Bin Laden tape link to attacks
WASHINGTON - The United States has obtained a videotape of Osama bin Laden describing the damage to the World Trade Center as being much greater than he had expected, according to senior government officials.
On the tape, which was obtained during the search of a private home in the Afghan city of Jalalabad, bin Laden praised Allah for success far greater than he expected, using language that indicated he was familiar with the planning of the attacks, according to one of the officials.
The administration has blamed bin Laden for the Sept. 11 attacks but has not released evidence showing that he directly planned or ordered them. Although officials have said they intercepted communications allegedly tying bin Laden or his associates to the hijackers, they have not released any such material, citing intelligence concerns.
The Jalalabad videotape offers the most conclusive evidence of a connection between bin Laden and the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, according to government officials who have read transcripts or been briefed on its contents.
Senior Bush administration officials are debating whether and how to release the videotape, which some officials hope could tamp down concern in the Muslim world that Washington has unjustly accused bin Laden.
''It is very clear that bin Laden not only had advance knowledge (of the Sept. 11 attacks), but (the video) is proof he was responsible for planning,'' said one senior official who has been shown a transcript of the videotape.
The 40-minute tape, which officials said appears to have been shot by an amateur, has been viewed by very senior Bush administration officials within the past week. Fearful it might be a fake, officials sent it to outside experts for review, and it has been declared ''legitimate,'' one senior official said.
On the tape, according to one official who has heard a description of its contents, bin Laden said he was at a dinner when first word came that a plane had crashed into a World Trade Center tower. Bin Laden said that he told the others at the dinner and that they cheered. He then indicated on the tape that more destruction is coming, according to the official.
Bin Laden used his outstretched hands to explain that he expected only the top of the Trade Center towers to collapse, down to the level where the airliners struck. The eventual total collapse of both towers, the al-Qaida leader said, was totally unexpected.
U.S. intelligence officials are not certain as to why the tape was shot, but it may have been prepared by al-Qaida for recruitment purposes, a senior official said. Government officials declined to offer more details of how the videotape fell into the U.S. government's hands or which agency obtained it.
The new videotape is not the one described last month by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Intelligence sources had obtained only a transcript of that tape, not the actual video.
Blair, in a Nov. 10 speech to Parliament, said the transcript of an Oct. 20 video shows that bin Laden was asked by an interviewer about the New York and Washington attacks. Blair said the al-Qaida leader replied: ''It is what we instigated, for a while, in self-defense. And it was revenge for our people killed in Palestine and Iraq.''
A decision on whether to release information on the newly discovered tape is in the hands of presidential counselor Karen Hughes, according to a senior official familiar with the situation.
Bush gave Hughes the task of managing the White House information flow on the Afghan war shortly after the September attacks. She heads a special, White House-based public relations operation begun early last month with Britain to win international public support, particularly in the Islamic world, for the anti-terrorist campaign.
The public relations group has been concerned with the lack of U.S. credibility in the Muslim world and recent discussions about release of the tape have focused on how to get Arab audiences to believe its contents - something that might not happen if Washington were to be the source of the release.
Asked yesterday about the bin Laden tape, Hughes responded through deputy White House communications director Jim Wilkinson: ''We cannot confirm or deny this report. As a matter of practice, we do not comment on matters of intelligence or military activities.''
Secretary of State Colin Powell promised on Sept. 23 that the United States would produce a document that would contain compelling evidence bin Laden and his network were responsible for the attacks. He later said the material was too classified for release.
On Oct. 4, however, Blair used a speech to Parliament to lay out the U.S. proof. He said that Western governments had evidence that bin Laden indicated before the attacks he was preparing ''a major attack on America'' and that he ordered associates to return to Afghanistan by Sept. 10. Blair also said a top al-Qaida lieutenant admitted the bin Laden organization was responsible for the suicide attacks, but that person has not talked in public.
Evidence shown the government of Pakistan by U.S. officials on Oct. 4 provided ''sufficient basis for indictment'' of bin Laden ''in a court of law,'' according to that country's Foreign Ministry spokesman Riaz Muhammad Khan. But he did not provide details.
Last month, in releasing a 23-page update of intelligence findings, the British said that another bin Laden associate admitted that he trained some of the hijackers, but again that individual was neither named nor seen in public.
Bin Laden, himself, initially denied a role in the attacks. On the day after the Sept. 11 attacks, a bin Laden aide told an interviewer from al-Jazeera television over a satellite phone that the al-Qaida leader ''thanked Almighty Allah and bowed before him when he heard this news,'' but that ''he had no information or knowledge about the attack.
On Sept. 17, a bin Laden aide gave the Afghan Islamic Press a statement in which he said, ''I have taken an oath of allegiance to (Mullah Omar, head of Afghanistan) which does not allow me to do such things from Afghanistan. We have been blamed in the past, but we were not involved.''
In a tape prepared for release over al-Jazeera television after the first U.S. missiles fell on Afghanistan on Oct. 7, bin Laden again praised the ''groups of Islam, vanguards of Islam...(who) destroyed America. I pray to God to elevate their status and bless them.'' But again he did not take any responsibility for the attack.