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15:42 AEDST Sat 22 Dec 2001
White House defends gaps in bin Laden tape

AFP - Poor video and audio quality, not an effort to spare Saudi Arabia is the reason for gaps in the government-issued transcript accompanying a videotape showing Osama bin Laden gloating about the September 11 terror strikes, the White House said.

The Pentagon has declined to release a more complete version of the transcript, despite claims in the US press, corroborated by independent translators who studied it carefully, that the gaps coincide with information that could embarrass Saudi Arabia, an important US ally in the Middle East.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the government was satisfied with the tape from an intelligence standpoint, though he declined to elaborate.

As far as further revisiting its translation, the secretary said "we are not trying to go back and get another version for the public."

The Department of Defense "said it up front all along" it would not release a verbatim transcript because of flaws in the recording, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer noted, reading the full warning aloud to journalists Friday morning.

"'Due to the quality of the original tape it is NOT' -- and that's in large letters -- 'NOT a verbatim transcript of every word spoken during the meeting, but does convey the messages and information flow," the spokesman said.

Any missing words from the transcript released December 13 are "a function of interpreting and translating tapes that are in many places hard to hear," Fleischer told reporters.

Speaking earlier, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said "the tape is what it is."

"The translation is what it is. We made it very clear the tape is not a literal translation," she said, answering a question whether the Pentagon planned to work at a more complete translation with an emphatic "no."

US television networks late Thursday reported their translators had uncovered gaps in the recording, which many administration officials view as the "smoking gun" tying the Saudi-born militant to the attacks.

ABC News reported the Pentagon had omitted sections that "could be embarrassing to the government of Saudi Arabia."

At the start of the tape, a Saudi identified as Khalid al-Harbi speaking with bin Laden "seems to claim he was smuggled into Afghanistan by a member of Saudi Arabia's religious police," according to ABC's translation.

The Saudi man also said certain religious leaders in Saudi Arabia, some of them close to the government, had hailed the attacks in their sermons.

In the transcript released by the Pentagon, bin Laden named Mohammed Atta as one of the suicide plane hijackers. But in the ABC version, he also mentioned Saudi nationals Nawaf al-Hazmi and Salim al-Hazmi as part of the operation.

A member of the team that translated the tape for the US government told ABC News the network's translation was consistent with portions of the government's transcript that had not been released to the public.

©AAP 2001

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