By RUPERT CORNWELL in Washington
The Bush administration's failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks came under even fiercer scrutiny today, when it emerged that two veteran CIA counter-terrorism experts were so frustrated in summer 2001 that they considered resigning and making public their fears about an imminent terrorist strike against US targets.
The startling revelation comes in new findings released by the federal commission investigating the September 11 2001 attacks. These also show that John McLaughlin, deputy to the CIA director George Tenet had told the panel that he too was worried that not enough was being done.
According to this latest report, Mr McLaughlin had felt "a great tension, especially in June and July 2001," between the incoming Bush team's need to get a grip on the terrorism issue, and his own sense of urgency about the danger.
But Mr Tenet, who served under both the Bush and Clinton administrations, today told the commission that the Bush White House was fully aware of the threat posed by al-Qaeda.
The real problem, he insisted, was that the CIA and other agencies simply did not have any specific information about where, when and how an attack would be carried out. Intelligence suggested that an overseas target was more likely, "but it didn't exclude that an attack could come in the US."
But the data wasn't specific - "That was what was maddening about this, the reporting didn't show attacks would be in the US."
Then, with family members of victims of the attacks in New York and Washington listening intently in the Capitol Hill hearing room, the CIA director added softly, "But for the men and women who lost relatives, we know we have to do better."
The commission's new preliminary report, based on private interviews with officials in the efforts to destroy al-Qaeda and its leadership, says the anti-terrorism effort was not helped by the longstanding rivalry between the CIA and the FBI.
But it also argues that the agency was hamstrung by confusion over whether it could legally assassinate Osama bin Laden.
Partly for this reason, the agency relied too much on the local anti-Taleban resistance in Afghanistan to do the job, even when they knew this tactic had at best a 20 per cent chance of success.
But Mr Tenet doubted that even if bin Laden had been captured or killed before 9/11, it would have made any difference. They (the al-Qaeda cells already installed in the US)"had operational flexibility, and the plot was well on its way. I do not believe that 'decapitating' al-Qaeda would have stopped it."
Testifying after Mr Tenet, Sandy Berger, national security adviser in the second Clinton term, also maintained that between 1997 and January 2001, the last Democratic President had done all it could.
"I believe we were at war with al-Qaeda," Mr Berger declared.
The Cruise missile strike of August 1998, in response to the bombings of two US embassies in East Africa, had narrowly missed Bin Laden, and killed 20 to 30 al-Qaeda fighters. But merely to have continued bombing terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and killing a few recruits, might actually have strengthened bin Laden, he argued, turning him into an even greater hero to his followers, and making the US look weak.
Nor, Mr Berger added, would the American people or world opinion have supported a full-scale US invasion of Afghanistan before September 11, 2001.
The hearings have been overshadowed by the explosive memoirs of Richard Clarke, top White House counter-terrorism official under both Presidents Clinton and Bush, who claims the Bush team, in their fixation with Iraq, paid too little danger to the al-Qaeda threat.
Not so, the White House counters. The Bush administration was focussed on the terrorism problem, but wanted to come up with a new strategic plan, for the full destruction of al-Qaeda than "swatting flies," as Mr Bush is said to described the existing policy. That policy was finally approved a week before the September 2001 attacks.
But this explanation does not deal with another point of contention, the President's daily, top-secret, intelligence briefing from the CIA on August 6 2001, which the White House has refused to release.
It is known however that this 'PDB' warned of the possibility of terrorists using airliners for an attack - leading to accusations of a cover-up by this White House.