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 attacks, a federal panel said Tuesday. Top Bush officials countered that the terror attacks would have occurred even if the United States had killed the al-Qaida leader.
Defense Secretary Donald H. 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-Qaida's sanctuary in Afghanistan," 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."
Powell said that even if U.S. forces had invaded Afghanistan, killed bin Laden and neutralized al-Qaida, "I have no reason to believe that would have caused them to abort their plans."
Separately, President Bush said Tuesday he would have acted before Sept. 11 "had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on Sept. 11."
The testimony by Rumsfeld and 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-Qaida terror network while focusing on Iraq and Saddam Hussein.
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-Qaida threat but was ignored. Clarke is scheduled to testify before the commission on Wednesday.
Powell did not mention Clarke, but said, "President Bush and his entire national security team understood that terrorism had to be among our highest priorities and it was."
Still, according to preliminary findings in one of two reports issued by the commission, it wasn't until the day before the attacks that the Bush administration had a military strategy to overthrow the Taliban government and get at bin Laden in case a final diplomatic push failed. However, that strategy was expected to take three years, the commission said.
The commission report said U.S. officials, in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, feared a failed attempt on bin Laden could kill innocents and would only boost bin Laden's prestige. And the American public and Congress would have opposed any large-scale military operations before the September 2001 attacks, the report said.
In the end, it said, pursuing diplomacy over military action allowed bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders to elude capture.
The panel, formally the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, is holding two days of hearings with top-level Bush and Clinton administration officials. The aim is to question them on their efforts to stop bin Laden in the years leading up to Sept. 11. In addition to Clarke, the panel will hear Wednesday from CIA Director George Tenet and Clinton administration national security adviser Sandy Berger.
The commission's staff has spent months interviewing Clinton and Bush administration officials and poring over documents. Its preliminary findings will be considered by the 10-member panel, which plans to issue a final report this summer.
The staff reports found both administrations lacked the detailed "actionable" intelligence needed to strike directly at bin Laden and al-Qaida, so they unsuccessfully sought a diplomatic solution to get the al-Qaida leader out of Afghanistan so he could be captured.
That prompted some angry questioning from commissioner Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska. He asked former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright why nearly a dozen attacks by radical Islamists against Americans from 1993 through 2001 weren't enough for Clinton officials to justify force.
"I keep hearing the excuse we didn't have actionable intelligence. Well, what the hell does that say to al-Qaida?" Kerry said. "Basically, they knew — beginning in 1993 it seems to me — that there was going to be limited, if any, use of military and that they were relatively free to do whatever they wanted."
Albright responded: "We used every single tool we had in terms of trying to figure out what the right targets would be. I am satisfied that we did what we could given the intelligence that we had."
Former Defense Secretary William Cohen said the Clinton administration recognized the dangers posed by al-Qaida and considered the United States to be "at war" against the terrorist organization. Three times after the August 1998 al-Qaida bombings on U.S. embassies in Africa, Clinton officials considered using missile strikes to kill bin Laden. Each time it was decided the intelligence wasn't good enough to ensure success, he said.
Among other staff findings:
_ U.S. officials were concerned that Taliban supporters in Pakistan's military would warn bin Laden of pending operations. The U.S. government had information that the former head of Pakistani intelligence, Hamid Gul, had contacted Taliban leaders as a private citizen in July 1999 and assured them that he would provide three or four hours of warning before any U.S. missile launch, as he had the "last time" — an apparent reference to a failed 1998 cruise missile attack on bin Laden.
_ Pentagon counterterrorism officials prepared a strategy urging the Defense Department in September 1998 "to take up the gauntlet that international terrorists have thrown at our feet." But the paper was rejected by a deputy undersecretary as "too aggressive."
_ Rumsfeld told the commission that "he did not recall any particular counterterrorism issue that engaged his attention before" the Sept. 11 attacks, other than using unmanned aircraft against bin Laden.
Shortly before the attacks, the Bush administration was debating how to force bin Laden out. At a Sept. 10, 2001, meeting of second-tier Cabinet officials, officials settled on a three-phase strategy. The first step called for dispatching an envoy to talk to the Taliban. If this failed, diplomatic pressure would be applied and covert funding and support for anti-Taliban fighters would be increased.
If both failed, "the deputies agreed that the United States would seek to overthrow the Taliban regime through more direct action," the report said. Deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley said the strategy had a three-year time frame.
Associated Press reporter Ken Guggenheim contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Sept. 11 panel: http://www.9-11commission.gov