FROM THREAT TO THREAT
In chapters 3 and 4 we described how the U.S. government adjusted its existing agencies and capacities to address the emerging threat from Usama Bin Ladin and his associates. After the August 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Bill Clinton and his chief aides explored ways of getting Bin Ladin expelled from Afghanistan or possibly capturing or even killing him. Although disruption efforts around the world had achieved some successes, the core of Bin Ladin's organization remained intact.
President Clinton was deeply concerned about Bin Ladin. He and his national security advisor, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, ensured they had a special daily pipeline of reports feeding them the latest updates on Bin Ladin's reported location.1 In public, President Clinton spoke repeatedly about the threat of terrorism, referring to terrorist training camps but saying little about Bin Ladin and nothing about al Qaeda. He explained to us that this was deliberate-intended to avoid enhancing Bin Ladin's stature by giving him unnecessary publicity. His speeches focused especially on the danger of nonstate actors and of chemical and biological weapons.2
As the millennium approached, the most publicized worries were not about terrorism but about computer breakdowns-the Y2K scare. Some government officials were concerned that terrorists would take advantage of such breakdowns.3
"Bodies Will Pile Up in Sacks"
On November 30, 1999, Jordanian intelligence intercepted a telephone call between Abu Zubaydah, a longtime ally of Bin Ladin, and Khadr Abu Hoshar, a Palestinian extremist. Abu Zubaydah said, "The time for training is over." Suspecting that this was a signal for Abu Hoshar to commence a terrorist operation, Jordanian police arrested Abu Hoshar and 15 others and informed Washington.4
One of the 16, Raed Hijazi, had been born in California to Palestinian parents; after spending his childhood in the Middle East, he had returned to northern California, taken refuge in extremist Islamist beliefs, and then made his way to Abu Zubaydah's Khaldan camp in Afghanistan, where he learned the fundamentals of guerrilla warfare. He and his younger brother had been recruited by Abu Hoshar into a loosely knit plot to attack Jewish and American targets in Jordan.5
After late 1996, when Abu Hoshar was arrested and jailed, Hijazi moved back to the United States, worked as a cabdriver in Boston, and sent money back to his fellow plotters. After Abu Hoshar's release, Hijazi shuttled between Boston and Jordan gathering money and supplies. With Abu Hoshar, he recruited in Turkey and Syria as well as Jordan; with Abu Zubaydah's assistance, Abu Hoshar sent these recruits to Afghanistan for training.6
In late 1998, Hijazi and Abu Hoshar had settled on a plan. They would first attack four targets: the SAS Radisson Hotel in downtown Amman, the border crossings from Jordan into Israel, and two Christian holy sites, at a time when all these locations were likely to be thronged with American and other tourists. Next, they would target a local airport and other religious and cultural sites. Hijazi and Abu Hoshar cased the intended targets and sent reports to Abu Zubaydah, who approved their plan. Finally, back in Amman from Boston, Hijazi gradually accumulated bomb-making materials, including sulfuric acid and 5,200 pounds of nitric acid, which were then stored in an enormous subbasement dug by the plotters over a period of two months underneath a rented house.7
In early 1999, Hijazi and Abu Hoshar contacted Khalil Deek, an American citizen and an associate of Abu Zubaydah who lived in Peshawar, Pakistan, and who, with Afghanistan-based extremists, had created an electronic version of a terrorist manual, the Encyclopedia of Jihad. They obtained a CD-ROM of this encyclopedia from Deek.8 In June, with help from Deek, Abu Hoshar arranged with Abu Zubaydah for Hijazi and three others to go to Afghanistan for added training in handling explosives. In late November 1999, Hijazi reportedly swore before Abu Zubaydah the bayat to Bin Ladin, committing himself to do anything Bin Ladin ordered. He then departed for Jordan and was at a waypoint in Syria when Abu Zubaydah sent Abu Hoshar the message that prompted Jordanian authorities to roll up the whole cell.9
After the arrests of Abu Hoshar and 15 others, the Jordanians tracked Deek to Peshawar, persuaded Pakistan to extradite him, and added him to their catch. Searches in Amman found the rented house and, among other things, 71 drums of acids, several forged Saudi passports, detonators, and Deek's Encyclopedia. Six of the accomplices were sentenced to death. In custody, Hijazi's younger brother said that the group's motto had been "The season is coming, and bodies will pile up in sacks."10
Diplomacy and Disruption
On December 4, as news came in about the discoveries in Jordan, National Security Council (NSC) Counterterrorism Coordinator Richard Clarke wrote Berger, "If George's [Tenet's] story about a planned series of UBL attacks at the Millennium is true, we will need to make some decisions NOW." He told us he held several conversations with President Clinton during the crisis. He suggested threatening reprisals against the Taliban in Afghanistan in the event of any attacks on U.S. interests, anywhere, by Bin Ladin. He further proposed to Berger that a strike be made during the last week of 1999 against al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan-a proposal not adopted.11
Warned by the CIA that the disrupted Jordanian plot was probably part of a larger series of attacks intended for the millennium, some possibly involving chemical weapons, the Principals Committee met on the night of December 8 and decided to task Clarke's Counterterrorism Security Group (CSG) to develop plans to deter and disrupt al Qaeda plots.12
Michael Sheehan, the State Department member of the CSG, communicated warnings to the Taliban that they would be held responsible for future al Qaeda attacks. "Mike was not diplomatic," Clarke reported to Berger. With virtually no evidence of a Taliban response, a new approach was made to Pakistan.13 General Anthony Zinni, the commander of Central Command (CENTCOM), was designated as the President's special envoy and sent to ask General Musharraf to "take whatever action you deem necessary to resolve the Bin Laden problem at the earliest possible time." But Zinni came back empty-handed. As Ambassador William Milam reported from Islamabad, Musharraf was "unwilling to take the political heat at home."14
The CIA worked hard with foreign security services to detain or at least keep an eye on suspected Bin Ladin associates. Tenet spoke to 20 of his foreign counterparts. Disruption and arrest operations were mounted against terrorists in eight countries.15 In mid-December, President Clinton signed a Memorandum of Notification (MON) giving the CIA broader authority to use foreign proxies to detain Bin Ladin lieutenants, without having to transfer them to U.S. custody. The authority was to capture, not kill, though lethal force might be used if necessary.16 Tenet would later send a message to all CIA personnel overseas, saying, "The threat could not be more real.. . . Do whatever is necessary to disrupt UBL's plans.. . .The American people are counting on you and me to take every appropriate step to protect them during this period." The State Department issued a worldwide threat advisory to its posts overseas.17
Then, on December 14, an Algerian jihadist was caught bringing a load of explosives into the United States.
Ahmed Ressam, 23, had illegally immigrated to Canada in 1994. Using a falsified passport and a bogus story about persecution in Algeria, Ressam entered Montreal and claimed political asylum. For the next few years he supported himself with petty crime. Recruited by an alumnus of Abu Zubaydah's Khaldan camp, Ressam trained in Afghanistan in 1998, learning, among other things, how to place cyanide near the air intake of a building to achieve maximum lethality at minimum personal risk. Having joined other Algerians in planning a possible attack on a U.S. airport or consulate, Ressam left Afghanistan in early 1999 carrying precursor chemicals for explosives disguised in toiletry bottles, a notebook containing bomb assembly instructions, and $12,000. Back in Canada, he went about procuring weapons, chemicals, and false papers.18
In early summer 1999, having learned that not all of his colleagues could get the travel documents to enter Canada, Ressam decided to carry out the plan alone. By the end of the summer he had chosen three Los Angeles-area airports as potential targets, ultimately fixing on Los Angeles International (LAX) as the largest and easiest to operate in surreptitiously. He bought or stole chemicals and equipment for his bomb, obtaining advice from three Algerian friends, all of whom were wanted by authorities in France for their roles in past terrorist attacks there. Ressam also acquired new confederates. He promised to help a New York-based partner, Abdelghani Meskini, get training in Afghanistan if Meskini would help him maneuver in the United States.19
In December 1999, Ressam began his final preparations. He called an Afghanistan-based facilitator to inquire into whether Bin Ladin wanted to take credit for the attack, but he did not get a reply. He spent a week in Vancouver preparing the explosive components with a close friend. The chemicals were so caustic that the men kept their windows open, despite the freezing temperatures outside, and sucked on cough drops to soothe their irritated throats.20 While in Vancouver, Ressam also rented a Chrysler sedan for his travel into the United States, and packed the explosives in the trunk's spare tire well.21
On December 14, 1999, Ressam drove his rental car onto the ferry from Victoria, Canada, to Port Angeles, Washington. Ressam planned to drive to Seattle and meet Meskini, with whom he would travel to Los Angeles and case
A Case Study in Terrorist Travel
Following a familiar terrorist pattern, Ressam and his associates used fraudulent passports and immigration fraud to travel. In Ressam's case, this involved flying from France to Montreal using a photo-substituted French passport under a false name. Under questioning, Ressam admitted the passport was fraudulent and claimed political asylum. He was released pending a hearing, which he failed to attend. His political asylum claim was denied. He was arrested again, released again, and given another hearing date.Again, he did not show. He was arrested four times for thievery, usually from tourists, but was neither jailed nor deported. He also supported himself by selling stolen documents to a friend who was a document broker for Islamist terrorists.22
Ressam eventually obtained a genuine Canadian passport through a document vendor who stole a blank baptismal certificate from a Catholic church. With this document he was able to obtain a Canadian passport under the name of Benni Antoine Noris. This enabled him to travel to Pakistan, and from there to Afghanistan for his training, and then return to Canada. Impressed, Abu Zubaydah asked Ressam to get more genuine Canadian passports and to send them to him for other terrorists to use.23
Another conspirator, Abdelghani Meskini, used a stolen identity to travel to Seattle on December 11, 1999, at the request of Mokhtar Haouari, another conspirator. Haouari provided fraudulent passports and visas to assist Ressam and Meskini's planned getaway from the United States to Algeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.24 One of Meskini's associates, Abdel Hakim Tizegha, also filed a claim for political asylum. He was released pending a hearing, which was adjourned and rescheduled five times. His claim was finally denied two years after his initial filing. His attorney appealed the decision, and Tizegha was allowed to remain in the country pending the appeal. Nine months later, his attorney notified the court that he could not locate his client. A warrant of deportation was issued.25
LAX. They planned to detonate the bomb on or around January 1, 2000. At the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) preinspection station in Victoria, Ressam presented officials with his genuine but fraudulently obtained Canadian passport, from which he had torn the Afghanistan entry and exit stamps. The INS agent on duty ran the passport through a variety of databases but, since it was not in Ressam's name, he did not pick up the pending Canadian arrest warrants. After a cursory examination of Ressam's car, the INS agents allowed Ressam to board the ferry.26
Late in the afternoon of December 14, Ressam arrived in Port Angeles. He waited for all the other cars to depart the ferry, assuming (incorrectly) that the last car off would draw less scrutiny. Customs officers assigned to the port, noticing Ressam's nervousness, referred him to secondary inspection. When asked for additional identification, Ressam handed the Customs agent a Price Costco membership card in the same false name as his passport. As that agent began an initial pat-down, Ressam panicked and tried to run away.27
Inspectors examining Ressam's rental car found the explosives concealed in the spare tire well, but at first they assumed the white powder and viscous liquid were drug-related-until an inspector pried apart and identified one of the four timing devices concealed within black boxes. Ressam was placed under arrest. Investigators guessed his target was in Seattle. They did not learn about the Los Angeles airport planning until they reexamined evidence seized in Montreal in 2000; they obtained further details when Ressam began cooperating in May 2001.28
After the disruption of the plot in Amman, it had not escaped notice in Washington that Hijazi had lived in California and driven a cab in Boston and that Deek was a naturalized U.S. citizen who, as Berger reminded President Clinton, had been in touch with extremists in the United States as well as abroad.29 Before Ressam's arrest, Berger saw no need to raise a public alarm at home- although the FBI put all field offices on alert.30
Now, following Ressam's arrest, the FBI asked for an unprecedented number of special wiretaps. Both Berger and Tenet told us that their impression was that more Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) wiretap requests were processed during the millennium alert than ever before.31
The next day, writing about Ressam's arrest and links to a cell in Montreal, Berger informed the President that the FBI would advise police in the United States to step up activities but would still try to avoid undue public alarm by stressing that the government had no specific information about planned attacks.32
At a December 22 meeting of the Small Group of principals, FBI Director Louis Freeh briefed officials from the NSC staff, CIA, and Justice on wiretaps and investigations inside the United States, including a Brooklyn entity tied to the Ressam arrest, a seemingly unreliable foreign report of possible attacks on seven U.S. cities, two Algerians detained on the Canadian border, and searches in Montreal related to a jihadist cell. The Justice Department released a statement on the alert the same day.33
Clarke's staff warned, "Foreign terrorist sleeper cells are present in the US and attacks in the US are likely."34 Clarke asked Berger to try to make sure that the domestic agencies remained alert. "Is there a threat to civilian aircraft?" he wrote. Clarke also asked the principals in late December to discuss a foreign security service report about a Bin Ladin plan to put bombs on transatlantic flights.35
The CSG met daily. Berger said that the principals met constantly.36 Later, when asked what made her decide to ask Ressam to step out of his vehicle, Diana Dean, a Customs inspector who referred Ressam to secondary inspection, testified that it was her "training and experience."37 It appears that the heightened sense of alert at the national level played no role in Ressam's detention.
