In an effort to defend the Bush administration against Clarke's accusations, Powell argued that top officials viewed the al-Qaida threat as an imperative from the earliest days of the administration, saying, "President Bush and his entire national security team understood that terrorism had to be among our highest priorities, and it was."
Some commission members, though, questioned that assertion, as well as the notion that U.S. officials had lacked specific enough or "actionable" intelligence to target al-Qaida.
"I keep hearing the excuse, `We didn't have actionable intelligence,'" said one of the commissioners, Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska.
"What the hell does that say to al-Qaida?" Kerrey asked Albright. "Basically, they knew at the beginning of 1993 that there was going to be limited, if any, use of military, and that they were also free to do whatever they wanted."
Commission investigators found that some lower-level intelligence officials thought the information on bin Laden's whereabouts was solid in at least one instance. In May 1999, the report found, intelligence sources detailed the location of bin Laden over the course of five nights. But Tenet decided against pushing for a strike because the information was based on a single source.
One frustrated intelligence official in charge of the bin Laden unit wrote afterward to a colleague that "having a chance to get [bin Laden] three times in 36 hours and forgoing the chance each time has made me a bit angry. ... [Tenet] finds himself alone at the table, with the other principals basically saying, `We'll go along with your decision, Mr. Director,' and implicitly saying that the Agency will hang alone if the attack doesn't get bin Laden."
Other considerations also appeared to have prevented U.S. officials from using force before Sept. 11. The panel noted that even as Afghanistan became a sanctuary for al-Qaida in the 1990s, the State Department's interest remained "limited."
"Some State diplomats were, as one official said to us, willing to `give the Taliban a chance,'" a report says, in an effort to bring stability to the country.
Stability, the report said, "would allow an oil pipeline to be built through the country, a project to be managed by the Union Oil Company of California."
Even after the bombings of two American embassies, U.S. officials were unwilling to turn to large-scale military action. Investigators found that some Pentagon counterterrorism officials wrote in a report that the United States should "take up the gauntlet" against international terrorists. But the document was rejected by an undersecretary who deemed it "too aggressive."
The report found, though, that some administration fears about military action were well-founded, notably concern that pro-Taliban members of Pakistan's military would warn bin Laden of any U.S. attack.
U.S. officials, the report said, believed that the former head of Pakistani intelligence, Hamid Gul, ruined the 1998 cruise missile strike on bin Laden by alerting him ahead of time. The missiles missed bin Laden by hours, after the camp was suddenly packed up and abandoned.
ON AL-QAIDA -- "We've eliminated a significant portion of the senior leadership. ... This does not eliminate the entire organization, and it is not the only organization that means is ill."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell
ON THE USS COLE
"We were obviously prepared to respond, but we did not have definitive evidence that it really was committed by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida."
Ex-Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright
'I knew of no intelligence during the six-plus months leading up to Sept. 11 that indicated terrorists would hijack commercial airliners, use them as missiles."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld
ON THREATS OF TERROR
"Even now after Sept. 11, it is far from clear that our society truly appreciated the gravity of the threat we face or is yet willing to do what is necessary to counter it."
Ex-Defense Secretary William S. Cohen