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September 11: the shocking evidence of secret deals, missed chances and fatal misjudgments

By David Usborne, Andrew Buncombe and Rupert Cornwell

24 March 2004 "The Independent"
-- The full extent of America's failed attempts to neutralise the threat of Osama bin Laden before 11 September 2001 was graphically and embarrassingly spelt out yesterday in a report by a commission set up to investigate the terror attacks.

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks did not reserve its criticism solely for the Bush administration. Its report also offered a catalogue of failed diplomatic opportunities and doomed policies that were followed by US officials as far back as the mid-1990s, when Bill Clinton was in the White House. Most of these abortive initiatives were aimed at persuading the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan to expel al-Qa'ida. 

But the report's greatest impact will be to undermine the credibility of President George Bush and his platform for fighting terrorism. It appears to confirm claims made at the weekend by a former White House anti-terrorism aide, Richard Clarke, that warnings he gave in early 2001 regarding al-Qa'ida were ignored. 

The preliminary report was published as the independent panel opened two days of public hearings into the attacks at which Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, his predecessor from the Clinton administration, Madeleine Albright, and the current Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, were called to testify. Other senior figures from both administrations will be called today, among them Mr Clarke. 

According to the report, the Clinton administration was apparently aware, as far back as 1995, of suspicions about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a deputy to Bin Laden who was to mastermind the 11 September attacks. But Washington refrained from trying to capture him until it had proof of his terror links and secured indictments against him. Similar legal concerns discouraged the US from attempting to capture Bin Laden, even though his ties to terror had been known since at least 1995. 

"From the spring of 1997 to September 2001, the US government tried to persuade the Taliban to expel Osama bin Laden to a country where he could face justice," the report said. "The efforts employed inducements, warnings and sanctions. All these efforts failed." 

The report shed light on the dead-end avenues pursued by the Clinton White House. Backed by the US, Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief, Prince Turki bin Faisal, reported that he had negotiated an agreement with the Taliban to eject al-Qa'ida. That agreement apparently fell apart in September 1998 during talks in Afghanistan between Prince Turki and the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. It was in August of that year that the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed, with the loss of 224 lives. 

Defending the previous administration, Madeleine Albright, told the commission that President Clinton and his team "did everything we could, everything we could think of, based on the knowledge we had, to protect our people". 

But the Clinton administration was blamed, for not moving more decisively against al-Qa'ida despite evidence from 1995 and 1996 that the organisation was behind a series of terror attacks against US targets. 

Instead Mr Clinton and his advisers dealt with the incidents primarily as criminal matters, leaving them to the CIA and the FBI. They also relied unduly, and unsuccessfully, on diplomatic means. 

General Powell conceded at the hearing that on taking power in January 2001, the new administration received full briefings from the outgoing White House, making it clear that the threat from al-Qa'ida had not been successfully tackled and that it required attention. He noted, however, that no strategy was suggested. "We were not given a counter-terrorism action plan by the previous administration. The briefers... conveyed to us the gravity of the threat posed by al-Qa'ida. But we noted early on that the actions the previous administration had tried had not succeeded in eliminating the threat." 

But Mr Clarke's book, Against All Enemies, published this week, reveals that he approached Mr Bush's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, in January 2001 and told her the only remaining option was military action against al-Qa'ida, including strikes against its fighters in Afghanistan,. 

Mr Clarke says he warned Bush officials in a memo about the growing al-Qa'ida threat after the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. But he says he was put off by Ms Rice, who "gave me the impression she had never heard the term [al-Qa'ida] before". 

In its report, the commission confirmed that Mr Clarke specifically advised giving secret aid to the main rebel group in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance, to help it unseat the Taliban. The commission said the advice was rejected by Ms Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, who opted for a broader review of the threat. 

The results were presented to President Bush only weeks before the 11 September attacks. Ms Rice herself demurred when asked to testify at the hearings. 

The report also said that only a day before the 11 September attacks, a meeting of US cabinet officials had agreed a three-pronged strategy to force Bin Laden out of Afghanistan. The third of these prongs was the forcible overthrow of the Taliban. 

Mr Rumsfeld defended the administration's failure to prevent the 11 September attacks. "A terrorist can attack any time any place, and we can't defend at any time, any place... For each defence by us, the terrorists will adjust," he said. 

The criticisms of Mr Bush's handling of events leading to 11 September could be critically damaging as he enters the presidential race againstJohn Kerry. His campaign will centre on the premise that his policies and the war against terror have made the US safer. 

Mr Bush sought yesterday to deflect Mr Clarke's charges. "The facts are these. [The CIA director] George Tenet briefed me on a daily basis about the terrorism threat to the US," he told reporters. "And had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on September 11 we would have acted." 

The former defence secretary William Cohen said the Clinton administration recognised the dangers posed by al-Qa'ida and considered the US to be "at war" against the terrorist organisation. On three occasions after August 1998, US officials considered using missile strikes to kill Bin Laden, but each time it was decided the intelligence wasn't good enough to ensure success, he said. 

2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd 

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