As a fellow who wrote a book contending that the current president is a serial prevaricator, I often am asked by conservative critics: So did you ever call Bill Clinton a liar? My reply: Yes; I am a nonpartisan accuser. But I’m not talking about the obvious lies. Back in those days, I did say that Clinton’s lies about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky were wrong and serious–but not worth impeachment. (And now they seem puny when compared with the assortment of untrue statements George W. Bush deployed to grease the way to war.) But what was more outrageous was a lie Clinton told about one of the greatest failures of his presidency: his inaction regarding the Rwanda genocide of 1994.
Why revisit this today? Two reasons. First, this month marks the tenth anniversary of the start of that horrific event, in which half a million people, mainly of the Tutsi minority, were slaughtered over three months by Hutu extremists, in one of the most time-efficient massacres of the 20th Century. Second, the National Security Archive, an independent, nongovernmental research institute that collects and analyzes government records, recently released a report that provides more evidence for the case that Clinton lied to the people of Rwanda.
That lie came four years after the genocide. During a 1998 presidential tour of Africa, Clinton stopped at the airport in Kigali, Rwanda, and issued an apology. Sort of. Speaking of those nightmarish months in the spring of 1994, he said, “All over the world there were people like me sitting in offices who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.” He acknowledged that the United States and the international community had not moved quickly enough in response to the horrors under way. To emphasize his sorrow, he said, “Never again.”
Clinton seemed to be taking responsibility, but actually he was making an excuse. He had inadequately reacted to the genocide, he said, because he had not really known what had been happening in Rwanda. That was a disingenuous cop-out.
The National Security Archive report, based on documents the group obtained, notes:
“Throughout the crisis, considerable U.S. resources–diplomatic, intelligence and military–and sizable bureaucracies of the U.S. government were trained on Rwanda. This system collected and analyzed information and sent it up to decision-makers so that all options could be properly considered and ‘on the table.’ Officials, particularly at the middle levels, sometimes met twice daily, drafting demarches, preparing press statements, meeting or speaking with foreign counterparts and other interlocutors, and briefing higher-ups. Indeed, the story of Rwanda for the U.S. is that officials knew so much, but still decided against taking action or leading other nations to prevent or stop the genocide. Despite Rwanda’s low ranking in importance to U.S. interests, Clinton administration officials had tremendous capacity to be informed–and were informed–about the slaughter there.”
The report, written by William Ferroggiaro, documents the pre-genocide warnings and concurrent reports of the massacre that Clinton’s administration received. The National Security Archive, under the Freedom of Information Act, requested copies of the Presidential Daily Briefs for this period. The PDB is a highly classified document written for the president. (The current Bush administration refused to let the House and Senate intelligence committees even look at an August 6, 2001, PDB that mentioned Osama bin Laden and hijacking when the committees were conducting their 9/11 investigation.) These PDBs would show precisely what Clinton read each day about Rwanda. But the Archive’s request for the PDBs was denied. It did, however, obtain copies of the National Intelligence Daily, which is also classified but has a wider circulation. NIDs are distributed to several hundred government policymakers six days a week. It is a fair assumption that they often reflect what is contained in the PDBs. And the NIDs gathered by the Archive indicate that the administration was aware a genocide was occurring in Rwanda. An April 23 NID referred to a negotiation “effort to stop the genocide, which relief workers say is spreading south.” The April 26 NID item on Rwanda, entitled “Humanitarian Disaster Unfolding,” reported that the “Red Cross estimates that 100,000 to 500,000 people, mostly Tutsi, have been killed in the ethnic bloodletting” and that “eyewitness accounts from areas where nearly all Tutsi residents were killed support the higher estimate.”
But Clinton did not have to depend on the top-secret PDBs or NIDs to learn that there was a genocide transpiring in Rwanda. As the Archive notes, “beginning April 8th, the massacres in Rwanda were reported on the front pages of major newspapers and on radio and television broadcasts almost daily, including the major papers read by U.S. officials and policy elites.” And at that time human rights activists in Washington–who had close relationships with national security adviser Tony Lake and staffmembers of Clinton’s national security council–were pounding on the doors of the White House demanding action and suggesting options. The United States could have provided logistical support to the small U.N. peacekeeping force in the region. It could have deployed jamming devices to block the radio transmissions of the Hutu leaders coordinating the slaughter. It could have pressured France and Belgium to use their influence with the Hutus. It could have merely spoken out.
In the first weeks of this tragedy, human rights advocates urged Clinton to issue a clear and forceful declaration that a genocide was happening and that the killers could expect to be tracked down and tried for crimes against humanity. But the Clinton administration dithered for weeks over whether to use the G-word, for doing so would have compelled the administration, under international law, to take direct steps to stop the killings. But after the disaster in Somalia, Clinton had no stomach for becoming involved in another messy conflict in Africa. In public, he had more to say about the caning of a young American in Singapore than the murders of hundreds of thousands in Rwanda.
As the National Security Archive report points out, Clinton was being pressed by prominent individuals to take action. On April 21, Rwandan human rights activist Monique Mujawamariya, whom Clinton had welcomed to the White House five months earlier, implored him to act against the “campaign” of “genocide against the Tutsis.” She argued that the United States had “a moral and legal treaty obligation to ‘suppress and prevent’ genocide.” Members of Congress lobbied Clinton as well. On May 13, Senators Paul Simon and James Jeffords sent a letter to Clinton criticizing his lack of “leadership” and declaring “swift and sound decision-making is needed.” They urged Clinton to impose sanctions, establish an arms embargo, and boost the U.N. forces in Rwanda and allow them to intervene more directly. “An end to the slaughter is not possible without this action,” they wrote.
The National Security Archive report notes, “Although stated policy was that Rwanda did not affect traditional vital or national interests before or even during the genocide, considerable resources were nevertheless available and employed to ensure that policymakers had real-time information for any decision they would make. In sum, the routine–let alone crisis–performance of diplomats, intelligence officers and systems, and military and defense personnel yielded enough information for policy recommendations and decisions. That the Clinton administration decided against intervention at any level was not for lack of knowledge of what was happening in Rwanda.”
Four years after the killings, Clinton told the Rwandans (and the world) that he had not tried to stop the genocide because he had not known what was truly occurring. Ignorance was not the reason. It had been a political decision. Clinton was fibbing to the survivors of genocide. And this deceptive remark sparked practically no outrage. Today, ten years after the Rwanda massacre, the inaction of the United States and the world community should not be forgotten, nor should Clinton’s untruthful excuse.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN’S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, “Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations….Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough.” For more information and a sample, check out the book’s official website: www.bushlies.com.