- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2000

President Clinton yesterday blamed Saudi exile Osama bin Laden for the plot to bomb New Year's Eve celebrations in the United States and Jordan last year, confirming what administration officials have been whispering for months.

"Last December, working with Jordan, we shut down a plot to place large bombs at locations where Americans might gather on New Year's Eve," Mr. Clinton said in a commencement address to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.

"We learned this plot was linked to terrorist camps in Afghanistan and the organization created by Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, which cost the lives of Americans and hundreds of Africans," he added.

The last time Mr. Clinton publicly railed against bin Laden's terrorism camps in Afghanistan was on Aug. 20, 1998, the day Monica Lewinsky testified before a grand jury. The president abruptly ordered the camps to be bombed that day, prompting Republicans to accuse him of "wagging the dog," or contriving a military crisis to divert attention from his domestic troubles.

Also bombed that day was a "terrorist" target in the Sudan that turned out to be a pharmaceutical plant. CIA and State Department officials later acknowledged the bombing had been a mistake and the Treasury Department released assets it had seized from the plant's owner, quietly paying him $1 million in interest.

But yesterday, Mr. Clinton made clear there was no mistake about the evidence linking bin Laden to the New Year's Eve bomb plot.

"A customs agent in Seattle discovered bomb materials being smuggled into the U.S. the same materials used by bin Laden in other places," the president said. "Thankfully, and thanks to Jordan, New Year's passed without an attack. But the threat was real."

Vincent Cannistraro, former CIA chief of counterterrorism operations, said U.S. intelligence officials got "lucky" when border guards arrested Ahmed Ressam on Dec. 14 as he tried to exit a ferry from Canada at a port near Seattle. Officials say they found bomb materials in his rented car.

"Ressam was caught because Ressam became a nervous wreck at the border crossing, not because they had advance warning that someone was carrying a bomb across the border," Mr. Cannistraro told The Washington Times. "They didn't have advance intelligence on it.

"In other words, it was going to be a simultaneous sequence of violent explosions in Jordan and the United States around the millennium celebrations, and one of the components of that operation was compromised only by pure serendipity," he said. "We caught a lucky break, which is a little frightening, because this was very close to home and conceivably a lot of violence and a lot of death could have occurred on New Year's Eve."

Mr. Ressam, 32, has pleaded not guilty to charges of possessing explosives and transporting them with the intent to cause injury or damage. The Algerian national's trial is set to begin July 10 in Los Angeles, where it was moved because of intense media coverage in Seattle.

Also in U.S. custody is Abdel Ghani Meskini, 31, who was arrested in December in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is charged with providing and concealing support for Mr. Ressam. Another suspected accomplice is Mokhtar Haouari, 31, who remains in Montreal as the United States seeks extradition.

But bin Laden and his top lieutenants remain at large and are believed to be hiding in Afghanistan under the protection of Taleban authorities.

Bin Laden is among 17 persons charged in a federal indictment with conspiracy to kill Americans in the embassy bombing cases. Six are in custody in the United States and three overseas.

"The principal people who could have been rounded up have been rounded up, while the actual leadership of these operations is beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement and has gone underground," Mr. Cannistraro said.

"The Jordanians were very effective in rounding this group up," he added. "There's no question there was cooperation with the United States, but I think the success is primarily due to Jordanian intelligence."

In order to beef up U.S. intelligence, Mr. Clinton yesterday called on Congress to increase funding for counterterrorism programs like the ones that intercept communications. The White House already has asked Congress for $9 billion to shield U.S. computers and infrastructure from terrorists.

"Today, I'm adding over $300 million to fund critical programs to protect our citizens from terrorist threats, to expand our intelligence efforts, to improve our ability to use forensic evidence to track terrorists, to enhance our coordination with state and local officials as we did over New Year's to protect our nation against possible attack," Mr. Clinton said.

Michael Sheehan, the State Department's ambassador at large for counterterrorism, told a conference of corporate and government security specialists last month that the New Year's period forced the U.S. counterterrorism community to be at its most heightened state of alert since the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

Mr. Sheehan said the alert was prompted by not only Mr. Ressam's arrest at the U.S.-Canadian border, but also the arrest in Jordan of a terrorist linked to bin Laden and the hijacking of an Indian airliner by Pakistani terrorists.

"We were able to thwart those and still in a sense keep a certain operational tempo, keep a high degree of readiness without exhausting people," Mr. Sheehan said in a keynote address to a conference sponsored by the National Security Institute.

Mr. Sheehan, a former U.S. Army ranger and West Point graduate, warned that terrorists "are still out there, plotting actively to attack us."

"It's only a matter of time before they break through again," he said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to disrupt it to the best of our ability."

• Bill Gertz contributed to this report.

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