Did Osama Hit Get Green Light?

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AP
The CIA director thought they didn't. The national security adviser says they did.

Confusion over whether American agents had the authority to kill Osama bin Laden may have hindered action against al Qaeda, hearings on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks revealed Wednesday.

The panel released a report that said CIA officials under President Clinton, Director George Tenet among them, did not believe they had the authority to assassinate the leader of the al Qaeda terrorist network.

But the former president's national security adviser bluntly disputed claims that the spy agency lacked the authority it needed.

Mr. Clinton gave the CIA "every inch of authorization that it asked for" to carry out plans to kill Osama bin Laden, Sandy Berger said.

"If there was any confusion down the ranks, it was never communicated to me nor to the president and if any additional authority had been requested I am convinced it would have been given immediately," he added.

The report also said that in August 2001, President Bush was briefed on terrorism but he was given no "specific, credible information about any threatened attacks in the United States."

Tenet, who preceded Berger in the witness chair, was not pressed on the issue of killing bin Laden.

The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, whose tenure has spanned both the Clinton and Bush administrations, praised aides to both presidents for their attentiveness to terrorism and defended his agency's performance

"Clearly there was no lack of care or focus in the face of one of the greatest dangers our country has ever faced," Tenet told the federal commission on the Sept. 11 attacks.

At the same time, he said unambiguously the nation should be prepared for another attack.

"It's coming. They are still going to try and do it, and we need to sort of — men and women here who have lost their families have to know that we've got to do a hell of a lot better," he said, in remarks that elicited applause from members of the victims' families seated in the audience.

The commission's findings are to be released this summer and are likely to provide fodder for both Republicans and Democrats in their fall election campaigns.

Due to testify later Wednesday is Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism chief for both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush. He claims that the Bush administration, fixated with invading Iraq, failed to act on his warnings about al Qaeda. The White House denied those charges.

The commission's report said the CIA's deputy director of operations, Jim Pavitt, told Mr. Bush shortly after he was elected that bin Laden was one of the gravest threats to the country.

"President-elect Bush asked whether killing bin Laden would end the problem. Pavitt said he and (Tenet) answered that killing bin Laden would have an impact but not stop the threat," the report said.

The CIA later told the White House that "the only long-term way to deal with the threat was to end al Qaeda's ability to use Afghanistan as a sanctuary for its operations."

After intelligence agencies began seeing strong indications in June and July 2001 that a terrorist attack was likely, some CIA officials were frustrated when some policy-makers questioned the intelligence. But Tenet, who was briefing Mr. Bush daily, "told us that his sense was that officials at the White House had grasped the sense of urgency he was communicating to them," the report said.

In August 2001, the CIA gave Mr. Bush a highly secretive assessment on whether terrorists might attack the United States. It included no "specific, credible information about any threatened attacks in the United States," according to a second report released by the commission Wednesday.

The White House was not informed about investigations that revealed that two al Qaeda operatives — both future hijackers — were in the United States.

The preliminary report said the CIA ran into major problems besides confusion over their authority to kill bin Laden, like depending too much on Afghan indigenous groups to attack bin Laden.

In another preliminary report issued Tuesday, the commission said U.S. officials planned missile attacks on bin Laden after receiving intelligence on his whereabouts, but didn't proceed with the strikes because the intelligence came from a single, uncorroborated source and there was a risk of innocents being killed.

"George (Tenet) would call and say, 'We just don't have it,'" the report quotes Berger as saying.

Tuesday's report also said that both the Clinton and Bush administrations engaged in lengthy, ultimately fruitless diplomatic efforts instead of military action to try to get bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Clinton administration did strike targets in Sudan and Afghanistan following attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa. Bin Laden was not hit, and may have been tipped off by a former head of Pakistani intelligence, Hamid Gul.

The report said officials in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, feared a failed attempt on bin Laden could kill innocents, boost bin Laden's prestige and lacked public support.

It wasn't until the day before the attacks that second-tier Bush Cabinet officials settled on a three-phase strategy: talks with the Taliban, followed if necessary by covert support for anti-Taliban fighters and, if those failed, direct military action.

At Tuesday's hearing, Secretary of State Colin Powell strongly defended the administration's efforts.

Powell said that even if U.S. forces had invaded Afghanistan, killed bin Laden and neutralized al Qaeda, "I have no reason to believe that would have caused them to abort their plans."

At least one Sept. 11 survivor agreed.

"He has a following where these men are willing to die for their cause. And they multiply by the thousands every hour," William Rodriguez, who was at the World Trade Center, told the CBS News Early Show.