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In an emotional Oval Office meeting, President Clinton told relatives of soldiers killed in Somalia he was surprised and angry that subordinates had ordered the ill-fated raid in downtown Mogadishu that left 18 Americans dead.

The family members said they felt the statements showed Clinton was out of touch with his own military chain of command.White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers said Clinton's remarks Thursday in the closed-door meeting conformed with his earlier statements on the Oct. 3-4 raid in the Somali capital. But they came as news to the fathers of three Army rangers killed in the raid.

In identical accounts of Clinton's remarks, the fathers said Clinton told them that by September 1993 his focus had shifted from capturing Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid to finding a diplomatic solution to the fighting in Somalia.

Larry Joyce, whose son, Casey, a sergeant, was killed in the nighttime operation, asked Clinton why the raid was launched if it ran counter to White House policy.

"He shared our dismay," said Joyce, a Chicago resident. Joyce quoted Clinton as saying: "This is the one thing that has continued to haunt me about this."

In one possible explanation, Clinton told the families he had been trying to avoid micromanaging the Somali conflict, as President Johnson had done in Vietnam.

The meeting placed Clinton, an opponent of the Vietnam War who had avoided the draft, opposite three Vietnam veterans who had now lost their sons in a mission Clinton had ultimately directed.

Choking with emotion, Joyce told the Senate Armed Services Committee later in that day, "I told the president today that Casey did die in vain . . . betrayed by a system that gave them a no-win mission and didn't provide them the resources and moral support they desperately needed."

White House officials hastily arranged the family meeting after seeing advance copies of Joyce's testimony in which he criticized Clinton for failing to fulfill a promise to meet with relatives of those killed. After the Oval Office meeting, Joyce delivered an altered version of his testimony toning down his criticism.

James Smith, who lost part of a leg in the Vietnam War and whose son, James, a corporal, was killed in the Somali raid, said Clinton was sympathetic, particularly when their wives wept. But Smith said Clinton's comments showed that the White House had lost its grip on the Somalia mission.

"He listened intently," said Smith of Long Valley, N.J. "He drank a lot of coffee, he was very polite. I think he said all the right schmoozing things. But I got the idea that he didn't have the slightest idea what was going on in Somalia, and that's scary."

At the hearing, a general said that then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin's refusal to commit heavy armor made little difference in the battle that killed the U.S. soldiers.

Special forces commander Maj. Gen. William Garrison testified he might not have used armor even if he had had it. "I do not believe that it (armor) would have had any kind of a significant impact upon the casualties that we suffered" in the initial raid, Garrison said.