Former envoys: Clinton gave Taliban evidence on bin Laden
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Clinton administration officials gave the Taliban evidence in 1999 that Osama bin Laden was behind the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, two former diplomats said Tuesday.
But they said because of the close ties between Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and bin Laden they were unsuccessful in getting the Taliban to bring bin Laden to justice.
Karl Inderfurth, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state, said U.S. officials met with the Taliban repeatedly over a three-year period.
He said he had more than 20 meetings with Afghan officials, discussing with them a wide range of issues, including human rights, the cultivation of opium poppies, and terrorism.
"Unfortunately, in all these meetings, we did not have a meeting of the minds about what to do about them," he said.
Michael Sheehan, a former U.S. counterterrorism official, said the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI built "a strong case against bin Laden and al Qaeda."
"In 1999, we gave them the evidence ... underscoring that they were harboring terrorists," he said.
Both Sheehan and Inderfurth said the Taliban repeated the same responses over and over.
"They would say bin Laden was an honored guest. It would not be appropriate to expel him," said Inderfurth. "They would say he was under their control, which we knew was not the case."
Asked if the evidence was clear enough to convince the Taliban of bin Laden's guilt, Inderfurth said, "There was enough evidence that we got the U.N. Security Council to go along, 15 to zero, on a demand that they turn over bin Laden."
'Close relationship' a stumbling block
He said the United States urged the Taliban about some other action "that would have allowed them to comply with U.N. resolutions as long as it led to bin Laden being brought to justice."
Inderfurth said many of the Taliban leaders said bin Laden "was a burden to them." At more than one point, he said, the Taliban said they were willing to do something about him.
But "the close relationship between Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden" was a stumbling block, Inderfurth said.
U.S. officials concluded, he said, that "they were not ever going to give up bin Laden because Mullah Omar and bin Laden were too close."
Sheehan said the United States presented "as much evidence as we could without jeopardizing the case" against bin Laden and the suspects who had been arrested in the embassy bombings.
Inderfurth said a Justice Department official traveled to Islamabad and briefed the Pakistani government on the evidence against bin Laden.
Pakistani officials were convinced and said they would try to arrange the same briefing for Taliban officials. However, said Inderfurth, "The Taliban would not take us up on that offer."
During 1998, said Inderfurth, a State Department official spent 40 minutes on the phone with Taliban officials. During that call, "Mullah Omar got on the phone" and joined the discussion. However, in the end, he said, the call was "not fruitful."
Sheehan called the evidence linking bin Laden and al Qaeda to the embassy bombings "very strong" and noted that four conspirators were recently convicted on that evidence.
He said the evidence showed the bombers "had clear ties to known bin Laden lieutenants."
Sheehan said that since 1999 al Qaeda had become "better at using cutouts to hide their operations" against the USS Cole and the targets on September 11.
But, he said he found "in talking to my friends familiar with the investigation that the links are clear."
Asked about charges that the Clinton administration had ignored warnings about terrorism, Inderfurth said the United States was concerned about Afghanistan because of a number of issues. "We wanted to see an end of the conflict in Afghanistan. We were concerned about human rights, concerned about the fact that Afghanistan became the leading opium producer in the world. We were also concerned about terrorism."
The interview was conducted from London by Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour.
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