Thursday, July 24, 2003

The United States stationed submarines and warships equipped with cruise missiles in the Arabian Sea near Afghanistan for two years before September 11 in the hope they would be able to kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, a declassified report revealed yesterday.

“The president ordered two submarines loaded with cruise missiles on perpetual deployment off the coast of Pakistan for that very purpose,” former National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger told a special congressional inquiry into the suicide hijackings that killed about 3,000 people.

But — after the failure of a series of missile strikes in Afghanistan ordered by President Bill Clinton in August 1998 — U.S. intelligence agencies never believed they had accurate and reliable enough information about bin Laden’s whereabouts to launch an attack, according to the report.

The 800-page report says that missed opportunities, poor management and incompetence on the part of U.S. agencies enabled the 19 hijackers to enter the country and carry out their deadly plot.

The report, more than 50 pages of which are heavily censored to protect classified information, concludes that U.S. intelligence agencies were simply neither “organized nor equipped” to meet the threat posed by terrorists based overseas focused on targets inside the United States.

As a result, the inquiry found, officials failed to focus adequately on the possibility that the al Qaeda network was planning a mass-casualty attack in the United States. This despite a growing crescendo of warnings — including ones about the use of hijacked airliners as weapons — that crested in the summer of 2001.

In December 1998, for example, the report notes that intelligence was received — the recipient’s name is censored — that the al Qaeda network was planning “operations against U.S. targets. Plans to hijack U.S. aircraft proceeding well. Two individuals had successfully evaded checkpoints in a dry run at a [New York] airport.”

Disputes about how much of the report would be declassified held up its publication for more than six months, during which there were “very vigorous” discussions between the inquiry members and intelligence officials, according to one Capitol Hill staffer involved in the process.

In some instances, the staffer said, agencies wanted information to remain classified, even when officials had made public statements about it.

“We made a lot of headway” in getting information declassified, the staffer said.

Others were less sanguine.

“I am deeply concerned about the amount that has been censored,” said Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, who was chairman of the Senate intelligence committee during the inquiry.

Some family members of the victims of the September 11 attacks also expressed unease at the amount of information being withheld from public view.

“It was very upsetting to see all those blank pages,” said Kristen Breitweiser, who lost her husband, Ron, in the World Trade Center attack. “The inquiry did an excellent job, but there is still too much we just don’t know.”

The most surprising declassified information concerns the intensity of the Clinton administration’s efforts to capture or kill bin Laden in Afghanistan.

In addition to the use of cruise missiles, more than a dozen other military options, including putting U.S. troops on the ground, were considered in late 2000, the report reveals.

But no option ever got past the planning stage because of the reluctance of the U.S. military to commit resources to the task, the report says.

Military officials said their reluctance stemmed mainly from the lack of specific, actionable intelligence that could help determine bin Laden’s precise whereabouts in Afghanistan.

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