By Walter Pincus and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 9, 2001 12:38 AM
The United States has obtained a videotape of Osama bin Laden describing the damage around the World Trade Center -- where the twin towers and other buildings were destroyed -- as being much greater than he had expected, according to senior government officials.
On the tape, which was obtained in Afghanistan during the search of a private home in Jalalabad, bin Laden praised God for far greater success than he expected, using language that indicated he was familiar with the planning of the attacks, according to one of the officials.
The administration has blamed bin Laden for the Sept. 11 attacks but has not released evidence showing that he directly planned or ordered them. Although officials have said they have intercepted communications allegedly tying bin Laden or his associates to the hijackers, they have not released any such material, citing intelligence concerns.
The videotape discovered in Jalalabad offers the most conclusive evidence of a connection between bin Laden and the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, according to government officials who have been briefed on its contents or have read transcripts.
Senior Bush administration officials are debating whether and how to release the videotape, which some officials hope could tamp down concern in the Muslim world that Washington has unjustly accused bin Laden.
"It is very clear that bin Laden not only had advance knowledge [of the Sept. 11 attacks], but [the video] is proof he was responsible for planning," said one senior official who has been shown a transcript of the videotape.
The 40-minute tape, which an official said appears to have been shot by an amateur, has been viewed by very senior Bush administration officials within the past week. Fearful it might be a fake, officials sent it to outside experts for review, and they declared it "legitimate," one senior official said.
On the tape, according to one official who has heard a description of its contents, bin Laden said he was at a dinner when first word came that a plane had crashed into a World Trade Center tower. Bin Laden said that he told the others at the dinner, and that they cheered. He then indicated on the tape that more is coming, according to the official.
Bin Laden used his outstretched hands to explain that he expected only the top of the Trade Center towers to collapse, down to the level where the airliners struck. The eventual total collapse of both towers, the al Qaeda leader said, was totally unexpected.
U.S. intelligence officials are not certain as to why the tape was shot, but in other cases such tapes have been used by al Qaeda for recruitment purposes, a senior official said. Government officials declined to offer more details of how the videotape fell into the U.S. government's hands or which agency obtained it.
The new videotape is not the one described last month by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Intelligence sources had obtained only a transcript of that tape, not the actual video.
Blair, in a Nov. 10 speech to Parliament, said the transcript of an Oct. 20 video shows that bin Laden was asked by an interviewer about the New York and Washington attacks. Blair said the al Qaeda leader replied: "It is what we instigated, for a while, in self defense. And it was revenge for our people killed in Palestine and Iraq."
A decision on whether to release information on the newly discovered tape is in the hands of presidential counselor Karen Hughes, according to a senior official familiar with the situation.
Shortly after the September terrorist attacks, President Bush gave Hughes the task of managing the White House information flow on the Afghan war. Hughes heads a special White House-based public relations operation that the United States and Britain began early last month to win international public support, particularly in the Islamic world, for the anti-terrorist campaign.
The public relations group has been concerned with the lack of U.S. credibility in the Muslim world, and recent discussions about release of the tape have focused on how to get Arab audiences to believe its contents -- something that might not happen if Washington was the source of the release.
Asked yesterday about the bin Laden tape, Hughes responded through deputy White House communications director Jim Wilkinson: "We cannot confirm or deny this report. As a matter of practice, we do not comment on matters of intelligence or military activities."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell promised on Sept. 23 that the United States would produce a document containing compelling evidence bin Laden and his network were responsible for the attacks. He later said the material was classified and could not be released.
On Oct. 4, however, Blair used a speech to Parliament to lay out the U.S. proof. He said that Western governments had evidence that bin Laden indicated, before the attacks, he was preparing "a major attack on America" and that he ordered associates to return to Afghanistan by Sept. 10. Blair also said a top al Qaeda lieutenant admitted the bin Laden organization was responsible for the suicide attacks. That person has not been identified and has not made any statements in public.
Evidence shown by U.S. officials to the government of Pakistan on Oct. 4 provided "sufficient basis for indictment" of bin Laden in a court of law, that country's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Riaz Muhammad Khan, said without providing details.
Last month, in releasing a 23-page update of intelligence findings, British officials said that another bin Laden associate had admitted that he trained some of the hijackers. That individual, also, has neither been identified nor has made any statement in public.
Bin Laden, himself, has denied a role in the attacks. On Sept. 12, the day after the attacks, a bin Laden aide told an interviewer from al Jazeera television over a satellite phone that the al Qaeda leader "thanked Almighty Allah and bowed before him when he heard this news," but that "he had no information or knowledge about the attack."
On Sept. 17, a bin Laden aide gave the Afghan Islamic Press a statement in which bin Laden said: "I have taken an oath of allegiance to [Mullah Omar, head of Afghanistan] which does not allow me to do such things from Afghanistan. We have been blamed in the past, but we were not involved."
In a tape prepared for release over al-Jazeera television after the first U.S. missiles fell on Afghanistan on Oct. 7, bin Laden again praised the "groups of Islam, vanguards of Islam . . . [who] destroyed America," adding, "I pray to God to elevate their status and bless them." But he again did not accept responsibility for the attack.