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Spy plane captured video of bin Laden

An unmanned aerial drone captured video of a tall man surrounded by guards at a terrorist training camp in the fall of 2000. If it was Osama bin Laden, why didn't the U.S. take action? NBC's Lisa Myers reports.

1993: the World Trade Center bombing — six killed; 1998: two U.S. embassies bombed in Africa — 224 killed. All were the work of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, who in 1998 declared holy war on America, making him arguably the most wanted man in the world.

"We will use all the means at our disposal to bring those responsible to justice, no matter what or how long it takes," said President Clinton after the embassy bombings.

NBC News has obtained top-secret video shot by the U.S. government. It illustrates an enormous opportunity the Clinton administration had to kill or capture bin Laden — critics say a missed opportunity. 

In the fall of 2000 in Afghanistan, un-manned, un-armed spy planes — called Predators — fly over known al-Qaida training camps. The pictures are transmitted live to CIA headquarters, showing al-Qaida terrorists firing at targets, conducting military drills, then scattering on cue through the desert.

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

We showed the video to William Arkin, a former intelligence officer and now military analyst for NBC, and asked him why U.S. intelligence believes it's bin Laden.

"You see a tall man. You see him surrounded by — or at least protected by — a group of guards," says Arkin.

Bin Laden is 6'5" tall — the man on the tape clearly towers over those around him — and seems to be treated with great deference. Another clue — the video is shot at Tarnak Farm, the walled compound where bin Laden is known to have lived. The layout of the buildings in the Predator video perfectly matches secret U.S. intelligence photos and diagrams of Tarnak Farm obtained by NBC News.

"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," says Arkin.

The tape proves the Clinton administration was aggressively tracking al-Qaida a year before 9/11. But that also raises one big 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," says Gen. Wayne Downing (ret.), who ran counter-terror efforts for the Bush administration and is now an NBC analyst.

"We should have had strike forces prepared to go in and react to this intelligence, certainly cruise missiles either air or sea-launched," says Gen. Downing. "They're very accurate and could have gone in and hit those targets."

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.

"It reduced the odds from, say, a 50 percent chance down to, say, a 25 percent chance that we were going to be able to get him," says 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.

"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," says commissioner and former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey.

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.

None of the top three Clinton administration national security officials — Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, and Secretary of Defense William Cohen — would do an on-camera interview. However, they vigorously defend their record, 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, says President Clinton's Deputy National Security Advisor James Steinberg.

One Clinton cabinet official says, 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," he says.