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Full text of "The 9/11 Commission report [electronic resource] : final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States"

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4 



RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S 
INITIAL ASSAULTS 



4.1 BEFORE THE BOMBINGS IN KENYA 
AND TANZANIA 

Although the 1995 National Intelligence Estimate had -warned of a ne^w type 
of terrorism, many ofHcials continued to think of terrorists as agents of states 
(Saudi Hezbollah acting for Iran against Khobar Towers) or as domestic crim- 
inals (Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City). As ^ve pointed out in chapter 3, 
the White House is not a natural locus for program management. Hence, gov- 
ernment efforts to cope -with terrorism were essentially the work of individ- 
ual agencies. 

President Bill Clinton's counterterrorism Presidential Decision Directives 
in 1995 (no. 39) and May 1998 (no. 62) reiterated that terrorism was a national 
security problem, not just a law enforcement issue.They reinforced the author- 
ity of the National Security Council (NSC) to coordinate domestic as well as 
foreign counterterrorism efforts, through Richard Clarke and his interagency 
Counterterrorism Security Group (CSG). Spotlighting new concerns about 
unconventional attacks, these directives assigned tasks to lead agencies but did 
not differentiate types of terrorist threats. Thus, while Clarke might prod or push 
agencies to act, what actually happened was usually decided at the State Depart- 
ment, the Pentagon, the CIA, or the Justice Department. The efforts of these 
agencies were sometimes energetic and sometimes effective.Terrorist plots were 
disrupted and individual terrorists were captured. But the United States did not, 
before 9/11, adopt as a clear strategic objective the elimination of al Qaeda. 

Early Efforts against Bin Ladin 

Until 1996, hardly anyone in the U.S. government understood that Usama Bin 
Ladin was an inspirer and organizer of the new terrorism. In 1993, the CIA 
noted that he had paid for the training of some Egyptian terrorists in Sudan. 
The State Department detected his money in aid to the Yemeni terrorists who 

108 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 109 

set a bomb in an attempt to kill U.S. troops in Aden in 1992. State Department 
sources even saw suspicious links -with Omar Abdel Rahman, the "Blind 
Sheikh" in the Ne^v York area, commenting that Bin Ladin seemed "commit- 
ted to financing 'Jihads' against 'anti Islamic' regimes worldwide." After the 
department designated Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993, it put Bin 
Ladin on its TIPOFF watchlist, a move that might have prevented his getting 
a visa had he tried to enter the United States. As late as 1997, however, even 
the CIA's Counterterrorist Center continued to describe him as an "extrem- 
ist financier."! 

In 1996, the CIA set up a special unit of a dozen officers to analyze intelli- 
gence on and plan operations against Bin Ladin. David Cohen, the head of the 
CIA's Directorate of Operations, wanted to test the idea of having a "virtual 
station" — a station based at headquarters but collecting and operating against 
a subject much as stations in the field focus on a country. Taking his cue from 
National Security Advisor Anthony Lake,^vho expressed special interest in ter- 
rorist finance, Cohen formed his virtual station as a terrorist financial links unit. 
He had trouble getting any Directorate of Operations officer to run it; he finally 
recruited a former analyst who ^vas then running the Islamic Extremist Branch 
of the Counterterrorist Center.This officer, ^vho was especially knowledgeable 
about Afghanistan, had noticed a recent stream of reports about Bin Ladin and 
something called al Qaeda, and suggested to Cohen that the station focus on 
this one individual. Cohen agreed. Thus was born the Bin Ladin unit.^ 

In May 1996, Bin Ladin left Sudan for Afghanistan. A few months later, as 
the Bin Ladin unit was gearing up, Jamal Ahmed al Fadl walked into a U.S. 
embassy in Africa, established his bona fides as a former senior employee of Bin 
Ladin, and provided a major breakthrough of intelligence on the creation, char- 
acter, direction, and intentions of al Qaeda. Corroborating evidence came from 
another walk-in source at a different U.S. embassy. More confirmation was sup- 
plied later that year by intelligence and other sources, including material gath- 
ered by FBI agents and Kenyan police from an al Qaeda cell in Nairobi.^ 

By 1997, officers in the Bin Ladin unit recognized that Bin Ladin ^vas more 
than just a financier.They learned that al Qaeda had a military committee that 
was planning operations against U.S. interests worldwide and was actively try- 
ing to obtain nuclear material. Analysts assigned to the station looked at the 
information it had gathered and "found connections everywhere," including 
links to the attacks on U.S. troops in Aden and Somalia in 1992 and 1993 and 
to the Manila air plot in the Philippines in 1994-1995. '* 

The Bin Ladin station ^vas already working on plans for offensive opera- 
tions against Bin Ladin. These plans were directed at both physical assets and 
sources of finance. In the end, plans to identify and attack Bin Ladin 's money 
sources did not go forward. ^ 

In late 1995, ^vhen Bin Ladin ^vas still in Sudan, the State Department and 
the CIA learned that Sudanese officials were discussing with the Saudi gov- 



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110 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT 

ernment the possibility of expelling Bin Ladin. U.S. AnibassadorTiniothy Car- 
ney encouraged the Sudanese to pursue this course. The Saudis, ho\¥ever, did 
not want Bin Ladin, giving as their reason their revocation of his citizenship. <^ 

Sudan's minister of defense, Fatih Erwa, has claimed that Sudan offered to 
hand Bin Ladin over to the United States. The Commission has found no cred- 
ible evidence that this was so. Ambassador Carney had instructions only to push 
the Sudanese to expel Bin Ladin. Ambassador Carney had no legal basis to ask 
for more from the Sudanese since, at the time, there was no indictment out- 
standing.^ 

The chief of the Bin Ladin station, whom ^ve \vill call "Mike," saw Bin 
Ladin 's move to Afghanistan as a stroke of luck. Though the CIA had virtually 
abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviet \vithdrawal, case officers had reestab- 
lished old contacts while tracking do^vn Mir Amal Kansi, the Pakistani gun- 
man who had murdered t\vo CIA employees in January 1993. These contacts 
contributed to intelligence about Bin Ladin 's local movements, business activ- 
ities, and security and living arrangements, and helped provide evidence that 
he was spending large amounts of money to help the Taliban. The chief of the 
Counterterrorist Center, ^vhom we will call "Jeff," told Director George Tenet 
that the CIA's intelligence assets were "near to providing real-time informa- 
tion about Bin Ladin 's activities and travels in Afghanistan." One of the con- 
tacts was a group associated with particular tribes among Afghanistan's ethnic 
Pashtun community* 

By the fall of 1997, the Bin Ladin unit had roughed out a plan for these 
Afghan tribals to capture Bin Ladin and hand him over for trial either in the 
United States or in an Arab country. In early 1998, the cabinet-level Principals 
Committee apparently gave the concept its blessing.^ 

On their own separate track, getting information but not direction from the 
CIA, the FBI's New York Field Office and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern 
District of New York were preparing to ask a grand jury to indict Bin Ladin. 
The Counterterrorist Center kne^v that this ^vas happening. ^'^ The eventual 
charge, conspiring to attack U.S. defense installations, was finally issued from 
the grand jury in June 1998 — as a sealed indictment. The indictment was pub- 
licly disclosed in November of that year. 

When Bin Ladin moved to Afghanistan in May 1996, he became a subject 
of interest to the State Department's South Asia bureau. At the time, as one 
diplomat told us. South Asia was seen in the department and the government 
generally as a low priority. In 1997, as Madeleine Albright ^vas beginning her 
tenure as secretary of state, an NSC policy review concluded that the United 
States should pay more attention not just to India but also to Pakistan and 
Afghanistan.il With regard to Afghanistan, another diplomat said, the United 
States at the time had "no policy.''^^ 

In the State Department, concerns about India-Pakistan tensions often 
crowded out attention to Afghanistan or Bin Ladin. Aware of instability and 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 1 1 1 

gro^ving Islamic extremism in Pakistan, State Department officials worried most 
about an arms race and possible war between Pakistan and India. After May 1998, 
when both countries surprised the United States by testing nuclear weapons, 
these dangers became daily first-order concerns of the State Departments^ 

In Afghanistan, the State Department tried to end the civil war that had con- 
tinued since the Soviets' withdrawal. The South Asia bureau believed it might 
have a carrot for Afghanistan's warring factions in a project by the Union Oil 
Company of California (UNOCAL) to build a pipeline across the country. 
While there was probably never much chance of the pipeline actually being 
built, the Afghan desk hoped that the prospect of shared pipeline profits might 
lure faction leaders to a conference table. U.S. diplomats did not favor the Tal- 
iban over the rival factions. Despite growing concerns, U.S. diplomats were 
willing at the time, as one official said, to "give the Taliban a chance."''* 

