|11 September 2001>News Stories>Broad Effort Launched After '98 Attacks
Effort Launched After '98 Attacks
Two years ago, Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet phoned the White House. The agency had a lead, he said, on Osama bin Laden.
Reports linked the al Qaeda leader to a temporary encampment in southern Afghanistan. Overhead photographs showed a well-equipped caravan of the sort used by hunters, a commanding figure at its center, and an entourage of escorts bearing arms.
National security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger canvassed the Small Group, as they had come to call themselves, of Cabinet-rank decision-makers on the most sensitive terrorist matters. President Bill Clinton gave the go-ahead to begin preparations for cruise missiles to launch.
Amid the urgent engagement of the White House came an unwelcome status call from U.S. Central Command. One of two submarines designated to fire the missiles, if so ordered, had left its Arabian Sea cruising grounds. "Well, get it back in the box!" urged a duty officer, according to a person who was present.
Clinton, said people familiar with the episode, waited impatiently as the CIA searched for confirmation. Finally, Tenet called back. The camp was not bin Laden's, he said. It was a falconing expedition of a wealthy sheik from the United Arab Emirates -- and bin Laden had never been part of it.
Thus dissolved another moment of hope in a covert war of long shots and near misses that most Americans did not yet know their country was fighting. Unfolding in the last two years of his presidency, long before the events of Sept. 11, Clinton's war was marked by caution against an enemy that the president and his advisers knew to be ruthless and bold. Reluctant to risk lives, failure or the wrath of brittle allies in the Islamic world, Clinton confined planning for lethal force within two significant limits. American troops would use weapons aimed from a distance, and their enemy would be defined as individual terrorists, not the providers of sanctuary for attacks against the United States.
Within those boundaries, there was much more to the war than has reached the public record. Beginning on Aug. 7, 1998, the day that al Qaeda destroyed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Clinton directed a campaign of increasing scope and lethality against bin Laden's network that carried through his final days in office.
In addition to a secret "finding" to authorize covert action, which has been reported before, Clinton signed three highly classified Memoranda of Notification expanding the available tools. In succession, the president authorized killing instead of capturing bin Laden, then added several of al Qaeda's senior lieutenants, and finally approved the shooting down of private civilian aircraft on which they flew.
The Clinton administration ordered the Navy to maintain two Los Angeles-class attack submarines on permanent station in the nearest available waters, enabling the U.S. military to place Tomahawk cruise missiles on any target in Afghanistan within about six hours of receiving the order.
Three times after Aug. 20, 1998, when Clinton ordered the only missile strike of his presidency against bin Laden's organization, the CIA came close enough to pinpointing bin Laden that Clinton authorized final preparations to launch. In each case, doubts about the intelligence aborted the mission.
The CIA's directorate of operations recruited, trained, paid or equipped surrogate forces in Pakistan, Uzbekistan and among tribal militias inside Afghanistan, with the common purpose of capturing or killing bin Laden. The Pakistani channel, disclosed previously in The Washington Post, and its Uzbek counterpart, which has not been reported before, never bore fruit. Inside Afghanistan, tribal allies twice reported to their CIA handlers that they fought skirmishes with bin Laden's forces, but they inflicted no verified damage.
Operatives of the CIA's Special Activities Division made at least one clandestine entry into Afghanistan in 1999. They prepared a desert airstrip to extract bin Laden, if captured, or to evacuate U.S. tribal allies, if cornered. The Special Collection Service, a joint project of the CIA and the National Security Agency, also slipped into Afghanistan to place listening devices within range of al Qaeda's tactical radios.
The lines Clinton opted not to cross continued to define U.S. policy in his successor's first eight months. Clinton stopped short of using more decisive military instruments, including U.S. ground forces, and declined to expand the reach of the war to the Taliban regime that hosted bin Laden and his fighters after 1996.
Not until the catastrophe of Sept. 11 -- when terrorists used hijacked airliners to destroy the World Trade Center and damage the Pentagon -- did President Bush obliterate those boundaries.