There was a mounting sense of public alarm. The earlier Jordanian arrests had been covered in the press, and Ressam's arrest was featured on network evening news broadcasts throughout the Christmas season.38
The FBI was more communicative during the millennium crisis than it had ever been. The senior FBI official for counterterrorism, Dale Watson, was a regular member of the CSG, and Clarke had good relations both with him and with some of the FBI agents handling al Qaeda-related investigations, including John O'Neill in New York. As a rule, however, neither Watson nor these agents brought much information to the group. The FBI simply did not produce the kind of intelligence reports that other agencies routinely wrote and disseminated. As law enforcement officers, Bureau agents tended to write up only witness interviews. Written case analysis usually occurred only in memoranda to supervisors requesting authority to initiate or expand an investigation.39
But during the millennium alert, with its direct links into the United States from Hijazi, Deek, and Ressam, FBI officials were briefing in person about ongoing investigations, not relying on the dissemination of written reports. Berger told us that it was hard for FBI officials to hold back information in front of a cabinet-rank group. After the alert, according to Berger and members of the NSC staff, the FBI returned to its normal practice of withholding written reports and saying little about investigations or witness interviews, taking the position that any information related to pending investigations might be presented to a grand jury and hence could not be disclosed under then-prevailing federal law.40
The terrorist plots that were broken up at the end of 1999 display the variety of operations that might be attributed, however indirectly, to al Qaeda. The Jordanian cell was a loose affiliate; we now know that it sought approval and training from Afghanistan, and at least one key member swore loyalty to Bin Ladin. But the cell's plans and preparations were autonomous. Ressam's ties to al Qaeda were even looser. Though he had been recruited, trained, and prepared in a network affiliated with the organization and its allies, Ressam's own plans were, nonetheless, essentially independent.
Al Qaeda, and Bin Ladin himself, did have at least one operation of their very own in mind for the millennium period. In chapter 5 we introduced an al Qaeda operative named Nashiri. Working with Bin Ladin, he was developing a plan to attack a ship near Yemen. On January 3, an attempt was made to attack a U.S. warship in Aden, the USS The Sullivans. The attempt failed when the small boat, overloaded with explosives, sank. The operatives salvaged their equipment without the attempt becoming known, and they put off their plans for another day.
Al Qaeda's "planes operation" was also coming along. In January 2000, the United States caught a glimpse of its preparations.
A Lost Trail in Southeast Asia
In late 1999, the National Security Agency (NSA) analyzed communications associated with a suspected terrorist facility in the Middle East, indicating that several members of "an operational cadre" were planning to travel to Kuala Lumpur in early January 2000. Initially, only the first names of three were known-"Nawaf," "Salem," and "Khalid." NSA analysts surmised correctly that Salem was Nawaf's younger brother. Seeing links not only with al Qaeda but specifically with the 1998 embassy bombings, a CIA desk officer guessed that "something more nefarious [was] afoot."41
In chapter 5, we discussed the dispatch of two operatives to the United States for their part in the planes operation-Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihd-har. Two more, Khallad and Abu Bara, went to Southeast Asia to case flights for the part of the operation that was supposed to unfold there.42 All made their way to Southeast Asia from Afghanistan and Pakistan, except for Mihdhar, who traveled from Yemen.43
Though Nawaf's trail was temporarily lost, the CIA soon identified "Khalid" as Khalid al Mihdhar.44 He was located leaving Yemen and tracked until he arrived in Kuala Lumpur on January 5, 2000.45 Other Arabs, unidentified at the time, were watched as they gathered with him in the Malaysian capital.46
On January 8, the surveillance teams reported that three of the Arabs had suddenly left Kuala Lumpur on a short flight to Bangkok.47 They identified one as Mihdhar. They later learned that one of his companions was named Alhazmi, although it was not yet known that he was "Nawaf." The only identifier available for the third person was part of a name-Salahsae.48 In Bangkok, CIA officers received the information too late to track the three men as they came in, and the travelers disappeared into the streets of Bangkok.49
The Counterterrorist Center (CTC) had briefed the CIA leadership on the gathering in Kuala Lumpur, and the information had been passed on to Berger and the NSC staff and to Director Freeh and others at the FBI (though the FBI noted that the CIA had the lead and would let the FBI know if a domestic angle arose).The head of the Bin Ladin unit kept providing updates, unaware at first even that the Arabs had left Kuala Lumpur, let alone that their trail had been lost in Bangkok.50 When this bad news arrived, the names were put on a Thai watchlist so that Thai authorities could inform the United States if any of them departed from Thailand.51
Several weeks later, CIA officers in Kuala Lumpur prodded colleagues in Bangkok for additional information regarding the three travelers.52 In early March 2000, Bangkok reported that Nawaf al Hazmi, now identified for the first time with his full name, had departed on January 15 on a United Airlines flight to Los Angeles. As for Khalid al Mihdhar, there was no report of his departure even though he had accompanied Hazmi on the United flight to Los Angeles.53 No one outside of the Counterterrorist Center was told any of this. The CIA did not try to register Mihdhar or Hazmi with the State Department's TIPOFF watchlist-either in January, when word arrived of Mihdhar's visa, or in March, when word came that Hazmi, too, had had a U.S. visa and a ticket to Los Angeles.54
None of this information-about Mihdhar's U.S. visa or Hazmi's travel to the United States-went to the FBI, and nothing more was done to track any of the three until January 2001, when the investigation of another bombing, that of the USS Cole, reignited interest in Khallad. We will return to that story in chapter 8.
After the millennium alert, elements of the U.S. government reviewed their performance. The CIA's leadership was told that while a number of plots had been disrupted, the millennium might be only the "kick-off" for a period of extended attacks.55 Clarke wrote Berger on January 11, 2000, that the CIA, the FBI, Justice, and the NSC staff had come to two main conclusions. First, U.S. disruption efforts thus far had "not put too much of a dent" in Bin Ladin's network. If the United States wanted to "roll back" the threat, disruption would have to proceed at "a markedly different tempo." Second, "sleeper cells" and "a variety of terrorist groups" had turned up at home.56 As one of Clarke's staff noted, only a "chance discovery" by U.S. Customs had prevented a possible attack.57 Berger gave his approval for the NSC staff to commence an "afteraction review," anticipating new budget requests. He also asked DCI Tenet to review the CIA's counterterrorism strategy and come up with a plan for "where we go from here."58
The NSC staff advised Berger that the United States had only been "nibbling at the edges" of Bin Ladin's network and that more terror attacks were a question not of "if" but rather of "when" and "where."59 The Principals Committee met on March 10, 2000, to review possible new moves. The principals ended up agreeing that the government should take three major steps. First, more money should go to the CIA to accelerate its efforts to "seriously attrit" al Qaeda. Second, there should be a crackdown on foreign terrorist organizations in the United States. Third, immigration law enforcement should be strengthened, and the INS should tighten controls on the Canadian border (including stepping up U.S.-Canada cooperation).The principals endorsed the proposed programs; some, like expanding the number of Joint Terrorism Task Forces, moved forward, and others, like creating a centralized translation unit for domestic intelligence intercepts in Arabic and other languages, did not.60
While this process moved along, diplomacy continued its rounds. Direct pressure on the Taliban had proved unsuccessful. As one NSC staff note put it, "Under the Taliban, Afghanistan is not so much a state sponsor of terrorism as it is a state sponsored by terrorists."61 In early 2000, the United States began a high-level effort to persuade Pakistan to use its influence over the Taliban.
