On August 7, 1998, hundreds of people were killed when terrorists detonated car bombs at the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Almost immediately, the United States had evidence that a little-known group called al Qaeda was complicit in the attacks. Though al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden had been plotting against the United States for years, this act of mass-murder won the band of Islamic terrorists and its leaders worldwide infamy. Weeks after the attack, President Clinton fired scores of Tomahawk missiles at a suspected al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, and he also attacked a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan his administration claimed was a chemical weapons plant.
Ten years later, this past August 7, John McCain released a statement on the anniversary of the embassy bombings. It was a harsh indictment of the Clinton administration and others who in McCain’s estimation had not regarded the threat of al Qaeda with sufficient seriousness back then:
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the al Qaeda terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 225 people, including 12 Americans, and injured thousands others. The attacks made it painfully clear that al Qaeda’s terrorist call to arms to attack Americans anywhere in the world was not an empty threat. The attacks proved the vulnerability of U.S. installations overseas, and demonstrated — to any that needed further evidence — that al Qaeda was a well-funded, organized and treacherous terrorist organization determined to kill Americans. Tragically, the U.S. response to the 1998 embassy bombings was wholly inadequate in addressing the threat posed by Al Qaeda despite the horrific toll of the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Too many Clinton Administration officials refused to act effectively to counter the dangers posed by al Qaeda. Three years later, al Qaeda’s commitment to kill was devastatingly brought to our soil.
But at the time–even after the embassy bombings–McCain, too, was slow to recognize the nature of the threat posed by al Qaeda and bin Laden. Weeks after these attacks, he even came across as dismissive of bin Laden as a danger and showed no enthusiasm for hunting down this terrorist and his al Qaeda allies. And he did so in a Mother Jones interview.
In mid-September 1998, journalist Jason Vest, on assignment for the magazine, conducted an hour-long interview with McCain. At the time, McCain’s efforts to pass campaign finance reform and anti-tobacco legislation had made him, as Vest put it, “the darling of political reporters.” Much of the interview covered issues of money and politics. But with the embassy bombings still in the news, Vest asked McCain about bin Laden and how to deal with terrorism. The following exchange ensued:
Vest: You not only have had combat experience in Vietnam, but you were also a prisoner of war. When you look at terrorism right now, with people like Osama bin Laden, do you have any reservations about watching strikes like that?
McCain: You could say, Look, is this guy, Laden, really the bad guy that’s depicted? Most of us have never heard of him before. And where there is a parallel with Vietnam is: What’s plan B? What do we do next? We sent our troops into Vietnam to protect the bases. Lyndon Johnson said, Only to protect the bases. Next thing you know….Well, we’ve declared to the terrorists that we’re going to strike them wherever they live. That’s fine. But what’s next? That’s where there might be some comparison.
McCain’s answer makes it seem that he was not overly concerned about bin Laden or eager to go after him and that he was worried that military action against al Qaeda could draw the United States into another quagmire. That is, he was talking like those people whom McCain attacked in 2008 for not having realized in 1998 that “al Qaeda was a well-funded, organized and treacherous terrorist organization determined to kill Americans.”
On August 20, 1998–the day that Clinton attacked the al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and the factory in Sudan–McCain did issue a press release praising the military action as a “welcome response” He added that “American credibility and resolve have been enhanced by today’s strikes.” Two days later on CNN, he again hailed Clinton’s response: “The president’s decision to strike and his administration’s promise to prevail in what may well be a long-term campaign were right.” But a search of the Congressional Record at www.thomas.loc.gov indicates McCain made no statements on the Senate floor regarding bin Laden or al Qaeda any time that year. And a Nexis search of the six months following the embassy bombings produced no references to any McCain comments related to this terrorist outfit and its leader–other than his praise for Clinton’s retaliatory strikes.
McCain’s 1998 remarks to Mother Jones and the absence of public statements from him about bin Laden at the time suggest that McCain had been as much behind the curve on al Qaeda as the people he would decry ten years after the fact. At the time, he did not in public treat al Qaeda as a serious danger or advocate swift and extensive action. A decade later, he had no reason–other than politics–to be pointing fingers.