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Why Clinton Wouldn't Call Out the Saudis By: Dick Morris
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Former FBI director Louis Freeh writes movingly of his disappointment that President Bill Clinton did little or nothing to intervene with the Saudi monarchy to let his agents question the accused perpetrators of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. But he is at a loss to understand the president's conduct.

In an earlier terror attack, the Saudis had cut off the heads of the suspected terrorists before the FBI could question them. To avoid a repeat, Freeh went to the president and emphasized the importance of intervening with the Saudis to allow questioning.

The Saudis, of course, didn't want the FBI interrogating their suspects for fear that the depth of the al-Qaeda network that had grown in Saudi Arabia might be exposed to American — and world — view. But why did Clinton do nothing in the face of the appeals of his FBI chief?

Freeh implies that lust for donations to his Presidential Library might have entered into the equation, but the Khobar attack materialized long before Clinton was focused on his retirement. His gaze was, instead, squarely fixed on the next election — and the soaring gas prices that represented a mortal peril to his chances.

Because his 1993 deficit-reduction package (sounds quaint now, doesn't it?) had raised the gas tax a nickel, Clinton was worried that he'd get blamed for any price spike. A nominal increase in car-licensing fees had cost him the Arkansas governorship in 1980, and the lesson he drew — don't mess with people's cars — resonated deeply in his political worldview.

Originally, Clinton had resisted raising gas prices and tried instead to pass Al Gore's well-nigh-incomprehensible plan to tax energy based on its BTU output. But nobody understood the tax and Congress, reverting to the tried and true, raised gas taxes instead. Ever since, Clinton had watched gas prices intently. "If gas goes down or stays the same, I'll be OK," he told me. "But if it goes up, I'm cooked."

And in the spring of 1996, as the summer driving season approached gas prices were spiking. Republicans, eager to tie the prices to the Clinton tax hike, introduced legislation to repeal the nickel increase and forced Clinton to defend it even as prices rose.

Clinton was obsessed with gas prices. We would talk about them all the time. Every poll probed the issue and measured the level of popular animosity over their increase and the extent to which Clinton himself was blamed. When we were alone in the White House, after the staff had been put to bed, Clinton would ask my advice on the issue and we would discuss the need to get the Saudis to increase petroleum production.

In direct and indirect ways, Clinton sent messages to the Saudi monarchy: If you want to help me, you'll increase oil production and hold down prices. When oil production rose and the price began to level off as the summer faded and then return to normal, the president was very relieved.

Until Freeh spoke out, I didn't know that Clinton had failed to press the Saudis to let in the FBI. But his reasons for not doing so are quite clear. For him to have picked up the phone and demanded that the Saudis let the FBI question their suspects would have risked annoying them by implying skepticism about their toughness on terrorism. And Clinton could not risk alienating Riyadh.

So even as Clinton was mouthing his determination to find those responsible for the Khobar Towers bombing, he was sending the Saudis a message, by his refusal to make the phone call, that Freeh's demands were not his top priority, gas prices were.

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Dick Morris is a former adviser to President Clinton. To get all his columns e-mailed to you, register for free at DickMorris.com.

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