In January 2000, Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth and the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, Michael Sheehan, met with General Musharraf in Islamabad, dangling before him the possibility of a presidential visit in March as a reward for Pakistani cooperation. Such a visit was coveted by Musharraf, partly as a sign of his government's legitimacy. He told the two envoys that he would meet with Mullah Omar and press him on Bin Ladin. They left, however, reporting to Washington that Pakistan was unlikely in fact to do anything, "given what it sees as the benefits of Taliban control of Afghanistan."62
President Clinton was scheduled to travel to India. The State Department felt that he should not visit India without also visiting Pakistan. The Secret Service and the CIA, however, warned in the strongest terms that visiting Pakistan would risk the President's life. Counterterrorism officials also argued that Pakistan had not done enough to merit a presidential visit. But President Clinton insisted on including Pakistan in the itinerary for his trip to South Asia.63 His one-day stopover on March 25, 2000, was the first time a U.S. president had been there since 1969. At his meeting with Musharraf and others, President Clinton concentrated on tensions between Pakistan and India and the dangers of nuclear proliferation, but also discussed Bin Ladin. President Clinton told us that when he pulled Musharraf aside for a brief, one-on-one meeting, he pleaded with the general for help regarding Bin Ladin. "I offered him the moon when I went to see him, in terms of better relations with the United States, if he'd help us get Bin Ladin and deal with another issue or two."64
The U.S. effort continued. Early in May, President Clinton urged Musharraf to carry through on his promise to visit Afghanistan and press Mullah Omar to expel Bin Ladin.65 At the end of the month, Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering followed up with a trip to the region.66 In June, DCI Tenet traveled to Pakistan with the same general message.67 By September, the United States was becoming openly critical of Pakistan for supporting a Taliban military offensive aimed at completing the conquest of Afghanistan.68
In December, taking a step proposed by the State Department some months earlier, the United States led a campaign for new UN sanctions, which resulted in UN Security Council Resolution 1333, again calling for Bin Ladin's expulsion and forbidding any country to provide the Taliban with arms or military assistance.69 This, too, had little if any effect. The Taliban did not expel Bin Ladin. Pakistani arms continued to flow across the border.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told us, "We did not have a strong hand to play with the Pakistanis. Because of the sanctions required by U.S. law, we had few carrots to offer."70 Congress had blocked most economic and military aid to Pakistan because of that country's nuclear arms program and Musharraf's coup. Sheehan was critical of Musharraf, telling us that the Pakistani leader "blew a chance to remake Pakistan."71
Building New Capabilities: The CIA
The after-action review had treated the CIA as the lead agency for any offensive against al Qaeda, and the principals, at their March 10 meeting, had endorsed strengthening the CIA's capability for that role. To the CTC, that meant proceeding with "the Plan," which it had put forward half a year earlier-hiring and training more case officers and building up the capabilities of foreign security services that provided intelligence via liaison. On occasion, as in Jordan in December 1999, these liaison services took direct action against al Qaeda cells.72
In the CTC and higher up, the CIA's managers believed that they desperately needed funds just to continue their current counterterrorism effort, for they reckoned that the millennium alert had already used up all of the Center's funds for the current fiscal year; the Bin Ladin unit had spent 140 percent of its allocation. Tenet told us he met with Berger to discuss funding for counterterrorism just two days after the principals' meeting.73
While Clarke strongly favored giving the CIA more money for counterterrorism, he differed sharply with the CIA's managers about where it should come from. They insisted that the CIA had been shortchanged ever since the end of the Cold War. Their ability to perform any mission, counterterrorism included, they argued, depended on preserving what they had, restoring what they had lost since the beginning of the 1990s, and building from there-with across-the-board recruitment and training of new case officers, and the reopening of closed stations. To finance the counterterrorism effort, Tenet had gone to congressional leaders after the 1998 embassy bombings and persuaded them to give the CIA a special supplemental appropriation. Now, in the aftermath of the millennium alert, Tenet wanted a boost in overall funds for the CIA and another supplemental appropriation specifically for counterterrorism.74
To Clarke, this seemed evidence that the CIA's leadership did not give sufficient priority to the battle against Bin Ladin and al Qaeda. He told us that James Pavitt, the head of the CIA's Directorate of Operations, "said if there's going to be money spent on going after Bin Ladin, it should be given to him. ...My view was that he had had a lot of money to do it and a long time to do it, and I didn't want to put more good money after bad."75 The CIA had a very different attitude: Pavitt told us that while the CIA's Bin Ladin unit did "extraordinary and commendable work," his chief of station in London "was just as much part of the al Qaeda struggle as an officer sitting in [the Bin Ladin unit]."76
The dispute had large managerial implications, for Clarke had found allies in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).They had supplied him with the figures he used to argue that CIA spending on counterterrorism from its baseline budget had shown almost no increase.77
Berger met twice with Tenet in April to try to resolve the dispute. The Deputies Committee met later in the month to review fiscal year 2000 and 2001 budget priorities and offsets for the CIA and other agencies. In the end, Tenet obtained a modest supplemental appropriation, which funded counterterrorism without requiring much reprogramming of baseline funds. But the CIA still believed that it remained underfunded for counterterrorism.78
The second major point on which the principals had agreed on March 10 was the need to crack down on terrorist organizations and curtail their fund-raising.
The embassy bombings of 1998 had focused attention on al Qaeda's finances. One result had been the creation of an NSC-led interagency committee on terrorist financing. On its recommendation, the President had designated Bin Ladin and al Qaeda as subject to sanctions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. This gave the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) the ability to search for and freeze any Bin Ladin or al Qaeda assets that reached the U.S. financial system. But since OFAC had little information to go on, few funds were frozen.79
In July 1999, the President applied the same designation to the Taliban for harboring Bin Ladin. Here, OFAC had more success. It blocked more than $34 million in Taliban assets held in U.S. banks. Another $215 million in gold and $2 million in demand deposits, all belonging to the Afghan central bank and held by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, were also frozen.80After October 1999, when the State Department formally designated al Qaeda a "foreign terrorist organization," it became the duty of U.S. banks to block its transactions and seize its funds.81 Neither this designation nor UN sanctions had much additional practical effect; the sanctions were easily circumvented, and there were no multilateral mechanisms to ensure that other countries' financial systems were not used as conduits for terrorist funding.82
Attacking the funds of an institution, even the Taliban, was easier than finding and seizing the funds of a clandestine worldwide organization like al Qaeda. Although the CIA's Bin Ladin unit had originally been inspired by the idea of studying terrorist financial links, few personnel assigned to it had any experience in financial investigations. Any terrorist-financing intelligence appeared to have been collected collaterally, as a consequence of gathering other intelligence. This attitude may have stemmed in large part from the chief of this unit, who did not believe that simply following the money from point A to point B revealed much about the terrorists' plans and intentions. As a result, the CIA placed little emphasis on terrorist financing.83
Nevertheless, the CIA obtained a general understanding of how al Qaeda raised money. It knew relatively early, for example, about the loose affiliation of financial institutions, businesses, and wealthy individuals who supported extremist Islamic activities.84 Much of the early reporting on al Qaeda's financial situation and its structure came from Jamal Ahmed al Fadl, whom we have mentioned earlier in the report.85 After the 1998 embassy bombings, the U.S. government tried to develop a clearer picture of Bin Ladin's finances. A U.S. interagency group traveled to Saudi Arabia twice, in 1999 and 2000, to get information from the Saudis about their understanding of those finances. The group eventually concluded that the oft-repeated assertion that Bin Ladin was funding al Qaeda from his personal fortune was in fact not true.
The officials developed a new theory: al Qaeda was getting its money elsewhere, and the United States needed to focus on other sources of funding, such as charities, wealthy donors, and financial facilitators. Ultimately, although the intelligence community devoted more resources to the issue and produced somewhat more intelligence,86 it remained difficult to distinguish al Qaeda's financial transactions among the vast sums moving in the international financial system. The CIA was not able to find or disrupt al Qaeda's money flows.87
The NSC staff thought that one possible solution to these weaknesses in the intelligence community was to create an all-source terrorist-financing intelligence analysis center. Clarke pushed for the funding of such a center at Treasury, but neither Treasury nor the CIA was willing to commit the resources.88
Within the United States, various FBI field offices gathered intelligence on organizations suspected of raising funds for al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. By 9/11, FBI agents understood that there were extremist organizations operating within the United States supporting a global jihadist movement and with substantial connections to al Qaeda. The FBI operated a web of informants, conducted electronic surveillance, and had opened significant investigations in a number of field offices, including New York, Chicago, Detroit, San Diego, and Minneapolis. On a national level, however, the FBI never used the information to gain a systematic or strategic understanding of the nature and extent of al Qaeda fundraising.89
Treasury regulators, as well as U.S. financial institutions, were generally focused on finding and deterring or disrupting the vast flows of U.S. currency generated by drug trafficking and high-level international fraud. Large-scale scandals, such as the use of the Bank of New York by Russian money launderers to move millions of dollars out of Russia, captured the attention of the Department of the Treasury and of Congress.90 Before 9/11,Treasury did not consider terrorist financing important enough to mention in its national strategy for money laundering.91
The third point on which the principals had agreed on March 10 was the need for attention to America's porous borders and the weak enforcement of immigration laws. Drawing on ideas from government officials, Clarke's working group developed a menu of proposals to bolster border security. Some reworked or reiterated previous presidential directives.92 They included
Clarke's working group compiled new proposals as well, such as
These proposals were praiseworthy in principle. In practice, however, they required action by weak, chronically underfunded executive agencies and powerful congressional committees, which were more responsive to well-organized interest groups than to executive branch interagency committees. The changes sought by the principals in March 2000 were only beginning to occur before 9/11.
In early March 2000, when President Clinton received an update on U.S. covert action efforts against Bin Ladin, he wrote in the memo's margin that the United States could surely do better. Military officers in the Joint Staff told us that they shared this sense of frustration. Clarke used the President's comment to push the CSG to brainstorm new ideas, including aid to the Northern Alliance.99
Back in December 1999, Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud had offered to stage a rocket attack against Bin Ladin's Derunta training complex. Officers at the CIA had worried that giving him a green light might cross the line into violation of the assassination ban. Hence, Massoud was told not to take any such action without explicit U.S. authorization.100 In the spring of 2000, after the CIA had sent out officers to explore possible closer relationships with both the Uzbeks and the Northern Alliance, discussions took place in Washington between U.S. officials and delegates sent by Massoud.101
The Americans agreed that Massoud should get some modest technical help so he could work on U.S. priorities-collecting intelligence on and possibly acting against al Qaeda. But Massoud wanted the United States both to become his ally in trying to overthrow the Taliban and to recognize that they were fighting common enemies. Clarke and Cofer Black, the head of the Counterterrorist Center, wanted to take this next step. Proposals to help the Northern Alliance had been debated in the U.S. government since 1999 and, as we mentioned in chapter 4, the U.S. government as a whole had been wary of endorsing them, largely because of the Northern Alliance's checkered history, its limited base of popular support in Afghanistan, and Pakistan's objections.102
CIA officials also began pressing proposals to use their ties with the Northern Alliance to get American agents on the ground in Afghanistan for an extended period, setting up their own base for covert intelligence collection and activity in the Panjshir Valley and lessening reliance on foreign proxies. "There's no substitute for face-to-face," one officer told us.103 But the CIA's institutional capacity for such direct action was weak, especially if it was not working jointly with the U.S. military. The idea was turned down as too risky.104
In the meantime, the CIA continued to work with its tribal assets in southern Afghanistan. In early August, the tribals reported an attempt to ambush Bin Ladin's convoy as he traveled on the road between Kabul and Kandahar city- their first such reported interdiction attempt in more than a year and a half. But it was not a success. According to the tribals' own account, when they approached one of the vehicles, they quickly determined that women and children were inside and called off the ambush. Conveying this information to the NSC staff, the CIA noted that they had no independent corroboration for this incident, but that the tribals had acted within the terms of the CIA's authorities in Afghanistan.105
In 2000, plans continued to be developed for potential military operations in Afghanistan. Navy vessels that could launch missiles into Afghanistan were still on call in the north Arabian Sea.106 In the summer, the military refined its list of strikes and Special Operations possibilities to a set of 13 options within the Operation Infinite Resolve plan.107 Yet planning efforts continued to be limited by the same operational and policy concerns encountered in 1998 and 1999. Although the intelligence community sometimes knew where Bin Ladin was, it had been unable to provide intelligence considered sufficiently reliable to launch a strike. Above all, the United States did not have American eyes on the target. As one military officer put it, we had our hand on the door, but we couldn't open the door and walk in.108
At some point during this period, President Clinton expressed his frustration with the lack of military options to take out Bin Ladin and the al Qaeda leadership, remarking to General Hugh Shelton, "You know, it would scare the shit out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp."109 Although Shelton told the Commission he did not remember the statement, President Clinton recalled this remark as "one of the many things I said." The President added, however, that he realized nothing would be accomplished if he lashed out in anger. Secretary of Defense William Cohen thought that the President might have been making a hypothetical statement. Regardless, he said, the question remained how to get the "ninjas" into and out of the theater of operations.110 As discussed in chapter 4, plans of this kind were never carried out before 9/11.
