WASHINGTON -- Federal law-enforcement authorities in New York concluded that Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the radical Egyptian cleric, knew details of the plot to detonate bombs across the city and assassinate several officials but were prevented from arresting him at the last minute by the Clinton administration, government officials said yesterday.
The officials described the decision -- debated in a series of meetings last Tuesday -- as a hairline call ultimately decided by Attorney General Janet Reno on legal and tactical grounds, including Sheik Abdel-Rahman's usefulness as a powerful lens through which authorities examined the murky and violent world of Islamic extremism.
Moreover, as they considered preparing an arrest complaint, the officials concluded that some of the evidence against the sheik was "fuzzy," as one put it, although investigators were convinced -- on the basis of electronic monitoring -- that he knew about the plot. Their information was less clear about his precise role and how directly he was involved in specific actions, such as selecting targets.
"It was a close call," said one law-enforcement official. "It was not a clear 'go' or 'no go' decision."
As the officials pondered how to deal with Sheik Abdel-Rahman, whose fiery sermons have incited violence among his followers in Egypt, they were guided by ancillary factors, including whether he represented an immediate danger to others or might flee after the arrests. On both points, they decided the risks were not great, officials said.
Yesterday, senior Clinton administration officials said foreign policy considerations had not played a role in their decision to allow Sheik Abdel-Rahman to remain at large, although they suspected him of being linked to the bombing scheme, one of the most audacious terrorist plots ever conceived in the United States.
They insisted that there was never any attempt to shield Sheik Abdel-Rahman from the law in response to diplomatic pressure, perhaps from Egypt, where there is concern about violence among the sheik's followers if he is arrested.
Still, officials said that if they concluded that an arrest was warranted they could probably defend such an action in court. Some officials acknowledged that pressure to act against Sheik Abdel-Rahman could build, but they said they did not want to be pushed into law-enforcement actions based on public outrage over the incident.
Authorities may find it increasingly difficult to explain their reasons for allowing Sheik Abdel-Rahman to remain at large based on his value as an intelligence asset. His usefulness appears likely to grow increasingly limited, especially since it has become known that the authorities have used him to collect information and since the disclosure that Emad Salem, Sheik Abdel-Rahman's part-time translator and bodyguard, had spied on the cleric, turning over a wealth of information to the government as a confidential informer.
One of the targets for assassination, Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, said Saturday that he was "outraged" that Sheik Abdel-Rahman had not been arrested.
Others who were reported to have been targets of assassination plots were Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn, U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
In another development in the widening investigation, federal agents were trying to determine whether a rifle range and survivalist training site on a farm in Perry County, Pa., 35 miles northwest of Harrisburg, had been a paramilitary training ground for suspects in the conspiracy or the World Trade Center bombing four months ago.
Federal agents and Navy divers raided the site, run by a former New Yorker who is a Muslim, on Saturday.