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9/11 Panel Releases Initial Findings

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Excerpts of the full story linked below are presented minus the spin. :-)

Late breaking story from the NY Times:

Panel Releases Initial Findings on U.S. Efforts Before Attacks
By DAVID STOUT

Published: March 23, 2004

WASHINGTON, March 23 — For more than four years before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States tried to render Osama bin Laden powerless through a series of diplomatic moves, a special government panel said today.

Some of the most intense efforts spanned the period from the spring of 1997 to the very eve of the attacks as Washington tried to persuade the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to expel Mr. bin Laden “to a country where he could face justice,” the commission said.

“The efforts employed inducements, warnings and sanctions,” the independent, bipartisan panel said. “All these efforts failed.”

In retrospect, the report says, it probably took longer than it should have for public officials “outside the circle of terrorism specialists” to recognize that the grave dangers posed by terrorists were “much larger than an individual criminal, more than just one man,” a reference to Osama bin Laden.

The report affirmed what some terrorism experts have said before — that high-level government officials were slow to realize that terrorists were more than just “criminals” and that, in fact, they were at war with the United States. In other words, going after them is, or should be, more a military action than a police investigation.

Despite its findings, the report is not accusatory in its tone. Indeed, at the onset its authors state that “we are ready to revise our understanding of these topics as our work continues.”

The panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, issued its report as it began hearing public testimony from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his predecessor, Madeleine K. Albright, who served in the Clinton administration.

Much of the contents of the report, prepared by the commission’s staff, has been known before. But the document offers extensive details that, considering what happened on Sept. 11, amount to a telling narrative on the limits of diplomacy.

The United States pressed two successive Pakistani governments to demand that the Taliban cease sheltering Mr. bin Laden and his group long before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the report notes. But before the attacks, “the United States could not find a mix of incentives or pressure that would persuade Pakistan to reconsider its fundamental relationship with the Taliban.”

Pakistan, now lauded by President Bush as America’s partner in the campaign against terrorism, was for a time one of the few countries in the world that recognized the Taliban.

Similarly, the report recalls, from 1999 through early 2001 the United States pressed the United Arab Emirates, “one of the Taliban’s only travel and financial outlets to the outside world,” to break off ties with the Afghan regime. “These efforts achieved little before 9/11,” the report says.

And the government of Saudi Arabia worked closely with high-level American officials “to solve the bin Laden problem with diplomacy,” the report notes. But it was only after the Sept. 11 attacks that the Saudi and United States governments achieved “full sharing of important intelligence information.”

The deadly 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers residential complex at an American air base in Saudi Arabia “highlights a central policy problem in counterterrorism: the relationship between evidence and action,” the report says.

The caution exercised by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in affixing responsibility for the Khobar Towers bombing, which killed 19 Americans, may have worked to the terrorists’ advantage, the report states.

“In the Khobar case, as in some others, the time lag between terrorist act and any definitive attribution grew to months, then years, as the evidence was compiled.” Eventually, the Khobar Towers bombing was attributed to Hezbollah and Iranian extremists.

The Taliban resisted diplomatic pressure to dislodge Mr. bin Laden, the report recalls, “employing a familiar mix of stalling tactics again and again.”

“The Afghanistan options debated in 2001 ranged from seeking a deal with the Taliban to overthrowing the regime,” the report noted, referring to the situation before 9/11. Eventually, Bush administration officials just below cabinet level agreed at a crucial meeting upon a three-pronged strategy: the United States would send an envoy to Afghanistan to pressure the Taliban yet again to expel Mr. bin Laden.

If that move failed, pressure would be applied through a combination of diplomacy and encouragement of anti-Taliban Afghans.

And if the first two phases did not bear fruit, the United States would try to oust the Taliban “through more direct action.”

The meeting at which the three-pronged strategy was adopted took place on Sept. 10, 2001.

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