NEW YORK – The White House declined Monday to step into the debate after former President Bill Clinton accused "FOX News Sunday" host Chris Wallace of carrying out "a conservative hit job" on him during an interview in which Wallace asked Clinton about his administration's handling of the growing Al Qaeda threat.
"He retorts, you decide," White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said of the former president while playing on the cable network's slogan "We Report, You Decide." Snow went on to say that Clinton "clearly had strong feelings but we're not going to engage."
The interview, taped Friday during Clinton's three-day Global Initiative Conference in New York, got heated after Wallace asked why Clinton didn't "do more to put [Usama] bin Laden and Al Qaeda out of business" when he was in office.
A visibly agitated Clinton chided Wallace for ambushing him with questions about his anti-terrorism policy when Clinton wanted to talk about the Global Initiative project, which looks to create movement on issues including poverty, disease and climate change.
"You set this meeting up because you were going to get a lot of criticism from your viewers because [News Corp. Chairman] Rupert Murdoch's supporting my work on climate change," Clinton said. "You said you'd spend half the time talking about what we did out there to raise $7-billion-plus in three days from 215 different commitments. And you don't care."
When Wallace offered to return the conversation to Clinton's philanthropic efforts, the former president wanted to continue talking about terrorism and recent criticisms that his administration was weak on terror.
"There's a reason it's on people's minds: Because there's been a serious disinformation campaign to create that impression," Clinton said.
Clinton pointed the finger at Republican factions in Congress and Pentagon for stymieing his anti-terrorism efforts.
"All of President Bush's neo-cons thought I was too obsessed with bin Laden. They had no meetings on bin Laden for nine months after I left office," Clinton said. "All the right-wingers who now say I didn't do enough, said I did too much — same people."
Right-wing factions, Clinton said, are trying to rewrite history to cover up their failing to focus on Al Qaeda when President Bush took office in 2001.
"So I tried and failed. When I failed, I left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy and the best guy in the country, Dick Clarke, who got demoted," Clinton said. "So you did FOX's bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit job on me."
Clinton was referring to Richard Clarke, who provided national security advice to four presidents as a member of the Senior Executive Service from 1973 to 2003. Clarke is a vocal Bush administration critic whose 2004 book, "Against All Enemies," blasted the White House's focus on Iraq instead of Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Clinton vigorously defended his efforts to hunt down bin Laden after the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, saying he authorized the CIA to assassinate him and even contracted with other parties to kill him.
"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. "I tried and I failed to get bin Laden. I regret it, but I did try and I did everything I thought I responsibly could."
Clinton's combativeness fueled firestorms on liberal political blogs like The DailyKos and ThinkProgress. A clip promoting the segment from Friday night's "Special Report" was viewed nearly 900,000 times on video-sharing Web site YouTube, making it the most viewed video of the weekend.
Wallace told the Associated Press in a telephone interview he was surprised by the former presidents strong reaction to his questions.
"All I did was ask him a question, and I think it was a legitimate news question. I was surprised that he would conjure up that this was a hit job," Wallace said.