In late 1999 or early 2000, the Joint Staff's director of operations, Vice Admiral Scott Fry, directed his chief information operations officer, Brigadier General Scott Gration, to develop innovative ways to get better intelligence on Bin Ladin's whereabouts. Gration and his team worked on a number of different ideas aimed at getting reliable American eyes on Bin Ladin in a way that would reduce the lag time between sighting and striking.111
One option was to use a small, unmanned U.S. Air Force drone called the Predator, which could survey the territory below and send back video footage. Another option-eventually dismissed as impractical-was to place a powerful long-range telescope on a mountain within range of one of Bin Ladin's training camps. Both proposals were discussed with General Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then briefed to Clarke's office at the White House as the CSG was searching for new ideas. In the spring of 2000, Clarke brought in the CIA's assistant director for collection, Charles Allen, to work together with Fry on a joint CIA-Pentagon effort that Clarke dubbed "Afghan Eyes."112After much argument between the CIA and the Defense Department about who should pay for the program, the White House eventually imposed a cost-sharing agreement. The CIA agreed to pay for Predator operations as a 60-day "proof of concept" trial run.113
The Small Group backed Afghan Eyes at the end of June 2000. By mid-July, testing was completed and the equipment was ready, but legal issues were still being ironed out.114 By August 11, the principals had agreed to deploy the Predator.115 The NSC staff considered how to use the information the drones would be relaying from Afghanistan. Clarke's deputy, Roger Cressey, wrote to Berger that emergency CSG and Principals Committee meetings might be needed to act on video coming in from the Predator if it proved able to lock in Bin Ladin's location. In the memo's margin, Berger wrote that before considering action, "I will want more than verified location: we will need, at least, data on pattern of movements to provide some assurance he will remain in place." President Clinton was kept up to date.116
On September 7, the Predator flew for the first time over Afghanistan. When Clarke saw video taken during the trial flight, he described the imagery to Berger as "truly astonishing," and he argued immediately for more flights seeking to find Bin Ladin and target him for cruise missile or air attack. Even if Bin Ladin were not found, Clarke said, Predator missions might identify additional worthwhile targets, such as other al Qaeda leaders or stocks of chemical or biological weapons.117
Clarke was not alone in his enthusiasm. He had backing from Cofer Black and Charles Allen at the CIA. Ten out of 15 trial missions of the Predator over Afghanistan were rated successful. On the first flight, a Predator saw a security detail around a tall man in a white robe at Bin Ladin's Tarnak Farms compound outside Kandahar. After a second sighting of the "man in white" at the compound on September 28, intelligence community analysts determined that he was probably Bin Ladin.118
During at least one trial mission, the Taliban spotted the Predator and scrambled MiG fighters to try, without success, to intercept it. Berger worried that a Predator might be shot down, and warned Clarke that a shootdown would be a "bonanza" for Bin Ladin and the Taliban.119
Still, Clarke was optimistic about Predator-as well as progress with disruptions of al Qaeda cells elsewhere. Berger was more cautious, praising the NSC staff's performance but observing that this was no time for complacency. "Unfortunately," he wrote, "the light at the end of the tunnel is another tunnel."120
Early in chapter 5 we introduced, along with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, two other men who became operational coordinators for al Qaeda: Khallad and Nashiri. As we explained, both were involved during 1998 and 1999 in preparing to attack a ship off the coast of Yemen with a boatload of explosives. They had originally targeted a commercial vessel, specifically an oil tanker, but Bin Ladin urged them to look for a U.S. warship instead. In January 2000, their team had attempted to attack a warship in the port of Aden, but the attempt failed when the suicide boat sank. More than nine months later, on October 12, 2000, al Qaeda operatives in a small boat laden with explosives attacked a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Cole. The blast ripped a hole in the side of the Cole, killing 17 members of the ship's crew and wounding at least 40.121
The plot, we now know, was a full-fledged al Qaeda operation, supervised directly by Bin Ladin. He chose the target and location of the attack, selected the suicide operatives, and provided the money needed to purchase explosives and equipment. Nashiri was the field commander and managed the operation in Yemen. Khallad helped in Yemen until he was arrested in a case of mistaken identity and freed with Bin Ladin's help, as we also mentioned earlier. Local al Qaeda coordinators included Jamal al Badawi and Fahd al Quso, who was supposed to film the attack from a nearby apartment. The two suicide operatives chosen were Hassan al Khamri and Ibrahim al Thawar, also known as Nibras. Nibras and Quso delivered money to Khallad in Bangkok during Khallad's January 2000 trip to Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.122
In September 2000, Bin Ladin reportedly told Nashiri that he wanted to replace Khamri and Nibras. Nashiri was angry and disagreed, telling others he would go to Afghanistan and explain to Bin Ladin that the new operatives were already trained and ready to conduct the attack. Prior to departing, Nashiri gave Nibras and Khamri instructions to execute the attack on the next U.S. warship that entered the port of Aden.123
While Nashiri was in Afghanistan, Nibras and Khamri saw their chance. They piloted the explosives-laden boat alongside the USS Cole, made friendly gestures to crew members, and detonated the bomb. Quso did not arrive at the apartment in time to film the attack.124
Back in Afghanistan, Bin Ladin anticipated U.S. military retaliation. He ordered the evacuation of al Qaeda's Kandahar airport compound and fled- first to the desert area near Kabul, then to Khowst and Jalalabad, and eventually back to Kandahar. In Kandahar, he rotated between five to six residences, spending one night at each residence. In addition, he sent his senior advisor, Mohammed Atef, to a different part of Kandahar and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, to Kabul so that all three could not be killed in one attack.125
There was no American strike. In February 2001, a source reported that an individual whom he identified as the big instructor (probably a reference to Bin Ladin) complained frequently that the United States had not yet attacked. According to the source, Bin Ladin wanted the United States to attack, and if it did not he would launch something bigger.126
The attack on the USS Cole galvanized al Qaeda's recruitment efforts. Following the attack, Bin Ladin instructed the media committee, then headed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to produce a propaganda video that included a reenactment of the attack along with images of the al Qaeda training camps and training methods; it also highlighted Muslim suffering in Palestine, Kashmir, Indonesia, and Chechnya. Al Qaeda's image was very important to Bin Ladin, and the video was widely disseminated. Portions were aired on Al Jazeera, CNN, and other television outlets. It was also disseminated among many young men in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and caused many extremists to travel to Afghanistan for training and jihad.Al Qaeda members considered the video an effective tool in their struggle for preeminence among other Islamist and jihadist movements.127
Investigating the Attack
Teams from the FBI, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and the CIA were immediately sent to Yemen to investigate the attack. With difficulty, Barbara Bodine, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, tried to persuade the Yemeni government to accept these visitors and allow them to carry arms, though the Yemenis balked at letting Americans openly carry long guns (rifles, shotguns, automatic weapons). Meanwhile, Bodine and the leader of the FBI team, John O'Neill, clashed repeatedly-to the point that after O'Neill had been rotated out of Yemen but wanted to return, Bodine refused the request. Despite the initial tension, the Yemeni and American investigations proceeded. Within a few weeks, the outline of the story began to emerge.128
On the day of the Cole attack, a list of suspects was assembled that included al Qaeda's affiliate Egyptian Islamic Jihad. U.S. counterterrorism officials told us they immediately assumed that al Qaeda was responsible. But as Deputy DCI John McLaughlin explained to us, it was not enough for the attack to smell, look, and taste like an al Qaeda operation. To make a case, the CIA needed not just a guess but a link to someone known to be an al Qaeda operative.129
Within the first weeks after the attack, the Yemenis found and arrested both Badawi and Quso, but did not let the FBI team participate in the interrogations. The CIA described initial Yemeni support after the Cole as "slow and inadequate." President Clinton, Secretary Albright, and DCI Tenet all intervened to help. Because the information was secondhand, the U.S. team could not make its own assessment of its reliability.130
On November 11, the Yemenis provided the FBI with new information from the interrogations of Badawi and Quso, including descriptions of individuals from whom the detainees had received operational direction. One of them was Khallad, who was described as having lost his leg. The detainees said that Khallad helped direct the Cole operation from Afghanistan or Pakistan. The Yemenis (correctly) judged that the man described as Khallad was Tawfiq bin Attash.131
An FBI special agent recognized the name Khallad and connected this news with information from an important al Qaeda source who had been meeting regularly with CIA and FBI officers. The source had called Khallad Bin Ladin's "run boy," and described him as having lost one leg in an explosives accident at a training camp a few years earlier. To confirm the identification, the FBI agent asked the Yemenis for their photo of Khallad. The Yemenis provided the photo on November 22, reaffirming their view that Khallad had been an intermediary between the plotters and Bin Ladin. (In a meeting with U.S. officials a few weeks later, on December 16, the source identified Khallad from the Yemeni photograph.)132
U.S. intelligence agencies had already connected Khallad to al Qaeda terrorist operations, including the 1998 embassy bombings. By this time the Yemenis also had identified Nashiri, whose links to al Qaeda and the 1998 embassy bombings were even more well-known.133
In other words, the Yemenis provided strong evidence connecting the Cole attack to al Qaeda during the second half of November, identifying individual operatives whom the United States knew were part of al Qaeda. During December the United States was able to corroborate this evidence. But the United States did not have evidence about Bin Ladin's personal involvement in the attacks until Nashiri and Khallad were captured in 2002 and 2003.
