NEW YORK (CNN) – In a contentious taped interview that aired on “Fox News Sunday,” former president Bill Clinton vigorously defended his efforts as president to capture and kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
“I got closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since. And if I were still president, we’d have more than 20,000 troops there trying to kill him,” Clinton said, referring to Afghanistan.
“We do have a government that thinks Afghanistan is one-seventh as important as Iraq,” he added, referring to the approximately 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. (Watch Clinton go on defensive — 1:18)
In the interview, which was taped on Friday, Clinton also lashed out at Fox’s Chris Wallace, accusing him of promising to discuss Clinton’s initiative on climate change, then straying from the issue by asking why the former president didn’t do more to “put bin Laden and al Qaeda out of business.”
“So you did Fox’s bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit job on me,” he said to Wallace, occasionally tapping on Wallace’s notes for emphasis. “I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you asked this question of? (Watch Clinton blast the “neo-cons” — 1:51)
“And you’ve got that little smirk on your face and you think you’re so clever. But I had responsibility for trying to protect this country. I tried and I failed to get bin Laden. I regret it,” Clinton said.
Wallace said that the question was drawn from viewer e-mails.
Clinton asserted he had done more to try to kill bin Laden than “all the right-wingers who are attacking me now.” In fact, Clinton said, conservatives routinely criticized him for “obsessing” over bin Laden while he was in office.
“They ridiculed me for trying. They had eight months to try. They did not try. I tried. So I tried and failed,” he said.
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred about eight months after Bush took office.
The former president said he authorized the CIA to kill bin Laden and overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan after the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, but the action was never carried out.
Clinton said that was because the United States could not establish a military base in Uzbekistan and because U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies refused to certify that bin Laden was behind the bombing.
“The entire military was against sending special forces into Afghanistan and refueling by helicopter. And no one thought we could do it otherwise, because we could not get the CIA and the FBI to certify that al Qaeda was responsible while I was president.”
Clinton also defended withdrawing U.S. forces from Somalia in 1993, after 18 servicemen were killed in Mogadishu when their Black Hawk helicopter was shot down.
Bin Laden told CNN in a 1997 interview that his followers were involved in that attack, which occurred eight months after the first attack on the World Trade Center.
“There is not a living soul in the world who thought Osama bin Laden had anything to do with Black Hawk down or was paying any attention to it,” Clinton said.
In recent weeks, Clinton has responded to criticism of his administration’s anti-terrorism efforts, sparked in part by the airing of an ABC docudrama miniseries called “The Path to 9/11.”
The show, broadcast during the weekend before the fifth anniversary of the attacks, dramatized events leading up to the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11.
Former members of the Clinton administration protested in particular a scene that shows then-National Security Adviser Samuel Berger ducking a chance to have bin Laden killed or captured in a 1998 raid by CIA agents and Afghan guerrillas.
The scene contradicts the findings of the 9/11 Commission, upon which ABC had said the film was based.