A 13-year-old cassette tape recently recovered by Sky News reveals former President Bill Clinton admitted during remarks in Australia on Sept. 10, 2001, that he passed on an opportunity to kill terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
Ten hours before the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Clinton met with some 30 Australian business leaders at a hotel in Melbourne on the nation’s southern coast. The event was sponsored by J.T. Campbell and Co. Pty. Ltd., and recorded with the former president’s permission by Michael Kroger, a Liberal Party official. Clinton fielded questions on a variety of topics, including international terrorism.
“And I’m just saying, you know, if I were Osama bin Laden — he’s a very smart guy, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about him — and I nearly got him once,” Clinton said. “I nearly got him. And I could have killed him, but I would have 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. So I didn’t do it.”
Kandahar is Afghanistan's second-largest city, with a population of almost 500,000. Bin Laden was known to have lived in that area.
The 9/11 Commission revealed Clinton considered a missile strike in the region in December 1998. Clinton foreclosed the operation after reviewing collateral damage estimates, which exceed 200. Though some members of the National Security Council believed the number was inflated, the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised the president against the strike.
The episode was not the only time bin Laden eluded capture during Clinton’s administration. Two years early in 1996 Sudanese minister of state for defense Maj. Gen. Elfatih Erwa met secretly with CIA operatives at a Rosslyn, Va., hotel where they, among other things, discussed bin Laden.
Erwa claims he offered to hand over bin Laden to the United States, an account disputed by senior Clinton-era intelligence officials including Sandy Berger and Richard Clarke. However, Berger and Clarke both admit the White House spent nearly 10 weeks attempting to have bin Laden deported to Saudi Arabia, in hopes he would be executed by the Saudi government. The 9/11 Commission Report largely dismisses the Sudanese claim.
Even if said offer was made, an indictment against bin Laden from the Justice Department was not handed down until 1998, leaving the United States unable to lawfully detain him as a terrorist prior to that.