WASHINGTON -- Clinton and Bush administration officials engaged in lengthy, ultimately fruitless diplomatic efforts instead of military action to try to get Osama bin Laden before attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a federal panel said Tuesday. Top Bush officials countered that the terror attacks would have occurred even if the United States had killed 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 presidential campaign issue, told the federal commission reviewing the attacks that the Sept. 11 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 Tuesday he would have acted 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 ignored bin Laden and the threat of the al-Qaida terror network while focusing on Iraq and Saddam Hussein.
Clarke, a holdover from the Clinton administration, said in a newly published book that he warned Bush officials of an urgent need to address the al-Qaida threat but was ignored. Clarke is scheduled to testify before the commission today.
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."
Still, according to preliminary findings in one of two reports issued by the commission, it wasn't until the day before the attacks that the Bush administration had a military strategy to overthrow the Taliban government and get at bin Laden in case a final diplomatic push failed. However, 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, 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. In addition to Clarke, the panel will hear today from CIA director George Tenet and Clinton administration national security adviser Sandy Berger.
The commission's staff has spent months interviewing Clinton and Bush administration officials and poring over documents. Its preliminary findings will be considered by the 10-member panel, which plans to issue a final report this summer.