In the middle of all the controversy surrounding ABC’s upcoming docudrama “The Path to 9/11,” something very important has been lost: Regardless of the protestations of the left, there were indeed some missed opportunities to capture or kill Osama bin Laden before our nation was attacked. In fact, on March 16, 2004, the NBC “Nightly News” did a report on one such chance the Clinton administration passed on.
What follows is a full transcript of this report, with emphasis given to draw attention to statements that are quite relevant to the current controversy. Those that are interested can watch the video here courtesy of GOP Video.
TOM BROKAW, anchor:
At the same time, in the US war on terror, American soldiers are slugging through bleak territory along the Afghan-Pakistan border in a stepped-up hunt for Osama bin Laden. And for the next three nights, we're going to take a look at what may have been missed opportunities by both the Bush and Clinton administrations to capture or kill him. You're about to see a videotape that was secretly recorded by a CIA spy drone 15,000 feet above Afghanistan. It shows a man widely believed to be bin Laden walking in at a known al-Qaeda camp a year before 9/11. That raises the question, of course, if the CIA was able to get that close, why did they let him go? NBC's senior investigative correspondent, Lisa Myers, our exclusive report.
LISA MYERS reporting:
1993, the World Trade Center bombing, six killed; 1998, two US embassies bombed in Africa, 224 killed. All the work of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, who in 1998 declares holy war on America, making him arguably the most-wanted man in the world.
Former President BILL CLINTON: We will use all the means at our disposal to bring those responsible to justice.
MYERS: What you're about to see is extraordinary secret video shot by the US government and obtained exclusively by NBC News. It illustrates an enormous opportunity the Clinton administration had to kill or capture bin Laden. Critics say, a missed opportunity.
The fall of 2000, Afghanistan. Unmanned, unarmed spy planes called Predators fly over known al-Qaeda training camps. The pictures transmitted live to CIA headquarters half a world away show al-Qaeda terrorists firing at targets, conducting military drills, then scattering on cue through the desert. Also that fall, the Predator captured even more extraordinary pictures, this tall figure in flowing white robes. Many intelligence analysts believed then and now it is Osama bin Laden. The images may seem fuzzy to amateurs, but to William Arkin, a former intelligence officer and now military analyst for NBC, they couldn't be more clear.
Why does US intelligence believe this is Osama bin Laden?
Mr. WILLIAMS ARKIN: You see a tall man, you see him surrounded by or--or--or at least protected by a group of guards.
MYERS: Bin Laden is 6'5. The man here clearly towers over those around him and seems to be treated with great deference. Another clue, the video is shot at Tarnak Farm, the walled compound where bin Laden is known to live. The layout of the buildings in the Predator video perfectly matches these secret US intelligence photos and diagrams of Tarnak Farm obtained by NBC.
Mr. ARKIN: It's dynamite. It's putting together all of the pieces, and that doesn't happen every day. I guess you could say we've done it once, and this is it.
MYERS: The tape proves the Clinton administration was aggressively tracking al-Qaeda a year before 9/11. But that also raises one big question: If the US government had bin Laden and the camps in its sights in real time, why was no action taken against them?
Retired General WAYNE DOWNING: We were not prepared to take the military action necessary.
MYERS: Retired General Wayne Downing ran counterterror efforts for the Bush administration and is now an NBC analyst.
Gen. DOWNING: We should have had strike forces prepared to go in and react to this intelligence. Certainly cruise missiles, either air or sea-launched. Very, very accurate. Could have gone in and hit those targets.
MYERS: Gary Schroen, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan, says the White House required the CIA to attempt to capture bin Laden alive rather than kill him.
Mr. GARY SCHROEN: It reduced the odds from, say, a 50 percent chance down to, say, 25 percent chance that we were going to be able to get him.
MYERS: A Democratic member of the 9/11 commission says there was a larger issue. The Clinton administration treated bin Laden as a law enforcement problem.
Mr. BOB KERREY (9/11 Commission): The most important thing the Clinton administration could have done would have been for the president, either himself or by going to Congress, asking for a congressional declaration to declare war on al-Qaeda, a military political organization that had declared war on us.
MYERS: In reality, getting bin Laden would have been extraordinarily difficult. He was a moving target deep inside Afghanistan. Most military operations would have been high-risk. What's more, President Clinton was weakened by scandal, and there was no political consensus for bold action, especially with an election weeks away. We contacted the three top Clinton national security officials.
Clinton Administration National Security Officials
(Picture) Madeleine Albright Secretary of State
(Picture) William Cohen Secretary of Defense
(Picture) Sandy Berger National Security Advisor
MYERS: None would do an on-camera interview. However, they vigorously defend their record, say they disrupted terrorist cells and made al-Qaeda a top national security priority.
Mr. JAMES STEINBERG (Former Clinton Deputy National Security Adviser): We used military force. We used covert operations. We used all the tools available to us because we realized what a serious threat this was.
MYERS: One Clinton Cabinet official says, looking back, the military should have been more involved. Quote, "We did a lot but we did not see the gathering storm that was out there." Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington.
BROKAW: Tomorrow night, we'll have more of the exclusive Predator videotape, and we'll have an inside look at what more the Bush administration could have done to go after bin Laden after 9/11.
So, two and a half years ago, NBC reported on a missed opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden. This was two years after 224 people were killed in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, and just months before the U.S.S. Cole was attacked. At the time, Sandy Berger and Madeline Albright were invited on NBC to address the issue to the American people. But, they both passed.
Now, as a docudrama addressing missed opportunities to capture or kill bin Laden before he killed thousands of Americans is about to air, these same folks have the nerve to claim that the information contained in the program is false, and want it cancelled as a result. What gall.