WASHINGTON - The Clinton and Bush administrations pursued futile diplomatic plans to try to neutralize Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks, instead of using military force against him and his terrorist network, a bipartisan panel has concluded.
The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks reported yesterday that U.S. officials failed to perceive the increasingly grave threat that the al-Qaida terrorist network posed. Not until the day before the attacks - Sept. 10, 2001 - did the Bush administration draft a military plan to oust the Taliban and al-Qaida from Afghanistan, the panel said. Yet even that strategy was not intended to take effect for at least three years.
In a day of high-profile witnesses as the commission began two days of public hearings, top officials from both administrations sought to explain why the U.S. government chose not to use force - except for one failed attempt in 1998 - to kill bin Laden or take out the Taliban regime that backed him.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the panel that even if the United States had attacked the Taliban or al-Qaida during the months that President Bush was in office before Sept. 11, it would have made little difference. The eventual 19 hijackers were already in the United States, they noted, and the plot was well under way.
Rumsfeld argued further that neither the American public nor other nations would have supported military action before the Sept. 11 attacks.
"How many countries would have joined the coalition?" he asked. "Many? Any? Not likely."
Rumsfeld's and Powell's testimony came as the 10-member commission is continuing to examine the events that led to the attacks and what could have been done to stop them. The panel released two more in a series of reports detailing how the Clinton and Bush administrations underestimated al-Qaida's ability and intent to target the United States.
Yesterday's events occurred in a highly charged atmosphere that followed explosive assertions this week by Richard A. Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism coordinator. In a new book and in a television interview, Clarke alleged that Bush ignored warnings about al-Qaida before Sept. 11. Clarke is scheduled to testify before the commission today.
According to one of the new reports, between December 1998 and July 1999, intelligence officials knew on four occasions where bin Laden was and how long he would likely be there, yet chose not to attack.
The report offered further evidence that senior officials failed to recognize the urgent danger al-Qaida posed to the United States. It found that the Bush administration spent seven months developing a plan to dismantle al-Qaida and produced a report on Sept. 10, the day before the attacks. The plan called for a three- to five-year effort to take aggressive steps against the Taliban - but only after further diplomatic efforts had been exhausted.
Also testifying yesterday, former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen defended the efforts of the Clinton administration, in which they served. They testified that concerns about the credibility of intelligence sources and the risk of killing civilians would have thwarted any plan to kill bin Laden with a missile strike, even if his location were known.
"We were mostly accused of overreacting - not underreacting," Albright said. "I think we dealt very appropriately with the issue. ... To bomb at random or use military force would have made our lives [as Americans] more difficult inside the Islamic world."
Staff investigators for the panel found that U.S. officials in both administrations determined that intelligence was not sufficiently reliable to warrant a strike and feared that a failed attempt would embolden al-Qaida and make the United States appear weak.
Echoing Rumsfeld's comments, the reports found that most top civilian and military officials at the Defense Department believed the American public would not have supported military operations in Afghanistan before Sept. 11.
Noting, though, how close American officials once were to eliminating bin Laden, the report found that in December 1998, when U.S. intelligence learned his precise location in Kandahar, Afghanistan, CIA Director George J. Tenet argued against a strike "because no one had seen bin Laden in a couple of hours."
Tenet is to testify today, along with Clarke, who is expected to elaborate on his allegations that the Bush administration did too little to combat al-Qaida and pushed instead to attack Iraq.
Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, has refused to testify.