Chance to Attack Bin Laaden
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WASHINGTON (AP) _ In the waning days of the Clinton presidency, senior officials received specific intelligence about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and weighed a military plan to strike the suspected terrorist mastermind’s location. The administration ultimately opted against an attack.
The information spurred a high-level debate inside the White House in December 2000 about whether the classified information provided the last best chance for President Clinton to punish bin Laden before he left office, the officials said.
Now nine month later, officials are discussing the incident as bin Laden’s name increasingly is being connected with Tuesday’s suicide attacks in New York and Washington.
Some in Congress have expressed anger that the United States has not been able to put bin Laden more on the defensive in Afghanistan with military strikes after years of intelligence linking him to global acts of terrorism against Americans.
``We should have put bin Laden on the defensive so he would be thinking about how we are going to get him rather than him plotting massive terrorist plots,″ Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said.
Officials said the Clinton administration in its closing months reviewed several opportunities to possibly strike at bin Laden, but never felt they had enough information to risk such an operation.
``There were a couple of points, including in December, where there was intelligence indicative of bin Laden’s whereabouts. But I can categorically tell you that at no point was it ripe enough to act,″ former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger told The Associated Press.
Officials said the December meeting was the most pointed in a series of discussions over several months. Several officials familiar with the debate said top military and national security officials convened in the White House to discuss the options.
One individual familiar with the discussions, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the meeting was prompted by ``eyes-on intelligence″ about bin Laden’s whereabouts _ a term used to indicate a human or satellite spotting.
According to officials:
_Military officials presented a possible military strike option, and the pros and cons were debated.
_Among the concerns voiced was whether the intelligence wasn’t already stale given bin Laden’s tendency to move quickly and go into hiding. There also was discussion of possible collateral damage if such an attack occurred.
_Ultimately, the president and aides decided not to strike. Berger and one other official said military officials never made a formal recommendation to proceed with the attack.
``There was never a recommendation from the Pentagon,″ Berger said.
Military strikes were aimed at bin Laden once before. After U.S. embassies were bombed in Africa three years ago, Washington retaliated with a missile attack in August 1998, sending more than 70 Tomahawk cruise missiles into eastern Afghanistan targeting training camps operated by bin Laden.
The U.S. attacks killed about 20 followers but bin Laden escaped unhurt. Since then he has been forced by Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers to stop giving interviews and making statements.