"I nearly got him. And I could have killed him."
These were allegedly Bill Clinton's words about Osama bin Laden on Sept. 10, 2001, exactly one day before bin Laden ordered the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
The remarks were made in Melbourne, Australia, where the former president was speaking to a group of businessmen. One of them, Michael Kroger, appeared on Australia's Sky News on Wednesday with an audio tape of the gathering, which was recorded with Clinton's permission. Kroger told host Paul Murray he had forgotten about the clip until recently.
"And I'm just saying, you know, if I were Osama bin Laden — he's a very smart guy, I've spent a lot of time thinking about him — and I nearly got him once. I nearly got him. And I could have killed him, but I would have had 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."
Ten hours later, the first hijacked plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center.
The background: Kandahar, Afghanistan, was proposed as a bombing site in December 1998 because intelligence suggested bin Laden was staying there.
According to the 9/11 Commission Report, officials ultimately decided not to target Kandahar because of the potential for 200 to 300 civilian casualties. Subsequent intelligence may have validated that caution; "Bin Laden left his room unexpectedly, and if a strike had been ordered, he would not have been hit," the report argued.
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The takeaway: There's no way to know for sure what would have happened had Clinton ordered an attack on Kandahar, but when you think about what happened just hours later, his comments are truly haunting.
It wasn't until May 2011, almost 10 years after 9/11, that American forces finally carried out a successful operation against bin Laden.