Faulty and incomplete intelligence prevented three military attacks against al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 1998 and 1999, according to a commission investigating the September 11 terrorist attacks.
A staff report made public yesterday during a hearing of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States also disclosed that a 1998 order by President Clinton minimized the use of military forces to go after al Qaeda in favor of law enforcement and diplomacy that ultimately failed.
“The paramount limitation on every proposed use of military force was the lack of ‘actionable intelligence,’” the preliminary report said.
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a commission member, criticized the Clinton administration for failing to take military action against al Qaeda despite the group’s declaration of war against the United States. One cruise-missile attack after the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa was ineffective and missed killing al Qaeda members in Afghanistan.
“I keep hearing the excuse we didn’t have actionable intelligence. Well, what … does that say to al Qaeda? 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,” said Mr. Kerrey, Nebraska Democrat.
Former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen yesterday said the Clinton administration on several occasions “called off” military action against bin Laden when it determined the intelligence wasn’t good enough to ensure success.
Mr. Cohen said that in one of the incidents, a target believed to be bin Laden “turned out to be a sheik from [the United Arab Emirates],” and another incident involved a plan to shoot down an aircraft that was believed to be carrying bin Laden, but the intelligence was uncertain.
The testimony came during the first of two days of hearings with senior officials from the Bush and Clinton administrations, who told Congress they viewed al Qaeda as a serious threat before September 11, but had different approaches to dealing with the terrorist group.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the congressionally mandated commission that President Bush had rejected the Clinton administration’s “fly-swatting” approach to dealing with terrorism and defended the Bush administration against charges by critics that the White House was too slow to develop policies for stopping bin Laden and his group operating in Afghanistan.
“We wanted to move beyond the rollback policy of containment, criminal prosecution and limited retaliation for specific terrorist attacks,” Mr. Powell said. “We wanted to destroy al Qaeda.”
According to a second commission staff report made public yesterday, the Clinton administration relied on law enforcement and diplomacy in its efforts to thwart the Islamist terrorist group. After the embassy bombings in Africa in August 1998, President Clinton ordered cruise-missile attacks on terrorist camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan in response.
The report said that diplomatic efforts to work with the Saudi Arabian and Pakistani governments to pressure the ruling Taliban militia in Afghanistan to expel bin Laden were unsuccessful. “All these efforts failed,” the report said.
The staff also reported that the day before September 11, the Bush administration had decided to make one final diplomatic push before attempting to overthrow the Taliban Afghan government in a strategy expected to take three years.
The hearings come amid charges from former counterterrorism official Richard L. Clarke, who worked in both administrations, that the Bush administration failed to take his warnings about the danger of al Qaeda seriously.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told the commission that he did not believe that killing bin Laden in the first months of the Bush administration would have prevented the September 11 attacks, which killed about 3,000 people.
“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.”
Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright told the commission that former “President Clinton and his team did everything we could, everything we could think of, based on the knowledge we had, to protect our people and disrupt and defeat al Qaeda.”
Mrs. Albright said the Clinton administration was unable to confirm that al Qaeda was behind the USS Cole bombing in 2000, and therefore did not take military action against al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
However, commission member John Lehman, a Republican, told the hearing that intelligence in November and December 2000 indicated that al Qaeda had carried out the attack that killed 17 sailors and nearly sank the ship as it refueled in Yemen.
According to the staff report, intelligence indicating that bin Laden was open to attack resulted in military planning by the Clinton administration on three occasions.
In December 1998, bin Laden was reported to be staying at a location in Kandahar, Afghanistan; however, CIA Director George J. Tenet doubted the intelligence and a strike by cruise missiles or bombers was called off.
Then in February 1999, bin Laden was targeted in a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, but the CIA was worried that a visiting official from the United Arab Emirates would be killed in an attack.
The CIA’s field officer was quoted in the report as saying the intelligence was “very reliable” that bin Laden was in the camp. “The field official believed that this was a lost opportunity to kill bin Laden,” the report said.
A third attempt to kill bin Laden, who had been seen in the same place for five nights, was missed in May 1999. However, U.S. military officials worried that an attack might kill innocent civilians.
Mr. Rumsfeld said the war against al Qaeda will be difficult and that another attack on “our people” is imminent.
“That reality drives those of us in government to ask the tough questions: When and how might that attack be attempted? And what will we need to have done today and every day before the attack to prepare for it and, if possible, prevent it?” he said.
Additional witnesses are scheduled to testify today, including Mr. Tenet, Mr. Clarke, former Clinton National Security Adviser Samuel Berger and Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage.
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.
Ten members and an executive director of the bipartisan September 11 commission, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, created by Congress in November 2002:
Thomas H. Kean, Republican chairman. President of Drew University in Madison, N.J., former governor of New Jersey. Appointed by President Bush after Henry Kissinger resigned in December 2002 over potential conflicts of interest.
Lee H. Hamilton, Democratic vice chairman. Director of Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, former U.S. representative from Indiana. Appointed by Democratic congressional leaders in December 2002 after former Sen. George Mitchell resigned, citing a reluctance to leave his law firm.
Richard Ben-Veniste. Democrat. Partner in law firm of Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw. Former Watergate prosecutor, co-author of “Stonewall: The Real Story of the Watergate Prosecution” (Simon & Schuster).
Fred F. Fielding. Republican. Senior partner at law firm of Wiley, Rein and Fielding. Former counsel to President Reagan and deputy counsel to President Nixon.
Jamie S. Gorelick. Democrat. Partner at law firm of Wilmer Cutler and Pickering, former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration.
Slade Gorton. Republican. Attorney at Preston, Gates & Ellis, former U.S. senator from Washington state.
Bob Kerrey. Democrat. President of New School University in New York City, former U.S. senator from Nebraska. Appointed by Democratic congressional leaders in December 2003 to replace former Sen. Max Cleland, Georgia Democrat, who left to become director of the Export-Import Bank.
John F. Lehman. Republican. Chairman of J.F. Lehman & Co., a private equity firm, former Navy secretary under President Reagan.
Timothy J. Roemer. Democrat. President of the Center for National Policy, former U.S. representative from Indiana.
James R. Thompson. Republican. Chairman of the law firm Winston & Strawn, former Illinois governor.
Philip Zelikow, executive director. History professor and director of Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. Co-author with Bush National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice of 1995 book, “Germany Unified and Europe Transformed.”
Source: The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States
Here are preliminary conclusions about U.S. diplomatic efforts against terrorism before September 11, 2001. They are contained in a statement issued yesterday by the staff of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States:
From spring 1997 to September 2001, the U.S. government tried to persuade the hard-line Taliban regime to expel Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan to a country where he could face justice and that would not be a sanctuary for al Qaeda, his terror network. Inducements, warnings and sanctions were employed, but the efforts failed.
The U.S. government also pressed two successive Pakistani governments to demand that the Taliban cease providing a sanctuary for bin Laden and his organization and, failing that, to cut off their support for the Taliban. Before September 11, 2001, the United States could not find a mix of incentives or pressure that would persuade Pakistan to reconsider its fundamental relationship with the Taliban.
From 1999 through early 2001, the United States pressed the United Arab Emirates, one of the Taliban’s only travel and financial outlets to the outside world, to break off ties and enforce sanctions, especially related to air travel to Afghanistan. These efforts achieved little before September 11, 2001.
The government of Saudi Arabia worked closely with top U.S. officials in major initiatives to solve the bin Laden problem with diplomacy. On the other hand, before September 11, 2001, the Saudi and U.S. governments did not achieve full sharing of important intelligence information or develop an adequate joint effort to track and disrupt the finances of al Qaeda.