WASHINGTON — Efforts to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and smash his shadowy al-Qaida terror network before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were hampered by a U.S. reliance on Afghan rebels for intelligence and confusion over whether former President Bill Clinton had empowered the CIA to assassinate bin Laden, a federal panel reported Wednesday.
The findings were included in the second of two preliminary reports made public by the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks in conjunction with an unprecedented two-day public hearing on the diplomatic, military and intelligence efforts to fight al-Qaida before the attacks.
Testifying before the panel Wednesday, both CIA Director George Tenet and Clinton’s national security adviser, Samuel Berger, took issue with some of the report’s findings and with assertions by longtime government counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke, who followed them to the witness table.
Looking into the ‘rearview mirror’ of history
In a written statement that he read at the outset, Berger cautioned against apportioning blame for a tragedy based on information assembled by looking in the “rearview mirror” of history.
“It is easier to see how puzzle pieces fit together when you have in hand the final picture,” he said.
Clarke testified after Tenet and Berger, reiterating his allegation that in the first eight months of the Bush administration, terrorism was treated as “an important issue, but not an urgent issue.”
White House officials have strenuously denied the accusation and have launched a sustained public attack on Clarke’s credibility.
The parts of the commission’s preliminary report that were released Wednesday — sections seven and eight in an ongoing series of releases — praised the CIA for its efforts against al-Qaida in the years before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which killed nearly 3,000 people.
“Before Sept. 11, no agency did more to attack al-Qaida, working day and night, than did the CIA,” it said.
Confusion seen over bin Laden directive
But it said confusion over a directive from Clinton hampered the agency’s ability to target the organization.
Members of the National Security Council under Clinton said they wanted bin Laden killed, but CIA officials on the ground — including Tenet — thought the policy was to try to capture him, according to the report by the staff of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.
“Working-level CIA officers said they were frustrated by what they saw as the policy restraints of having to instruct their assets to mount a capture operation,” said Chris Kojm, deputy executive director of the commission.
In his testimony, Berger denied that there was any room for confusion, saying Clinton’s directive gave the CIA “every inch of authorization that it asked for” to carry out plans to kill bin Laden if it could find him.
Berger: Clinton directive was unambiguous
Berger insisted that the CIA never indicated that there was any confusion over Clinton’s order.
“If there was any confusion down the ranks, it was never communicated to me nor to the president, and if any additional authority had been requested, I am convinced it would have been given immediately,” he said.
Berger said the intention of the order was “made unmistakably clear” by the cruise missile strike on an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan that Clinton ordered in August 1998, following attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
“There could not have been any doubt. ... The intent was to kill bin Laden,” he said.
Tenet, in his testimony, said he had not sought clarification.
“I never went back and said, ‘I don’t have all the authorities I need,’” he replied when asked about the issue.
“If I felt that I had developed access or capability that required dramatically different authorities, I would have gone in and said, ‘This is what I have, this is what I think I can do; please me these authorities,’ and I don’t doubt that they would have been granted.”
Divisions within CIA over assassination
The report also indicated that there were divisions within the spy agency about assassinating bin Laden.
“Two senior CIA officers told us they would have been morally and practically opposed to getting CIA into what might look like an assassination,” the report said.
But it also quoted the unidentified leader of the CIA’s special al-Qaida unit as saying, “We always talked about how much easier it would have been to kill him.”
Tenet bristled at the suggestion that his agents were less than enthusiastic about their mission.
“The idea that they [the CIA’s clandestine unit] are risk-averse, couldn’t get the job done, weren’t forward-leaning — I’m sorry, I’ve heard those comments, and I just categorically reject” them, Tenet told the panel.
The report also said the CIA’s reluctance to engage personnel in Afghanistan because of its dangers meant that the agency had to rely on local forces to provide intelligence or mount operations to capture bin Laden.
“For covert action forces, proxies meant problems,” the report said. “First proxies tend to tell those who pay them what they want to hear.” Proxies also require training to carry out operations, it said.
Local forces reportedly considered attacking bin Laden convoys about six times before Sept. 11, 2001. Each time, the operation was aborted because bin Laden took a different route, security was too tight or women and children were believed to be in the convoy, the report said.
Among other findings in the report released Wednesday:
- In August 2001, the CIA gave Bush a highly secret assessment on whether terrorists might attack the United States. It included no “specific, credible information about any threatened attacks in the United States,” the report said.
- The CIA’s deputy director of operations, Jim Pavitt, told Bush shortly after he was elected that bin Laden was one of the gravest threats to the country.
