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 in Afghanistan during the search of a private home in 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 have intercepted communications allegedly tying bin Laden or his associates to the hijackers, they have not released any such material, citing intelligence concerns.
The videotape discovered in Jalalabad offers the most conclusive evidence of a connection between bin Laden and the Sept. 11 attacks, 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 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.