More than once, advisers recall, Clinton sounded out Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the prospect of using Special Forces to surprise bin Laden's fighters on the ground. But Clinton declined to authorize the large-scale operation that Shelton said would be required, and he chose not to order a less ambitious option to which the general would have objected.
Though his government came to believe that the Taliban was inextricably tied to bin Laden, Clinton never seriously entertained the use of military force against the Islamic fundamentalist regime, still less the kind of broad campaign that removed the Taliban from power 10 days ago.
At least twice, Clinton dispatched senior emissaries to the Taliban with threats no less stark than the formula Bush laid out in his speech to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20. Bin Laden, they said, was an enemy of the United States, and a regime that provided him sanctuary should be prepared for the consequences.
Clinton administration officials believed the Taliban would interpret the warning as a military threat.
The administration never made good on it. Put baldly, several principal advisers said recently, the political and diplomatic market would not bear such a war.
"Until September 11th," said Karl F. Inderfurth, who was assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, "there was certainly not any groundswell of support to mount a major attack on the Taliban. This is just a reality."
'He's Going to Beat Us Again'
With only Attorney General Janet Reno dissenting, Clinton directed two retaliatory strikes on Aug. 20. One, near the Afghan town of Khost, was timed to kill bin Laden and his associates in their beds at 10 p.m. local time. It missed, the CIA said afterward, by a few hours. The other demolished a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, that the CIA had linked to attempted production of chemical weapons for bin Laden.
Domestically and globally, Clinton National Security Council staffers Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon lamented recently, the missile attack came to be regarded -- wrongly, they argued -- "as the greatest foreign policy blunder of the Clinton presidency." Apart from the "public relations battering," Paul R. Pillar, the CIA's deputy counterterrorism chief at the time, wrote later, the episode inflicted a "broader blow . . . on the perceived integrity of U.S. intelligence and U.S. counterterrorist efforts generally."
Badly burned, Clinton and his national security cabinet turned their emphasis to detecting, disrupting and arresting members of terrorist cells in quiet cooperation with friendly foreign security services. This had been an ongoing project of the FBI and CIA since the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
At the CIA's counterterrorism center in Langley, wall maps the size of Renaissance tapestries depicted the agency's growing knowledge of the al Qaeda network in an intricate web of crisscrossed lines. On occasion Tenet would ask aides to roll them up and carry them, sealed in tubular cases, to brief Clinton or the Small Group in Berger's office.
Beginning in 1996, the Clinton team made increasing use of what Berger described as "a new art form" in the international commerce in terror suspects. Scores of times in the next five years, they persuaded allies to arrest members of al Qaeda and ship them somewhere else. Frequently, somewhere else was not the United States.
Such a transfer without legal process was called "rendition." Most took place in secret and have yet to be disclosed. A State Department accounting of extraditions and renditions in the 1990s, published in April, named only 13. At least 40 more, according to sources, were removed forcibly from one foreign country to another on behalf of the United States.
Most remain unknown. One episode took place in Albania the week after the embassy bombings. After foiling a truck bomb plot against the U.S. Embassy in Tirana, American intelligence officers guided Albanian authorities to five arrests of Egyptian Islamic Jihad members. The Americans flew the five men to Egypt, where they were executed after a military trial.
In one briefing, Tenet said of bin Laden's network that the arrests were "breaking the organization brick by brick," but warned: "He's going to beat us again."
Immediately after the embassy bombings, he issued a "finding" under the 1974 Hughes-Ryan Amendment enabling intelligence agencies to fund covert operations against bin Laden. The finding's primary directive was to track and capture the al Qaeda leader, though it authorized use of lethal force in the attempt.
Within months Clinton amended the finding three times, using a form of presidential authority known as a Memorandum of Notification. Each was classified as sensitive compartmented information, Top Secret/Codeword.
The first change, almost immediate, was to broaden the authority of U.S. officers or their recruited agents to use lethal force, enabling them to engage bin Laden and the fighters around him without any prospect of taking him into custody.
"It became evident," said a party to the deliberations, "that there was no way to avoid killing him if we were going to go after him, and we shouldn't worry about it."
