U.S. intelligence officials drew up secret plans last spring for a covert raid to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, according to senior U.S. government officials.
The officials said the planning began after U.S. military, intelligence and law-enforcement officials concluded they had ample evidence linking bin Laden to a series of anti-American terrorist attacks in recent years.The plan, developed by the CIA and U.S. special forces months before the August bombings of two U.S. embassies, called for U.S. forces to extricate the Saudi millionaire from his hideout in Afghanistan and bring him to justice in the United States.
White House officials were aware of the mission, which was ultimately shelved by CIA Director George Tenet and other senior officials because of the high risks involved. Those included the po-ten-tial for many casualties among Americans and innocent Afghans.
But administration officials said they were still working to develop a broad range of other options aimed at bin Laden or to dismantle his terrorist network when bombs exploded Aug. 7 at two East African embassies, killing 263 people, among them 12 Americans.
The officials' accounts of the covert planning add a new dimension to President Clinton's decision to launch a cruise missile attack against bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan with suspected links to bin Laden's efforts to obtain chemical weapons.
The administration has presented the cruise missile attack as an instance of Clinton's decisiveness in the face of terrorism. Swift retaliation was ordered, an administration spokesman said, because the evidence linking bin Laden to the bombings had come together quickly and unequivocally and because the United States had received information that he might strike again.
Bin Laden has publicly announced his plans to attack Americans, and U.S. authorities believe he directed the embassy bombings.
But in fact, officials now acknowledge, intelligence and military officials were convinced long before the bombings that an attack against bin Laden was justified.
The precise timing and motivation of the cruise missile attack has raised questions, with some of Clinton's critics suggesting that he might have acted quickly to distract attention from his personal problems.
U.S. officials point to the fact that long-term planning against bin Laden was under way at the time of the embassy bombings as evidence that the cruise missile attack was not hastily improvised.