U.S. Was Foiled Multiple Times in Efforts To Capture Bin Laden or Have Him Killed

By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2001

The government of Sudan, employing a back channel direct from its president to the Central Intelligence Agency, offered in the early spring of 1996 to arrest Osama bin Laden and place him in Saudi custody, according to officials and former officials in all three countries.

The Clinton administration struggled to find a way to accept the offer in secret contacts that stretched from a meeting at a Rosslyn hotel on March 3, 1996, to a fax that closed the door on the effort 10 weeks later. Unable to persuade the Saudis to accept bin Laden, and lacking a case to indict him in U.S. courts at the time, the Clinton administration finally gave up on the capture.

Sudan expelled bin Laden on May 18, 1996, to Afghanistan. From there, he is thought to have planned and financed the twin embassy bombings of 1998, the near-destruction of the USS Cole a year ago and last month's devastation in New York and Washington.

Bin Laden's good fortune in slipping through U.S. fingers torments some former officials with the thought that the subsequent attacks might have been averted. Though far from the central figure he is now, bin Laden had a high and rising place on the U.S. counterterrorism agenda. Internal State Department talking points at the time described him as "one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world today" and blamed him for planning a failed attempt to blow up the hotel used by U.S. troops in Yemen in 1992.

"Had we been able to roll up bin Laden then, it would have made a significant difference," said a U.S. government official with responsibilities, then and now, in counterterrorism. "We probably never would have seen a September 11th. We would still have had networks of Sunni Islamic extremists of the sort we're dealing with here, and there would still have been terrorist attacks fomented by those folks. But there would not have been as many resources devoted to their activities, and there would not have been a single voice that so effectively articulated grievances and won support for violence."

Clinton administration officials maintain emphatically that they had no such option in 1996. In the legal, political and intelligence environment of the time, they said, there was no choice but to allow bin Laden to depart Sudan unmolested.

"The FBI did not believe we had enough evidence to indict bin Laden at that time, and therefore opposed bringing him to the United States," said Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, who was deputy national security adviser then.

Three Clinton officials said they hoped -- one described it as "a fantasy" -- that Saudi King Fahd would accept bin Laden and order his swift beheading, as he had done for four conspirators after a June 1995 bombing in Riyadh. But Berger and Steven Simon, then director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council (NSC) staff, said the White House considered it valuable in itself to force bin Laden out of Sudan, thus tearing him away from his extensive network of businesses, investments and training camps.

"I really cared about one thing, and that was getting him out of Sudan," Simon said. "One can understand why the Saudis didn't want him -- he was a hot potato -- and, frankly, I would have been shocked at the time if the Saudis took him. My calculation was, 'It's going to take him a while to reconstitute, and that screws him up and buys time.' "

Conflicting policy agendas on three separate fronts contributed to the missed opportunity to capture bin Laden, according to a dozen participants. The Clinton administration was riven by differences on whether to engage Sudan's government or isolate it, which influenced judgments about the sincerity of the offer. In the Saudi-American relationship, policymakers diverged on how much priority to give to counterterrorism over other interests such as support for the ailing Israeli-Palestinian talks. And there were the beginnings of a debate, intensified lately, on whether the United States wanted to indict and try bin Laden or to treat him as a combatant in an underground war.

In 1999, Sudanese President Omar Hassan Bashir referred elliptically to his government's early willingness to send bin Laden to Saudi Arabia. But the role of the U.S. government and the secret channel from Khartoum to Washington had not been disclosed before.

The Sudanese offer had its roots in a dinner at the Khartoum home of Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Othman Taha. It was Feb. 6, 1996 -- Ambassador Timothy M. Carney's last night in the country before evacuating the embassy on orders from Washington.

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