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Monday, September 25, 2006

On Bill Clinton's Obsession

I tired of the finger-pointing and the blame game concerning the terrorist attacks of 2001 a long time ago. The long and the short of it all is that a) Bill Clinton's administration did not take out Osama and b) George Bush's administration has not taken out Osama. Clinton had from 1993 through January 2001 to do so. Bush has had from Jan (or Sept) 2001 through Sept. 2006 to do so.

However, Clinton's interview on Fox News Sunday yesterday included a number of points that I simply do not remember. The big one was when Clinton claimed that the neo-cons and the republicans accused Clinton of being too obsessed with Osama bin Laden. I don't remember that being the case. I do remember the "wag the dog" accusations after Monica, but if Osama was that big of a deal (which it turns out he was), then Clinton should have launched the "war plans" he claims were drawn and let history decide his legacy...something he seems reluctant to let happen.

I went to my historical New York Times archive and searched from 1/1/1990 through 3/1/2000 for the term "Osama bin Laden". The total number of articles (including news reports and opinion pieces) is 412. From March 1, 2000, through election day, November 7, 2000, there were a total of 92 articles cited. From November 7, 2000, through inauguration day, January 20, 2001, there was a total of 61 articles. From January 20, 2001 through September 11, 2001, there was a total of 158 articles. Since 9/11/2001, there have been a total of 3217 articles.

What to do with this information? It is not clear, but here's one crack at how to describe the data:

start date end date citations days citesperday
12/4/1994 3/1/2000 412 1887 0.218335983
3/1/2000 11/7/2000 92 246 0.37398374
11/7/2000 1/20/2001 61 73 0.835616438
1/20/2001 9/11/2001 158 231 0.683982684
9/11/2001 12/31/2003 3217 830 3.875903614

The first article is dated December 24, 1994 and Osama is cited in the following short paragraph:
Osama Bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi financier who bankrolls Islamic militant groups from Algeria to Saudi Arabia, also lives under heavy guard in Khartoum.
Osama was simply a bankroller and a financier? At the time that might have been the general take, but the language suggests that either Bin Laden hadn't yet climbed the "corporate ladder," as it were, or the Clinton administration didn't have good information on the depth of Bin Laden's involvement with "militant groups."

The next article concerning Bin Laden is dated June 5, 1996 and concerns a letter the government of Sudan sent the UN Security Council insisting that Bin Laden had left the country:
Under diplomatic sanctions on charges of harboring terrorists, the Sudan has told the Security Council that it has asked one of the world's biggest financiers of militant Islamic causes to leave the country.
The story goes on to suggest that Bin Laden had been stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994 and that it was believed he had gone to Afghanistan. Again, this doesn't seem to amount to an "obsession."

Clinton also mentioned that he had war plans drawn for dealing with Bin Laden and the Bush administration had dropped the ball. However, during the 2000 election I don't remember Al Gore mentioning Bin Laden or the threat of terrorism very much. Indeed, I would wager most people remember Bush's famous statements of wanting to avoid "nation building," but that no one can recall anything Gore said about terrorism. During the 2000 campaign there was the second fewest per-day mentions of Bin Laden in the NYT. Again, this doesn't indicate to me the urgency Clinton claimed was passed along to Bush (and one would assume therefore to Gore). Either Bush/Gore never got the memo, he got the memo and decided to ignore the information, or the memo was never written. I'll go with the latter.

If we revise the search to include the term "osama bin laden" and "clinton" in the same article and search the entire archive of the New York Times (from 1990 through the end of 2003) the result is 114 articles and opinion pieces, the first from August 11, 1998. Some of these articles deal with Hillary Clinton and were written after Bush was inaugurated, therefore giving an even more misleading perception than the raw searches already performed. If we restrict the search to the period during which Clinton was president (up through 1/20/2001), the number of articles falls to 88. Thus, it doesn't seem the New York Times considered Clinton obsessed with Osama (at least in public).

Search results for NYT articles including the terms "osama bin laden", "clinton" and "obsessed": Zero.

Search results for NYT articles including the terms "terrorism", "clinton" and "obsessed": two (5/4/1995 and 9/14/1998).

Search results for NYT articles including the terms "Lewinsky", "clinton" and "obsessed": 19.

Clinton's protestations suggest that there might have been a lot of things going on in the background, secret, one might say, that the public never knew about. Perhaps this is true and therefore there would be little information in the New York Times. On the other hand, the NYT seems very interested (at least lately) in revealing secret actions of the government pertaining to terrorism, and one wonders if this vigilance pertained during the Clinton administration.

This, ultimately, is the problem with the raw searches used here: it is not clear if the articles are driven by supply or demand. The supply-side is embodied in the motto "all the news that's fit to print." The demand-side is embodied in the motto "if it bleeds, it leads."

Obviously, interest in Bin Laden increased dramatically after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, which would explain the dramatic increase in per-day citations of Bin Laden after the attacks. On the other hand, the relatively few NYT articles and opinion pieces discussing Bin Laden before 9/11, introduces an interesting, and as yet unanswered, question of identification: Bin Laden wasn't big time before 9/11, Bin Laden was important but the NYT didn't want to talk about him, Bin Laden was important but the Clinton administration didn't use the bully pulpit (and hence no mention in the NYT), Bin Laden was important but the American people didn't want anyone to spoil the party (and hence no mention in the NYT).

My take is that Clinton doth protest too much.

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