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Clinton aides rejected al Qaeda info, story says

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Clinton administration officials repeatedly rejected offers by Sudan's intelligence service to share information it had compiled about Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network during the organization's formative years in the 1990s, according to a report in the latest edition of Vanity Fair.

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The top Clinton administration official in charge of African affairs, former Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice, told CNN Sunday the allegations were "erroneous and irresponsible."

The article said the overtures were made to the State Department, FBI and other administration officials directly by Sudanese diplomats and through Americans with connections in Sudan.

One of those with connections was a Pakistani-American businessman who was a donor to the Democratic Party and an acquaintance of President Clinton's, the article said.

Senior FBI officials who wanted to see the information were overruled, the article said.

Vanity Fair quoted Tim Carney, the last U.S. ambassador to Sudan, as saying U.S. officials "lost access to a mine of material on bin Laden and his organization."

In an interview on "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer," Rice said Clinton administration officials up to the Cabinet level met on "countless occasions" with officials of the Sudanese government to discuss terrorism.

"Never, during those many, many meetings, was there ever an offer of such documents, were those documents ever provided," Rice said.

"And in fact, out of those meetings didn't even come any detailed, significant information that our law enforcement or CIA operatives found to be of any operational significance."

Rice said she was "puzzled" by Carney's comments because he was in some of those same meetings.

She said he was angered by the decision to close the embassy in Khartoum shortly after his arrival and "perhaps that anger has colored his recollections."

Rice said the United States had a counterterrorism team in Khartoum during much of the period in question and that it sought information from the Sudanese government and "got nothing of great value."

She noted the allegations in the article, written by David Rose, were based on information from Sudanese government officials and people with business ties to Sudan.

According to the article, the Mukhabarat, Sudan's intelligence service, compiled information on bin Laden from his arrival in the country in 1991 until he was expelled in 1996.

It also had detailed information about other members of al Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which eventually merged into al Qaeda and now provides some of its top leadership, the article said.

From the autumn of 1996 until weeks before the September 11 terrorist attacks, Sudanese officials made repeated attempts to get the material to U.S. officials, but they were spurned because the Clinton administration was hostile to the Islamic regime in Khartoum, which it branded as a sponsor of terrorism, and was sympathetic to rebel groups, the article said.

"That information included detailed biographies, photographs, the place within the organization of some of those who played a very direct role in the [1998 U.S.] embassy bombings [in East Africa], who went on to play a planning role in the 2001 atrocities," Rose said in an interview on "Late Edition."

"It seems reasonable that if these offers had been taken up when they were first made, then, in any event, the [1998] bombings may not have taken place, the organization would not have had that first stunning success and perhaps it wouldn't have gone on to do what it's done this year," he said.

The article said U.S. officials may have been skeptical of the information because the CIA had received other intelligence reports from Sudan about purported terrorist attacks that turned out to be untrue, according to the article, and because they may not have appreciated the danger presented by al Qaeda before the 1998 embassy attacks, according to the article.

The article said that after the embassy bombings the Mukhabarat cabled the FBI in Washington, offering to turn over two Pakistani men who it believed played a role in the attack.

Before the exchange could be made, however, U.S. military forces bombed a Sudanese factory, at which point the Khartoum regime sent the men to Pakistan instead.

Rice said it is "completely implausible" that FBI officials, who were on the ground in the region immediately after the embassy bombings, would not have quickly seized upon such an offer if it had been made.

According to the article, among the people involved in the effort to pass along Mukhabarat's information was Mansoor Ijaz, a Pakistani-American businessman who it said was a major donor to the Democratic Party and was on personal terms with Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger.

In an effort to improve the relationship between Sudan and the United States, Ijaz told the magazine that in April 1997 he brought a letter from Sudan's president to Rep. Lee Hamilton, then the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.

The letter offered to allow U.S. counterterrorism officials to come to Sudan "to assess the data in our possession and help us counter the forces your government, and ours, seek to contain."

Ijaz claimed Hamilton took the letter to Berger and to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, neither of whom replied.

Rice told CNN "we didn't need back channels like Mansoor Ijaz because we had front channels -- we had numerous direct, repeated exchanges with the government of Sudan."

"If the government in Khartoum wanted to share this information, if they wanted to give it to us, they had countless opportunities to do so directly," she said.

"If they didn't want to do so directly, they could have come up with any number of ways. They could have dropped the box in front of the State Department."

"They didn't do that, and I believe they didn't do it under the Clinton administration or under the Bush administration until after [September 11], because they weren't interested in doing so."


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