Though Secretary Albright made no secret of thinking the Taliban "despi- 
cable," the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, led a del- 
egation to South Asia — including Afghanistan — in April 1998. No U.S. official 
of such rank had been to Kabul in decades. Ambassador Richardson went pri- 
marily to urge negotiations to end the civil ^var. In view of Bin Ladin's recent 
public call for all Muslims to kill Americans, Richardson asked the Taliban to 
expel Bin Ladin. They answered that they did not know his whereabouts. In 
any case, the Taliban said, Bin Ladin was not a threat to the United States.*^ 

In sum, in late 1997 and the spring of 1998, the lead U.S. agencies each pur- 
sued their own efforts against Bin Ladin.The CIA's Counterterrorist Center was 
developing a plan to capture and remove him ffom Afghanistan. Parts of the Jus- 
tice Department ^vere moving toward indicting Bin Ladin, making possible a 
criminal trial in a New York court. Meanwhile, the State Department was focused 
more on lessening Indo-Pakistani nuclear tensions, ending the Afghan civil war, 
and ameliorating the Taliban's human rights abuses than on driving out Bin 
Ladin. Another key actor. Marine General Anthony Zinni, the commander in 
chief of the U.S. Central Command, shared the State Department's view'* 

The CIA Develops a Capture Plan 

Initially, the DCI's Counterterrorist Center and its Bin Ladin unit considered 
a plan to ambush Bin Ladin when he traveled bet^veen Kandahar, the Taliban 
capital where he sometimes stayed the night, and his primary residence at the 
time,Tarnak Farms. After the Afghan tribals reported that they had tried such 
an ambush and failed, the Center gave up on it, despite suspicions that the trib- 
als' story might be fiction. Thereafter, the capture plan focused on a nighttime 
raid onTarnak Farms. i^ 

A compound of about 80 concrete or mud-brick buildings surrounded by 
a 10-foot wall,Tarnak Farms was located in an isolated desert area on the out- 
skirts of the Kandahar airport. CIA officers were able to map the entire site, 
identifying the houses that belonged to Bin Ladin's wives and the one where 



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112 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT 

Bin Ladin himself \vas most likely to sleep. Working with the tribals, they drew 
up plans for the raid. They ran t^vo complete rehearsals in the United States 
during the fall of 1997.18 

By early 1998, planners at the Counterterrorist Center were ready to come 
back to the White House to seek formal approval. Tenet apparently walked 
National Security Advisor Sandy Berger through the basic plan on February 13. 
One group of tribals would subdue the guards, enter Tarnak Farms stealthily, 
grab Bin Ladin, take him to a desert site outside Kandahar, and turn him over 
to a second group.This second group of tribals would take him to a desert land- 
ing zone already tested in the 1997 Kansi capture. From there, a CIA plane 
would take him to New York, an Arab capital, or wherever he ^vas to be 
arraigned. Briefing papers prepared by the Counterterrorist Center ackno^vl- 
edged that hitches might develop. People might be kiUed, and Bin Ladin's sup- 
porters might retaliate, perhaps taking U.S. citizens in Kandahar hostage. But the 
briefing papers also noted that there was risk in not acting. "Sooner or later," 
they said, "Bin Ladin will attack U.S. interests, perhaps using WMD [weapons 
of mass destruction]."!' 

Clarke's Counterterrorism Security Group revie^ved the capture plan for 
Berger. Noting that the plan ^vas in a "very early stage of development," the 
NSC staff then told the CIA planners to go ahead and, among other things, 
start drafting any legal documents that might be required to authorize the 
covert action. The CSG apparently stressed that the raid should target Bin Ladin 
himself, not the \vhole compound.^o 

The CIA planners conducted their third complete rehearsal in March, and 
they again briefed the CSG. Clarke wrote Berger on March 7 that he saw the 
operation as "somewhat embryonic" and the CIA as "months away from doing 
anything."2i 

"Mike" thought the capture plan was "the perfect operation." It required 
minimum infrastructure. The plan had now been modified so that the tribals 
would keep Bin Ladin in a hiding place for up to a month before turning him 
over to the United States — thereby increasing the chances of keeping the U.S. 
hand out of sight. "Mike" trusted the information from the Afghan network; 
it had been corroborated by other means, he told us. The lead CIA officer in 
the field, Gary Schroen, also had confidence in the tribals. In a May 6 cable to 
CIA headquarters, he pronounced their planning "almost as professional and 
detailed ... as would be done by any U.S. military special operations element." 
He and the other officers who had worked through the plan with the tribals 
judged it "about as good as it can be." (By that, Schroen explained, he meant 
that the chance of capturing or killing Bin Ladin was about 40 percent.) 
Although the tribals thought they could pull off the raid, if the operation were 
approved by headquarters and the policymakers, Schroen wrote there was 
going to be a point ^vhen "we step back and keep our fingers crossed that the 
[tribals] prove as good (and as lucky) as they think they wiU be."22 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 113 

Military officers revie^ved the capture plan and, according to "Mike," 
"found no sho\¥stoppers."The commander of Delta Force felt "uncomfortable" 
with having the tribals hold Bin Ladin captive for so long, and the commander 
of Joint Special Operations Forces, Lieutenant General Michael Canavan, was 
worried about the safety of the tribals inside Tarnak Farms. General Canavan 
said he had actually thought the operation too complicated for the CIA — "out 
of their league" — and an effort to get results "on the cheap." But a senior Joint 
Staff officer described the plan as "generally, not too much different than we 
might have come up with ourselves." No one in the Pentagon, so far as we 
know, advised the CIA or the White House not to proceed. ^3 

In Washington, Berger expressed doubt about the dependability of the trib- 
als. In his meeting with Tenet, Berger focused most, ho^vever, on the question 
of what was to be done with Bin Ladin if he were actually captured. He ^vor- 
ried that the hard evidence against Bin Ladin was still skimpy and that there 
was a danger of snatching him and bringing him to the United States only to 
see him acquitted. ^^ 

On May 18, CIA's managers reviewed a draft Memorandum of Notifica- 
tion (MON), a legal document authorizing the capture operation. A 1986 pres- 
idential finding had authorized worldwide covert action against terrorism and 
probably provided adequate authority. But mindful of the old "rogue elephant" 
charge, senior CIA managers may have wanted something on paper to show 
that they were not acting on their own. 

Discussion of this memorandum brought to the surface an unease about 
paramilitary covert action that had become ingrained, at least among some CIA 
senior managers. James Pavitt, the assistant head of the Directorate of Opera- 
tions, expressed concern that people might get killed; it appears he thought the 
operation had at least a slight flavor of a plan for an assassination. Moreover, he 
calculated that it would cost several million dollars. He ^vas not prepared to take 
that money "out of hide," and he did not want to go to all the necessary con- 
gressional committees to get special money. Despite Pavitt 's misgivings, the CIA 
leadership cleared the draft memorandum and sent it on to the National Secu- 
rity Council.-^ 

Counterterrorist Center officers briefed Attorney General Janet Reno and 
FBI Director Louis Freeh, telling them that the operation had about a 30 per- 
cent chance of success. The Center's chief, "Jeff,"joined John O'Neill, the head 
of the FBI's New York Field Office, in briefing Mary Jo White, the U.S. Attor- 
ney for the Southern District of New York, and her staff. Though "Jeff" also 
used the 30 percent success figure, he warned that someone ^vould surely be 
killed in the operation. White's impression from the New York briefing was that 
the chances of capturing Bin Ladin alive were nil.-'^ 

From May 20 to 24, the CIA ran a final, graded rehearsal of the operation, 
spread over three time zones, even bringing in personnel from the region. The 
FBI also participated. The rehearsal went well. The Counterterrorist Center 



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114 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT 

planned to brief cabinet-level principals and their deputies the follo^ving week, 
giving June 23 as the date for the raid, with Bin Ladin to be brought out of 
Afghanistan no later than July 23.-^ 

On May 20, Director Tenet discussed the high risk of the operation with 
Berger and his deputies, warning that people might be killed, including Bin 
Ladin. Success was to be defined as the exfiltration of Bin Ladin out of 
Afghanistan.28 A meeting of principals was scheduled for May 29 to decide 
whether the operation should go ahead. 

