The Clinton administration had early indications of terrorist links to Osama 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, it found.
Bush officials, meanwhile, failed to act immediately on increasing intelligence chatter and urgent warnings in early 2001 by its counterterrorism adviser, Richard A. Clarke, to take out al Qaeda targets, according to preliminary findings by the commission reviewing the attacks.
"My feeling is a whole number of circumstances, had they been different, might have prevented 9/11," panel chairman Thomas Kean, the former Republican New Jersey governor, told the CBS News Early Show. "They involve everything from how people got into the country to failures in the intelligence system. There's a whole series of things."
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 preliminary report said the U.S. government had determined bin Laden was a key terrorist financier as early as 1995, but that efforts to expel him from Sudan stalled after Clinton officials determined he couldn't be brought to the United States without an indictment. A year later, bin Laden left Sudan and set up his base in Afghanistan without resistance.
The Clinton administration turned to the Saudis for help. Mr. Clinton designated CIA Director George Tenet as his representative to work with the Saudis, who agreed to make an "all-out secret effort" to persuade Afghanistan's Taliban rulers to expel Bin Laden.
The Saudi intelligence chief received a commitment from Taliban leader Mullah Omar that bin Laden would be handed over, but Omar reneged on the agreement in September 1998.
The panel also reported that in 1995, the U.S. located Mohammed — then a suspect in a plot to plant bombs on American airliners in Asia — in Qatar. FBI and CIA officials sought a legal indictment. In 1996, Qatari officials reported Mohammed had suddenly disappeared.
The commission said that the U.S. government pressed two successive Pakistani governments in the mid-90s to pressure the Taliban by threatening to cut off support, without success. And from 1999 through early 2001, the United States pressed the United Arab Emirates, the Taliban's only travel and financial outlets to the outside world, to break off ties, with little success.
In conclusion, the report said "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."
The report was part of the commission's two-day hearing focusing on the two administration's failed responses to the threat from al Qaeda.
Scheduled to testify Tuesday were Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, as well as their counterparts in the Clinton administration, William Cohen and Albright. They were appearing as part of the panel's review of failures in diplomatic and military strategy.
The hearing comes following explosive allegations in a book released Monday by Clarke, Mr. Bush's former counterterrorism coordinator and a holdover from the Clinton administration, who is expected to testify Wednesday. Simon and Schuster, the book's publisher, and CBSNews.com are both owned by Viacom.
Clarke said that heafter the Cole attack but was put off by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who "gave me the impression she had never heard the term (al Qaeda) before."
"The president needed more," Rice said. "He needed a strategy for al Qaeda that was going to eliminate al Qaeda."
The commission's report Tuesday said Clarke pushed for immediate and secret military aid to the Taliban's foe, the Northern Alliance. But Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, proposed a broader review of the al Qaeda response that would take more time. The proposal wasn't approved for Mr. Bush's review until just weeks before Sept. 11.
Clarke also told CBS News' 60 Minutes that immediately after the 2001 attacks, the administration
Clarke was scheduled to testify Wednesday, along with Tenet, Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger and current Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
Kean told the Early Show the commission has already heard from Clarke for over 20 hours in private.
"We also heard a number of people from the administration," Kean said. "Obviously, there are conflicts here. That's our job is to sort out those conflicts."
"I think it would be a mistake for Gov. Kean or myself or members of the commission to try to prejudge the situation," Former congressman and commission co-chairman Lee Hamilton said.
The 10-member commission has invited Rice to testify, but she has declined on the advice of the White House, which cited separation of power concerns involving its staff appearing before a legislative body.
Rice did meet privately with commission members for four hours on Feb. 7 but some commission members and several Democratic senators have said Rice should appear before the commission in public.
Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have agreed to private, separate meetings with the commission's chairman and vice chairman.
"We would like them to appear before the whole commission. We think that's right and we think that's proper," Kean said.