Ten hours before the first plane hit the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, Bill Clinton allegedly told a group of businessmen in Australia that he had a chance to kill Osama bin Laden, but passed because it would have meant killing hundreds of innocent civilians. That's according to never-before-released audio of remarks made public by Australian media on Wednesday.
On September 10, 2001, Clinton was speaking to a group of about 30 businessmen in Melbourne, including Michael Kroger, the former head of the Liberal Party in the Australian state of Victoria. The event was recorded with the former president’s permission, according to Kroger, but the audio never released — until Wednesday night, when Kroger appeared on Sky News with host Paul Murray to unveil it. Kroger said he had forgotten about the recording until last week.
At the event in Melbourne, which took place not long after the end of Clinton’s term in office, the former president was asked about international terrorism.
“And I’m just saying, you know, if I were Osama bin Laden — he’s very smart guy, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about him — and I nearly got him once,” Clinton is heard saying. “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. And so I didn’t do it."
A spokesperson for the former president did not immediately respond to a request for comment. According to The Washington Post, Clinton was paid $150,000 to speak to J.T. Campbell & Co. Pty. Ltd. in Melbourne that day.
Bin Laden's presence near Kandahar in the late 1990s is common knowledge, but it appears Clinton has never spoken so candidly in public about the chance to kill him.
According to the 9/11 Commission Report, national security officials decided to forgo a missile strike on the region in December of 1998 out of concerns about collateral damage, including 200 to 300 civilian casualties. Some lower-level officials in the government thought that number was exaggerated and were angry when the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised the president against a strike.
There were allegedly similar opportunities when bin Laden’s convoy was spotted by U.S. drones, which were unarmed at the time. Fears about collateral damage and the imprecision of cruise missile strikes, which could take hours to hit their target, pushed the U.S. to start arming drones and to step up ground and airstrikes by the Special Forces.
Following the bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Clinton pursued bin Laden’s network across several countries with cruise missile strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan. There was also an FBI investigation, CIA activity, and assistance to special Pakistani anti-terror troops, but it would take more than a decade before U.S troops finally killed bin Laden in Pakistan — long after the September 11 attacks.