The principals did not meet. On May 29, "Jeff" informed "Mike" that he 
had just met with Tenet, Pavitt, and the chief of the Directorate's Near Eastern 
Division. The decision was made not to go ahead with the operation. "Mike" 
cabled the field that he had been directed to "stand down on the operation for 
the time being." He had been told, he wrote, that cabinet-level officials thought 
the risk of civilian casualties — "collateral damage" — was too high. They were 
concerned about the tribals' safety, and had worried that "the purpose and 
nature of the operation would be subject to unavoidable misinterpretation and 
misrepresentation — and probably recriminations — in the event that Bin Ladin, 
despite our best intentions and efforts, did not survive."^^ 

Impressions vary as to who actually decided not to proceed with the oper- 
ation. Clarke told us that the CSG saw the plan as flawed. He was said to have 
described it to a colleague on the NSC staff as "half-assed" and predicted that 
the principals would not approve it. "Jeff" thought the decision had been 
made at the cabinet level. Pavitt thought that it was Berger's doing, though 
perhaps on Tenet's advice. Tenet told us that given the recommendation of 
his chief operations officers, he alone had decided to "turn off" the opera- 
tion. He had simply informed Berger, who had not pushed back. Berger's rec- 
ollection was similar. He said the plan was never presented to the White 
House for a decision. ^o 

The CIA's senior management clearly did not think the plan would work. 
Tenet's deputy director of operations wrote to Berger a few weeks later that the 
CIA assessed the tribals' ability to capture Bin Ladin and deliver him to U.S. 
officials as low. But working-level CIA officers were disappointed. Before it was 
canceled, Schroen described it as the "best plan we are going to come up with 
to capture [Bin Ladin] while he is in Afghanistan and bring him to justice."3i 
No capture plan before 9/11 ever again attained the same level of detail and 
preparation. The tribals' reported readiness to act diminished. And Bin Ladin 's 
security precautions and defenses became more elaborate and formidable. 

At this time, 9/11 was more than three years away. It was the duty of Tenet 
and the CIA leadership to balance the risks of inaction against jeopardizing the 
lives of their operatives and agents. And they had reason to worry about fail- 
ure: millions of dollars down the drain; a shoot-out that could be seen as an 
assassination; and, if there were repercussions in Pakistan, perhaps a coup. The 
decisions of the U.S. government in May 1998 were made, as Berger has put 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 115 

it, from the vantage point of the driver looking through a muddy windshield 
moving forward, not through a clean rearvie^v mirror. ^2 

Looking for Other Options 

The Counterterrorist Center continued to track Bin Ladin and to contemplate 
covert action. The most hopeful possibility seemed now to lie in diplomacy — 
but not diplomacy managed by the Department of State, which focused pri- 
marily on India-Pakistan nuclear tensions during the summer of 1998. The CIA 
learned in the spring of 1998 that the Saudi government had quietly disrupted 
Bin Ladin cells in its country that were planning to attack U.S. forces ^vith 
shoulder-fired missiles. They had arrested scores of individuals, with no pub- 
licity. When thanking the Saudis, Director Tenet took advantage of the open- 
ing to ask them to help against Bin Ladin. The response was encouraging 
enough that President Clinton made Tenet his informal personal representa- 
tive to work with the Saudis on terrorism, and Tenet visited Riyadh in May 
and again in early June.33 

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, who had taken charge from the ailing King 
Fahd, promised Tenet an all-out secret effort to persuade the Taliban to expel 
Bin Ladin so that he could be sent to the United States or to another country 
for trial. The Kingdoms emissary would be its intelligence chief. Prince Turki 
bin Faisal.Vice President Al Gore later added his thanks to those ofTenet, both 
making clear that they spoke with President Clinton's blessing. Tenet reported 
that it was imperative to get an indictment against Bin Ladin. The Ne^vYork 
grand jury issued its sealed indictment a few days later, on June 10. Tenet also 
recommended that no action be taken on other U.S. options, such as the covert 
action plan.^^ 

Prince Turki followed up in meetings during the summer ^vith Mullah 
Omar and other Taliban leaders. Apparently employing a mixture of possible 
incentives and threats, Turki received a commitment that Bin Ladin would be 
expelled, but MuUah Omar did not make good on this promise. -'^ 

On August 5, Clarke chaired a CSG meeting on Bin Ladin. In the discus- 
sion of what might be done, the note taker wrote,"there ^vas a dearth of bright 
ideas around the table, despite a consensus that the [government] ought to pur- 
sue every avenue it can to address the problem."^^ 



4.2 CRISIS: AUGUST 1998 

On August 7, 1998, National Security Advisor Berger ^voke President Clinton 
with a phone call at 5:35 A.M. to tell him of the almost simultaneous bomb- 
ings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam,Tanzania. Sus- 
picion quickly focused on Bin Ladin. Unusually good intelligence, chiefly from 



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116 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT 

the yearlong monitoring of al Qaeda s cell in Nairobi, soon firmly fixed respon- 
sibility on him and his associates. ^^ 

Debate about what to do settled very soon on one option: Tomahawk cruise 
missiles. Months earlier, after cancellation of the covert capture operation, 
Clarke had prodded the Pentagon to explore possibilities for military action. 
On June 2, General Hugh Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 
had directed General Zinni at Central Command to develop a plan, which he 
had submitted during the first week of July. Zinni's planners surely considered 
the two previous times the United States had used force to respond to terror- 
ism, the 1986 strike on Libya and the 1993 strike against Iraq. They proposed 
firing Tomahawks against eight terrorist camps in Afghanistan, including Bin 
Ladin's compound atTarnak Farms. ^^ After the embassy attacks, the Pentagon 
offered this plan to the White House. 

The day after the embassy bombings,Tenet brought to a principals meeting 
intelligence that terrorist leaders \vere expected to gather at a camp near 
Khowst, Afghanistan, to plan future attacks. According to Berger, Tenet said that 
several hundred would attend, including Bin Ladin.The CIA described the area 
as efliectively a military cantonment, away from civilian population centers and 
overwhelmingly populated by jihadists. Clarke remembered sitting next to 
Tenet in a White House meeting, asking Tenet "You thinking ^vhat I'm think- 
ing?" and his nodding "yes."^' The principals quickly reached a consensus on 
attacking the gathering. The strike's purpose was to kill Bin Ladin and his chief 
lieutenants. '^o 

Berger put in place a tightly compartmented process designed to keep all 
planning secret. On August 11, General Zinni received orders to prepare 
detailed plans for strikes against the sites in Afghanistan. The Pentagon briefed 
President Clinton about these plans on August 12 and 14. Though the princi- 
pals hoped that the missiles would hit Bin Ladin, NSC stafli" recommended the 
strike whether or not there was firm evidence that the commanders were at 
the facilities. '^i 

Considerable debate went to the question of whether to strike targets out- 
side of Afghanistan, including two facilities in Sudan. One was a tannery 
believed to belong to Bin Ladin.The other was al Shifa, a Khartoum pharma- 
ceutical plant, which intelligence reports said was manufacturing a precursor 
ingredient for nerve gas with Bin Ladin's financial support. The argument for 
hitting the tannery was that it could hurt Bin Ladin financially. The argument 
for hitting al Shifa \vas that it would lessen the chance of Bin Ladin's having 
nerve gas for a later attack. ^^^ 

Ever since March 1995, American officials had had in the backs of their 
minds Aum Shinrikyo's release of sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway. Presi- 
dent Clinton himself had expressed great concern about chemical and biolog- 
ical terrorism in the United States. Bin Ladin had reportedly been heard to 
speak ofwanting a "Hiroshima" and at least 10,000 casualties.The CIA reported 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 117 

that a soil sample from the vicinity of the al Shifa plant had tested positive for 
EMPTA, a precursor chemical forVX, a nerve gas ^vhose lone use was for mass 
killing. Two days before the embassy bombings, Clarke's staff wrote that Bin 
Ladin"has invested in and almost certainly has access toVX produced at a plant 
in Sudan."''^ Senior State Department officials believed that they had received 
a similar verdict independently, though they and Clarke's staff ^vere probably 
relying on the same report. Mary McCarthy, the NSC senior director respon- 
sible for intelligence programs, initially cautioned Berger that the "bottom line" 
was that "we will need much better intelligence on this facility before we seri- 
ously consider any options." She added that the link between Bin Ladin and al 
Shifa was "rather uncertain at this point." Berger has told us that he thought 
about what might happen if the decision went against hitting al Shifa, and nerve 
gas was used in a New York subway two weeks later.^'* 

By the early hours of the morning of August 20, President Clinton and all 
his principal advisers had agreed to strike Bin Ladin camps in Afghanistan near 
Khowst, as well as hitting al Shifa. The President took the Sudanese tannery off 
the target list because he sa\v little point in killing uninvolved people without 
doing significant harm to Bin Ladin. The principal ^vith the most qualms 
regarding al Shifa was Attorney General Reno. She expressed concern about 
attacking two Muslim countries at the same time. Looking back, she said that 
she felt the "premise kept shifting." '^^ 

Later on August 20, Navy vessels in the Arabian Sea fired their cruise nfis- 
siles. Though most of them hit their intended targets, neither Bin Ladin nor 
any other terrorist leader \vas killed. Berger told us that an after-action review 
by Director Tenet concluded that the strikes had killed 20—30 people in the 
camps but probably missed Bin Ladin by a few hours. Since the missiles headed 
for Afghanistan had had to cross Pakistan, the Vice Chairman of the Joint 
Chiefs was sent to meet with Pakistan's army chief of staff to assure him the 
missiles were not coming from India. Officials in Washington speculated that 
one or another Pakistani official might have sent a warning to the Taliban or 
Bin Ladin.46 

