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U.S. Mulled Military Options Ahead of 9/11

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  • U.S. Mulled Military Options Ahead of 9/11

    WASHINGTON — Officials from the Bush and Clinton administrations secretly considered but in the end nixed a variety of military actions against the Al Qaeda (search) terror network and its leader, Usama bin Laden (search), prior to Sept. 11, 2001 — but instead engaged in fruitless diplomatic efforts, a federal panel said Tuesday.

    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.

    Among the staff findings:

    — U.S. officials were concerned that Taliban supporters in Pakistan's military would warn bin Laden of pending operations. The U.S. government had information that the former head of Pakistani intelligence, Hamid Gul, had contacted Taliban leaders as a private citizen in July 1999 and assured them that he would provide three or four hours of warning before any U.S. missile launch, as he had the "last time" — an apparent reference to a failed 1998 cruise missile attack on bin Laden.

    — Pentagon counterterrorism officials prepared a strategy urging the Defense Department in September 1998 "to take up the gauntlet that international terrorists have thrown at our feet." But the paper was rejected by a deputy undersecretary as "too aggressive."

    — Rumsfeld told the commission that "he did not recall any particular counterterrorism issue that engaged his attention before" the Sept. 11 attacks, other than using unmanned aircraft against bin Laden.

    — In a secret diplomatic mission, Saudi Arabia won a commitment from the Taliban to expel bin Laden, but Taliban leaders later reneged.

    "From the spring of 1997 to September 2001, the U.S. government tried to persuade the Taliban to expel bin Laden to a country where he could face justice," the report said. "The efforts employed inducements, warnings and sanctions. All these efforts failed."

    Shortly before the attacks, the Bush administration was debating how to force bin Laden out. At a Sept. 10, 2001, meeting of second-tier Cabinet officials, officials settled on a three-phase strategy. The first step called for dispatching an envoy to talk to the Taliban. If this failed, diplomatic pressure would be applied and covert funding and support for anti-Taliban fighters would be increased.

    If both failed, "the deputies agreed that the United States would seek to overthrow the Taliban regime through more direct action," the report said. Deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley said the strategy had a three-year timeframe.

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