President Clinton’s national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, rejected four plans to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, worrying once that if the plans failed and al Qaeda launched a counterattack, “we’re blamed.”
According to the September 11 commission’s 567-page report, released Thursday, Mr. Berger was told in June 1999 that U.S. intelligence agents were confident about bin Laden’s presence in a terrorist training camp called Tarnak Farms in Afghanistan.
Mr. Berger’s “hand-written notes on the meeting paper,” the report says, showed that Mr. Berger was worried about injuring or killing civilians located near the camp.
Additionally, “If [bin Laden] responds” to the attack, “we’re blamed,” Mr. Berger wrote.
The report also says that Richard Clarke, Mr. Berger’s expert on counterterrorism, presented that plan to get bin Laden because he was worried about the al Qaeda leader’s “ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction.”
These revelations come as Mr. Berger is under investigation by the Justice Department for smuggling several copies of classified documents that dealt with the Clinton administration’s anti-terror policies out of the National Archives.
Commission Co-chairman Lee Hamilton said Thursday, however, that the missing documents Mr. Berger has acknowledged taking doesn’t affect “the integrity” of the final report.
According to the report, the first plan of action against bin Laden presented to Mr. Berger was a briefing by CIA Director George J. Tenet on May 1, 1998. Mr. Berger took no action, the report says, because he was “focused most” on legal questions.
“[Mr. Berger] worried that the hard evidence against bin Laden was still skimpy and that there was a danger of snatching him and bringing him to the United States only to see him acquitted,” the report says.
Mr. Clarke asked Mr. Berger: “Should we pre-empt by attacking [bin Laden’s] facilities?”
Mr. Berger decided against it, but later that year, Mr. Clinton ordered an attack on a chemical plant in Sudan that was suspected of providing bin Laden with dangerous weapons material.
Another opportunity to strike at bin Laden occurred on Dec. 4, 1999, according to the report, when Mr. Clarke suggested carrying out an attack on an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in the last week of the year.
“In the margin next to Clarke’s suggestion,” the report states in a footnote, “Berger wrote, ‘no.’”
Finally, in August of 2000, five months before Mr. Clinton left office, Mr. Berger was told that aerial surveillance from a Predator drone suggested another opportunity to kill bin Laden.
Mr. Clarke told Mr. Berger that the imagery captured by the Predator was “truly astounding,” and expressed confidence that more missions could find bin Laden. Mr. Berger, however, “worried that a Predator might be shot down, and warned Clarke that such an event would be a ‘bonanza’ for bin Laden and the Taliban.”
“In the memo’s margin,” the report states, “Berger wrote that before considering action, ‘I will want more than verified location: we will need, at least, data on pattern of movements to provide some assurance he will remain in place.’”
The commission’s report also notes a speech that Mr. Clinton gave to the Long Island Association on Feb. 15, 2002, in which — in the answer to a query from a member of the audience — he said that Sudan offered to turn over bin Laden to U.S. custody, but Mr. Clinton refused because “there was no indictment” in hand.
Mr. Clinton told the commission in April that he had “misspoken” and was never offered bin Laden.
Frank J. Gaffney, a former assistant secretary of defense for international security policy under President Reagan, said the September 11 report makes it clear that the Clinton administration “didn’t take terrorism terribly seriously.”
“Their approach to terrorism was like their approach to national security in general,” Mr. Gaffney said. “They certainly didn’t pursue it in any consistent and robust way.”
To strike at al Qaeda the way Mr. Clarke suggested several times, Mr. Gaffney said, would have involved defending the actions as thoroughly as President Bush has the invasion of Iraq.
Mr. Berger defended the bombing of the suspected Sudan chemical factory in a February 1999 press conference by saying that “had we not and had a chemical weapon been used subsequently in the San Francisco subway system, I would find it hard to have defended our inaction.”
“At the very least, [striking at bin Laden] should have been tried,” Mr. Gaffney said. “It would have been better and easier and more prudent to deal with that threat in Sudan or in Afghanistan rather than have to deal with it in New York or Washington.”