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 Agendas

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.

Paul Quaglia, then the CIA station chief in Khartoum, had led a campaign to pull out all Americans after he and his staff came under aggressive surveillance and twice had to fend off attacks, one with a knife and one with claw hammers. Now Carney was instructed, despite his objections, to withdraw all remaining Americans from the country.

Carney and David Shinn, then chief of the State Department's East Africa desk, considered the security threat "bogus," as Shinn described it. Washington's dominant decision-makers on Sudan had lost interest in engagement, preparing plans to isolate and undermine the regime. The two career diplomats thought that was a mistake, and that Washington was squandering opportunities to enlist Sudan's cooperation against radical Islamic groups.

One factor in Washington's hostility was an intelligence tip that Sudan aimed to assassinate national security adviser Anthony Lake, the most visible administration critic of Khartoum. The Secret Service took it seriously enough to remove Lake from his home, shuffling him among safe houses and conveying him around Washington in a heavily armored car. Most U.S. analysts came to believe later that it had been a false alarm.

Taha, distressed at the deteriorating relations, invited Carney and Shinn to dine with him that Tuesday night. He asked what his country could do to dissuade Washington from the view, expressed not long before by then-United Nations Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright, that Sudan was responsible for "continued sponsorship of international terror."

Carney and Shinn had a long list. Bin Laden, as they both recalled, was near the top. So, too, were three members of Egypt's Gamaat i-Islami, Arabic for Islamic Group, who had fled to Sudan after trying to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Sudan also played host to operatives and training facilities for the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

"It was the first substantive chat with the U.S. government on the subject of terrorism," Carney recalled.

Taha mostly listened. He raised no objection to the request for bin Laden's expulsion, though he did not agree to it that night. His only rejoinders came on Hamas and Hezbollah, which his government, like much of the Arab world, regarded as conducting legitimate resistance to Israeli occupation.

Sudanese President Bashir, struggling for dominance over the fiery cleric Hassan Turabi, had already made overtures to the West. Not long before, he had delivered the accused terrorist known as "Carlos the Jackal" to France. Less than a month after Taha's dinner, he sent a trusted aide to Washington.

Maj. Gen. Elfatih Erwa, then minister of state for defense, arrived unannounced at the Hyatt Arlington on March 3, 1996. Using standard tradecraft, he checked into one room and then walked to another, across Wilson Boulevard from the Rosslyn Metro.

Carney and Shinn were waiting for him, but the meeting was run by covert operatives from the CIA's Africa division. The Washington Post does not identify active members of the clandestine service. Frank Knott, who was Africa division chief in the directorate of operations at the time, declined to be interviewed.

In a document dated March 8, 1996, the Americans spelled out their demands. Titled "Measures Sudan Can Take to Improve Relations with the United States," the two-page memorandum asked for six things. Second on the list -- just after an angry enumeration of attacks on the CIA station in Khartoum -- was Osama bin Laden.

"Provide us with names, dates of arrival, departure and destination and passport data on mujahedin [holy warriors] that Usama Bin Laden has brought into Sudan," the document demanded. The CIA emissaries told Erwa that they knew of about 200 such bin Laden loyalists in Sudan.

During the next several weeks, Erwa raised the stakes. The Sudanese security services, he said, would happily keep close watch on bin Laden for the United States. But if that would not suffice, the government was prepared to place him in custody and hand him over, though to whom was ambiguous. In one formulation, Erwa said Sudan would consider any legitimate proffer of criminal charges against the accused terrorist. Saudi Arabia, he said, was the most logical destination.

Susan Rice, then senior director for Africa on the NSC, remembers being intrigued with but deeply skeptical of the Sudanese offer. And unlike Berger and Simon, she argued that mere expulsion from Sudan was not enough.

"We wanted them to hand him over to a responsible external authority," she said. "We didn't want them to just let him disappear into the ether."

Lake and Secretary of State Warren Christopher were briefed, colleagues said, on efforts launched to persuade the Saudi government to take bin Laden.

The Saudi idea had some logic, since bin Laden had issued a fatwa, or religious edict, denouncing the ruling House of Saud as corrupt. Riyadh had expelled bin Laden in 1991 and stripped him of his citizenship in 1994, but it wanted no part in jailing or executing him.

Saudis Feared a Backlash

Clinton administration officials recalled that the Saudis feared a backlash from the fundamentalist opponents of the regime. Though regarded as a black sheep, bin Laden was nonetheless an heir to one of Saudi Arabia's most influential families. One diplomat familiar with the talks said there was another reason: The Riyadh government was offended that the Sudanese would go to the Americans with the offer.

Some U.S. diplomats said the White House did not press the Saudis very hard. There were many conflicting priorities in the Middle East, notably an intensive effort to save the interim government of Prime Minister Shimon Peres in Israel, which was reeling under its worst spate of Hamas suicide bombings. U.S. military forces also relied heavily on Saudi forward basing to enforce the southern "no fly zone" in Iraq.

Resigned to bin Laden's departure from Sudan, some officials raised the possibility of shooting down his chartered aircraft, but the idea was never seriously pursued because bin Laden had not been linked to a dead American, and it was inconceivable that Clinton would sign the "lethal finding" necessary under the circumstances.

"In the end they said, 'Just ask him to leave the country. Just don't let him go to Somalia,' " Erwa, the Sudanese general, said in an interview. "We said he will go to Afghanistan, and they said, 'Let him.' "

On May 15, 1996, Foreign Minister Taha sent a fax to Carney in Nairobi, giving up on the transfer of custody. His government had asked bin Laden to vacate the country, Taha wrote, and he would be free to go.

Carney faxed back a question: Would bin Laden retain control of the millions of dollars in assets he had built up in Sudan?

Taha gave no reply before bin Laden chartered a plane three days later for his trip to Afghanistan. Subsequent analysis by U.S. intelligence suggests that bin Laden managed to draw down and redirect the Sudanese assets from his new redoubt in Afghanistan.

From the Sudanese point of view, the failed effort to take custody of bin Laden resulted primarily from the Clinton administration's divisions on how to relate to the Khartoum government -- divisions that remain today as President Bush considers what to do with nations with a history of support for terrorist groups.

Washington, Erwa said, never could decide whether to strike out at Khartoum or demand its help.

"I think," he said, "they wanted to do both."

Osama bin Laden is shown in a 1998 photo reportedly taken in Afghanistan.Maj. Gen. Elfatih Erwa, now Sudanese ambassador to the United Nations, participated in 1996 talks with the CIA over the fate of Osama bin Laden.Alleged threat against then-national security adviser Anthony Lake affected U.S. relations with Sudan.