WASHINGTON -- Although the United States did not set out to kill terrorist-financier Osama bin Laden in Thursday's missile attacks, the United States would be within its rights to kill him in a future strike "if he is in the line of fire," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said yesterday.
Although top U.S. officials said they did not know for certain that bin Laden survived the strikes against six suspected terrorist training sites said to be under his control, a number of reports from the region indicate that he was some distance from the targets and is plotting revenge.
Rather than aiming for bin Laden, Cohen said in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," the United States was intent on "targeting his infrastructure and his network. And we believe that that was a mission accomplished."
But, Cohen warned, "there may be future strikes," and said he, for one, would not be bothered if bin Laden were killed.
"If, in fact, he is in charge of this terror network, which we believe he is, and if he has declared war against the United States, which he has, and if he is part of the command and control of that terror network, then if he is in the line of fire as such, that's his problem."
In spelling out these conditions, Cohen offered a legal formula that would not conflict with long-standing U.S. policy against using assassination to advance U.S. aims overseas.
The policy, reaffirmed in presidential executive orders, is widely interpreted to bar assassinations of foreign leaders by the United States or its operatives.
An exception was made during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when the Pentagon argued that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could be considered a legitimate wartime military target as commander in chief of enemy armed forces.
A powerful terrorist leader, such as bin Laden, who is not part of any government, falls into a gray area.
Cohen's statement suggests that the administration would not single out bin Laden as a target. He would be a legitimate military target as part of an enemy command-and-control apparatus, Cohen indicated; or he could be caught in an attack and killed.
Cohen and other officials said they still did not know whether a terrorist meeting apparently scheduled for last Thursday at one of the targeted sites in Afghanistan had taken place. The meeting was one of the key reasons given for launching the missile strikes.
"We believe the information was accurate, that there was to be such a meeting," Cohen said. "It will be some time before we're able to make such an assessment in terms of how many people were there. We saw an increased level of activity each day leading up to Thursday, and that, again, was convincing evidence to us that the information was accurate."
A spokesman for the Taliban, the conservative Islamic group that rules most of Afghanistan, said yesterday that bin Laden's movements had been restricted, the Associated Press reported. However, it was unclear if this was to curb his violent activities or to protect him.
The spokesman, Mullah Abdullah, said bin Laden would be allowed to travel only in Taliban-controlled areas and would be "provided security by Taliban fighters."
"We are treating him as a guest," Abdullah said. "The security of Osama is important." Last week, the Taliban had said bin Laden had agreed to refrain from terrorist activities as a condition of being allowed to stay in Afghanistan.
Newsweek reports in its latest edition that before ordering the attacks, President Clinton had sought firm evidence of bin Laden's involvement in the Aug. 7 bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Part of this proof came in the form of a confession to Pakistani authorities by one of the suspects in the embassy bombings, Mohammad Sadik Howaida, 33, a Palestinian who reportedly told the Pakistanis that he was working for bin Laden.
Additional evidence came from U.S. intelligence in the form of "an intercepted mobile-phone conversation between two of bin Laden's lieutenants that clearly implicated them in the embassy bombing," Newsweek reported.
Separately, Britain's defense secretary, George Robertson, said yesterday that his government had independent evidence that bin Laden was involved in the East African bombings and "had plans for more such atrocities."
In addition to what U.S. officials have said was convincing evidence of bin Laden's link to the embassy bombers, they also had physical evidence that the factory destroyed in the U.S. strike in Sudan was involved in production of nerve gas, according to Samuel R. Berger, the president's national security adviser.
Robertson also said, "Bin Laden and others were seeking to acquire chemical and biological weapons."
After Thursday's strike, the U.S. government has tightened security at civilian and military facilities around the United States and overseas in anticipation of a retaliatory terrorist attack.
Pub Date: 8/24/98