By Lisa Myers Senior investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/17/2004 6:40:01 PM ET 2004-03-17T23:40:01

As the 9/11 commission investigates what Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush might have done to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, one piece of evidence the commission will examine is a videotape secretly recorded by a CIA plane high above Afghanistan. The tape shows a man believed to Osama bin Laden walking at a known al-Qaida camp.

The question for the 9/11 commission: If the CIA was able to get that close to bin Laden before 9/11, why wasn’t he captured or killed? The videotape has remained secret until now.

Over the next three nights, NBC News will present this incredible spy footage and reveal some of the difficult questions it has raised for the 9/11 commission.

In 1993, the first World Trade Center bombing killed six people.

In 1998, the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa killed 224.

Both were the work of al-Qaida and bin Laden, who in 1998 declared holy war on America, making him arguably the most wanted man in the world.

In 1998, President Clinton announced, “We will use all the means at our disposal to bring those responsible to justice, no matter what or how long it takes.”

NBC News has obtained, exclusively, extraordinary secret video, shot by the U.S. government.  It illustrates an enormous opportunity the Clinton administration had to kill or capture bin Laden. Critics call it a missed opportunity.

In the fall of 2000, in Afghanistan, unmanned, unarmed spy planes called Predators flew over known al-Qaida training camps.  The pictures that were transmitted live to CIA headquarters show al-Qaida terrorists firing at targets, conducting military drills and then scattering on cue through the desert.

Also, that fall, the Predator captured even more extraordinary pictures — a tall figure in flowing white robes. Many intelligence analysts believed then and now it is bin Laden.

Why does U.S. intelligence believe it was bin Laden?  NBC showed the video to William Arkin, a former intelligence officer and now military analyst for NBC. “You see a tall man…. You see him surrounded by or at least protected by a group of guards.”

Bin Laden is 6 foot 5.  The man in the video clearly towers over those around him and seems to be treated with great deference.

Another clue: The video was shot at Tarnak Farm, the walled compound where bin Laden is known to live.  The layout of the buildings in the Predator video perfectly matches secret U.S. intelligence photos and diagrams of Tarnak Farm obtained by NBC.

“It’s dynamite.  It’s putting together all of the pieces, and that doesn’t happen every day.… I guess you could say we’ve done it once, and this is it,” Arkin added.

The tape proves the Clinton administration was aggressively tracking al-Qaida a year before 9/11.  But that also raises one enormous question: If the U.S. government had bin Laden and the camps in its sights in real time, why was no action taken against them?

“We were not prepared to take the military action necessary,” said retired Gen. Wayne Downing, who ran counter-terror efforts for the current Bush administration and is now an NBC analyst.

Global dragnet“We should have had strike forces prepared to go in and react to this intelligence, certainly cruise missiles — either air- or sea-launched — very, very accurate, could have gone in and hit those targets,” Downing added.

Gary Schroen, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan, says the White House required the CIA to attempt to capture bin Laden alive, rather than kill him.

What impact did the wording of the orders have on the CIA’s ability to get bin Laden?  “It reduced the odds from, say, a 50 percent chance down to, say, 25 percent chance that we were going to be able to get him,” said Schroen.

A Democratic member of the 9/11 commission says there was a larger issue: The Clinton administration treated bin Laden as a law enforcement problem.

Bob Kerry, a former senator and current 9/11 commission member, said, “The most important thing the Clinton administration could have done would have been for the president, either himself or by going to Congress, asking for a congressional declaration to declare war on al-Qaida, a military-political organization that had declared war on us.”

In reality, getting bin Laden would have been extraordinarily difficult. He was a moving target deep inside Afghanistan. Most military operations would have been high-risk.  What’s more, Clinton was weakened by scandal, and there was no political consensus for bold action, especially with an election weeks away.

NBC News contacted the three top Clinton national security officials. None would do an on-camera interview.  However, they vigorously defend their record and say they disrupted terrorist cells and made al-Qaida a top national security priority.

“We used military force, we used covert operations, we used all of the tools available to us because we realized what a serious threat this was,” said President Clinton’s former national security adviser James Steinberg.

One Clinton Cabinet official said, looking back, the military should have been more involved, “We did a lot, but we did not see the gathering storm that was out there.”

Tuesday:   How close the U.S. may have com to getting bin Laden?
Wednesday:   What more could the Bush administration have done to get bin Laden?
Thursday: Did Bush take terrorism seriously before 9/11 or was focus too much on Saddam?

Lisa Myers is NBC’s senior investigative correspondent

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