WASHINGTON - Clinton and Bush administration officials engaged in lengthy, ultimately fruitless diplomatic efforts instead of military action to try to get Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a federal panel said yesterday. Top Bush officials countered that the terror attacks would have occurred even if the United States had killed the al-Qaeda leader.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a strong defense of pre-Sept. 11 actions that have become a major presidential campaign issue, told the federal commission reviewing the attacks that the Sept. 11 plot was well under way when the Bush administration took office in January, 2001.
"Killing bin Laden would not have removed al-Qaeda's sanctuary in Afghanistan," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "Moreover, the sleeper cells that flew the aircraft into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon were already in the United States months before the attack."
Mr. Powell said that even if U.S. forces had invaded Afghanistan, killed bin Laden, and neutralized al-Qaeda, "I have no reason to believe that would have caused them to abort their plans."
The testimony by Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Powell came against the backdrop of counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke's claim that top Bush administration officials ignored bin Laden and the threat of the al-Qaeda terror network while focusing on Iraq and Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Clarke, a holdover from the Clinton administration, said in a newly published book that he warned Bush officials of an
urgent need to address the al-Qaeda threat but was ignored. Mr. Clarke is scheduled to testify before the commission today.
The 10-member National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States probing whether the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented began two days of high-level hearings yesterday and also released two staff reports on initial findings based on private sessions with top officials. The reports found that both administrations had opportunities to mount military attacks against al-Qaeda but failed to do so because of concerns that the intelligence was outdated or not actionable, worries about loss of as many as 2,000 innocent lives, and fear of making bin Laden even more of a cult figure in the world of Islam.
The CIA pinpointed bin Laden in February, 1999, in a remote camp in Afghanistan for about a week but the opportunity to get him was not taken, the report found. He was also spotted in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in May of that year but no strike was ordered. The reasons given were the risk of collateral damage and reluctance to base military action on one source.
The panel said that al-Qaeda was emboldened after militants' first attacked on New York's World Trade Center in 1993, followed by the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia in 1996, which killed 19 Americans and wounded 372 others. Other al-Qaeda attacks included on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August, 1998, and the anchored USS Cole in Yemen in October, 2000, which killed 17 sailors and badly damaged the vessel.
The panel said lack of a significant U.S. response apparently encouraged al-Qaeda, which then hit the United States with hijacked planes in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. One reason for the lack of response to the earlier attacks, according to the panel, was that American law-enforcement methods took months and required proof that bin Laden and al-Qaeda ordered the attacks, which was not easy to get.
Madeleine Albright, secretary of state during the Clinton administration, said every tool available was used to try to find a way to wipe out the terrorists, find their ties to various governments and even to kill bin Laden but that intelligence was not solid enough to risk using costly cruise missiles except when there were strikes against desert targets. Also, Clinton officials were frustrated because al-Qaeda received warnings from other governments when U.S. attacks were imminent, the panel's report said. The early U.S. military attacks against al-Qaeda were ineffective, expensive, threatened regional stability, and angered many around the world, the panel's report found.
William Cohen, secretary of defense in the second Clinton administration, said that when a strike - Operation Infinite Reach - against a pharmaceutical plant and training camps in Afghanistan in August, 1998, failed to disrupt bin Laden or his network or kill any terrorist commanders, diplomacy against the Taliban was tried as a way to get it to stop hiding al-Qaeda terrorists but that it failed. Saudi Arabia once thought it had an agreement with the Taliban to oust bin Laden but nothing came of it, the staff report said.
The panel's report said that the White House often is frustrated by military unwillingness to tackle terrorism, while the military is often frustrated by civilian policymakers whose requests for military action seem too simplistic. Sending troops into Afghanistan before 9/11 would not have been supported by the American people, various officials said.
Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said he never saw information prior to 9/11 that terrorists were planning to hijack planes in the United States. Mr. Rumsfeld told the commission he did not recall what Mr. Cohen said when briefing him about bin Laden as he left office.
Mr. Rumsfeld also stressed that it is impossible to guard against all attacks. "We could have a terrorist attack anywhere in the world tomorrow," he told the commission.
Secretary of State Powell said using cruise missiles in Afghanistan probably would not have deterred the militant terrorists already inside the United States plotting 9/11 and that the administration did not believe that such attacks could happen here. "Anything we might have done against al-Qaeda in this period or against Osama bin Laden may or may not have had any influence on these people who were already in this country, already had their instructions, were already burrowed in and were getting ready to commit the crimes that we saw on 9/11," he said.
But Mr. Powell insisted that concern about terrorism was from the start of the Bush administration a top priority. The panel's staff report found that on Sept. 10, 2001, there was a meeting that focused on al-Qaeda.
The plan was to dispatch an emissary to the Taliban warning that it was time for bin Laden to be turned over. Failing that, all clandestine support for the Taliban would end. If the Taliban still continued to support bin Laden, the United States would actively work to overthrow the Taliban. But the time frame for all this was expected to be several years.
During seven hours of intense questions and answers yesterday, no solid conclusions were as yet evident about whether the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented based on what officials knew at the time. But the members of the panel, chaired by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican, and co-chaired by Lee Hamilton, a former congressman and a Democrat, made clear in tough questioning that they are far from satisfied that everything that could be done was done or that the al-Qaeda threat was taken seriously enough.
At the White House yesterday, reporters briefly admitted into a meeting with Mr. Bush, heard him deny in response to a new book by his former counterterrorism adviser, Mr. Clarke, who also served during the Clinton years, that he ignored the threat al-Qaeda posed until 9/11.
In his testimony, Mr. Powell confirmed one claim by Mr. Clarke that Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary who strongly supported U.S. military action against Iraq, suggested an attack on the government of Saddam Hussein during a meeting at Camp David just four days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. President Bush "said first things first," Mr. Powell said. "He decided on Afghanistan." Mr. Wolfowitz, who appeared alongside Mr. Rumsfeld later in the day, did not directly address the issue.
Testifying today are George Tenet, CIA director during both administrations, and Sandy Berger, national security adviser to Mr. Clinton.
Ann McFeatters of the Blade's Washington Bureau contributed to this report.