Much Known, Little Done; Clinton Administration Slow to React to Terrorist Activity

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Byline: Richard Miniter, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

President Clinton's first opportunity to defeat Osama bin Laden came late in the afternoon of March 3, 1996, in an Arlington, Virginia, hotel suite. It was the first attempt by the Clinton Administration to deal decisively with the arch-terrorist. It lasted less than 30 minutes.

Sudan's then-Minister of State for Defense Elfatih Erwa flew in for a secret meeting with Timothy M. Carney, the U.S. ambassador to Sudan, and David Shinn, Director of East African Affairs at the State Department. Both Carney and Shinn were State Department veterans. Also present was a middle-aged man who was a member of the CIA's Directorate of Operations (Africa division) at the time and is still active with the agency today. . . . The CIA believed, and its representative told Erwa at the time, that some 200 al Qaeda terrorists were holed up in Sudan. (The actual number, the author learned in Khartoum in 2002, was as high as 583. . . .)

Five days later, Erwa again met with the CIA operative. This time, the two State Department officials were not present. Erwa and the CIA officer were alone as they decided the fate of Osama bin Laden.

Sudan offered to arrest and turn over bin Laden at this meeting, according to Erwa. He brought up bin Laden directly. "Where should we send him?" he asked. This was the key question. When Sudan turned over the infamous Carlos the Jackal to French intelligence in 1994, the CIA covertly provided satellite intelligence that allowed Sudanese intelligence to capture him on a pretext and escort him to the VIP lounge at the Khartoum airport. There, he was met by armed members of French intelligence and flown to Paris in a special plane. Would the CIA pick up bin Laden in Khartoum and fly him back to Washington, D.C.? Or would bin Laden go to a third country?

The CIA officer was silent. It was obvious to Erwa that a decision had not yet been made. Or perhaps his offer was not quite believed. Yet, the Sudanese official was still hoping for a repeat of the French scenario. Finally, the CIA official spoke. "We have nothing we can hold him on," he carefully said. Erwa was surprised by this, but he didn't let on. He was still hoping for a repeat of the French scenario, a silent and quick operation to seize bin Laden and bring him to justice. . . .

Sudan's files on bin Laden and his network were extensive. Sudan had dossiers on all of bin Laden's financial transactions, every fax he sent (the Mukhabarat had even bugged his fax machines), and every one of bin Laden's terrorist associates and his dubious visitors. …