The air strikes marked the climax of an intense 48-hour period in which 
Berger notified congressional leaders, the principals called their foreign coun- 
terparts, and President Clinton flew back from his vacation on Martha's Vine- 
yard to address the nation from the Oval Office. The President spoke to the 
congressional leadership from Air Force One, and he called British Prime Min- 
ister Tony Blair, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and Egyptian President 
Hosni Mubarak from the White House."*^ House Speaker Newt Gingrich and 
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott initially supported the President. The next 
month, Gingrich's office dismissed the cruise missile attacks as "pinpricks."48 

At the time. President Clinton was embroiled in the Lewinsky scandal, which 
continued to consume public attention for the rest of that year and the first 
months of 1999. As it happened, a popular 1997 movie, Wag the Dog, features a 



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118 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT 

president who fakes a -war to distract public attention from a domestic scandal. 
Some Republicans in Congress raised questions about the timing of the strikes. 
Berger was particularly rankled by an editorial in the Economist that said that 
only the future would tell \vhether the U.S. missile strikes had "created 10,000 
ne^v fanatics where there would have been none."'*^ 

Much public commentary turned immediately to scalding criticism that 
the action was too aggressive. The Sudanese denied that al Shifa produced 
nerve gas, and they allowed journalists to visit what was left of a seemingly 
harmless facility. President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Berger, Tenet, and 
Clarke insisted to us that their judgment was right, pointing to the soil sam- 
ple evidence. No independent evidence has emerged to corroborate the CIA's 
assessment. 50 

Everyone involved in the decision had, of course, been aware of President 
Clintons problems. He told them to ignore them. Berger recalled the Presi- 
dent saying to him "that they were going to get crap either way, so they should 
do the right thing."5i All his aides testified to us that they based their advice 
solely on national security considerations. We have found no reason to ques- 
tion their statements. 

The failure of the strikes, the "wag the dog" slur, the intense partisanship of 
the period, and the nature of the al Shifa evidence likely had a cumulative effect 
on future decisions about the use of force against Bin Ladin. Berger told us that 
he did not feel any sense of constraint. 5- 

The period after the August 1998 embassy bombings was critical in shap- 
ing U.S. policy toward Bin Ladin. Although more Americans had been killed 
in the 1996 Khobar Towers attack, and many more in Beirut in 1983, the over- 
all loss of life rivaled the worst attacks in memory. More ominous, perhaps, was 
the demonstration of an operational capability to coordinate two nearly simul- 
taneous attacks on U.S. embassies in different countries. 

Despite the availability of information that al Qaeda was a global network, 
in 1998 policymakers knew little about the organization. The reams of new 
information that the CIA's Bin Ladin unit had been developing since 1996 had 
not been pulled together and synthesized for the rest of the government. 
Indeed, analysts in the unit felt that they were viewed as alarmists even within 
the CIA. A National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism in 1997 had only 
briefly mentioned Bin Ladin, and no subsequent national estimate would 
authoritatively evaluate the terrorism danger until after 9/11. Policymakers 
knew there was a dangerous individual, Usama Bin Ladin, whom they had been 
trying to capture and bring to trial. Documents at the time referred to Bin 
Ladin "and his associates" or Bin Ladin and his "network." They did not empha- 
size the existence of a structured worldwide organization gearing up to train 
thousands of potential terrorists. ^3 

In the critical days and weeks after the August 1998 attacks, senior policy- 
makers in the Clinton administration had to reevaluate the threat posed by Bin 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 1 19 

Ladin.Was this just a ne\¥ and especially venomous version of the ordinary ter- 
rorist threat America had lived with for decades, or was it radically new, pos- 
ing a danger beyond any yet experienced? 

Even after the embassy attacks, Bin Ladin had been responsible for the deaths 
of fewer than 50 Americans, most of them overseas. An NSC staffer working 
for Richard Clarke told us the threat \vas seen as one that could cause hun- 
dreds of casualties, not thousands. ^^ Even officials ^vho acknowledge a vital 
threat intellectually may not be ready to act on such beliefs at great cost or at 
high risk. 

Therefore, the government experts ^vho believed that Bin Ladin and his net- 
work posed such a novel danger needed a ^vay to win broad support for their 
views, or at least spotlight the areas of dispute.The Presidential Daily Brief and 
the similar, more widely circulated daily reports for high officials — consisting 
mainly of brief reports of intelligence "news" \vithout much analysis or con- 
text — did not provide such a vehicle. The national intelligence estimate has 
often played this role, and is sometimes controversial for this very reason. It 
played no role in judging the threat posed by al Qaeda, either in 1998 or later. 

In the late summer and fall of 1998, the U.S. government also was worrying 
about the deployment of military power in t\vo other ongoing conflicts. After 
years of war in the Balkans, the United States had finally committed itself to sig- 
nificant military intervention in 1995— 1996. Already maintaining a NATO-led 
peacekeeping force in Bosnia, U.S. officials were beginning to consider major 
combat operations against Serbia to protect Muslim civilians in Kosovo from 
ethnic cleansing. Air strikes were threatened in October 1998; a full-scale NATO 
bombing campaign against Serbia was launched in March 1999. ^^ 

In addition, the Clinton administration was facing the possibility of major 
combat operations against Iraq. Since 1996, the UN inspections regime had 
been increasingly obstructed by Saddam Hussein.The United States was threat- 
ening to attack unless unfettered inspections could resume. The Clinton 
administration eventually launched a large-scale set of air strikes against Iraq, 
Operation Desert Fox, in December 1998. These military commitments 
became the context in which the Clinton administration had to consider open- 
ing another front of military engagement against a new terrorist threat based 
in Afghanistan. 

A Follow-On Campaign? 

Clarke hoped the August 1998 missile strikes would mark the beginning of a 
sustained campaign against Bin Ladin. Clarke was, as he later admitted, 
"obsessed" with Bin Ladin, and the embassy bombings gave him new scope for 
pursuing his obsession. Terrorism had moved high up among the President's 
concerns, and Clarke's position had elevated accordingly.The CSG, unlike most 
standing interagency committees, did not have to report through the Deputies 
Committee. Although such a reporting relationship had been prescribed in 



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120 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT 

the May 1998 presidential directive (after expressions of concern by Attor- 
ney General Reno, among others), that directive contained an exception that 
permitted the CSG to report directly to the principals if Berger so elected. 
In practice, the CSG often reported not even to the full Principals Commit- 
tee but instead to the so-called Small Group formed by Berger, consisting 
only of those principals cleared to know about the most sensitive issues con- 
nected with counterterrorism activities concerning Bin Ladin or the Kho- 
bar Towers investigation. 56 

For this inner cabinet, Clarke drew up what he called "Political-Military 
Plan Delenda."The Latin delenda, niezning that something "must be destroyed," 
evoked the famous Roman vow to destroy its rival, Carthage. The overall goal 
of Clarke's paper \vas to "immediately eliminate any significant threat to Amer- 
icans" from the "Bin Ladin net^vork."57 The paper called for diplomacy to deny 
Bin Ladin sanctuary; covert action to disrupt terrorist activities, but above all 
to capture Bin Ladin and his deputies and bring them to trial; efforts to dry up 
Bin Ladin's money supply; and preparation for follow-on military action. The 
status of the document was and remained uncertain. It ^vas never formally 
adopted by the principals, and participants in the Small Group now have little 
or no recollection of it. It did, however, guide Clarke's efforts. 

The military component of Clarke's plan was its most fully articulated ele- 
ment. He envisioned an ongoing campaign of strikes against Bin Ladin's bases 
in Afghanistan or else^vhere, ^vhenever target information was ripe. Acknowl- 
edging that individual targets might not have much value, he cautioned Berger 
not to expect ever again to have an assembly of terrorist leaders in his sights. 
But he argued that rolling attacks might persuade the Taliban to hand over Bin 
Ladin and, in any case, \vould show that the action in August ^vas not a "one- 
off" event. It would sho^v that the United States was committed to a relentless 
effort to take down Bin Ladin's network. ^^ 

Members of the Small Group found themselves unpersuaded of the merits 
of rolling attacks. Defense Secretary William Cohen told us Bin Ladin's train- 
ing camps were primitive, built ^vith "rope ladders"; General Shelton called 
them "jungle gym" camps. Neither thought them worthwhile targets for very 
expensive missiles. President Clinton and Berger also worried about the Econ- 
omist's point — that attacks that missed Bin Ladin could enhance his stature and 
win him new recruits. After the United States launched air attacks against Iraq 
at the end of 1998 and against Serbia in 1999, in each case provoking world- 
wide criticism. Deputy National Security Advisor James Steinberg added the 
argument that attacks in Afghanistan offered "little benefit, lots of blo^vback 
against [a] bomb-happy U.S."^' 

During the last week of August 1998, officials began considering possible 
follow-on strikes. According to Clarke, President Clinton was inclined to 
launch further strikes sooner rather than later. On August 27, Under Secretary 
of Defense for Policy Walter Slocombe advised Secretary Cohen that the avail- 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 121 

able targets were not promising. The experience of the previous week, he 
wrote, "has only confirmed the importance of defining a clearly articulated 
rationale for military action" that was effective as well as justified. But Slocombe 
worried that simply striking some of these available targets did not add up to 
an effective strategy. '^^ 