“President-elect Bush asked whether killing bin Laden would end the problem. Pavitt said he and [Tenet] answered that killing bin Laden would have an impact but not stop the threat,” the report said.
The CIA later told the White House that “the only long-term way to deal with the threat was to end al-Qaida’s ability to use Afghanistan as a sanctuary for its operations.”
- The White House was not informed about investigations that revealed that two al-Qaida operatives — both of them future hijackers — were in the United States or about the FBI investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person to be charged in the United States with being a conspirator in the Sept. 11 operation.
Raw intelligence reports distributed
Tenet testified that his agency made the elimination of bin Laden and his shadowy network a high priority, setting up the special al-Qaida unit in early 1996 and issuing the first in a long series of warnings about the threat posed by the Saudi and his organization.
Although it was difficult to track bin Laden once he moved from the Sudan into Afghanistan, the agency also expanded its intelligence network in the country to try and pinpoint his whereabouts, he said.Video: Day 2
Tenet also noted in a written statement that the agency widely disseminated raw intelligence reports in the summer of 2001 indicating that al-Qaida was engaged in “intensive operational planning and preparations” for a terrorist attack and that among their targets of choice was the U.S. homeland.
“Despite the efforts, we still did not penetrate the plot,” he said.
But a member of the commission, Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, countered that the CIA’s warnings and briefings produced a flawed plan to fight al-Qaida that was circulated among senior Bush administration officials just days before the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I was briefed this morning on that plan. I would say fortunately for the administration it’s classified, because there’s almost nothing in it,” he said.
In the part of the preliminary report that was issued Tuesday — sections five and six — the commission said U.S. officials planned missile attacks on bin Laden after receiving intelligence on his whereabouts but did not proceed with the strikes because the intelligence came from a single, uncorroborated source and there was a risk that innocent bystanders would be killed.
“George would call and say, ‘We just don’t have it,’” the report quotes Berger as saying.
Findings to play role in election
The commission’s findings are to be released this summer and are likely to provide fodder for both Republicans and Democrats in their fall election campaigns. Sections five and six were released Tuesday; sections one through four were released last year to coincide with hearings on the details of the Sept. 11 attacks specifically.
In Tuesday’s report, the commission said that both the Clinton and the Bush administrations engaged in long, ultimately fruitless diplomatic efforts instead of military action to try to get bin Laden before Sept. 11, 2001.
The Clinton administration did strike targets in Sudan and Afghanistan following attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa. Bin Laden was not hit, and the commission report suggests that he may have been tipped off by a former head of Pakistani intelligence, Hamid Gul.
Intelligence reports placed bin Laden at specific locations in Afghanistan in December 1998, February 1999 and May 1999, but the intelligence was not considered strong enough for a strike.
Commissioners questioned why the United States lacked “actionable intelligence” that would have allowed them to strike at bin Laden and whether clues of an impending attack were missed by intelligence agencies before Sept. 11. Among the most glaring problems was the failure of U.S. officials to monitor two future Sept. 11 hijackers after they had been identified at an al-Qaida meeting in Malaysia in January 2000.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell strongly defended the administration’s efforts at Tuesday’s hearing, saying the administration had been developing a strategy to defeat al-Qaida instead of offering tit-for-tat responses to terrorist attacks.
Both Rumsfeld and Powell expressed doubt that the administration, which took office less than eight months before the attacks, could have stopped the terrorists through military force.
“Killing bin Laden would not have removed al-Qaida’s sanctuary in Afghanistan,” Rumsfeld said. “Moreover, the sleeper cells that flew the aircraft into the World Trade towers and the Pentagon were already in the United States months before the attack.”
Powell said that even if U.S. forces had invaded Afghanistan, killed bin Laden and neutralized al-Qaida, “I have no reason to believe that would have caused them to abort their plans.”
Powell, Rumsfeld, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Defense Secretary William Cohen were pressed by commissioners who said both administrations were slow to respond the threat posed by al-Qaida, despite repeated attacks through the 1990s.
Asked what was considered actionable intelligence, Cohen said: “Do we have to be certain? The answer is no. Do you have to be pretty sure? I think that the answer is yes if you’re going to be killing a lot of people.”
Many commission members said they wanted national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who has met with the panel privately, to testify in public. But Rice reiterated in an interview Wednesday on “NBC Nightly News” that while she wanted to do so, she would not because of the president’s executive privilege.
MSNBC.com’s Mike Brunker, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.