Osama Plan Eyed On Attacks' Eve

New Jersey Devils goalie Yann Danis makes a save on a shot by Tampa Bay Lightning's James Wright during the third period, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2010, in Newark, N.J. The game was a continuation of Friday night's game which had to be postponed due to a lighting problem. The Lightning won 4-2.
AP Photo/Bill Kostroun
In the years and months before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Clinton and Bush administrations fruitlessly sought diplomatic rather than military solutions to force Osama bin Laden out of Afghanistan, a federal panel reported Tuesday.

Not until the day before the attacks did U.S. officials settle on a strategy to overthrow Afghanistan's Taliban government in case a final diplomatic push failed. That strategy was expected to take three years, the independent commission investigating the attacks said in one of two preliminary reports.

President Bush, meanwhile, denied he could have done more to prevent the attacks.

In his first direct response to criticism raised in a new book by his former counterterrorism adviser, Mr. Bush told reporters "had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on Sept. 11th, we would have acted."

The commission report said that U.S. officials feared a failed attempt on bin Laden could kill innocents and would only boost bin Laden's prestige. And the American public and Congress would have opposed any large-scale military operations before the September 2001 attacks, the report said.

In the end, it said, pursuing diplomacy over military action allowed bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders to elude capture.

The panel, formally the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, presented its findings as it began hearings with top-level Bush and Clinton administration officials. The aim was to question officials on their efforts to stop bin Laden in the years leading up to Sept. 11.

Former Defense Secretary William Cohen said the Clinton administration recognized the dangers posed by al Qaeda and considered the United States to be "at war" against the terrorist organization. Three times after August 1998 U.S. 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.

Earlier, Secretary of State Colin Powell stressed administration efforts to fight terrorism, an implicit rebuttal to criticism in a new book by Mr. Bush's former counterterrorism coordinator, Richard Clarke, who is expected to testify Wednesday.

"President Bush and his entire national security team understood that terrorism had to be among our highest priorities and it was," Powell said.

Likewise, former Secretary of State 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 and disrupt and defeat al-Qaeda."

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.

Among the staff findings:

U.S. officials were concerned that Taliban supporters in Pakistan's military would warn bin Laden of pending operations. The U.S. government had information that the former head of Pakistani intelligence, Hamid Gul, as a private citizen, had contacted Taliban leaders in July 1999 and assured them that he would provide three or four hours of warning before any U.S. missile launch as he had the "last time"' — an apparent reference to a failed 1998 cruise missile attack on bin Laden.

Pentagon counterterrorism officials prepared a strategy urging the Defense Department in September 1998 "to take up the gauntlet that international terrorists have thrown at our feet." But the paper was rejected by a deputy undersecretary as "too aggressive."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told the commission that "he did not recall any particular counterterrorism issue that engaged his attention before" the Sept. 11 attacks, other than using unmanned aircraft against bin Laden.

In a secret diplomatic mission, Saudi Arabia won a commitment from the Taliban to expel bin Laden, but Taliban leaders later reneged.

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

Shortly before the attacks, the Bush administration was debating how to force bin Laden out. At a Sept. 10, 2001, meeting of second-tier Cabinet officials, officials settled on a three-phase strategy. The first step called for dispatching an envoy to talk to the Taliban. If this failed, diplomatic pressure would be applied and covert funding and support for anti-Taliban fighters would be increased.

If both failed, "the deputies agreed that the United States would seek to overthrow the Taliban regime through more direct action," the report said. Deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley said the strategy had a three-year timeframe.

The report described Saudi Arabia as "a problematic ally in combating Islamic extremism," citing lax oversight of charitable donations that may have funded terrorists.

The Clinton administration had early indications of terrorist links to bin Laden and future Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as early as 1995, but let years pass as it pursued criminal indictments and diplomatic solutions to subduing them abroad, the commission's report said.

Clarke, who was Mr. Bush's counterterrorism coordinator and a holdover from the Clinton administration, said in a book out this week that he warned Bush officials in a January 2001 memo about a growing al Qaeda threat after an attack on the USS Cole in Yemen but was put off by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Rice "gave me the impression she had never heard the term" al Qaeda, Clarke wrote.