Defense officials at a lower level, in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for 
Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, tried to meet Slocombe's 
objections. They developed a plan that, unlike Clarke's, called not for particu- 
lar strikes but instead for a broad change in national strategy and in the insti- 
tutional approach of the Department of Defense, implying a possible need for 
large-scale operations across the whole spectrum of U.S. military capabilities. 
It urged the department to become a lead agency in driving a national coun- 
terterrorism strategy forward, to "champion a national effort to take up the 
gauntlet that international terrorists have thrown at our feet." The authors 
expressed concern that "we have not fundamentally altered our philosophy or 
our approach" even though the terrorist threat had grown. They outlined an 
eight-part strategy "to be more proactive and aggressive." The future, they 
warned, might bring "horrific attacks," in ^vhich case "we will have no choice 
nor, unfortunately, will ^ve have a plan." The assistant secretary, Allen Holmes, 
took the paper to Slocombe's chief deputy, Jan Lodal, but it went no further. 
Its lead author recalls being told by Holmes that Lodal thought it was too 
aggressive. Holmes cannot recall what was said, and Lodal cannot remember 
the episode or the paper at all.<^i 



4.3 DIPLOMACY 

After the August missile strikes, diplomatic options to press the Taliban seemed 
no more promising than military options. The United States had issued a for- 
mal warning to the Taliban, and also to Sudan, that they would be held directly 
responsible for any attacks on Americans, wherever they occurred, carried out 
by the Bin Ladin network as long as they continued to provide sanctuary to 

it.62 

For a brief moment, it had seemed as if the August strikes might have 
shocked the Taliban into thinking of giving up Bin Ladin. On August 22, the 
reclusive Mullah Omar told a working-level State Department official that the 
strikes were counterproductive but added that he would be open to a dialogue 
with the United States on Bin Ladin 's presence in Afghanistan. ^^ Meeting in 
Islamabad with William Milam, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Taliban dele- 
gates said it \vas against their culture to expel someone seeking sanctuary but 
asked what would happen to Bin Ladin should he be sent to Saudi Arabia. 6"* 

Yet in September 1998, when the Saudi emissary. Prince Turki, asked Mul- 
lah Omar whether he would keep his earlier promise to expel Bin Ladin, the 



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122 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT 

Taliban leader said no. Both sides shouted at each other, ^vith Mullah Omar 
denouncing the Saudi government. Riyadh then suspended its diplomatic rela- 
tions -with the Taliban regime. (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab 
Emirates ^vere the only countries that recognized the Taliban as the legitimate 
government of Afghanistan.) Crown Prince Abdullah told President Clinton 
and Vice President Gore about this when he visited Washington in late Sep- 
tember. His account confirmed reports that the U.S. government had received 
indep endently. ^^ 

Other efforts with the Saudi government centered on improving intelli- 
gence sharing and permitting U.S. agents to interrogate prisoners in Saudi cus- 
tody. The history of such cooperation in 1997 and 1998 had been strained. i^*^ 
Several officials told us, in particular, that the United States could not get direct 
access to an important al Qaeda financial ofliicial, Madani al Tayyib, who had 
been detained by the Saudi government in 1997.*^Though U.S. officials repeat- 
edly raised the issue, the Saudis provided limited information. In his Septem- 
ber 1998 meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah, Vice President Gore, while 
thanking the Saudi government for their responsiveness, renewed the request 
for direct U.S. access toTayyib.^^^The United States never obtained this access. 

An NSC staff^led working group on terrorist finances asked the CIA in 
November 1998 to push again for access to Tayyib and to see "if it is possible 
to elaborate further on the ties between Usama bin Ladin and prominent indi- 
viduals in Saudi Arabia, including especially the Bin Ladin family."'^' One result 
was two NSC-led interagency trips to Persian Gulf states in 1999 and 2000. 
During these trips the NSC, Treasury, and intelligence representatives spoke 
with Saudi officials, and later interviewed members of the Bin Ladin family, 
about Usama's inheritance. The Saudis and the Bin Ladin family eventually 
helped in this particular effort and U.S. officials ultimately learned that Bin 
Ladin was not financing al Qaeda out of a personal inheritance.^'^ But Clarke 
was frustrated about how little the Agency knew, complaining to Berger that 
four years after "we first asked CIA to track down [Bin Ladin] s finances" and 
two years after the creation of the CIA's Bin Ladin unit, the Agency said it could 
only guess at how much aid Bin Ladin gave to terrorist groups, what were the 
main sources of his budget, or how he moved his money.^i 

The other diplomatic route to get at Bin Ladin in Afghanistan ran through 
Islamabad. In the summer before the embassy bombings, the State Department 
had been heavily focused on rising tensions between India and Pakistan and 
did not aggressively challenge Pakistan on Afghanistan and Bin Ladin. But State 
Department counterterrorism officials wanted a stronger position; the depart- 
ment's acting counterterrorism coordinator advised Secretary Albright to des- 
ignate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, noting that despite high-level 
Pakistani assurances, the country's military intelligence service continued 
"activities in support of international terrorism" by supporting attacks on civil- 
ian targets in Kashmir.This recommendation was opposed by the State Depart- 
ment's South Asia bureau, which was concerned that it would damage already 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 123 

sensitive relations with Pakistan in the ^vake of the May 1998 nuclear tests by 
both Pakistan and India. Secretary Albright rejected the recommendation on 
August 5, 1998, just t\¥o days before the embassy bombings.^- She told us that, 
in general, putting the Pakistanis on the terrorist list ^vould eliminate any influ- 
ence the United States had over theni.^^ In October, an NSC counterterror- 
ism oflicial noted that Pakistan's pro-Taliban military intelligence service had 
been training Kashmiri jihadists in one of the camps hit by U.S. missiles, lead- 
ing to the death of Pakistanis.^'' 

After flying to Nairobi and bringing home the coflins of the American dead, 
Secretary Albright increased the department's focus on counterterrorism. 
According to Ambassador Milam, the bombings were a "wake-up call," and he 
soon found himself spending 45 to 50 percent of his time working the Tal- 
iban—Bin Ladin portfolio. ^^ But Pakistan's military intelligence service, known 
as the ISID (Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate), was theTaliban's primary 
patron, which made progress diflicult. 

Additional pressure on the Pakistanis — beyond demands to press the Taliban 
on Bin Ladin — seemed unattractive to most oflicials of the State Department. 
Congressional sanctions punishing Pakistan for possessing nuclear arms pre- 
vented the administration from offering incentives to Islamabad.^* In the words 
of Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, Washington's Pakistan policy was 
"stick-heavy." Talbott felt that the only remaining sticks were additional sanc- 
tions that would have bankrupted the Pakistanis, a dangerous move that could 
have brought "total chaos" to a nuclear-armed country with a significant num- 
ber of Islamic radicals. ^^ 

The Saudi government, which had a long and close relationship with Pak- 
istan and provided it oil on generous terms, was already pressing Sharif with 
regard to the Taliban and Bin Ladin. A senior State Department official con- 
cluded that Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah put "a tremendous amount of 
heat" on the Pakistani prime minister during the prince's October 1998 visit 
to Pakistan. ^'^ 

The State Department urged President Clinton to engage the Pakistanis. 
Accepting this advice, President Clinton invited Sharif to Washington, where 
they talked mostly about India but also discussed Bin Ladin. After Sharif went 
home, the President called him and raised the Bin Ladin subject again. This 
effort elicited from Sharif a promise to talk with the Taliban.^' 

Mullah Omar's position showed no sign of softening. One intelligence 
report passed to Berger by the NSC staff quoted Bin Ladin as saying that Mul- 
lah Omar had given him a completely free hand to act in any country, though 
asking that he not claim responsibility for attacks in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. 
Bin Ladin was described as grabbing his beard and saying emotionally, "By 
Allah, by God, the Americans wiU still be amazed. The so-called United States 
will suflier the same fate as the Russians. Their state will collapse, too."^" 

Debate in the State Department intensified after December 1998, when 
Michael Sheehan became counterterrorism coordinator. A onetime special 



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124 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT 

forces officer, he had worked with Albright when she was ambassador to the 
United Nations and had served on the NSC staff with Clarke. He shared 
Clarke's obsession with terrorism, and had little hesitation about locking horns 
with the regional bureaus. Through every available channel, he repeated the 
earlier warning to the Taliban of the possible dire consequences — including 
military strikes — if Bin Ladin remained their guest and conducted additional 
attacks. Within the department, he argued for designating the Taliban regime a 
state sponsor of terrorism. This ^vas technically difficult to do, for calling it a 
state would be tantamount to diplomatic recognition, which the United States 
had thus far withheld. But Sheehan urged the use of any available \veapon 
against the Taliban. He told us that he thought he was regarded in the depart- 
ment as "a one-note Johnny nutcase."*' 