Considering a Response
The Cole attack prompted renewed consideration of what could be done about al Qaeda. According to Clarke, Berger upbraided DCI Tenet so sharply after the Cole attack-repeatedly demanding to know why the United States had to put up with such attacks-that Tenet walked out of a meeting of the principals.134
The CIA got some additional covert action authorities, adding several other individuals to the coverage of the July 1999 Memorandum of Notification that allowed the United States to develop capture operations against al Qaeda leaders in a variety of places and circumstances. Tenet developed additional options, such as strengthening relationships with the Northern Alliance and the Uzbeks and slowing recent al Qaeda-related activities in Lebanon.135
On the diplomatic track, Berger agreed on October 30, 2000, to let the State Department make another approach to Taliban Deputy Foreign Minister Abdul Jalil about expelling Bin Ladin. The national security advisor ordered that the U.S. message "be stern and foreboding." This warning was similar to those issued in 1998 and 1999. Meanwhile, the administration was working with Russia on new UN sanctions against Mullah Omar's regime.136
President Clinton told us that before he could launch further attacks on al Qaeda in Afghanistan, or deliver an ultimatum to the Taliban threatening strikes if they did not immediately expel Bin Ladin, the CIA or the FBI had to be sure enough that they would "be willing to stand up in public and say, we believe that he [Bin Ladin] did this." He said he was very frustrated that he could not get a definitive enough answer to do something about the Cole attack.137 Similarly, Berger recalled that to go to war, a president needs to be able to say that his senior intelligence and law enforcement officers have concluded who is responsible. He recalled that the intelligence agencies had strong suspicions, but had reached "no conclusion by the time we left office that it was al Qaeda."138
Our only sources for what intelligence officials thought at the time are what they said in informal briefings. Soon after the Cole attack and for the remainder of the Clinton administration, analysts stopped distributing written reports about who was responsible. The topic was obviously sensitive, and both Ambassador Bodine in Yemen and CIA analysts in Washington presumed that the government did not want reports circulating around the agencies that might become public, impeding law enforcement actions or backing the President into a corner.139
Instead the White House and other principals relied on informal updates as more evidence came in. Though Clarke worried that the CIA might be equivocating in assigning responsibility to al Qaeda, he wrote Berger on November 7 that the analysts had described their case by saying that "it has web feet, flies, and quacks." On November 10, CIA analysts briefed the Small Group of principals on their preliminary findings that the attack was carried out by a cell of Yemeni residents with some ties to the transnational mujahideen network. According to the briefing, these residents likely had some support from al Qaeda. But the information on outside sponsorship, support, and direction of the operation was inconclusive. The next day, Berger and Clarke told President Clinton that while the investigation was continuing, it was becoming increasingly clear that al Qaeda had planned and directed the bombing.140
In mid-November, as the evidence of al Qaeda involvement mounted, Berger asked General Shelton to reevaluate military plans to act quickly against Bin Ladin. General Shelton tasked General Tommy Franks, the new commander of CENTCOM, to look again at the options. Shelton wanted to demonstrate that the military was imaginative and knowledgeable enough to move on an array of options, and to show the complexity of the operations. He briefed Berger on the "Infinite Resolve" strike options developed since 1998, which the Joint Staff and CENTCOM had refined during the summer into a list of 13 possibilities or combinations. CENTCOM added a new "phased campaign" concept for wider-ranging strikes, including attacks against the Taliban. For the first time, these strikes envisioned an air campaign against Afghanistan of indefinite duration. Military planners did not include contingency planning for an invasion of Afghanistan. The concept was briefed to Deputy National Security Advisor Donald Kerrick on December 20, and to other officials.141
On November 25, Berger and Clarke wrote President Clinton that although the FBI and CIA investigations had not reached a formal conclusion, they believed the investigations would soon conclude that the attack had been carried out by a large cell whose senior members belonged to al Qaeda. Most of those involved had trained in Bin Ladin-operated camps in Afghanistan, Berger continued. So far, Bin Ladin had not been tied personally to the attack and nobody had heard him directly order it, but two intelligence reports suggested that he was involved. When discussing possible responses, though, Berger referred to the premise-al Qaeda responsibility- as an "unproven assumption."142
In the same November 25 memo, Berger informed President Clinton about a closely held idea: a last-chance ultimatum for the Taliban. Clarke was developing the idea with specific demands: immediate extradition of Bin Ladin and his lieutenants to a legitimate government for trial, observable closure of all terrorist facilities in Afghanistan, and expulsion of all terrorists from Afghanistan within 90 days. Noncompliance would mean U.S. "force directed at the Taliban itself" and U.S. efforts to ensure that the Taliban would never defeat the Northern Alliance. No such ultimatum was issued.143
Nearly a month later, on December 21, the CIA made another presentation to the Small Group of principals on the investigative team's findings. The CIA's briefing slides said that their "preliminary judgment" was that Bin Ladin's al Qaeda group "supported the attack" on the Cole, based on strong circumstantial evidence tying key perpetrators of the attack to al Qaeda. The CIA listed the key suspects, including Nashiri. In addition, the CIA detailed the timeline of the operation, from the mid-1999 preparations, to the failed attack on the USS The Sullivans on January 3, 2000, through a meeting held by the operatives the day before the attack.144
The slides said that so far the CIA had "no definitive answer on [the] crucial question of outside direction of the attack-how and by whom." The CIA noted that the Yemenis claimed that Khallad helped direct the operation from Afghanistan or Pakistan, possibly as Bin Ladin's intermediary, but that it had not seen the Yemeni evidence. However, the CIA knew from both human sources and signals intelligence that Khallad was tied to al Qaeda. The prepared briefing concluded that while some reporting about al Qaeda's role might have merit, those reports offered few specifics. Intelligence gave some ambiguous indicators of al Qaeda direction of the attack.145
This, President Clinton and Berger told us, was not the conclusion they needed in order to go to war or deliver an ultimatum to the Taliban threatening war. The election and change of power was not the issue, President Clinton added. There was enough time. If the agencies had given him a definitive answer, he said, he would have sought a UN Security Council ultimatum and given the Taliban one, two, or three days before taking further action against both al Qaeda and the Taliban. But he did not think it would be responsible for a president to launch an invasion of another country just based on a "preliminary judgment."146
Other advisers have echoed this concern. Some of Secretary Albright's advisers warned her at the time to be sure the evidence conclusively linked Bin Ladin to the Cole before considering any response, especially a military one, because such action might inflame the Islamic world and increase support for the Taliban. Defense Secretary Cohen told us it would not have been prudent to risk killing civilians based only on an assumption that al Qaeda was responsible. General Shelton added that there was an outstanding question as to who was responsible and what the targets were.147
Clarke recalled that while the Pentagon and the State Department had reservations about retaliation, the issue never came to a head because the FBI and the CIA never reached a firm conclusion. He thought they were "holding back." He said he did not know why, but his impression was that Tenet and Reno possibly thought the White House "didn't really want to know," since the principals' discussions by November suggested that there was not much White House interest in conducting further military operations against Afghanistan in the administration's last weeks. He thought that, instead, President Clinton, Berger, and Secretary Albright were concentrating on a last-minute push for a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis.148
Some of Clarke's fellow counterterrorism officials, such as the State Department's Sheehan and the FBI's Watson, shared his disappointment that no military response occurred at the time. Clarke recently recalled that an angry Sheehan asked rhetorically of Defense officials: "Does al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon to get their attention?"149
On the question of evidence, Tenet told us he was surprised to hear that the White House was awaiting a conclusion from him on responsibility for the Cole attack before taking action against al Qaeda. He did not recall Berger or anyone else telling him that they were waiting for the magic words from the CIA and the FBI. Nor did he remember having any discussions with Berger or the President about retaliation. Tenet told us he believed that it was up to him to present the case. Then it was up to the principals to decide if the case was good enough to justify using force. He believed he laid out what was knowable relatively early in the investigation, and that this evidence never really changed until after 9/11.150
A CIA official told us that the CIA's analysts chose the term "preliminary judgment" because of their notion of how an intelligence standard of proof differed from a legal standard. Because the attack was the subject of a criminal investigation, they told us, the term preliminary was used to avoid locking the government in with statements that might later be obtained by defense lawyers in a future court case. At the time, Clarke was aware of the problem of distinguishing between an intelligence case and a law enforcement case. Asking U.S. law enforcement officials to concur with an intelligence-based case before their investigation had been concluded "could give rise to charges that the administration had acted before final culpability had been determined."151
There was no interagency consideration of just what military action might have looked like in practice-either the Pentagon's new "phased campaign" concept or a prolonged air campaign in Afghanistan. Defense officials, such as Under Secretary Walter Slocombe and Vice Admiral Fry, told us the military response options were still limited. Bin Ladin continued to be elusive. They felt, just as they had for the past two years, that hitting inexpensive and rudimentary training camps with costly missiles would not do much good and might even help al Qaeda if the strikes failed to kill Bin Ladin.152
In late 2000, the CIA and the NSC staff began thinking about the counterterrorism policy agenda they would present to the new administration. The Counterterrorist Center put down its best ideas for the future, assuming it was free of any prior policy or financial constraints. The paper was therefore informally referred to as the "Blue Sky" memo; it was sent to Clarke on December 29.The memo proposed
The CIA memo noted that there was "no single 'silver bullet' available to deal with the growing problems in Afghanistan." A multifaceted strategy would be needed to produce change.153
No action was taken on these ideas in the few remaining weeks of the Clinton administration. Berger did not recall seeing or being briefed on the Blue Sky memo. Nor was the memo discussed during the transition with incoming top Bush administration officials. Tenet and his deputy told us they pressed these ideas as options after the new team took office.154
As the Clinton administration drew to a close, Clarke and his staff developed a policy paper of their own, the first such comprehensive effort since the Delenda plan of 1998.The resulting paper, entitled "Strategy for Eliminating the Threat from the Jihadist Networks of al Qida: Status and Prospects," reviewed the threat and the record to date, incorporated the CIA's new ideas from the Blue Sky memo, and posed several near-term policy options.
Clarke and his staff proposed a goal to "roll back" al Qaeda over a period of three to five years. Over time, the policy should try to weaken and eliminate the network's infrastructure in order to reduce it to a "rump group" like other formerly feared but now largely defunct terrorist organizations of the 1980s. "Continued anti-al Qida operations at the current level will prevent some attacks," Clarke's office wrote, "but will not seriously attrit their ability to plan and conduct attacks." The paper backed covert aid to the Northern Alliance, covert aid to Uzbekistan, and renewed Predator flights in March 2001. A sentence called for military action to destroy al Qaeda command-and-control targets and infrastructure and Taliban military and command assets. The paper also expressed concern about the presence of al Qaeda operatives in the United States.155
The dispute over the election and the 36-day delay cut in half the normal transition period. Given that a presidential election in the United States brings wholesale change in personnel, this loss of time hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees.
From the Old to the New
The principal figures on Bush's White House staff would be National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who had been a member of the NSC staff in the administration of George H.W. Bush; Rice's deputy, Stephen Hadley, who had been an assistant secretary of defense under the first Bush; and Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who had served that same administration as deputy chief of staff, then secretary of transportation. For secretary of state, Bush chose General Colin Powell, who had been national security advisor for President Ronald Reagan and then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. For secretary of defense he selected Donald Rumsfeld, a former member of Congress, White House chief of staff, and, under President Gerald Ford, already once secretary of defense. Bush decided fairly soon to keep Tenet as Director of Central Intelligence. Louis Freeh, who had statutory ten-year tenure, would remain director of the FBI until his voluntary retirement in the summer of 2001.
Bush and his principal advisers had all received briefings on terrorism, including Bin Ladin. In early September 2000, Acting Deputy Director of Central Intelligence John McLaughlin led a team to Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, and gave him a wide-ranging, four-hour review of sensitive information. Ben Bonk, deputy chief of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, used one of the four hours to deal with terrorism. To highlight the danger of terrorists obtaining chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons, Bonk brought along a mock-up suitcase to evoke the way the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult had spread deadly sarin nerve agent on the Tokyo subway in 1995. Bonk told Bush that Americans would die from terrorism during the next four years.156 During the long contest after election day, the CIA set up an office in Crawford to pass intelligence to Bush and some of his key advisers.157 Tenet, accompanied by his deputy director for operations, James Pavitt, briefed President-elect Bush at Blair House during the transition. President Bush told us he asked Tenet whether the CIA could kill Bin Ladin, and Tenet replied that killing Bin Ladin would have an effect but would not end the threat. President Bush told us Tenet said to him that the CIA had all the authority it needed.158
In December, Bush met with Clinton for a two-hour, one-on-one discussion of national security and foreign policy challenges. Clinton recalled saying to Bush, "I think you will find that by far your biggest threat is Bin Ladin and the al Qaeda." Clinton told us that he also said, "One of the great regrets of my presidency is that I didn't get him [Bin Ladin] for you, because I tried to."159 Bush told the Commission that he felt sure President Clinton had mentioned terrorism, but did not remember much being said about al Qaeda. Bush recalled that Clinton had emphasized other issues such as North Korea and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.160
In early January, Clarke briefed Rice on terrorism. He gave similar presentations-describing al Qaeda as both an adaptable global network of jihadist organizations and a lethal core terrorist organization-to Vice President-elect Cheney, Hadley, and Secretary of State-designate Powell. One line in the briefing slides said that al Qaeda had sleeper cells in more than 40 countries, including the United States.161 Berger told us that he made a point of dropping in on Clarke's briefing of Rice to emphasize the importance of the issue. Later the same day, Berger met with Rice. He says that he told her the Bush administration would spend more time on terrorism in general and al Qaeda in particular than on anything else. Rice's recollection was that Berger told her she would be surprised at how much more time she was going to spend on terrorism than she expected, but that the bulk of their conversation dealt with the faltering Middle East peace process and North Korea. Clarke said that the new team, having been out of government for eight years, had a steep learning curve to understand al Qaeda and the new transnational terrorist threat.162
Organizing a New Administration
During the short transition, Rice and Hadley concentrated on staffing and organizing the NSC.163 Their policy priorities differed from those of the Clinton administration. Those priorities included China, missile defense, the collapse of the Middle East peace process, and the Persian Gulf.164 Generally aware that terrorism had changed since the first Bush administration, they paid particular attention to the question of how counterterrorism policy should be coordinated. Rice had asked University of Virginia history professor Philip Zelikow to advise her on the transition.165 Hadley and Zelikow asked Clarke and his deputy, Roger Cressey, for a special briefing on the terrorist threat and how Clarke's Transnational Threats Directorate and Counterterrorism Security Group functioned.166
In the NSC during the first Bush administration, many tough issues were addressed at the level of the Deputies Committee. Issues did not go to the principals unless the deputies had been unable to resolve them. Presidential Decision Directive 62 of the Clinton administration had said specifically that Clarke's Counterterrorism Security Group should report through the Deputies Committee or, at Berger's discretion, directly to the principals. Berger had in practice allowed Clarke's group to function as a parallel deputies committee, reporting directly to those members of the Principals Committee who sat on the special Small Group. There, Clarke himself sat as a de facto principal.
