The National 9/11 commission held another round of public hearings in Washington in late March. Both Clinton and Bush administration officials all testified that they took the threat of terrorism seriously, but all denied that they ever had any “actionable intelligence” to effectively target al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. During the hearings, several commissioners lamented missed opportunities to disrupt or defeat al Qaeda operations.
But it appears that the commission also missed an opportunity to clear up one of the murkier episodes of the war on terrorism. Questions persist as to whether the Clinton administration turned down an offer by the government of Sudan to hand over Bin Laden in 1996. He had set up shop in Khartoum in 1991 and had a flourishing business network going. But bin Laden was also attracting Islamist radicals to Khartoum and, by this time, the CIA had become convinced that he was funding terrorism in North Africa and elsewhere.
Washington began to pressure the Sudanese government in 1995 to shut down Islamist terrorists operating from Khartoum and even threatened to close our embassy in early 1996. Fearing the consequences for international investment in Sudan, the government began making a series of overtures to Washington. Of particular significance were two meetings held in Washington in March 1996. What happened at those meetings between the Sudanese Defense Minister and officials from the State Department and CIA continues to be the subject of controversy.
Did the Sudanese government offer to turn Bin Laden over the U.S. during these meetings, as its officials claim? Current and former administration officials say no. Richard Clarke in his book Against All Enemies labels such reports a “fable.” In October 2002, CIA Director George Tenet told congressional investigators that the agency “has no knowledge of such an offer.” And the 9/11 commission seems to have taken their word for it. In a report issued on the first day of the hearings, it concluded that “We have not found any reliable evidence to support the Sudanese claim.”
In coming to that conclusion, it appears that the commission has overlooked the testimony of one key player. Newsmax.com has an audiotape of President Bill Clinton telling an audience in February 2002 that “I did not bring him here because we had no basis on which to hold him, though we knew he wanted to commit crimes against America.” He said that he had “pleaded with the Saudis to take him,” but they refused. Richard Miniter, in his book Losing Bin Laden, writes that Clinton told his dinner companions in late 2001 that turning down Sudan’s offer in May 1996 was “the biggest mistake of my presidency.”
Newsmax writes that it repeatedly offered the audiotape to the 9/11 commission. According to its account, “At no time did the commission express any interest in obtaining a copy of the recording, or request the original tape to verify its authenticity.” No commissioner raised questions about Clinton’s account during two days of public testimony. Clinton had originally offered to testify publicly, but now has agreed only to a closed-door appearance.