In early 1999, the State Department's counterterrorism office proposed a 
comprehensive diplomatic strategy for all states involved in the Afghanistan 
problem, including Pakistan. It specified both carrots and hard-hitting sticks — 
among them, certifying Pakistan as uncooperative on terrorism. Albright said 
the original carrots and sticks listed in a decision paper for principals may not 
have been used as "described on paper" but added that they were used in other 
ways or in varying degrees. But the paper's author. Ambassador Sheehan, was 
frustrated and complained to us that the original plan "had been watered down 
to the point that nothing ^vas then done with it."*- 

The cautiousness of the South Asia bureau ^vas reinforced when, in May 
1999, Pakistani troops ^vere discovered to have infiltrated into an especially 
mountainous area of Kashmir. A limited war began between India and Pak- 
istan, euphemistically called the "Kargil crisis," as India tried to drive the Pak- 
istani forces out. Patience ^vith Pakistan was wearing thin, inside both the State 
Department and the NSC. Bruce Riedel, the NSC staff member responsible 
for Pakistan, wrote Berger that Islamabad was "behaving as a rogue state in two 
areas — backing Taliban/UBL terror and provoking war ^vith India."*-* 

Discussion \vithin the Clinton administration on Afghanistan then concen- 
trated on two main alternatives. The first, championed by Riedel and Assistant 
Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth, was to undertake a major diplomatic effort 
to end the Afghan civil war and install a national unity government. The sec- 
ond, favored by Sheehan, Clarke, and the CIA, called for labeling the Taliban a 
terrorist group and ultimately funneling secret aid to its chief foe, the North- 
ern Alliance. This dispute \vould go back and forth throughout 1999 and ulti- 
mately become entangled with debate about enlisting the Northern Alliance 
as an ally for covert action.*^ 

Another diplomatic option may have been available: nurturing Afghan exile 
groups as a possible moderate governing alternative to the Taliban. In late 1999, 
Washington provided some support for talks among the leaders of exile Afghan 
groups, including the ousted Rome-based King Zahir Shah and Hamid 
Karzai, about bolstering anti- Taliban forces inside Afghanistan and linking the 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 125 

Northern Alliance -with Pashtun groups. One U.S. diplomat later told us that 
the exile groups were not ready to move forward and that coordinating frac- 
tious groups residing in Bonn, Rome, and Cyprus proved extremely difficult.^^ 

Frustrated by the Taliban's resistance, two senior State Department officials 
suggested asking the Saudis to offer the Taliban $250 million for Bin Ladin. 
Clarke opposed having the United States facilitate a "huge grant to a regime 
as heinous as the Taliban" and suggested that the idea might not seem attrac- 
tive to either Secretary Albright or First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton — both 
critics of the Taliban's record on women's rights. 8* The proposal seems to have 
quietly died. 

Within the State Department, some officials delayed Sheehan and Clarke's 
push either to designate Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as a state sponsor of ter- 
rorism or to designate the regime as a foreign terrorist organization (thereby 
avoiding the issue of whether to recognize theTaliban as Afghanistan's govern- 
ment). Sheehan and Clarke prevailed in July 1999, when President Clinton 
issued an executive order effectively declaring theTaliban regime a state spon- 
sor of terrorism.87 In October, a UN Security Council Resolution champi- 
oned by the United States added economic and travel sanctions. ^^ 

With UN sanctions set to come into effect in November, Clarke wrote 
Berger that "the Taliban appear to be up to something."^^ Mullah Omar had 
shuffled his "cabinet" and hinted at Bin Ladin 's possible departure. Clarke's staff 
thought his most likely destination would be Somalia; Chechnya seemed less 
appealing with Russia on the offensive. Clarke commented that Iraq and Libya 
had previously discussed hosting Bin Ladin, though he and his staff had their 
doubts that Bin Ladin would trust secular Arab dictators such as Saddam Hus- 
sein or Muammar Qadhafi. Clarke also raised the "remote possibility" of 
Yemen, which offered vast uncontrolled spaces. In November, the CSG dis- 
cussed whether the sanctions had rattled the Taliban, who seemed "to be look- 
ing for a face-saving way out of the Bin Ladin issue."''^ 

In fact none of the outside pressure had any visible effect on Mullah Omar, 
who was unconcerned about commerce with the outside world. Omar had vir- 
tually no diplomatic contact with the West, since he refused to meet with non- 
Muslims. The United States learned that at the end of 1999, theTaliban Council 
of Ministers unanimously reaffirmed that their regime would stick by Bin 
Ladin. Relations between Bin Ladin and theTaliban leadership were sometimes 
tense, but the foundation was deep and personal.''^ Indeed, Mullah Omar had 
executed at least one subordinate who opposed his pro— Bin Ladin policy. ''- 

The United States would try tougher sanctions in 2000. Working with Rus- 
sia (a country involved in an ongoing campaign against Chechen separatists, 
some of whom received support from Bin Ladin), the United States persuaded 
the United Nations to adopt Security Council Resolution 1333, which 
included an embargo on arms shipments to theTaliban, in December 2000. ^^ 
The aim of the resolution was to hit theTaliban where it was most sensitive — 



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126 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT 

on the battlefield against the Northern Alliance — and criminalize giving them 
arms and providing military "advisers," which Pakistan had been doing. ''^ Yet 
the passage of the resolution had no visible effect on Omar, nor did it halt the 
flow of Pakistani military assistance to the Taliban. '^ 

U.S. authorities had continued to try to get cooperation from Pakistan in 
pressing the Taliban to stop sheltering Bin Ladin. President Clinton contacted 
Sharif again in June 1999, partly to discuss the crisis \vith India but also to urge 
Sharif, "in the strongest way I can," to persuade the Taliban to expel Bin 
Ladin.^'^The President suggested that Pakistan use its control over oil supplies 
to the Taliban and over Afghan imports through Karachi. Sharif suggested 
instead that Pakistani forces might try to capture Bin Ladin themselves. 
Though no one in Washington thought this was likely to happen. President 
Clinton gave the idea his blessing.'^ 

The President met with Sharif in Washington in early July. Though the 
meeting's main purpose \vas to seal the Pakistani prime minister's decision to 
withdraw from the Kargil confrontation in Kashmir, President Clinton com- 
plained about Pakistan's failure to take effective action with respect to the Tal- 
iban and Bin Ladin. Sharif came back to his earlier proposal and won approval 
for LJ.S. assistance in training a Pakistani special forces team for an operation 
against Bin Ladin. Then, in October 1999, Sharif was deposed by General Per- 
vez Musharraf, and the plan was terminated.''^ 

At first, the Clinton administration hoped that Musharraf's coup might cre- 
ate an opening for action on Bin Ladin. A career military oflicer, Musharraf 
was thought to have the political strength to confront and influence the Pak- 
istani military intelligence service, which supported the Taliban. Berger spec- 
ulated that the ne\v government might use Bin Ladin to buy concessions from 
Washington, but neither side ever developed such an initiative.^'' 

By late 1999, more than a year after the embassy bombings, diplomacy \vith 
Pakistan, like the efforts with the Taliban, had, according to Under Secretary 
of State Thomas Pickering, "borne little fruit."!"'^' 



4.4 COVERT ACTION 

As part of the response to the embassy bombings. President Clinton signed a 
Memorandum of Notification authorizing the CIA to let its tribal assets use 
force to capture Bin Ladin and his associates. CIA officers told the tribals that 
the plan to capture Bin Ladin, which had been "turned off" three months ear- 
lier, was back on.The memorandum also authorized the CIA to attack Bin Ladin 
in other ^vays. Also, an executive order froze financial holdings that could be 
linked to Bin Ladin. 'O' 

The counterterrorism staff at CIA thought it was gaining a better under- 
standing of Bin Ladin and his network. In preparation for briefing the Senate 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 127 

Select Committee on Intelligence on September 2,Tenet -was told that the intel- 
ligence community knew more about Bin Ladin's network"than about any other 
top tier terrorist organization."iO- 

The CIA was using this kno^vledge to disrupt a number of Bin Ladin— asso- 
ciated cells. Working with Albanian authorities, CIA operatives had raided an al 
Qaeda forgery operation and another terrorist cell in Tirana. These operations 
may have disrupted a planned attack on the U.S. embassy in Tirana, and did lead 
to the rendition of a number of al Qaeda— related terrorist operatives. After the 
embassy bombings, there were arrests in Azerbaijan, Italy, and Britain. Several 
terrorists were sent to an Arab country. The CIA described working with FBI 
operatives to prevent a planned attack on the U.S. embassy in Uganda, and a 
number of suspects were arrested. On September 16, Abu Hajer, one of Bin 
Ladin's deputies in Sudan and the head of his computer operations and weapons 
procurement, was arrested in Germany. He was the most important Bin Ladin 
lieutenant captured thus far. Clarke commented to Berger with satisfaction that 
August and September had brought the "greatest number of terrorist arrests in 
a short period of time that we have ever arranged/facilitated." ^^^ 

Given the President's August Memorandum of Notification, the CIA had 
already been working on new plans for using the Afghan tribals to capture Bin 
Ladin. During September and October, the tribals claimed to have tried at least 
four times to ambush Bin Ladin. Senior CIA officials doubted whether any of 
these ambush attempts had actually occurred. But the tribals did seem to have 
success in reporting where Bin Ladin was.^O"* 

This information was more useful than it had been in the past; since the 
August missile strikes. Bin Ladin had taken to moving his sleeping place fre- 
quently and unpredictably and had added new bodyguards. Worst of all, al 
Qaeda 's senior leadership had stopped using a particular means of communi- 
cation almost immediately after a leak to the Washington Times. "^^ This made it 
much more difficult for the National Security Agency to intercept his conver- 
sations. But since the tribals seemed to know where Bin Ladin was or would 
be, an alternative to capturing Bin Ladin would be to mark his location and 
call in another round of missile strikes. 

