- President Bill Clinton turned down at least three offers
involving foreign governments to help to seize Osama Bin Laden after he
was identified as a terrorist who was threatening America, according to
sources in Washington and the Middle East.
- Clinton himself, according to one Washington source,
has described the refusal to accept the first of the offers as "the
biggest mistake" of his presidency.
- The main reasons were legal: there was no evidence that
could be brought against Bin Laden in an American court. But former senior
intelligence sources accuse the administration of a lack of commitment
to the fight against terrorism.
- When Sudanese officials claimed late last year that Washington
had spurned Bin Laden's secret extradition from Khartoum in 1996, former
White House officials said they had no recollection of the offer. Senior
sources in the former administration now confirm that it was true.
- An Insight investigation has revealed that far from being
an isolated incident this was the first in a series of missed opportunities
right up to Clinton's last year in office. One of these involved a Gulf
state; another would have relied on the assistance of Saudi Arabia.
- In early 1996 America was putting strong pressure on
Sudan's Islamic government to expel Bin Laden, who had been living there
since 1991. Sources now reveal that Khartoum sent a former intelligence
officer with Central Intelligence Agency connections to Washington with
an offer to hand over Bin Laden ¬ó just as it had put another
terrorist, Carlos the Jackal, into French hands in 1994.
- At the time the State Department was describing Bin Laden
as "the greatest single financier of terrorist projects in the world"
and was accusing Sudan of harbouring terrorists. The extradition offer
was turned down, however. A former senior White House source said: "There
simply was not the evidence to prosecute Osama Bin Laden. He could not
be indicted, so it would serve no purpose for him to have been brought
into US custody."
- A former figure in American counterterrorist intelligence
claims, however, that there was "clear and convincing" proof
of Bin Laden's conspiracy against America. In May, 1996, American diplomats
were informed in a Sudanese government fax that Bin Laden was about to
be expelled ¬ó giving Washington another chance to seize him.
The decision not to do so went to the very top of the White House, according
to former administration sources.
- They say that the clear focus of American policy was
to discourage the state sponsorship of terrorism. So persuading Khartoum
to expel Bin Laden was in itself counted as a clear victory. The administration
- Bin Laden took off from Khartoum on May 18 in a chartered
C-130 plane with 150 of his followers, including his wives. He was bound
for Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. On the way the plane refuelled in
the Gulf state of Qatar, which has friendly relations with Washington,
but he was allowed to proceed unhindered.
- Barely a month later, on June 25, a 5,000lb truck bomb
ripped apart the front of Khobar Towers, a US military housing complex
in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The explosion killed 19 American servicemen.
Bin Laden was immediately suspected.
- Clinton is reported to have admitted how things went
wrong in Sudan at a private dinner at a Manhattan restaurant shortly after
September 11 last year. According to a witness, Clinton told a dinner companion
that the decision to let Bin Laden go was probably "the biggest mistake
of my presidency".
- Clinton could not be reached for comment yesterday, but
a former senior White House official acknowledged that the Sudan episode
had been a "screw-up".
- A second offer to get Bin Laden came unofficially from
Mansoor Ijaz, a Pakistani-American millionaire who was a donor to Clinton's
election campaign in 1996. On July 6, 2000, he visited John Podesta, then
the president's chief of staff, to say that intelligence officers from
a Gulf state were offering to help to extract Bin Laden.
- Details of the meeting are confirmed in an exchange of
e-mails between the White House and Ijaz, which have been seen by The Sunday
Times. According to Ijaz, the offer involved setting up an Islamic relief
fund to aid Afghanistan in return for the Taliban handing over Bin Laden
to the Gulf state. America could then extract Bin Laden from there.
- The Sunday Times has established that after a fierce
internal row about the sincerity of the offer, the White House responded
by sending Richard Clarke, Clinton's most senior counterterrorism adviser,
to meet the rulers of the United Arab Emirates. They denied there was any
such offer. Ijaz, however, maintained that the White House had thereby
destroyed the deal, which was to have been arranged only through unofficial
channels. Ijaz said that weeks later on a return trip to the Gulf he was
taken on a late-night ride into the desert by his contact who told him
that Clarke's front-door approach had upset a delicate internal balance
and blown the deal. "Your government has missed a major opportunity,"
he recalls being told.
- Senior former government sources said that Ijaz's offer
had been treated in good faith but, with the denial of the UAE government,
there was nothing to suggest it had credibility.
- A third more mysterious offer to help came from the intelligence
services of Saudi Arabia, then led by Prince Turki al-Faisal, according
to Washington sources. Details of the offer are still unclear although,
by one account, Turki offered to help to place a tracking device in the
luggage of Bin Laden's mother, who was seeking to make a trip to Afghanistan
to see her son. The CIA did not take up the offer.
- Richard Shelby, the leading Republican on the Senate
intelligence committee, said he was aware of a Saudi offer to help although,
under rules protecting classified information, he was unable to discuss
the details of any offer. Commenting generally, he said: "I don't
believe that the fight against terrorism was the number one goal of the
Clinton administration. I believe there were some lost opportunities."