Clinton's second Memorandum of Notification expanded the target of the covert campaign. It named a handful of close lieutenants -- sources said fewer than 10 -- to be captured or killed if found separately from bin Laden.
As the hunt progressed, national security officials began to worry that bin Laden might flee Afghanistan. Some State Department officials believed fissures in the Taliban might drive him out, and bin Laden told an ABC News producer on Dec. 28, 1998, that "when a Muslim migrates repeatedly, he is doubly rewarded."
"We just decided early on that he wasn't going to get out of Afghanistan if we could help it," said an official familiar with the discussions. Bin Laden was believed to have helicopters at his disposal, and "there was also a concern he could get a Gulfstream" jet.
Berger and Tenet brought Clinton a third Memorandum of Notification. Clinton signed off on direct authority to shoot down private aircraft in which bin Laden traveled. Because such a flight would probably be deemed civil aviation in international law, and people unconnected to bin Laden might die, this was regarded in the White House as a significant step.
The CIA did not give up entirely on capturing bin Laden. Later in 1999, the Directorate of Operations dispatched a covert reconnaissance mission to a disused southern desert airstrip in Afghanistan. Flying fast and low, and departing undetected after a ground survey, the specialized team assessed the characteristics of the airstrip and its facilities to design a detailed plan for securing the perimeter.
Details of the location could not be learned. But U.S. Marines this month occupied a remote airfield 55 miles southwest of the southern Afghan city of Kandahar and have used it as a base of operations.
According to sources, the CIA contemplated using the airstrip if the occasion arose to evacuate someone -- either bin Laden, if he fell into friendly hands, or recruited agents in danger of being overrun.
In the days after the embassy bombings, the Joint Staff informed the National Security Council that it would need 24 to 36 hours' notice to place munitions on target in Afghanistan. Because of Arab sensitivities, the administration assumed it could not use the nearest U.S. air bases in the Persian Gulf. The only alternatives were redeployment of Navy ships armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles or B-2 stealth bombers flying from the continental United States.
Dissatisfied with this answer, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen ordered the Navy to place two nuclear-powered attack submarines on permanent station in the nearby waters of the northern Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. This brought the "strike window" down to about six hours. The two Los Angeles-class boats were packed entirely with slow-flying Tomahawk land-attack missiles, which would need as much as 90 minutes to reach Afghanistan.
Planners also considered the deployment of AC-130 gunships, equipped with powerful cannon and chain guns. They can be refueled in flight, and are employed by Air Force Special Operations teams trained for stealthy entry and exit. Some officials believed there was a chance of obtaining permission from Uzbekistan to use the former Soviet air base at Khanabad.
More than once, according to people with direct knowledge, Clinton asked Shelton, a former Special Operations commander, whether he could drop a small ground combat team into an al Qaeda training camp to engage bin Laden directly. Some of his advisers supposed this would reduce the most stringent demands on intelligence. To hit bin Laden with a missile, the CIA had to be able to place him inside the explosive radius of a warhead at a precise time at least six hours in the future. Special Forces, they said, might find him at a camp without having to forecast his movements inside it.
In the Small Group, Berger and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright asked repeatedly about what they came to call the "boots on the ground" option, using the Delta Force. Shelton, reacting privately at the Pentagon, considered the proposals naive.
In an interview, the former Joint Staff chairman said the government never had good enough information on bin Laden's whereabouts half a day ahead, and little prospect of getting it. Even with a target, it would take at least twice as long for a ground team to get there as a missile.
"You ought to have some pretty good intelligence or you have to keep the special operators there 365 days a year, betting on the come," Shelton said. "If you lean that far forward, you probably have tipped your hand about what you are getting ready to do. You've got a footprint. You have to keep a surface ship off the Pakistani coast, and the Pakistanis had started patrolling out in that area, and that would be a sure giveaway."
Risks to the exposed ground troops, Shelton said, meant a much larger operation than his colleagues had in mind. "The greatest risk is that you would have a helicopter or a [special operations] aircraft that would encounter mechanical problems over those great distances, or you have an accident," he said. "You want to have the capability if that happens to go in and get them, which means a combat search and rescue capability, and if you want to send those people in, you have to have an air refueling operation."