Rice decided to change the special structure that had been built to coordinate counterterrorism policy. It was important to sound policymaking, she felt, that Clarke's interagency committee-like all others-report to the principals through the deputies.167
Rice made an initial decision to hold over both Clarke and his entire counterterrorism staff, a decision that she called rare for a new administration. She decided also that Clarke should retain the title of national counterterrorism coordinator, although he would no longer be a de facto member of the Principals Committee on his issues. The decision to keep Clarke, Rice said, was "not uncontroversial," since he was known as someone who "broke china," but she and Hadley wanted an experienced crisis manager. No one else from Berger's staff had Clarke's detailed knowledge of the levers of government. 168
Clarke was disappointed at what he perceived as a demotion. He also worried that reporting through the Deputies Committee would slow decisionmaking on counterterrorism.169
The result, amid all the changes accompanying the transition, was significant continuity in counterterrorism policy. Clarke and his Counterterrorism Security Group would continue to manage coordination. Tenet remained Director of Central Intelligence and kept the same chief subordinates, including Black and his staff at the Counterterrorist Center. Shelton remained chairman of the Joint Chiefs, with the Joint Staff largely the same. At the FBI, Director Freeh and Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Dale Watson remained. Working-level counterterrorism officials at the State Department and the Pentagon stayed on, as is typically the case. The changes were at the cabinet and subcabinet level and in the CSG's reporting arrangements. At the subcabinet level, there were significant delays in the confirmation of key officials, particularly at the Defense Department.
The procedures of the Bush administration were to be at once more formal and less formal than its predecessor's. President Clinton, a voracious reader, received his daily intelligence briefings in writing. He often scrawled questions and comments in the margins, eliciting written responses. The new president, by contrast, reinstated the practice of face-to-face briefings from the DCI. President Bush and Tenet met in the Oval Office at 8:00 A.M., with Vice President Cheney, Rice, and Card usually also present. The President and the DCI both told us that these daily sessions provided a useful opportunity for exchanges on intelligence issues.170
The President talked with Rice every day, and she in turn talked by phone at least daily with Powell and Rumsfeld. As a result, the President often felt less need for formal meetings. If, however, he decided that an event or an issue called for action, Rice would typically call on Hadley to have the Deputies Committee develop and review options. The President said that this process often tried his patience but that he understood the necessity for coordination.171
Within the first few days after Bush's inauguration, Clarke approached Rice in an effort to get her-and the new President-to give terrorism very high priority and to act on the agenda that he had pushed during the last few months of the previous administration. After Rice requested that all senior staff identify desirable major policy reviews or initiatives, Clarke submitted an elaborate memorandum on January 25, 2001. He attached to it his 1998 Delenda Plan and the December 2000 strategy paper. "We urgently need . . . a Principals level review on the al Qida network," Clarke wrote.172
He wanted the Principals Committee to decide whether al Qaeda was "a first order threat" or a more modest worry being overblown by "chicken little" alarmists. Alluding to the transition briefing that he had prepared for Rice, Clarke wrote that al Qaeda "is not some narrow, little terrorist issue that needs to be included in broader regional policy." Two key decisions that had been deferred, he noted, concerned covert aid to keep the Northern Alliance alive when fighting began again in Afghanistan in the spring, and covert aid to the Uzbeks. Clarke also suggested that decisions should be made soon on messages to the Taliban and Pakistan over the al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan, on possible new money for CIA operations, and on "when and how . . . to respond to the attack on the USS Cole."173
The national security advisor did not respond directly to Clarke's memorandum. No Principals Committee meeting on al Qaeda was held until September 4, 2001 (although the Principals Committee met frequently on other subjects, such as the Middle East peace process, Russia, and the Persian Gulf ).174 But Rice and Hadley began to address the issues Clarke had listed. What to do or say about the Cole had been an obvious question since inauguration day. When the attack occurred, 25 days before the election, candidate Bush had said to CNN, "I hope that we can gather enough intelligence to figure out who did the act and take the necessary action. There must be a consequence."175 Since the Clinton administration had not responded militarily, what was the Bush administration to do?
On January 25,Tenet briefed the President on the Cole investigation. The written briefing repeated for top officials of the new administration what the CIA had told the Clinton White House in November. This included the "preliminary judgment" that al Qaeda was responsible, with the caveat that no evidence had yet been found that Bin Ladin himself ordered the attack. Tenet told us he had no recollection of a conversation with the President about this briefing.176
In his January 25 memo, Clarke had advised Rice that the government should respond to the Cole attack, but "should take advantage of the policy that 'we will respond at a time, place and manner of our own choosing' and not be forced into knee-jerk responses."177 Before Vice President Cheney visited the CIA in mid-February, Clarke sent him a memo-outside the usual White House document-management system-suggesting that he ask CIA officials "what additional information is needed before CIA can definitively conclude that al-Qida was responsible" for the Cole.178 In March 2001, the CIA's briefing slides for Rice were still describing the CIA's "preliminary judgment" that a "strong circumstantial case" could be made against al Qaeda but noting that the CIA continued to lack "conclusive information on external command and control" of the attack.179 Clarke and his aides continued to provide Rice and Hadley with evidence reinforcing the case against al Qaeda and urging action.180
The President explained to us that he had been concerned lest an ineffectual air strike just serve to give Bin Ladin a propaganda advantage. He said he had not been told about Clinton administration warnings to the Taliban. The President told us that he had concluded that the United States must use ground forces for a job like this.181
Rice told us that there was never a formal, recorded decision not to retaliate specifically for the Cole attack. Exchanges with the President, between the President and Tenet, and between herself and Powell and Rumsfeld had produced a consensus that "tit-for-tat" responses were likely to be counterproductive. This had been the case, she thought, with the cruise missile strikes of August 1998.The new team at the Pentagon did not push for action. On the contrary, Rumsfeld thought that too much time had passed and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, thought that the Cole attack was "stale." Hadley said that in the end, the administration's real response to the Cole would be a new, more aggressive strategy against al Qaeda.182
The administration decided to propose to Congress a substantial increase in counterterrorism funding for national security agencies, including the CIA and the FBI. This included a 27 percent increase in counterterrorism funding for the CIA.183
Starting a Review
In early March, the administration postponed action on proposals for increasing aid to the Northern Alliance and the Uzbeks. Rice noted at the time that a more wide-ranging examination of policy toward Afghanistan was needed first. She wanted the review very soon.184
Rice and others recalled the President saying, "I'm tired of swatting at flies."185 The President reportedly also said, "I'm tired of playing defense. I want to play offense. I want to take the fight to the terrorists."186 President Bush explained to us that he had become impatient. He apparently had heard proposals for rolling back al Qaeda but felt that catching terrorists one by one or even cell by cell was not an approach likely to succeed in the long run. At the same time, he said, he understood that policy had to be developed slowly so that diplomacy and financial and military measures could mesh with one another.187
Hadley convened an informal Deputies Committee meeting on March 7, when some of the deputies had not yet been confirmed. For the first time, Clarke's various proposals-for aid to the Northern Alliance and the Uzbeks and for Predator missions-went before the group that, in the Bush NSC, would do most of the policy work. Though they made no decisions on these specific proposals, Hadley apparently concluded that there should be a presidential national security policy directive (NSPD) on terrorism.188
Clarke would later express irritation about the deputies' insistence that a strategy for coping with al Qaeda be framed within the context of a regional policy. He doubted that the benefits would compensate for the time lost. The administration had in fact proceeded with Principals Committee meetings on topics including Iraq and Sudan without prior contextual review, and Clarke favored moving ahead similarly with a narrow counterterrorism agenda.189 But the President's senior advisers saw the al Qaeda problem as part of a puzzle that could not be assembled without filling in the pieces for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Rice deferred a Principals Committee meeting on al Qaeda until the deputies had developed a new policy for their consideration.
The full Deputies Committee discussed al Qaeda on April 30. CIA briefing slides described al Qaeda as the "most dangerous group we face," citing its "leadership, experience, resources, safe haven in Afghanistan, [and] focus on attacking U.S." The slides warned, "There will be more attacks."190
At the meeting, the deputies endorsed covert aid to Uzbekistan. Regarding the Northern Alliance, they "agreed to make no major commitment at this time." Washington would first consider options for aiding other anti-Taliban groups.191 Meanwhile, the administration would "initiate a comprehensive review of U.S. policy on Pakistan" and explore policy options on Afghanistan, "including the option of supporting regime change."192 Working-level officials were also to consider new steps on terrorist financing and America's perennially troubled public diplomacy efforts in the Muslim world, where NSC staff warned that "we have by and large ceded the court of public opinion" to al Qaeda.
While Clarke remained concerned about the pace of the policy review, he now saw a greater possibility of persuading the deputies to recognize the changed nature of terrorism.193 The process of fleshing out that strategy was under way.
The Bush administration in its first months faced many problems other than terrorism. They included the collapse of the Middle East peace process and, in April, a crisis over a U.S. "spy plane" brought down in Chinese territory. The new administration also focused heavily on Russia, a new nuclear strategy that allowed missile defenses, Europe, Mexico, and the Persian Gulf.
In the spring, reporting on terrorism surged dramatically. In chapter 8, we will explore this reporting and the ways agencies responded. These increasingly alarming reports, briefed to the President and top officials, became part of the context in which the new administration weighed its options for policy on al Qaeda.
