A day before Sept. 11, 2001, former President Bill Clinton told an audience that he could have had Osama bin Laden killed, but chose not to, because an attack could have endangered innocent women and children in Afghanistan.
Speaking to businessmen in Australia, Clinton said he had a shot at Bin Laden, whose Al Qaeda organization would launch attacks the next day that left about 3,000 dead at the World Trade Center, Washington, D.C. and in western Pennsylvania.
"I'm just saying, you know, if I were Osama bin Laden ... He's a very smart guy. I spent a lot of time thinking about him. And I nearly got him once," Clinton said in the audio recording from the meeting, according to a Sky News Australia report this week.
"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," the former commander in chief says.
Hours after Clinton spoke of his role in the 1998 decision to not attempt to kill Bin Laden, the 2001 terror attack was underway in the United States.
The latest recording is more than just a historical irony or a sad footnote. There have long been complaints in some conservative quarters about Clinton's actions in failing to neutralize Bin Laden.
It is also probably not a coincidence that there has been deeper looks at the Clinton administration's actions as his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, appears more likely to seek the presidency herself. Recently, for example, some Republicans have castigated the former president for his relationship with an intern as a way of discrediting the Democrats' meme that the GOP is waging a war on women.
The 1998 incident was previously known but the tape is the first known recording of Clinton speaking about the decision. The Australian recording was made by a local official who told Australian news outlets it was made with permission of the former president.
Bin Laden had been a target for U.S. officials for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The U.S. government launched missile strikes in August 1998, but Bin Laden was not injured.
By December 1998, intelligence indicated that Bin Laden was staying at the governor's residence in Kandahar, according to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, otherwise known as the 9/11 Report, released in 2004. According to the report, the missed chance made some lower-level officials angry, but later information showed that Bin Laden had left his quarters.
"The principals' wariness about ordering a strike appears to have been vindicated: Bin Laden left his room unexpectedly, and if a strike had been ordered he would not have been hit," the commission wrote.
U.S. officials again considered a missile strike against Bin Laden in May 1999 – but decided not to act because the intelligence seemed unclear. The situation was complicated by the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the NATO war against Serbia, the commission said.
"This episode may have made officials more cautious than might otherwise have been the case," the commission's report stated.
Bin Laden was eventually killed in a 2011 raid by U.S. Special Forces in Pakistan.
The Clinton Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.