Shelton, a senior colleague said, "wanted nothing to do" with a tiny incursion known in the Special Forces community as "going Hollywood." And the political leadership, the colleague said, wanted nothing to do with something larger.
"Absolutely nothing prevented us from running the kind of operation we're running now, if there had been a commitment to do that," Shelton said.
In Small Group meetings, Albright compared the hunt to one of those arcade games in which the player, tantalized, tries to grasp a coin with a claw controlled clumsily from outside. In light moments, some of the president's advisers began referring to the problem in terms of a picture puzzle for children: "Where's Waldo?"
"I can tell you where he's been, I can tell you where he's going," Tenet said in one such gathering, succinctly defining the requirements of "actionable" intelligence. "The problem is, can I tell you where he'll be for the next six to 10 hours?"
Within the limits of the military's operational plans, what Tenet had was not enough.
"We did on numerous occasions provide information on where we thought he was at any given moment, but it's impossible for anyone to tell you where someone is going to be with absolute certainty half a day away," said an intelligence official. "Cruise missiles are excellent weapons for shooting at fixed targets, but they're not so good at targets that have a mind of their own."
A person standing 100 yards away might survive the strike of a Tomahawk's standard warhead, officials said. And Clinton refused to authorize use of "area weapons" -- one is a warhead of cluster bombs -- that would have killed women and children around bin Laden.
The Joint Staff and especially the Navy, meanwhile, tired of driving circles under the Arabian Sea.
"There was a growing sense over time," said Brian Sheridan, who was assistant secretary of defense for special operations, that the national leadership should "get off the pot" and decide whether it had a target. "There was a great willingness to support the mission if the mission is going to be real, but otherwise, let's not disrupt normal mission and training cycles."
Clinton declined to be interviewed for this story. Those closest to his thinking said he did not change his main criterion for approving a strike, which remained "a substantial probability of success."
All Clinton's senior advisers feared an error, convinced that shooting and missing would glorify bin Laden and expose the United States to ridicule.
"We consumed all the intelligence we had," Albright said. "It's so easy to finger-point. We tried everything we could, everything we could."
Former officials said bin Laden, already careful to disguise his movements, became considerably more elusive after the near-miss at Khost. And the intelligence on Khost, they said, had been "a unique opportunity," as a senior official put it. "It gave detailed notice of a forthcoming gathering, and you just don't see that kind of stuff often at all."
Those explanations do not fully account for the lack of results. People familiar with the changing intelligence mosaic said the CIA continued to obtain "all source" information about bin Laden throughout Clinton's presidency, some of it of very high quality. "All source" refers to the combination of electronic intercepts, photographs with visible and infrared light, imaging radar, tips from foreign intelligence liaisons and reports of human agents on the ground.
According to two sources, the CIA's clandestine service recruited and maintained communication with an informant in Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban. The informant had ties to an office of Taliban internal security, and sometimes learned there of bin Laden's plans or whereabouts. Though valued and frequently proved accurate after the fact, the information was twice removed from its source. The Taliban knew something of bin Laden's movements, and the informant knew something of what the Taliban knew.
The information never arrived in time to mount a strike, officials said. And the U.S. agent was neither willing nor able to attack bin Laden himself.
Near the end of 1999, according to people familiar with the discussions on both sides, Saudi Arabian officials notified their CIA liaisons that bin Laden's mother had requested a travel permit to leave the country. Hoping she would lead to her son, they offered to assist the placement of a homing beacon in her luggage.
The Saudis later complained they were not taken seriously. Americans familiar with the episode said they never received sufficiently specific information on the woman's travel plans.
For all the difficulties, there were three occasions after August 1998 when Clinton's top advisers came close to concluding they had "actionable intelligence." Each time the president directed preparations to fire.
One of the potential targets turned out to be the gulf sheik's falconing party. Another was a tent in a desert encampment. The third was a stone compound, built around a central courtyard full of al Qaeda operatives.