Except for a few reports that the CSG considered and apparently judged to be unreliable, none of these pointed specifically to possible al Qaeda action inside the United States-although the CSG continued to be concerned about the domestic threat. The mosaic of threat intelligence came from the Counterterrorist Center, which collected only abroad. Its reports were not supplemented by reports from the FBI. Clarke had expressed concern about an al Qaeda presence in the United States, and he worried about an attack on the White House by "Hizbollah, Hamas, al Qida and other terrorist organizations."194
In May, President Bush announced that Vice President Cheney would himself lead an effort looking at preparations for managing a possible attack by weapons of mass destruction and at more general problems of national pre-paredness. The next few months were mainly spent organizing the effort and bringing an admiral from the Sixth Fleet back to Washington to manage it. The Vice President's task force was just getting under way when the 9/11 attack occurred.195
On May 29, at Tenet's request, Rice and Tenet converted their usual weekly meeting into a broader discussion on al Qaeda; participants included Clarke, CTC chief Cofer Black, and "Richard," a group chief with authority over the Bin Ladin unit. Rice asked about "taking the offensive" and whether any approach could be made to influence Bin Ladin or the Taliban. Clarke and Black replied that the CIA's ongoing disruption activities were "taking the offensive" and that Bin Ladin could not be deterred. A wide-ranging discussion then ensued about "breaking the back" of Bin Ladin's organization.196
Tenet emphasized the ambitious plans for covert action that the CIA had developed in December 2000. In discussing the draft authorities for this program in March, CIA officials had pointed out that the spending level envisioned for these plans was larger than the CIA's entire current budget for counterterrorism covert action. It would be a multiyear program, requiring such levels of spending for about five years.197
The CIA official, "Richard," told us that Rice "got it." He said she agreed with his conclusions about what needed to be done, although he complained to us that the policy process did not follow through quickly enough.198 Clarke and Black were asked to develop a range of options for attacking Bin Ladin's organization, from the least to most ambitious.199
Rice and Hadley asked Clarke and his staff to draw up the new presidential directive. On June 7, Hadley circulated the first draft, describing it as "an admittedly ambitious" program for confronting al Qaeda.200 The draft NSPD's goal was to "eliminate the al Qida network of terrorist groups as a threat to the United States and to friendly governments." It called for a multiyear effort involving diplomacy, covert action, economic measures, law enforcement, public diplomacy, and if necessary military efforts. The State Department was to work with other governments to end all al Qaeda sanctuaries, and also to work with the Treasury Department to disrupt terrorist financing. The CIA was to develop an expanded covert action program including significant additional funding and aid to anti-Taliban groups. The draft also tasked OMB with ensuring that sufficient funds to support this program were found in U.S. budgets from fiscal years 2002 to 2006.201
Rice viewed this draft directive as the embodiment of a comprehensive new strategy employing all instruments of national power to eliminate the al Qaeda threat. Clarke, however, regarded the new draft as essentially similar to the proposal he had developed in December 2000 and put forward to the new administration in January 2001.202 In May or June, Clarke asked to be moved from his counterterrorism portfolio to a new set of responsibilities for cybersecurity. He told us that he was frustrated with his role and with an administration that he considered not "serious about al Qaeda."203 If Clarke was frustrated, he never expressed it to her, Rice told us.204
Diplomacy in Blind Alleys Afghanistan. The new administration had already begun exploring possible diplomatic options, retracing many of the paths traveled by its predecessors. U.S. envoys again pressed the Taliban to turn Bin Ladin "over to a country where he could face justice" and repeated, yet again, the warning that the Taliban would be held responsible for any al Qaeda attacks on U.S. interests.205 The Taliban's representatives repeated their old arguments. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told us that while U.S. diplomats were becoming more active on Afghanistan through the spring and summer of 2001, "it would be wrong for anyone to characterize this as a dramatic shift from the previous administration.206
In deputies meetings at the end of June, Tenet was tasked to assess the prospects for Taliban cooperation with the United States on al Qaeda. The NSC staff was tasked to flesh out options for dealing with the Taliban. Revisiting these issues tried the patience of some of the officials who felt they had already been down these roads and who found the NSC's procedures slow. "We weren't going fast enough," Armitage told us. Clarke kept arguing that moves against the Taliban and al Qaeda should not have to wait months for a larger review of U.S. policy in South Asia. "For the government," Hadley said to us, "we moved it along as fast as we could move it along."207 As all hope in moving the Taliban faded, debate revived about giving covert assistance to the regime's opponents. Clarke and the CIA's Cofer Black renewed the push to aid the Northern Alliance. Clarke suggested starting with modest aid, just enough to keep the Northern Alliance in the fight and tie down al Qaeda terrorists, without aiming to overthrow the Taliban.208
Rice, Hadley, and the NSC staff member for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, told us they opposed giving aid to the Northern Alliance alone. They argued that the program needed to have a big part for Pashtun opponents of the Taliban. They also thought the program should be conducted on a larger scale than had been suggested. Clarke concurred with the idea of a larger program, but he warned that delay risked the Northern Alliance's final defeat at the hands of the Taliban.209
During the spring, the CIA, at the NSC's request, had developed draft legal authorities-a presidential finding-to undertake a large-scale program of covert assistance to the Taliban's foes. The draft authorities expressly stated that the goal of the assistance was not to overthrow the Taliban. But even this program would be very costly. This was the context for earlier conversations, when in March Tenet stressed the need to consider the impact of such a large program on the political situation in the region and in May Tenet talked to Rice about the need for a multiyear financial commitment.210
By July, the deputies were moving toward agreement that some last effort should be made to convince the Taliban to shift position and then, if that failed, the administration would move on the significantly enlarged covert action program. As the draft presidential directive was circulated in July, the State Department sent the deputies a lengthy historical review of U.S. efforts to engage the Taliban about Bin Ladin from 1996 on. "These talks have been fruitless," the State Department concluded.211
Arguments in the summer brought to the surface the more fundamental issue of whether the U.S. covert action program should seek to overthrow the regime, intervening decisively in the civil war in order to change Afghanistan's government. By the end of a deputies meeting on September 10, officials formally agreed on a three-phase strategy. First an envoy would give the Taliban a last chance. If this failed, continuing diplomatic pressure would be combined with the planned covert action program encouraging anti-Taliban Afghans of all major ethnic groups to stalemate the Taliban in the civil war and attack al Qaeda bases, while the United States developed an international coalition to undermine the regime. In phase three, if the Taliban's policy still did not change, the deputies agreed that the United States would try covert action to topple the Taliban's leadership from within.212
The deputies agreed to revise the al Qaeda presidential directive, then being finalized for presidential approval, in order to add this strategy to it. Armitage explained to us that after months of continuing the previous administration's policy, he and Powell were bringing the State Department to a policy of overthrowing the Taliban. From his point of view, once the United States made the commitment to arm the Northern Alliance, even covertly, it was taking action to initiate regime change, and it should give those opponents the strength to achieve complete victory.213
Pakistan. The Bush administration immediately encountered the dilemmas that arose from the varied objectives the United States was trying to accomplish in its relationship with Pakistan. In February 2001, President Bush wrote General Musharraf on a number of matters. He emphasized that Bin Ladin and al Qaeda were "a direct threat to the United States and its interests that must be addressed." He urged Musharraf to use his influence with the Taliban on Bin Ladin and al Qaeda.214 Powell and Armitage reviewed the possibility of acquiring more carrots to dangle in front of Pakistan. Given the generally negative view of Pakistan on Capitol Hill, the idea of lifting sanctions may have seemed far-fetched, but perhaps no more so than the idea of persuading Musharraf to antagonize the Islamists in his own government and nation.215
On June 18, Rice met with the visiting Pakistani foreign minister, Abdul Sattar. She "really let him have it" about al Qaeda, she told us.216 Other evidence corroborates her account. But, as she was upbraiding Sattar, Rice recalled thinking that the Pakistani diplomat seemed to have heard it all before. Sattar urged senior U.S. policymakers to engage the Taliban, arguing that such a course would take time but would produce results. In late June, the deputies agreed to review U.S. objectives. Clarke urged Hadley to split off all other issues in U.S.-Pakistani relations and just focus on demanding that Pakistan move vigorously against terrorism-to push the Pakistanis to do before an al Qaeda attack what Washington would demand that they do after. He had made similar requests in the Clinton administration; he had no more success with Rice than he had with Berger.217
On August 4, President Bush wrote President Musharraf to request his support in dealing with terrorism and to urge Pakistan to engage actively against al Qaeda. The new administration was again registering its concerns, just as its predecessor had, but it was still searching for new incentives to open up diplomatic possibilities. For its part, Pakistan had done little. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca described the administration's plan to break this logjam as a move from "half engagement" to "enhanced engagement." The administration was not ready to confront Islamabad and threaten to rupture relations. Deputy Secretary Armitage told us that before 9/11, the envisioned new approach to Pakistan had not yet been attempted.218
Saudi Arabia. The Bush administration did not develop new diplomatic initiatives on al Qaeda with the Saudi government before 9/11.Vice President Cheney called Crown Prince Abdullah on July 5, 2001, to seek Saudi help in preventing threatened attacks on American facilities in the Kingdom. Secretary of State Powell met with the crown prince twice before 9/11.They discussed topics like Iraq, not al Qaeda. U.S.-Saudi relations in the summer of 2001 were marked by sometimes heated disagreements about ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence, not about Bin Ladin.219
The confirmation of the Pentagon's new leadership was a lengthy process. Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz was confirmed in March 2001 and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith in July. Though the new officials were briefed about terrorism and some of the earlier planning, including that for Operation Infinite Resolve, they were focused, as Secretary Rumsfeld told us, on creating a twenty-first-century military.220
At the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Shelton did not recall much interest by the new administration in military options against al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He could not recall any specific guidance on the topic from the secretary. Brian Sheridan-the outgoing assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict (SOLIC), the key counterterrorism policy office in the Pentagon-never briefed Rumsfeld. He departed on January 20; he had not been replaced by 9/11.221
Rumsfeld noted to us his own interest in terrorism, which came up often in his regular meetings with Tenet. He thought that the Defense Department, before 9/11, was not organized adequately or prepared to deal with new threats like terrorism. But his time was consumed with getting new officials in place and working on the foundation documents of a new defense policy, the quadrennial defense review, the defense planning guidance, and the existing contingency plans. He did not recall any particular counterterrorism issue that engaged his attention before 9/11, other than the development of the Predator unmanned aircraft system.222
The commander of Central Command, General Franks, told us that he did not regard the existing plans as serious. To him a real military plan to address al Qaeda would need to go all the way, following through the details of a full campaign (including the political-military issues of where operations would be based) and securing the rights to fly over neighboring countries.223
The draft presidential directive circulated in June 2001 began its discussion of the military by reiterating the Defense Department's lead role in protecting its forces abroad. The draft included a section directing Secretary Rumsfeld to "develop contingency plans" to attack both al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan. The new section did not specifically order planning for the use of ground troops, or clarify how this guidance differed from the existing Infinite Resolve plans.224
Hadley told us that by circulating this section, a draft Annex B to the directive, the White House was putting the Pentagon on notice that it would need to produce new military plans to address this problem.225 "The military didn't particularly want this mission," Rice told us.226
With this directive still awaiting President Bush's signature, Secretary Rumsfeld did not order his subordinates to begin preparing any new military plans against either al Qaeda or the Taliban before 9/11.
President Bush told us that before 9/11, he had not seen good options for special military operations against Bin Ladin. Suitable bases in neighboring countries were not available and, even if the U.S. forces were sent in, it was not clear where they would go to find Bin Ladin.227
President Bush told us that before 9/11 there was an appetite in the government for killing Bin Ladin, not for war. Looking back in 2004, he equated the presidential directive with a readiness to invade Afghanistan. The problem, he said, would have been how to do that if there had not been another attack on America. To many people, he said, it would have seemed like an ultimate act of unilateralism. But he said that he was prepared to take that on.228
Domestic Change and Continuity
During the transition, Bush had chosen John Ashcroft, a former senator from Missouri, as his attorney general. On his arrival at the Justice Department, Ashcroft told us, he faced a number of problems spotlighting the need for reform at the FBI.229
In February, Clarke briefed Attorney General Ashcroft on his directorate's issues. He reported that at the time, the attorney general acknowledged a "steep learning curve," and asked about the progress of the Cole investigation.230 Neither Ashcroft nor his predecessors received the President's Daily Brief. His office did receive the daily intelligence report for senior officials that, during the spring and summer of 2001, was carrying much of the same threat information.
