U.S. reportedly to release some bin Laden evidence

White paper aims to answer demand for concrete evidence

Terrorism Strikes America

September 23, 2001|By BOSTON GLOBE

WASHINGTON - President Bush, under pressure from foreign governments to produce evidence that Osama bin Laden is responsible for the attacks Sept. 11, has directed investigators to prepare a briefing paper outlining the U.S. case, sources familiar with the situation said.

The white paper is expected to be made public. It is designed mainly to assure potential allies and the American public that the White House has concrete proof that the exiled Saudi millionaire is directly tied to the attacks, a key to building political support for any retaliation.

"This is intended to make the case for responsibility for these terrorist attacks," said an official preparing the paper, which is expected to be one or two pages long. "It will include evidence of bin Laden links to the New York and Washington attacks, as well as other events where al-Qaeda has contributed to the loss of American life."

But few expect the unclassified paper to satisfy the demands of bin Laden's supporters. The most sensitive material is likely to be excluded for fear that such evidence would compromise U.S. intelligence-gathering activities.

Such concerns have prevented White House officials from elaborating on Bush's description of bin Laden as the "prime suspect."

As a result, the vague public remarks of American officials have raised suspicions among Muslims abroad that Washington is recklessly pursuing a war on Islam, creating diplomatic hurdles as it tries to win support from nations such as Pakistan.

Even specialists in international law say the proof made public so far is circumstantial at best.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, asked repeatedly last week to explain why bin Laden was the focus of the newly declared war on terrorism, declined to answer. "The American people have heard plenty of explanations from the president and from the government assembled," he said.

Fleischer also pointed to past attacks, such as the bombings of the USS Cole and U.S. embassies in Africa, in which bin Laden was a suspect.

Those earlier attacks are expected to be included in the briefing paper, the sources familiar with it said.

But the paper is expected to go further in shedding light on the recent attacks than administration officials have so far.

"The primary focus will be who was responsible for what happened on Sept. 11," said one official, who, like all of the officials involved, spoke on condition of anonymity.

The briefing paper is a source of controversy within the intelligence community, where information about bin Laden and his network is closely guarded.

Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counterintelligence chief familiar with the document, said the paper is "very contentious" because "the real smoking gun here is the most sensitive information."

The Department of Justice is leaving the preparation of the paper to the Central Intelligence Agency and the White House, a Justice Department official said. Other officials said the FBI also is involved.

A spokesman for the National Security Council said he was unfamiliar with the document, and warned that investigators who described it "may not have the entire picture of things."

The White House has come under mounting pressure to produce evidence of bin Laden's involvement as U.S. military forces increase their presence in the Middle East, a first step in the expected strikes against the terrorist network in Afghanistan.

Convincing the international community of the justness of the U.S. cause could prove important to the success of any economic, diplomatic, or military action to punish the perpetrators.

Officials of the ruling Taliban have said they are shielding bin Laden in Afghanistan until the U.S. makes its case. The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan told reporters in Islamabad that the ruling party was "not ready to hand over Osama bin Laden without evidence."

"Our position on this is that if America has proof, we are ready for the trial of Osama bin Laden in light of the evidence," said Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef.

Other Arab leaders have made similar pleas, to varying degrees.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called for "hard evidence" last week, as did President Jiang Zemin of China.

And Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, said in an address to the nation last week that he had urged the United States to show "whatever proof they have."

Pakistan has offered to support the United States in the pursuit of bin Laden over the fierce objections of Muslim hard-liners.

Harvard law professor Philip B. Heymann, former deputy attorney general under President Clinton and author of Terrorism and America, said:

"At some point, if you're going to justify military action or kidnapping or something else, you've got to be prepared to make your case with evidence.

"It may very well be unrealistic that they can do it right now. ... On the other hand, you're building on sand unless, in terms of public opinion and international opinion, you're able to make your case in a convincing way."

The circumstantial evidence revealed so far has not pointed toward any other major suspect other than bin Laden. Mohamed Atta, one of the suspected hijackers on the American Airlines flight that slammed into the World Trade Center, has ties to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which works with bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization.

A suspect on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon, Khalid al-Midhar, reportedly met with a suspected bomber of the USS Cole in January, according to public accounts.

Whether the white paper being prepared by investigators will detail communications between those suspects and al-Qaeda remains to be seen.

Whether the document implicates other parties or a state sponsor also isn't known.

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