Terror experts 'almost quit' in frustration with Bush

The Bush administration's failure to prevent the 11 September attacks came under even fiercer scrutiny yesterday, when it emerged that two veteran CIA counter-terrorism experts were so frustrated in summer 2001 that they considered resigning and making public their fears about an imminent terrorist strike against US targets.

The Bush administration's failure to prevent the 11 September attacks came under even fiercer scrutiny yesterday, when it emerged that two veteran CIA counter-terrorism experts were so frustrated in summer 2001 that they considered resigning and making public their fears about an imminent terrorist strike against US targets.

The shock revelation comes in new findings released by the federal commission investigating the attacks in 2001. These also show that John McLaughlin, deputy to the CIA director George Tenet, had told the panel he too was worried that not enough was being done.

According to this latest report, Mr McLaughlin had felt "a great tension, especially in June and July 2001", between the incoming Bush team's need to get a grip on the terrorism issue, and his own sense of urgency about the danger.

But Mr Tenet, who served under both the Bush and Clinton administrations, told the commission yesterday that the Bush White House was fully aware of the threat posed by al-Qa'ida. The real problem, he insisted, was that the CIA and other agencies simply did not have any specific information about where, when and how an attack would be carried out.

Intelligence suggested that an overseas target was more likely, "but it didn't exclude that an attack could come in the US". The data wasn't specific - "That was what was maddening about this, the reporting didn't show attacks would be in the US."

Then, with family members of victims of the attacks listening intently in the Capitol Hill hearing room, he added softly: "But for the men and women who lost relatives, we know we have to do better."

The commission's new preliminary report, based on private interviews with officials involved in the efforts to destroy al-Qa'ida, says the anti-terrorism effort was not helped by the longstanding rivalry between the CIA and the FBI. But it also argues that the agency was hamstrung by confusion over whether it could legally assassinate Osama bin Laden. Partly for that reason, the agency relied too much on the local anti-Taliban resistance in Afghanistan to do the job, even when they knew this tactic had, at best, a 20 per cent chance of success.

But Mr Tenet doubted that even if Bin Laden had been captured or killed before 11 September, it would have made any difference. "They [the al-Qa'ida cells already installed in the US] had operational flexibility, and the plot was well on its way. I do not believe 'decapitating' al-Qa'ida would have stopped it."

Testifying after Mr Tenet, Sandy Berger, national security adviser in the second Clinton term, also maintained that, between 1997 and January 2001, the past Democratic president had done all he could.

"I believe we were at war with al-Qa'ida," Mr Berger declared. The Cruise missile strike of August 1998, in response to the bombings of two US embassies in East Africa, had narrowly missed Bin Laden, and killed 20 to 30 al-Qa'ida fighters. But merely to have continued bombing terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and killing a few recruits, might actually have strengthened Bin Laden, he argued.

The hearings have been overshadowed by the memoirs of Richard Clarke, a top counter-terrorism official under Presidents Clinton and Bush, who claims the Bush team, in its fixation with Iraq, paid too little attention to the al-Qa'ida threat.

Not so, the White House counters. The Bush administration was focused on the terrorism problem but wanted to come up with a new strategic plan for the full destruction of al-Qa'ida, rather than "swatting flies", as Mr Bush is said to have described the existing policy.

But that explanation does not deal with another point of contention yesterday, the President's daily, top-secret, intelligence briefing from the CIA on 6 August 2001, which the White House has refused to release. It is known however that this "PDB" warned of the possibility of terrorists using airliners for an attack - leading to accusations of a cover-up.

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