From the New York Times:
State Department analysts warned the Clinton administration in July 1996 that Osama bin Laden’s move to Afghanistan would give him an even more dangerous haven as he sought to expand radical Islam “well beyond the Middle East,” but the government chose not to deter the move, newly declassified documents show.
In what would prove a prescient warning, the State Department intelligence analysts said in a top-secret assessment on Mr. bin Laden that summer that “his prolonged stay in Afghanistan – where hundreds of ‘Arab mujahedeen’ receive terrorist training and key extremist leaders often congregate – could prove more dangerous to U.S. interests in the long run than his three-year liaison with Khartoum,” in Sudan.
Before 1996, Mr. bin Laden was regarded more as a financier of terrorism than a mastermind. But the State Department assessment, which came a year before he publicly urged Muslims to attack the United States, indicated that officials suspected he was taking a more active role, including in the bombings in June 1996 that killed 19 members American soldiers at the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
Two years after the State Department’s warning, with Mr. bin Laden firmly entrenched in Afghanistan and overseeing terrorist training and financing operations, Al Qaeda struck two American embassies in East Africa, leading to failed military attempts by the Clinton administration to capture or kill him in Afghanistan. Three years later, on Sept. 11, 2001, Al Qaeda struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in an operation overseen from the base in Afghanistan.
Yeah, it would have been a good thing if we could have nailed the bastard back then. No doubt. Hindsight is 20/20, and it provides us with the sage knowledge that bin Laden was a lot more dangerous than just one of any number of other radicals out there. Chances are that if the Clinton administration would have gone to Congress in 1996 and asked them for money and troops to smoke him out, they would have been greeted with skepticism and accusations of going on a turd-hunt. We do know now that by the time the Clinton administration left office, they did view bin Laden as a major threat, and they did let the incoming Bush administration know it. To quote Dan Fogelberg, “Lessons learned are like bridges burned — you only get to cross them but once.”