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Clarke: CIA had low-level spies inside al-Qaida

Richard Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism official, testified in 2002 that the CIA had some low-level spies inside al-Qaida in the three years before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
/ Source: Reuters

The CIA had some low-level spies inside al-Qaida in the three years before the Sept. 11 attacks, but none who could provide advance information about the group’s movements, according to testimony released on Wednesday from a closed-door intelligence briefing in 2002.

The CIA did not have spies inside the network run by Osama bin Laden until 1999, but “none of them very high-level,” Richard Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism official, told the joint congressional committee investigating Sept. 11.

In a rare move, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a 103-page declassified transcript of the June 11, 2002, closed-door briefing on its Web site late on Wednesday. Most of the information had been made public during subsequent open hearings and in the final report of the joint inquiry.

The CIA “never had anyone in position to tell us what was going to happen in advance, or even where bin Laden was going to be in advance,” Clarke told lawmakers.

On the three occasions when they thought they knew bin Laden’s location, the CIA opposed taking military action, saying its sources were not good enough, he said.

“I think it is very difficult to place human sources high up in al-Qaida. I think it is possible to develop low-level sources. I think it is possible to develop technical means of collection that may provide us with information,” Clarke said.

Several times in the 1990s the Pentagon was asked to “snatch” terrorism suspects overseas, but the main message to the White House from uniformed military leadership was that they did not want to do this, Clarke said.

Lost chance in Khartoum
He said a leading al-Qaida operative had been pinpointed in Khartoum. “We knew what hotel he was in. We knew what room he was in in the hotel.”

The CIA did not have snatch capability and the military leadership told the White House that it would never work, while telling subordinates who had planned an operation that the White House had stopped it, Clarke said.

Asked how much information was obtained from hundreds of terrorism suspects held by other countries in the late 1990s, Clarke replied: “That depends on the country. If they were held in a West European democracy, we didn’t get very much information.”

He said the National Security Agency does not gather intelligence in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.