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Clinton aides massaged message on '98 Iraq strike as impeachment debate neared

| Saturday, July 19, 2014, 7:03 p.m.

WASHINGTON — President Bill Clinton's advisers carefully considered how to explain the president's military action against Iraq in 1998 as the House was debating his impeachment, according to records from the Clinton White House that were released on Friday.

The National Archives released about 1,000 pages of restricted documents from Clinton's two terms, part of 20,000 pages of Clinton records that have been disseminated since February. A look at the revelations:

Iraq-impeachment

The White House mulled how to explain Clinton's decision to launch a military strike against Iraq the day before the House was to debate bringing impeachment charges against the president in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

The notes of national security aide Tony Blinken include a draft of Clinton's address announcing the airstrikes in December 1998 as a response to Saddam Hussein's refusal to allow U.N. inspectors to look for weapons of mass destruction.

The draft shows White House counsel Charles Ruff, who defended Clinton against impeachment, cleared a version that said: “All of us would have preferred that the need for this action had not arisen on this day — on the eve of the impeachment debate in the House of Representatives.”

Instead, Clinton's address ended up sticking close to what the draft refers to as White House Chief of Staff John Podesta's version. The president said: “Saddam Hussein and the other enemies of peace may have thought that the serious debate currently before the House of Representatives would distract Americans, or weaken our resolve to face him down.”

One tweak: In Podesta's version, the impeachment debate was termed “grave” instead of “serious.”

House Republicans suggested it was Clinton who was trying to distract Americans with the timing of the attack. The Republican-led House voted to impeach; the Democrat-controlled Senate later acquitted Clinton.

Osama bin Laden

In one file referencing bin Laden, Clinton urgently asked his top national security aide whether the CIA overstated the involvement of the terrorist leader in the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In his April 1999 scrawled note, Clinton referred to a New York Times story from that month that suggested U.S. intelligence officials had gathered no firsthand evidence of bin Laden's involvement.

“If this article is right, the CIA sure overstated its case to me — what are the facts?” Clinton asked national security adviser Samuel “Sandy” Berger. Clinton's note prompted a flurry of replies from Berger, counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke and aide Daniel Benjamin, but those responses were withheld, apparently for national security concerns.

Court nominations

The files show the behind-the-scenes planning that took place to win Senate confirmation of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's and Stephen Breyer's Supreme Court nominations.

Clinton's team noted that “Senate leaders, particularly Chairman (Joe) Biden, have previously made strong statements about their desire to be consulted on Supreme Court nominations.”

Ginsburg's papers include a list of recommended witnesses that had been sent by her husband, Washington attorney Martin Ginsburg.

Before the hearings, White House aide Ron Klain wrote that Ginsburg's preparation showed she viewed the White House as “having a stake in presenting her as a moderate and in getting along well with the Senate; she sees her interests as ‘being herself,' preserving her ‘dignity' and promoting her ‘independence.' ”

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