The last of these occasions came on an autumn weekend in the final weeks of the 2000 presidential campaign. It ended with a telephone call from Tenet to Berger. "We just don't have it," Tenet said, according to someone briefed on the conversation. Berger called the president and the Small Group, and once again Tomahawk gyroscopes spun down in silent waters 7,400 miles away.
One came at Pakistan's initiative. Throughout the first nine months of 1999, the Pakistani government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif -- caught between its restless pro-Taliban military and its desire to curry Western economic aid and assistance -- resisted U.S. pressure to cut support for the Taliban. With tensions with India high over the disputed territory of Kashmir, the Sharif government regarded a friendly Afghan border as crucial.
Sharif offered Washington an alternative. Pakistan would create a small commando force, trained and equipped by the CIA, to cross the Afghan border and try to kill or capture bin Laden.
Some of the project's American sponsors thought it had a chance. Others in government doubted it. Sources familiar with their positions in NSC meetings said Berger, Albright, deputy national security adviser James Steinberg and Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering believed Sharif was playing for time, deflecting American pressure with a dramatic proposal he knew could come to nothing. Sharif was toppled by a coup in October 1999 led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, now a key ally of the Bush administration in the Afghan war.
The National Security Agency reported that the commando planning had been compromised in the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate of the Pakistan Military. That service, known as ISI, had close ties not only to the Taliban but also, indirectly, to al Qaeda itself.
"We had evidence that the ISI was penetrated," an official said. "People were very skeptical about it, but there wasn't a down side unless it's spending a lot of time and effort on something that has no chance of succeeding."
In Uzbekistan, to the north, Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, chief of the U.S. Central Command, cultivated a growing military-to-military relationship. Uzbek commanders wanted arms and training for a counter-insurgency unit to put down their own rebel Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. In secret negotiations, they intimated that in return they would make the unit available to hunt bin Laden if the opportunity presented itself. It did not.
The only known covert operation inside Afghanistan involved the supply and lavish funding of a militia element that was hostile to both the Taliban and al Qaeda. In Small Group meetings, participants called this force "the tribals."
Eager to please, the tribals twice reported that they had exchanged fire with motorcades in which bin Laden had been traveling. On one occasion, they said they laid an ambush with land mines and a crossfire of automatic weapons. On another, they said the skirmish involved small arms only. The CIA could not verify either claim.
"We all looked forward to the phone call in which they said, 'We have him,' " said one person who was briefed on the reports. "But you never knew whether they really were telling you the truth, because clearly there was money paid."
In Clinton's last year as president, the Small Group drafted a memorandum that brought together all the efforts to hunt down bin Laden.
Clinton, sources said, returned it with a handwritten reply: "Not enough. Unsatisfactory."
White House impatience and the military's fatigue with keeping its submarines "on a string," as Shelton put it, gave impetus to a new idea -- to send the Predator intelligence drone into Afghanistan.
The gossamer-weight unmanned aircraft, with a 49-foot wingspan, has the horsepower and top speed of a motorbike. But in the Balkans, where it got its first use in 1996, the drone had proved immensely valuable.
Flying at medium altitude, it took full-motion video by day and night and still images through clouds using synthetic aperture radar.
But Afghanistan would push its limits, requiring overflight of much greater distances with hostile airspace on all sides. Vice Adm. Scott A. Fry, who led the Joint Staff's operations directorate, pressed hard for the Predator over objections in the Air Force and the CIA's operations directorate.
When the drone finally flew a "proof of concept" mission for several weeks in August and September last year, the results were stunning. Tenet brought a two-minute video clip to the White House and played it for Clinton and Berger.
According to people who saw it later, it showed a tall bearded man in flowing robes -- bin Laden is well over six feet -- crossing a city street toward a mosque. A security team of more than a dozen armed men, moving with professional dispatch, cleared a forward perimeter as he moved.
The trial period ended when a Predator crash-landed. But it had spurred something new. In their final months in office, the Clinton national security team launched a controversial effort to arm the Predator with a Hellfire missile, ordinarily used by attack helicopters.
State Department lawyers maintained for a time that such a hybrid would fall under restrictions of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty.