On November 3, the Small Group met to discuss these problems, among 
other topics. Preparing Director Tenet for a Small Group meeting in mid- 
November, the Counterterrorist Center stressed,"At this point we cannot pre- 
dict when or if a capture operation will be executed by our assets."io<^ 

U.S. counterterrorism officials also worried about possible domestic attacks. 
Several intelligence reports, some of dubious sourcing, mentioned Washington 
as a possible target. On October 26, Clarke's CSG took the unusual step of 
holding a meeting dedicated to trying "to evaluate the threat of a terrorist attack 
in the United States by the Usama bin Ladin network."io^The CSG members 
were "urged to be as creative as possible in their thinking" about preventing a 
Bin Ladin attack on U.S. territory. Participants noted that while the FBI had 



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THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT 



been given additional resources for such efforts, both it and the CIA were hav- 
ing problems exploiting leads by tracing U.S. telephone numbers and translat- 
ing documents obtained in cell disruptions abroad. The Justice Department 
reported that the current guidelines from the Attorney General gave sufficient 
legal authority for domestic investigation and surveillance. 'o^ 

Though intelligence gave no clear indication of ^vhat might be afoot, some 
intelligence reports mentioned chemical ^veapons, pointing toward ^vork at a 
camp in southern Afghanistan called Derunta. On November 4, 1998, the U.S. 
Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York unsealed its indict- 
ment of Bin Ladin, charging him with conspiracy to attack U.S. defense instal- 
lations. The indictment also charged that al Qaeda had allied itself with Sudan, 
Iran, and Hezbollah. The original sealed indictment had added that al Qaeda 
had "reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al Qaeda 
would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specif- 
ically including weapons development, al Qaeda would work cooperatively 
with the Government of Iraq."io' This passage led Clarke, who for years had 
read intelligence reports on Iraqi-Sudanese cooperation on chemical ^veapons, 
to speculate to Berger that a large Iraqi presence at chemical facilities in Khar- 
toum was "probably a direct result of the Iraq— Al Qida agreement." Clarke 
added thatVX precursor traces found near al Shifa were the "exact formula 
used by Iraq." i^'^' This language about al Qaeda s "understanding" \vith Iraq had 
been dropped, ho^vever, ^vhen a superseding indictment was filed in Novem- 
ber 1998.111 

On Friday, December 4, 1998, the CIA included an article in the Presiden- 
tial Daily Brief describing intelligence, received from a friendly government, 
about a threatened hijacking in the United States. This article was declassified 
at our request. 

The same day, Clarke convened a meeting of his CSG to discuss both the 



The joWowing is the text of an item from the Presidential Daily Brief received by 
President William J. Clinton on December 4, i998. Redacted material is indicated 
in brackets. 

SUBJECT: Bin Ladin Preparing to Hijack US Aircraft and Other 
Attacks 

1. Reporting [ — ] suggests Bin Ladin and his allies are preparing for 
attacks in the US, including an aircraft hijacking to obtain the release of 
Shaykh 'Uniar 'Abd al- Rahman, RamziYousef, and Muhammad Sadiq 
'Awda. One source quoted a senior member of the Gama'at al-Islamiyya 
(IG) saying that, as of late October, the IG had completed planning for 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 



129 



an operation in the US on behalf of Bin Ladin, but that the operation 
was on hold. A senior Bin Ladin operative from Saudi Arabia was to visit 
IG counterparts in the US soon thereafter to discuss options — ^perhaps 
including an aircraft hijacking. 

• IG leader Islanibuli in late September was planning to hijack a 
US airliner during the "next couple of weeks" to free 'Abd al- 
Rahman and the other prisoners, according to what may be a 
different source. 

• The same source late last month said that Bin Ladin might 
implement plans to hijack US aircraft before the beginning of 
Ramadan on 20 December and that two members of the oper- 
ational team had evaded security checks during a recent trial 
run at an unidentified Ne\vYork airport. [ — ] 

2. Some members of the Bin Ladin net\vork have received hijack train- 
ing, according to various sources, but no group directly tied to Bin Ladin s 
al-Qa'ida organization has ever carried out an aircraft hijacking. Bin Ladin 
could be weighing other types of operations against US aircraft. Accord- 
ing to [ — ] the IG in October obtained SA-7 missiles and intended to 
move them from Yemen into Saudi Arabia to shoot do\vn an Egyptian 
plane or, if unsuccessful, a US military or civilian aircraft. 

• A [ — ] in October told us that unspecified "extremist elements" 
in Yemen had acquired SA-7s. [ — ] 

3. [ — ] indicate the Bin Ladin organization or its allies are moving closer 
to implementing anti-US attacks at unspecified locations, but ^ve do not 
know whether they are related to attacks on aircraft. A Bin Ladin asso- 
ciate in Sudan late last month told a colleague in Kandahar that he had 
shipped a group of containers to Afghanistan. Bin Ladin associates also 
talked about the movement of containers to Afghanistan before the East 
Africa bombings. 

• In other [ — ] Bin Ladin associates last month discussed picking 
up a package in Malaysia. One told his colleague in Malaysia 
that "they" were in the "ninth month [of pregnancy]." 

• An alleged Bin Ladin supporter in Yemen late last month 
remarked to his mother that he planned to work in "com- 
merce" from abroad and said his impending "marriage," ^vhich 
would take place soon, would be a"surprise.""Commerce"and 
"marriage" often are code^vords for terrorist attacks. [ — ] 



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130 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT 

hijacking concern and the antiaircraft missile threat. To address the hijack- 
ing \¥arning, the group agreed that New York airports should go to maxi- 
mum security starting that weekend. They agreed to boost security at other 
East coast airports. The CIA agreed to distribute versions of the report to 
the FBI and FAA to pass to the New York Police Department and the air- 
lines. The FAA issued a security directive on December 8, ^vith specific 
requirements for more intensive air carrier screening of passengers and more 
oversight of the screening process, at all three New York City area airports. 112 

The intelligence community could learn little about the source of the infor- 
mation. Later in December and again in early January 1999, more information 
arrived from the same source, reporting that the planned hijacking had been 
stalled because two of the operatives, who were sketchily described, had been 
arrested near Washington, DC. or New York. After investigation, the FBI could 
find no information to support the hijack threat; nor could it verify any arrests 
like those described in the report. The FAA alert at the New York area airports 
ended onjanuary 31, 1999.113 

On December 17, the day after the United States and Britain began their 
Desert Fox bombing campaign against Iraq, the Small Group convened to dis- 
cuss intelligence suggesting imminent Bin Ladin attacks on the U.S. embassies 
in Qatar and Ethiopia. The next day. Director Tenet sent a memo to the Pres- 
ident, the cabinet, and senior officials throughout the government describing 
reports that Bin Ladin planned to attack U.S. targets very soon, possibly over 
the next few days, before Ramadan celebrations began. Tenet said he was 
"greatly concerned."!^'* 

With alarms sounding, members of the Small Group considered ideas about 
how to respond to or prevent such attacks. Generals Shelton and Zinni came 
up with military options. Special Operations Forces were later told that they 
might be ordered to attempt very high-risk in-and-out raids either in Khar- 
toum, to capture a senior Bin Ladin operative known as Abu Hafs the Mauri- 
tanian — ^vho appeared to be engineering some of the plots — or in Kandahar, 
to capture Bin Ladin himself. Shelton told us that such operations are not risk 
free, invoking the memory of the 1993 "Black Hawk down" fiasco in 
Mogadishu. 115 

The CIA reported on December 18 that Bin Ladin might be traveling to 
Kandahar and could be targeted there with cruise missiles. Vessels with Tom- 
ahawk cruise missiles were on station in the Arabian Sea, and could fire within 
a few hours of receiving target data.H'^ 

