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August 17-Late August 1998: President Clinton Criticized for Using Missile Strike on Al-Qaeda as Distraction from Personal Sex Scandal

In 1998, President Clinton faces a growing scandal about his sexual relationship with aide Monica Lewinsky, and even faces the possibility of impeachment over the matter. He is publicly interrogated about the scandal on August 17, 1998. Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will later claim that he worries Clinton might let the timing of the scandal get in the way of acting on new intelligence to hit Osama bin Laden with a missile strike in retaliation for the recent African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). But Clarke is reassured when Clinton tells his advisers, “Do you all recommend that we strike on the 20th? Fine. Do not give me political advice or personal advice about the timing. That’s my problem. Let me worry about that.” [Clarke, 2004, pp. 185-186] Defense Secretary William Cohen also warns Clinton that he will be criticized for changing the subject from the Lewinsky scandal. [Benjamin and Simon, 2005, pp. 358]
Criticism from Politicians - Clinton gives the go-ahead for the missile strike on August 20th anyway (see August 20, 1998) and is immediately widely criticized for it. In late 1997, there was a popular movie called “Wag the Dog,” based on a fictional president who creates an artificial crisis in order to distract the public from a domestic scandal. Republicans are particularly critical and seize upon a comparison to the movie. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) initially supports the missile strike, but later criticizes it as mere “pinpricks.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 117] Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) says, “The president was considering doing something presidential to try to focus attention away from his personal problems.” [Benjamin and Simon, 2005, pp. 358-359] Sen. Daniel Coats (R-IN) says, “I just hope and pray the decision that was made was made on the basis of sound judgment, and made for the right reasons, and not made because it was necessary to save the president’s job.” [New York Times, 8/4/2004]
Media Criticism - The media is also very critical, despite a lack of any evidence that Clinton deliberately timed the missile strike as a distraction. Television networks repeatedly show clips of the “Wag the Dog” movie after the missile strike. New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh reports, “Some reporters questioned whether the president had used military force to distract the nation’s attention from the Lewinsky scandal.” [Benjamin and Simon, 2005, pp. 358-359]
9/11 Commission Commentary - The 9/11 Commission will later conclude, “The failure of the strikes, the ‘wag the dog’ slur, the intense partisanship of the period, and the [fact that one of the missile targets probably had no connection to bin Laden (see September 23, 1998)] likely had a cumulative effect on future decisions about the use of force against bin Laden.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 118]

Entity Tags: Richard A. Clarke, William S. Cohen, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Osama bin Laden, Monica Lewinsky, Daniel Coats, Arlen Specter, Newt Gingrich

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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