WASHINGTON - In a chilling videotape beamed around the world yesterday, Osama bin Laden speaks of his joy in hearing that hijacked planes had slammed into the World Trade Center and says the terrorist mission caused even more carnage and destruction than he had hoped for.
U.S. officials, who released the tape, pointed to bin Laden's words as compelling evidence that he had masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks. Officials said that while they have never doubted bin Laden's guilt, they hoped that the tape would dispel any lingering public skepticism.
On the videotape, bin Laden, appearing relaxed and occasionally smiling and chuckling, tells supporters that he and some of his followers had estimated in advance the likely death toll at the World Trade Center.
"I was the most optimistic of them all," he says, adding that the destruction of three or four floors was "all that we had hoped for."
Bin Laden recalls that upon hearing of the first attack, he informed his companions that further attacks would follow.
"They were overjoyed when the first plane hit the building," he said. "So I said to them: 'Be patient.'"
On the tape, which the Bush administration said was found in a house in Jalalabad after the Afghan city fell to opposition forces, bin Laden seems delighted as he recounts the terrorist attacks.
The tape is amateurish, with voices often inaudible and further obscured by sounds of heavy breathing. But the broadcast version, which was accompanied by an English-language translation, offers a window into the thoughts of the leader of the al-Qaida network.
Bin Laden appears in a room with several followers. U.S. officials said they believe the videotape was made in mid-November in a guesthouse in the Taliban's former stronghold of Kandahar.
Sitting on the floor before a white wall, bin Laden tells his compatriots that he thought burning jet fuel would melt only enough steel to destroy three or four floors in each World Trade Center tower and not cause the entire building to collapse.
President Bush viewed the tape for the first time Nov. 30, the White House said, but decided not to release it until intelligence analysts had deemed it authentic and experts had had time to translate the dialogue.
The Pentagon said U.S. officials wanted to balance "the concerns about any additional pain that could be caused by its release against the value of having the world fully appreciate what we are up against in the war against terrorism."
In the 39-minute dialogue, bin Laden appears with several aides and a visiting Saudi cleric, identified by U.S. officials as Sheik Sulayman. Sulayman, whose contentment with the attacks is as obvious as bin Laden's, suggests ominously: "Allah has bestowed ... honor on us ... and he will give us blessing and more victory during the holy month of Ramadan."
Most Muslims in the United States will mark the end of Ramadan on Sunday.
The sheik praises bin Laden for a "clear victory," telling him he did a "great job." He tells bin Laden that he witnessed joy resulting from the attacks that was comparable to watching a soccer game when "your team wins."
Bush administration officials and members of Congress were eager to portray the tape as undeniable evidence of bin Laden's guilt. U.S. officials said they hope the tape, which was broadcast by several television stations in the Arab world, will help build support among Muslims who have been skeptical of the evidence against bin Laden.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush "has known all along that Osama bin Laden has been behind this." Fleischer said "it came as no surprise to the president that Osama bin Laden would be taking responsibility and having advance knowledge of the attack."
"How can there be a doubt in anyone's mind any longer about what we have said from the very, very beginning - that he was the mastermind?" asked Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. "Everybody can make their [own] judgment," he said, "but I don't know what other judgment one can make about it."
Bin Laden, who seems aware that he is being filmed, does not explicitly claim responsibility for the attacks but recalls his involvement with pride. He appears bemused as he boasts that at least some of the hijackers initially had known only that they were going to the United States on a "martyrdom operation."
"They didn't know anything about the operation," he says. "But they were trained, and we did not reveal the operation to them until they are there and just before they boarded the planes."
Across the United States, people reacted to the tape with revulsion. Many Americans said they had never doubted that bin Laden was the mastermind of the attacks, but that seeing him appear amused by the carnage was infuriating.
Around the world, reaction varied. In Europe and in the Middle East, U.S. allies said the tape clearly showed bin Laden's guilt. A spokesman for the Pakistani government said the tape convinced him that Islamabad made "the right decision" in supporting Washington in the Afghan war.
But some viewers in the Middle East said the poor quality of the videotape and the fact that those fluent in Arabic had to rely on a U.S. government translation lent it the appearance of American propaganda.
Since word of the tape's existence leaked last weekend, Bush administration officials have said repeatedly that they were likely to release it, but continued to delay.
At first, Fleischer had said that intelligence analysts were concerned that bin Laden could be sending hidden messages to terrorist cells. A similar fear was expressed by the White House after television networks ran a videotape of bin Laden on Oct. 7, the day the United States began its bombardment in Afghanistan.
But officials said they quickly became convinced that there were no hidden orders from bin Laden on this tape. They said he was likely unaware that this video recording would spread around the world.
The holdup in the past 72 hours, officials said, was the time needed for Arabic translators to confirm that the government's translation was accurate. Middle East scholars said the cautious approach reflected a concern by the U.S. government that Muslims might see the tape as a fabrication.
Marius Deeb, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, said the English translation released by the government was "perfect." He said that English speakers might have trouble hearing bin Laden's words clearly, but that he had no difficulty understanding the Arabic once he concentrated and ignored background noise.
Deeb suggested that the tape "will only help the U.S. cause."
Followers of bin Laden, he said, will never be persuaded to support the United States. But business executives and other middle-class citizens who "can really shape and influence opinions" in nations such as Egypt and Pakistan, Deeb said, might have been skeptical of bin Laden's guilt in the Sept. 11 attacks. The videotape, the professor said, could be the evidence they were looking for.
Mohammed Wahby, an Egyptian columnist based in Washington, said the impact of bin Laden's words was even greater for those listening in his native tongue.
"When I listened, a chill went down my backbone," he said. "Sometimes the Arabic even sounded to me more gruesome. The translators did not put one single word in his mouth."
Still, the tape may be more effective as a public relations tool than as a piece of criminal evidence, because too little is known of its origins, legal scholars said.
"If you can't show its origin or if it's unclear whether it's a tape that's been doctored, the court or the judges might give it less weight than if you could provide evidence that has a much more clear pedigree," said Sean Murphy, a professor of international law at George Washington University.
Such a tape might be allowed by a military or international tribunal, Murphy said, but it could be rejected in U.S. courts by judges who might conclude that the tape fails to meet standards of evidence and could prejudice jurors.
"It's like if you have a crime scene and gather evidence - you need the chain of custody very clear from start to end," he said.
Wire services and Sun staff writer Mark Matthews contributed to this article.