, ISIS just announced a few eeks back theyd taken over Saddams WMD facility.

    even if you claim that information was false, (a fantastic claim on the face of it) how can you rest blame for acting on all that uncontroverted intel at the feet of Bush, save that you dont like Republicans?

    Im not the one in fantasy land, anjin.

    and my question remains unanswered.

  29. anjin-san says:

    @ Florack

    Ah, I see Mr. Roarke has joined your merry crew. And he has WMD!!

  30. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    All the diversions aside, I’d be fascinated to know what Bill Clinton thinks about 1) his decisions to not get BIn Laden (he had at least two opportunities), and 2) giving that speech on 9/10/11.

    I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I’d made his decisions. Guilt? Frustration? Screwed by fate?

    His decisions, at the time, were entirely justifiable. It’s only in hindsight that they are so tragic, and if he’d taken what, historically, we know would have been the “right” one (get Bin Laden), he’d have most likely caused more political trouble for himself than gain — and it’s only in hindsight that the upside of getting Bin Laden is obvious. And it’s not even certain that eliminating Bin Laden (killing or capturing) would have prevented 9/11.


  31. Eric Florack says:

    @anjin-san: Yuk it up, but don’t think for a second that folks don’t see you attempting to sidestep the truth.

  32. Franklin says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Saddam had WMD, most of which got shipped off to Syria in the hours before our invasion. That Saddam had WMD was confirmed by every intel agency in the world. also, ISIS just announced a few eeks back theyd taken over Saddams WMD facility.

    I cannot find a reputable source to back up your claim. Do you have one?

  33. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Franklin: Which claim? That Saddam had WMDs right up to the beginning of the war, that they ended up in Syria, or ISIS just captured a WMD facility in Iraq?

  34. Eric Florack says:

    @Franklin: That depends.
    On what basis do you call the many voices reporting this incredible?
    If your position is one must tow the leftist line to be credible, there will be no convincing you.
    If on the other hand, the truth is what you want, I suggest this as a starting point…

    Note particularly the documents mentioned in that article. Note also…

    In fact, however, George Tenet, George W. Bush’s CIA director, assured the President that the case for Saddam possessing WMD was “a slam dunk.” In this assessment, Tenet had the backing of all fifteen agencies involved in gathering intelligence for the United States. The National Intelligence Estimate of 2002, where their collective views were summarized, asserted with “high confidence” that “Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.

    The intelligence agencies of Britain, Germany, Russia, China, Israel, and France all agreed with this judgment. Even Hans Blix—who headed the UN team of inspectors trying to determine whether Saddam had complied with the demands of the Security Council that he dispose of the WMD he was known to have had in the past—lent further credibility to the case in a report he issued only a few months before the invasion:

    “The discovery of a number of … chemical rocket warheads in a bunker at a storage depot 170 km southwest of Baghdad was much publicized. This was a relatively new bunker, and therefore the rockets must have been moved there in the past few years, at a time when Iraq should not have had such munitions…. They could also be the tip of a submerged iceberg. The discovery … points to the issue of several thousands of chemical rockets that are unaccounted for.”

    The consensus on which President Bush relied was first fully formed in the Clinton administration, as these statements indicate:

    “If Saddam rejects peace and we have to use force, our purpose is clear. We want to seriously diminish the threat posed by Iraq’s [WMD] program.” – Bill Clinton, 1998
    “Iraq is a long way from [America], but what happens there matters a great deal here. For the risk that the leaders of a rogue state will use nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons against us or our allies is the greatest security threat we face.” – Secretary of State Madeline Albright, 1998
    “[Saddam] will use those [WMD] again, as he has ten times since 1983.” – Sandy Berger, Clinton’s National Security Adviser, 1998

    Also in 1998, a group of Democratic Senators — including such luminaries as Carl Levin, Tom Daschle, and John Kerry — urged President Clinton “to take necessary actions (including, if appropriate, air and missile strikes on suspect Iraqi sites) to respond effectively to the threat posed by Iraq’s refusal to end its [WMD] programs.”

  35. Eric Florack says:

    @Franklin: You may also find this of interest. It is far more comprehensive, and utterly destroys the usual anti-Bush mantra.