WASHINGTON (AP) — Clinton and Bush administration
officials engaged in fruitless diplomatic efforts instead of
military action to try to get Osama bin Laden out of Afghanistan
before the Sept. 11 attacks, a federal panel said yesterday. Top
officials countered that the terror operation would have occurred
even if the United States had been able to kill the al-Qaida
leader.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State
Colin Powell, in a strong defense of pre-Sept. 11 actions that have
become a major campaign issue, told the federal commission
reviewing the attacks that the plot was well under way when the
Bush administration took office in January 2001.

“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.”

Separately, President Bush said Monday that he would have acted
more quickly before Sept. 11 “had my administration had any
information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on
Sept. 11.”

The testimony by Rumsfeld and Powell came against the backdrop
of counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke’s claim that top
Bush administration officials had ignored bin Laden and the threat
of the al-Qaida terror network while focusing on Iraq’s
Saddam Hussein.

Powell did not mention Clarke, but said, “President Bush
and his entire national security team understood that terrorism had
to be among our highest priorities and it was.”

Yet, not until the day before the attacks did U.S. officials
settle on a strategy to overthrow the Taliban Afghan government in
case a final diplomatic push failed. That strategy was expected to
take three years, the commission said.

The commission report said U.S. officials, in both the Clinton
and Bush administrations, feared a failed attempt on bin Laden
could kill innocents and would only boost bin Laden’s
prestige. And the American public and Congress would have opposed
any large-scale military operations before the September 2001
attacks, the report said.

In the end, it said, pursuing diplomacy over military action
allowed bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders to elude capture.

The panel investigating Sept. 11, formally the National
Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, is holding
two days of hearings with top-level Bush and Clinton administration
officials. The aim is to question them on their efforts to stop bin
Laden in the years leading up to Sept. 11.

The commission’s staff has spent months interviewing
Clinton and Bush administration officials and poring over
documents. Its preliminary findings, included in two statements
issued Monday, will be considered by the 10-member panel, which
plans to issue a final report this summer.

The staff reports found both administrations lacked the detailed
intelligence needed to strike directly at bin Laden, so they
fruitlessly sought a diplomatic solution to get the al-Qaida leader
out of Afghanistan.

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