The FBI was struggling to build up its institutional capabilities to do more against terrorism, relying on a strategy called MAXCAP 05 that had been unveiled in the summer of 2000.The FBI's assistant director for counterterrorism, Dale Watson, told us that he felt the new Justice Department leadership was not supportive of the strategy. Watson had the sense that the Justice Department wanted the FBI to get back to the investigative basics: guns, drugs, and civil rights. The new administration did seek an 8 percent increase in overall FBI funding in its initial budget proposal for fiscal year 2002, including the largest proposed percentage increase in the FBI's counterterrorism program since fiscal year 1997.The additional funds included the FBI's support of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah (a onetime increase), enhanced security at FBI facilities, and improvements to the FBI's WMD incident response capability.231
In May, the Justice Department began shaping plans for building a budget for fiscal year 2003, the process that would usually culminate in an administration proposal at the beginning of 2002. On May 9, the attorney general testified at a congressional hearing concerning federal efforts to combat terrorism. He said that "one of the nation's most fundamental responsibilities is to protect its citizens . . . from terrorist attacks." The budget guidance issued the next day, however, highlighted gun crimes, narcotics trafficking, and civil rights as priorities. Watson told us that he almost fell out of his chair when he saw this memo, because it did not mention counterterrorism. Longtime FBI Director Louis Freeh left in June 2001, after announcing the indictment in the Khobar Towers case that he had worked so long to obtain. Thomas Pickard was the acting director during the summer. Freeh's successor, Robert Mueller, took office just before 9/11.232
The Justice Department prepared a draft fiscal year 2003 budget that maintained but did not increase the funding level for counterterrorism in its pending fiscal year 2002 proposal. Pickard appealed for more counterterrorism enhancements, an appeal the attorney general denied on September 10.233
Ashcroft had also inherited an ongoing debate on whether and how to modify the 1995 procedures governing intelligence sharing between the FBI and the Justice Department's Criminal Division. But in August 2001,Ashcroft's deputy, Larry Thompson, issued a memorandum reaffirming the 1995 procedures with the clarification that evidence of "any federal felony" was to be immediately reported by the FBI to the Criminal Division. The 1995 procedures remained in effect until after 9/11.234
Covert Action and the Predator
In March 2001, Rice asked the CIA to prepare a new series of authorities for covert action in Afghanistan. Rice's recollection was that the idea had come from Clarke and the NSC senior director for intelligence, Mary McCarthy, and had been linked to the proposal for aid to the Northern Alliance and the Uzbeks. Rice described the draft document as providing for "consolidation plus," superseding the various Clinton administration documents. In fact, the CIA drafted two documents. One was a finding that did concern aid to opponents of the Taliban regime; the other was a draft Memorandum of Notification, which included more open-ended language authorizing possible lethal action in a variety of situations. Tenet delivered both to Hadley on March 28. The CIA's notes for Tenet advised him that "in response to the NSC request for drafts that will help the policymakers review their options, each of the documents has been crafted to provide the Agency with the broadest possible discretion permissible under the law." At the meeting, Tenet argued for deciding on a policy before deciding on the legal authorities to implement it. Hadley accepted this argument, and the draft MON was put on hold.235
As the policy review moved forward, the planned covert action program for Afghanistan was included in the draft presidential directive, as part of an "Annex A" on intelligence activities to "eliminate the al Qaeda threat."236 The main debate during the summer of 2001 concentrated on the one new mechanism for a lethal attack on Bin Ladin-an armed version of the Predator drone.
In the first months of the new administration, questions concerning the Predator became more and more a central focus of dispute. Clarke favored resuming Predator flights over Afghanistan as soon as weather permitted, hoping that they still might provide the elusive "actionable intelligence" to target Bin Ladin with cruise missiles. Learning that the Air Force was thinking of equipping Predators with warheads, Clarke became even more enthusiastic about redeployment.237
The CTC chief, Cofer Black, argued against deploying the Predator for reconnaissance purposes. He recalled that the Taliban had spotted a Predator in the fall of 2000 and scrambled their MiG fighters. Black wanted to wait until the armed version was ready. "I do not believe the possible recon value outweighs the risk of possible program termination when the stakes are raised by the Taliban parading a charred Predator in front of CNN," he wrote. Military officers in the Joint Staff shared this concern.238 There is some dispute as to whether or not the Deputies Committee endorsed resuming reconnaissance flights at its April 30, 2001, meeting. In any event, Rice and Hadley ultimately went along with the CIA and the Pentagon, holding off on reconnaissance flights until the armed Predator was ready.239
The CIA's senior management saw problems with the armed Predator as well, problems that Clarke and even Black and Allen were inclined to minimize. One (which also applied to reconnaissance flights) was money. A Predator cost about $3 million. If the CIA flew Predators for its own reconnaissance or covert action purposes, it might be able to borrow them from the Air Force, but it was not clear that the Air Force would bear the cost if a vehicle went down. Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz took the position that the CIA should have to pay for it; the CIA disagreed.240
Second, Tenet in particular questioned whether he, as Director of Central Intelligence, should operate an armed Predator. "This was new ground," he told us. Tenet ticked off key questions: What is the chain of command? Who takes the shot? Are America's leaders comfortable with the CIA doing this, going outside of normal military command and control? Charlie Allen told us that when these questions were discussed at the CIA, he and the Agency's executive director, A. B. "Buzzy" Krongard, had said that either one of them would be happy to pull the trigger, but Tenet was appalled, telling them that they had no authority to do it, nor did he.241
Third, the Hellfire warhead carried by the Predator needed work. It had been built to hit tanks, not people. It needed to be designed to explode in a different way, and even then had to be targeted with extreme precision. In the configuration planned by the Air Force through mid-2001, the Predator's missile would not be able to hit a moving vehicle.242
White House officials had seen the Predator video of the "man in white." On July 11, Hadley tried to hurry along preparation of the armed system. He directed McLaughlin, Wolfowitz, and Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Richard Myers to deploy Predators capable of being armed no later than September 1. He also directed that they have cost-sharing arrangements in place by August 1. Rice told us that this attempt by Hadley to dictate a solution had failed and that she eventually had to intervene herself.243
On August 1, the Deputies Committee met again to discuss the armed Predator. They concluded that it was legal for the CIA to kill Bin Ladin or one of his deputies with the Predator. Such strikes would be acts of self-defense that would not violate the ban on assassinations in Executive Order 12333.The big issues-who would pay for what, who would authorize strikes, and who would pull the trigger-were left for the principals to settle. The Defense Department representatives did not take positions on these issues.244
The CIA's McLaughlin had also been reticent. When Hadley circulated a memorandum attempting to prod the deputies to reach agreement, McLaughlin sent it back with a handwritten comment on the cost-sharing: "we question whether it is advisable to make such an investment before the decision is taken on flying an armed Predator." For Clarke, this came close to being a final straw. He angrily asked Rice to call Tenet. "Either al Qida is a threat worth acting against or it is not," Clarke wrote. "CIA leadership has to decide which it is and cease these bi-polar mood swings."245
These debates, though, had little impact in advancing or delaying efforts to make the Predator ready for combat. Those were in the hands of military officers and engineers. General John Jumper had commanded U.S. air forces in Europe and seen Predators used for reconnaissance in the Balkans. He started the program to develop an armed version and, after returning in 2000 to head the Air Combat Command, took direct charge of it.
There were numerous technical problems, especially with the Hellfire missiles. The Air Force tests conducted during the spring were inadequate, so missile testing needed to continue and modifications needed to be made during the summer. Even then, Jumper told us, problems with the equipment persisted. Nevertheless, the Air Force was moving at an extraordinary pace. "In the modern era, since the 1980s,"Jumper said to us, "I would be shocked if you found anything that went faster than this."246
The Principals Committee had its first meeting on al Qaeda on September 4. On the day of the meeting, Clarke sent Rice an impassioned personal note. He criticized U.S. counterterrorism efforts past and present. The "real question" before the principals, he wrote, was "are we serious about dealing with the al Qida threat? . . . Is al Qida a big deal? . . . Decision makers should imagine themselves on a future day when the CSG has not succeeded in stopping al Qida attacks and hundreds of Americans lay dead in several countries, including the US," Clarke wrote. "What would those decision makers wish that they had done earlier? That future day could happen at any time."247
Clarke then turned to the Cole. "The fact that the USS Cole was attacked during the last Administration does not absolve us of responding for the attack," he wrote. "Many in al Qida and the Taliban may have drawn the wrong lesson from the Cole: that they can kill Americans without there being a US response, without there being a price.... One might have thought that with a $250m hole in a destroyer and 17 dead sailors, the Pentagon might have wanted to respond. Instead, they have often talked about the fact that there is 'nothing worth hitting in Afghanistan' and said 'the cruise missiles cost more than the jungle gyms and mud huts' at terrorist camps." Clarke could not understand "why we continue to allow the existence of large scale al Qida bases where we know people are being trained to kill Americans."248
Turning to the CIA, Clarke warned that its bureaucracy, which was "masterful at passive aggressive behavior," would resist funding the new national security presidential directive, leaving it a "hollow shell of words without deeds." The CIA would insist its other priorities were more important. Invoking President Bush's own language, Clarke wrote, "You are left with a modest effort to swat flies, to try to prevent specific al Qida attacks by using [intelligence] to detect them and friendly governments' police and intelligence officers to stop them. You are left waiting for the big attack, with lots of casualties, after which some major US retaliation will be in order[.]"249
Rice told us she took Clarke's memo as a warning not to get dragged down by bureaucratic inertia.250 While his arguments have force, we also take Clarke's jeremiad as something more. After nine years on the NSC staff and more than three years as the president's national coordinator, he had often failed to persuade these agencies to adopt his views, or to persuade his superiors to set an agenda of the sort he wanted or that the whole government could support.
Meanwhile, another counterterrorism veteran, Cofer Black, was preparing his boss for the principals meeting. He advised Tenet that the draft presidential directive envisioned an ambitious covert action program, but that the authorities for it had not yet been approved and the funding still had not been found. If the CIA was reluctant to use the Predator, Black did not mention it. He wanted "a timely decision from the Principals," adding that the window for missions within 2001 was a short one. The principals would have to decide whether Rice, Tenet, Rumsfeld, or someone else would give the order to fire.251
At the September 4 meeting, the principals approved the draft presidential directive with little discussion.252 Rice told us that she had, at some point, told President Bush that she and his other advisers thought it would take three years or so for their al Qaeda strategy to work.253 They then discussed the armed Predator.
Hadley portrayed the Predator as a useful tool, although perhaps not for immediate use. Rice, who had been advised by her staff that the armed Predator was not ready for deployment, commented about the potential for using the armed Predator in the spring of 2002.254
The State Department supported the armed Predator, although Secretary Powell was not convinced that Bin Ladin was as easy to target as had been suggested. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill was skittish, cautioning about the implications of trying to kill an individual.255
The Defense Department favored strong action. Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz questioned the United States' ability to deliver Bin Ladin and bring him to justice. He favored going after Bin Ladin as part of a larger air strike, similar to what had been done in the 1986 U.S. strike against Libya. General Myers emphasized the Predator's value for surveillance, perhaps enabling broader air strikes that would go beyond Bin Ladin to attack al Qaeda's training infrastructure.256
The principals also discussed which agency-CIA or Defense-should have the authority to fire a missile from the armed Predator.257
At the end, Rice summarized the meeting's conclusions. The armed Predator capability was needed but not ready. The Predator would be available for the military to consider along with its other options. The CIA should consider flying reconnaissance-only missions. The principals-including the previously reluctant Tenet-thought that such reconnaissance flights were a good idea, combined with other efforts to get actionable intelligence. Tenet deferred an answer on the additional reconnaissance flights, conferred with his staff after the meeting, and then directed the CIA to press ahead with them.258
A few days later, a final version of the draft presidential directive was circulated, incorporating two minor changes made by the principals.259
On September 9, dramatic news arrived from Afghanistan. The leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud, had granted an interview in his bungalow near the Tajikistan border with two men whom the Northern Alliance leader had been told were Arab journalists. The supposed reporter and camera-man-actually al Qaeda assassins-then set off a bomb, riddling Massoud's chest with shrapnel. He died minutes later.
On September 10, Hadley gathered the deputies to finalize their three-phase, multiyear plan to pressure and perhaps ultimately topple the Taliban leadership.260
That same day, Hadley instructed DCI Tenet to have the CIA prepare new draft legal authorities for the "broad covert action program" envisioned by the draft presidential directive. Hadley also directed Tenet to prepare a separate section "authorizing a broad range of other covert activities, including authority to capture or to use lethal force" against al Qaeda command-and-control elements. This section would supersede the Clinton-era documents. Hadley wanted the authorities to be flexible and broad enough "to cover any additional UBL-related covert actions contemplated."261
Funding still needed to be located. The military component remained unclear. Pakistan remained uncooperative. The domestic policy institutions were largely uninvolved. But the pieces were coming together for an integrated policy dealing with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Pakistan.