WASHINGTON -- The US government had substantial intelligence about key Al Qaeda figures indicating the possibility of a catastrophic terrorist attack beginning in the mid-1990s, but failed to act forcefully enough to thwart the Islamic terrorist network, the bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks said in an interim report yesterday.
Diplomatic initiatives urging other countries to bring Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to justice were unsuccessful, yet the Clinton administration could not reach a consensus on a sustained military effort to kill the terrorist leader or disrupt the organization's home base in Afghanistan, according to the report released yesterday, at the start of two days of public testimony from Bush and Clinton administration leaders.
On at least four occasions, plans to target bin Laden with cruise missiles were called off, for reasons including the fear of killing other dignitaries traveling with him, the report said.
For its part, the Bush administration rejected earlier proposals to take military action against Al Qaeda, including arming Taliban opponents in Afghanistan, the report said.
The National Security Council, the report said, was still weighing a three-year diplomatic and military strategy aimed at destroying the Al Qaeda network when hijacked airliners struck the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, killing 3,000 people.
Top officials from both administrations defended their actions in seven hours of testimony before the commission yesterday. They raised doubts about whether military action would have prevented the 2001 attacks and noted that even after 2 1/2 years of concerted US effort -- with support from a variety of neighboring countries that were unlikely to help prior to 9/11 -- bin Laden still has not been captured or killed.
They also said a lack of accurate intelligence information prevented the targeting of bin Laden before the attacks.
"Our plans were to try to capture or kill bin Laden," said former secretary of defense William S. Cohen. "That was a directive that went out" from Clinton. "The president signed several of those. . . . We had our people in a position had there been actionable intelligence."
However, some commission members were skeptical, grilling a list of witnesses: Cohen; former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright; Thomas Pickering, former undersecretary of state for political affairs; Secretary of State Colin L. Powell; Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage; Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld; Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz; and General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"We had a round in the chamber and we didn't use it," one commission member, former senator Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat, told Cohen.
At least once, the Clinton administration backed off an attempt to kill bin Laden when it feared a prince from the United Arab Emirates was in the area and might be killed, the commission's staff director, Philip Zelikow, said at the hearing, citing previous testimony before the panel.
The commission's preliminary findings, released before the hearing yesterday, pointed to a steady stream of data before the attacks indicating the growing threat posed by Al Qaeda.
In 1995, for example, the Clinton administration knew that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a key planner in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, was living in Qatar. But it rejected options to capture the key operative, who would later mastermind the 9/11 plot, the report said.
Moreover, the report said, "By early 1997, intelligence and law enforcement officials in the US government had finally received reliable information disclosing the existence of Al Qaeda as a worldwide terrorist organization. That information elaborated a command-and-control structure headed by bin Laden and various lieutenants, described a network of training camps to process recruits, discussed efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and placed Al Qaeda at the center among the groups affiliated with them in its `Islamic Army.' "
The Clinton and Bush administrations used a variety of diplomatic levers to try to gain custody of bin Laden, including constantly pressuring the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which along with the United Arab Emirates were the only nations to recognize the Taliban regime.
"From the spring of 1997 to September 2001 the US government tried to persuade the Taliban to expel bin Laden to a country where he could face justice and stop being a sanctuary for his organization," according to the interim report. "The effort employed inducements, warnings, and sanctions. All these efforts failed."
Throughout the latter years of the Clinton administration, bureaucratic squabbles and a lack of "actionable" intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts led to the failure to follow up the US cruise missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan in August 1998 after Al Qaeda's bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, former government officials said. And after a year and a half of debate, the Clinton White House opted not to get directly involved in the Afghan civil war or to join the side of the Northern Alliance.
Asked why attempts were not made to kill bin Laden after 1998, Albright noted that the United States was unable to conclusively link Al Qaeda to the October 1999 bombing of the USS Cole until after Clinton left office.
Bush administration officials, meanwhile, also found themselves on the defensive about their actions in the seven months Bush was in office before Sept. 11, saying that like their predecessors, they didn't have the intelligence needed to target bin Laden.
Commission members frequently cited the just-released memoir by former counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke, who claimed the Bush administration was so focused on Iraq, even in its first days, that it failed to address the Al Qaeda threat. Clarke is due to testify today.
To combat Clarke's assertions, the White House released Clarke's resignation letter from last year, in which he called it a "privilege" to serve Bush and told the president, "I will always remember the courage, determination, calm, and leadership you demonstrated on September 11th."
Meanwhile, both Rumsfeld and Powell testified that the failure to come up with a strategy to deal with Al Qaeda in the first seven months of the administration was not due to the distraction of Iraq, but to a desire to craft a new, more aggressive strategy that would be sure to destroy Al Qaeda.
Rumsfeld, asked why the Bush administration didn't respond to the Cole attack once Al Qaeda's role was revealed, said that the new leadership did not want to take a tit-for-tat approach, suggesting the Clinton White House's policy of matching Al Qaeda attacks with missile attacks on suspected bases was insufficient to deter future attacks. Rumsfeld also insisted that the United States would not then have had enough international support to invade Afghanistan.
"How many countries would have joined in a coalition?" Rumsfeld asked. "Many? Any? Not likely. We likely would have heard objections to preemption similar to those voiced before the coalition launched Operation Iraqi Freedom."
Had such action been taken, Rumsfeld added, it probably would not have prevented 9/11, noting that the hijackers had been in America for months or years and had been planning the strikes for a long time.
Powell agreed, saying that even if US forces had invaded Afghanistan, killed bin Laden, and neutralized Al Qaeda in that country, "I have no reason to believe that would have caused them to abort their plans" for Sept. 11.
Cohen, however, acknowledged that officials in both administrations underestimated the threat.
"I believe we have been complacent as a society and did not fully grasp the gathering storm," he said.