The Air Force and CIA argued over who would fund and operate it. Opponents scoffed at the notion of a 950-pound aircraft laboring aloft with a 100-pound missile. Richard A. Clarke, National Security Council senior director, "broke a lot of china," as one colleague put it, in ramming the program forward. Not long after Clinton left office, the Air Force tested a working prototype.
Armed Predators began flying in the present Afghan war and have fired a number of missiles at Taliban and al Qaeda command posts.
American policy toward the Taliban had been ambivalent at first when the fundamentalist militia led by Mohammad Omar conquered the eastern city of Jalalabad and Kabul, the Afghan capital, in September 1996.
It shifted to hostility the next year over the regime's treatment of women. After the 1998 embassy bombings, bin Laden became the primary issue for Washington.
For the next two years, Clinton pursued a policy of economic sanctions against the Taliban and sent numerous messages to the de facto government of Afghanistan requesting bin Laden's delivery for trial.
Frustrated by the Taliban's lack of cooperation, Clinton's emissaries took on a more menacing tone in the spring of 2000. But though the administration deliberately raised the specter of military confrontation, it chose in the end to step back.
The new approach began on April 4, 2000. Pakistan's intelligence chief and leading Taliban supporter, Gen. Mahmoud Ahmed, had come to Washington. Pickering, the State Department's third-ranking official, summoned him unexpectedly for a blistering message intended equally for the Taliban leadership.
Ahmed spoke of bin Laden with what Pickering later called "the hospitality gambit." Bin Laden was the Taliban's guest, honored in the tradition of Afghanistan's Pashtun community. But the general offered to find a solution that both parties could accept.
Pickering told him the Taliban's guest had killed Americans and intended to do so again. "People who do that are our enemies," he said, "and people who support those people will also be treated as our enemies."
He urged Pakistan "not to put itself in that position." An American in the room said Malia Lodhi, Pakistan's U.S. ambassador, appeared to be shaken by the implicit threat. Zamir Akram, Pakistan's deputy chief of mission, said his delegation emphasized that "Pakistan was in no way supporting or condoning the activities of al Qaeda" and reminded Pickering of their joint work against suspects in the 1998 embassy bombings.
About the same time, Assistant Secretary of State Michael A. Sheehan, the department's counterterrorism coordinator, delivered the new message directly to the Taliban. He telephoned Foreign Minister Ahmed Waqil and read him a formal declaration known as a demarche.
"If bin Laden or any of the organizations affiliated with him attacks the United States or United States interests," he told Waqil, "we will hold you, the leadership of the Taliban, personally accountable. Do you understand what I am saying? This is from the highest level of my government."
When Waqil demurred, Sheehan added: "If you have an arsonist in your basement, and he leaves your basement every night and burns your neighbors, and you're protecting him, you become responsible for his crimes."
The next month, Pickering arrived in Islamabad. On the evening of May 26, he met with Mullah Ahmed Jalil, Taliban deputy foreign minister, at the Pakistani Interior Ministry in Islamabad.
Pickering formally presented him with bin Laden's indictment in the Southern District of New York for the embassy bombings. "We don't think your evidence is persuasive," Jalil replied. Even if there were proof, he said, bin Laden should be subject to judgment under sharia, or Islamic law.
Pickering told him, as Sheehan had told his boss, that "people who are helping other people kill Americans are our enemies and should consider themselves as such."
In Washington, however, Clinton's national security cabinet stopped short.
"There were verbal scoldings, but that was about it," Shelton said. "There never was any consideration of going after the Taliban. When discussions came up of what are we going to do, the military focus stayed on Osama bin Laden himself and his outfit."
No threat or inducement short of all-out war, Clinton's advisers concluded, would move Omar, the supreme Taliban leader. A limited bombardment would destroy the hard-won consensus behind U.N. sanctions against Afghanistan. And the first casualty would be the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which consumed Clinton's final months in office.
"The hard part for everybody now is to keep yourself in 1998, 1999 and 2000, and not 2001," Albright said. "For what we knew, and what we had to operate with, I think we did the right thing."
Researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.