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web posted December 10, 2001

Clinton aides rejected al Qaeda info, Vanity Fair reports

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.

The top Clinton administration official in charge of African affairs, former Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice, told CNN 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."

Bush chooses new GOP head

President Bush on December 4 selected former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot to chair the Republican National Committee, GOP officials said. Party leaders are expected to endorse the selection next month.

Racicot would replace Gov. Jim Gilmore of Virginia, who resigned November 30 amid friction with the White House.

Bush turned to Racicot as part of a broader overhaul of RNC operations to prepare for midterm 2002 elections, with control of Congress and three dozen statehouses at stake.

The president gave his blessing to Racicot's selection during a meeting with staff.

During the Florida election recount, Racicot emerged as one of the Bush campaign's most effective spokesmen. He projected a sense of calm and order amid the chaotic political climate, Democratic and Republican admirers said.

He was Bush's first choice to be attorney general, but took himself out of the running for family and financial reasons.

Conservative activists objected to his candidacy because he was considered too moderate on some issues.

Bush selected staunch conservative John Ashcroft, a former Missouri governor and senator.

Since the campaign, Racicot has been working at a Washington law firm.Party members elect the RNC chairman at a meeting next month.Bush's choice is virtually certain to get the nod because he is the titular head of the party.

In recent days, Racicot and senior Bush adviser Karl Rove discussing terms of employment. One issue was whether the former governor can earn money from outside the RNC after he becomes chairman, the officials said.

White House officials said there was no other serious contender for the job unless Racicot had turned it down. Names of several other prospects were floated just in case, including Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Oklahoma, and Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas.

Gilmore had clashed with the White House, angling for more authority over the RNC than Bush or Rove would allow. Racicot is considered a team player by the White House, a savvy politician who will follow Rove's lead, help raise money and represent the president well on TV.

Massachusetts Libertarians push repeal of income tax cut

Undaunted by plummeting state revenues and deep budget cuts, a Libertarian group filed more than 75,000 signatures on December 4 in support of a ballot question that would repeal the state income tax and cost the state $9 billion per year.

The proposal from the Committee for Small Government comes as the weakening economy has sparked calls for more government services. Libertarian Carla Howell said her proposal would create jobs and give every working person $3,000 that could be spent, saved or given to charities.

"It's designed to take $9 billion out of the hands of government and leave it in the hands of the 3,000,000 taxpayers who earned the money," Howell said.

Howell filed 75,551 signatures with the Secretary of State's office, the first step in putting the question to voters on next November's ballot.

Howell said state government has grown out of control in recent years, and the only way to slow it is to reduce its revenue flow. Just 10 years ago, the state budget was $10 billion. Now it's about $22 billion.

Nine other states have no income tax, Howell said.

Ralph Menapace, 34, a banker from Quincy, said he supports repealing the income tax because it would increase people's disposal income and allow them to pay off their own debts.

Menapace said it's clear the economic downturn has increased demands for state services, but he said government becomes less efficient, and less able to help people, the more money it takes in.

"We always seem to spend that $100,000 on more staff instead of giving it to the people who need it," he said.

The idea of repealing the income tax, which accounted for about 60 percent of state revenues last year, is already being scoffed at on Beacon Hill.

"In these economic times, I'm not sure there's much appetite for this proposal," said Shawn Feddeman, spokeswoman for acting Gov. Jane Swift.

But Jerome Mileur, chairman of the political science department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the income tax repeal stands a better chance because it is likely to be decided directly by the voters.

In 1998, another unpopular idea on Beacon Hill, campaign finance reform, passed via the ballot process. Last year, voters cut the income tax, also over the opposition of legislative leaders.

Ellison donates software for U.S. security

Oracle Chief Executive Larry Ellison said December 4 that he has donated Oracle software to the U.S. government to create a database for national security.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Ellison has championed the need for the United States to create a national standard for identification cards. During his keynote speech at Oracle's OpenWorld customer conference here, Ellison said he has delivered Oracle's 9i database management software to a U.S. government agency for national security, but he declined to give further details, such as which agency or for what usage.

"We don't run those law enforcement agencies. We just provide them software," he said during a news conference.

Ellison had earlier offered to donate Oracle's database software, but to charge for maintenance and upgrades as part of his goal of creating a national ID standard.

Ellison has suggested airport security would be improved by requiring travelers to provide their names and Social Security numbers to airport security personnel. Security personnel could then compare the travelers' thumbprints with those stored in a national security database to ensure accurate identification.

When Oracle started up nearly 25 years ago, it built databases for the CIA. Database management software allows businesses, Web sites and government agencies to store and manage vast amounts of information.

For example, Ellison said, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has more than 80,000 handprints of travelers and foreigners with visas to enter the country. He said national security data is housed in multiple databases, when it should be grouped together in one central repository.

"There is cooperation" among government agencies, he said. "But there's a lot of data fragmentation."

During his news conference, Ellison added that a national standard for identification cards is important for national security reasons. "Our existing IDs should not be easily forged," he said. "Credit cards are based on a set of standards; why doesn't the government?"

Ashcroft blocks FBI access to gun records

The FBI will not be permitted to compare the names of suspected terrorists against federal gun purchase records, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft told the Senate on December 6, offering no encouragement to senators willing to guarantee the FBI the authority to do so.

Defending his decision to block the FBI from using gun documents in its terror probe, Ashcroft said the law does not allow investigators to review the federal records created when a buyer applies to purchase a weapon at a gun store.

Some critics charged that Ashcroft's strong opposition to gun control is interfering with his role as the government's top cop. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, accusing him of "handcuffing" the FBI, pressed him unsuccessfully to say why he did not seek access to gun records when he claimed expanded investigatory powers after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) asked Ashcroft whether he wants the power to review gun records in the fight against terrorism, Ashcroft replied that he would not comment on a "hypothetical."

Bush administration officials said information collected by gun stores for use in background checks was not intended for other law enforcement purposes. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the administration is following a regulation signed in January by Attorney General Janet Reno, who ruled that records can be used only to audit the background check system.

Such regulations are easily changed, countered Clinton administration officials and other critics. They pointed out that Ashcroft has issued an order permitting federal investigators to listen to attorney-client conversations and sought to lengthen the time illegal immigrants can be held before being charged. At his request, Congress has granted many other powers in recent months.

"If their point is just that there's a regulation that prohibits this, there is no doubt whatsoever that the attorney general could, on a moment's notice, issue a revised regulation," said Randolph G. Moss, an assistant attorney general under Reno.

The attorney general's decision to block the FBI's access to the records runs counter to a Justice Department policy advisory issued in 1996. When the FBI asked about access to the gun files, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard L. Shiffrin wrote that the records could be used by law enforcement agencies conducting investigations.

"This document underscores the Justice Department's authority to use the [records] as a tool to combat terror," said former Justice lawyer Mathew Nosanchuk, now at the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based gun control group. "Instead, they are rejecting their own authority and acting as lawyers for the gun lobby. Their arguments are predictable gun lobby arguments, but they are unfathomable law enforcement arguments."

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