On December 20, intelligence indicated Bin Ladin would be spending the 
night at the Haji Habash house, part of the governor's residence in Kanda- 
har.The chief of the Bin Ladin unit, "Mike," told us that he promptly briefed 
Tenet and his deputy, John Gordon. From the field, the CIA's Gary Schroen 
advised: "Hit him tonight — we may not get another chance." An urgent tele- 
conference of principals was arranged, n^ 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 131 

The principals considered a cruise missile strike to try to kill Bin Ladin. One 
issue they discussed ^vas the potential collateral damage — the number of inno- 
cent bystanders who would be killed or wounded. General Zinni predicted a 
number well over 200 and was concerned about damage to a nearby mosque. 
The senior intelligence officer on the Joint Staff apparently made a different 
calculation, estimating half as much collateral damage and not predicting dam- 
age to the mosque. By the end of the meeting, the principals decided against 
recommending to the President that he order a strike. A few weeks later, in Jan- 
uary 1999, Clarke -wrote that the principals had thought the intelligence only 
half reliable and had worried about killing or injuring perhaps 300 people. 
Tenet said he remembered doubts about the reliability of the source and con- 
cern about hitting the nearby mosque. "Mike" remembered Tenet telling him 
that the military was concerned that a fe^v hours had passed since the last sight- 
ing of Bin Ladin and that this persuaded everyone that the chance of failure 
was too great. 118 

Some lo^ver-level officials were angry. "Mike" reported to Schroen that he 
had been unable to sleep after this decision. "I'm sure ^ve'll regret not acting 
last night," he wrote, criticizing the principals for "worrying that some stray 
shrapnel might hit the Habash mosque and 'offend' Muslims." He commented 
that they had not sho^vn comparable sensitivity ^vhen deciding to bomb Mus- 
lims in Iraq. The principals, he said, were "obsessed" with trying to get oth- 
ers — Saudis, Pakistanis, Afghan tribals — to "do what we won't do." Schroen was 
disappointed too. "We should have done it last night," he wrote. "We may well 
come to regret the decision not to go ahead.''^^' The Joint Staff's deputy direc- 
tor for operations agreed, even though he told us that later intelligence 
appeared to show that Bin Ladin had left his quarters before the strike would 
have occurred. Missing Bin Ladin, he said, "would have caused us a hell of a 
problem, but it ^vas a shot we should have taken, and we ^vould have had to 
pay the price." '^o 

The principals began considering other, more aggressive covert alternatives 
using the tribals. CIA officers suggested that the tribals would prefer to try a 
raid rather than a roadside ambush because they would have better control, it 
would be less dangerous, and it played more to their skills and experience. But 
everyone knew that if the tribals were to conduct such a raid, guns would be 
blazing. The current Memorandum of Notification instructed the CIA to cap- 
ture Bin Ladin and to use lethal force only in self-defense.Work now began on 
a new memorandum that would give the tribals more latitude. The intention 
was to say that they could use lethal force if the attempted capture seemed 
impossible to complete successfully. '-^ 

Early drafts of this highly sensitive document emphasized that it authorized 
only a capture operation.The tribals were to be paid only if they captured Bin 
Ladin, not if they killed him. Officials throughout the government approved 
this draft. But on December 21, the day after principals decided not to launch 



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132 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT 

the cruise missile strike against Kandahar, the CIA's leaders urged strengthen- 
ing the language to allo^v the tribals to be paid whether Bin Ladin -was cap- 
tured or killed. Berger and Tenet then worked together to take this line of 
thought even further. ^-^ 

They finally agreed, as Berger reported to President Clinton, that an 
extraordinary step was necessary. The new memorandum would allo\¥ the 
killing of Bin Ladin if the CIA and the tribals judged that capture was not fea- 
sible (a judgment it already seemed clear they had reached). The Justice 
Department lawyer who worked on the draft told us that what was envisioned 
was a group of tribals assaulting a location, leading to a shoot-out. Bin Ladin 
and others would be captured if possible, but probably would be killed. The 
administration's position was that under the law of armed conflict, killing a 
person who posed an imminent threat to the United States would be an act 
of self-defense, not an assassination. On Christmas Eve 1998, Berger sent a final 
draft to President Clinton, with an explanatory memo. The President 
approved the document. '^3 

Because the White House considered this operation highly sensitive, only a 
tiny number of people knew about this Memorandum of Notification. Berger 
arranged for the NSC's legal adviser to inform Albright, Cohen, Shelton, and 
Reno. None was allowed to keep a copy. Congressional leaders were briefed, as 
required by law. Attorney General Reno had sent a letter to the President 
expressing her concern: she warned of possible retaliation, including the tar- 
geting of U.S. ofliicials. She did not pose any legal objection. A copy of the final 
document, along with the carefully crafted instructions that were to be sent to 
the tribals, was given to Tenet. 1^4 

A message from Tenet to CIA field agents directed them to communicate 
to the tribals the instructions authorized by the President: the United States 
preferred that Bin Ladin and his lieutenants be captured, but if a successful cap- 
ture operation was not feasible, the tribals were permitted to kill them. The 
instructions added that the tribals must avoid killing others unnecessarily and 
must not kill or abuse Bin Ladin or his lieutenants if they surrendered. Finally, 
the tribals would not be paid if this set of requirements was not met.^-^ 

The field officer passed these instructions to the tribals word for word. But 
he prefaced the directions with a message:"Froni the American President down 
to the average man in the street, we want him [Bin Ladin] stopped." If the trib- 
als captured Bin Ladin, the officer assured them that he would receive a fair 
trial under U.S. law and be treated humanely. The CIA oflScer reported that 
the tribals said they "fully understand the contents, implications and the spirit 
of the message" and that that their response was, "We will try our best to cap- 
ture Bin Ladin alive and will have no intention of killing or harming him on 
purpose." The tribals explained that they wanted to prove that their standards 
of behavior were more civilized than those of Bin Ladin and his band of ter- 
rorists. In an additional note addressed to Schroen, the tribals noted that if they 
were to adopt Bin Ladin 's ethics, "we would have finished the job long before," 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 133 

but they had been limited by their abilities and "by our beliefs and laws we 
have to respect." 1^6 

Schroen and "Mike" -were impressed by the tribals' reaction. Schroen cabled 
that the tribals Avere not in it for the money but as an investment in the future 
of Afghanistan. "Mike" agreed that the tribals' reluctance to kill was not a 
"showstopper." "From our view," he wrote, "that seems in character and fair 
enough."i27 

Policymakers in the Clinton administration, including the President and his 
national security advisor, told us that the President's intent regarding covert 
action against Bin Ladin was clear: he wanted him dead. This intent was never 
well communicated or understood within the CIA. Tenet told the Commis- 
sion that except in one specific case (discussed later), the CIA was authorized 
to kill Bin Ladin only in the context of a capture operation. CIA senior man- 
agers, operators, and lawyers confirmed this understanding. "We al^vays talked 
about how much easier it would have been to kill him," a former chief of the 
Bin Ladin unit said. 128 

In February 1999, another draft Memorandum of Notification went to Pres- 
ident Clinton. It asked him to allow the CIA to give exactly the same guidance 
to the Northern Alliance as had just been given to the tribals: they could kill 
Bin Ladin if a successful capture operation was not feasible. On this occasion, 
however. President Clinton crossed out key language he had approved in 
December and inserted more ambiguous language. No one we interviewed 
could shed light on ^vhy the President did this. President Clinton told the Com- 
mission that he had no recollection of why he rewrote the language. 1^9 

Later in 1999, when legal authority was needed for enlisting still other col- 
laborators and for covering a wider set of contingencies, the lawyers returned 
to the language used in August 1998, ^vhich authorized force only in the con- 
text of a capture operation. Given the closely held character of the document 
approved in December 1998, and the subsequent return to the earlier language, 
it is possible to understand how the former White House officials and the CIA 
oflScials might disagree as to ^vhether the CIA ^vas ever authorized by the Pres- 
ident to kiU Bin Ladin. "o 

The dispute turned out to be some^vhat academic, as the limits of available 
legal authority were not tested. Clarke commented to Berger that "despite 
'expanded' authority for CIA's sources to engage in direct action, they have 
sho\vn no inclination to do so." He added that it was his impression that the 
CIA thought the tribals unlikely to act against Bin Ladin and hence relying on 
them was "unrealistic." '^^ Events seemed to bear him out, since the tribals did 
not stage an attack on Bin Ladin or his associates during 1999. 

The tribals remained active collectors of intelligence, ho\vever, providing 
good but not predictive information about Bin Ladin 's whereabouts. The CIA 
also tried to improve its intelligence reporting on Bin Ladin by what Tenet's 
assistant director for collection, the indefatigable Charles Allen, called an "all- 
out, all-agency, seven-days-a-week" effort. i-'^ The effort might have had an 



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134 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT 

effect. On January 12, 1999, Clarke ^vrote Berger that the CIA's confidence in 
the tribals' reporting had increased. It was no^v higher than it had been on 
December 20.133 

In February 1999, Allen proposed flying a U-2 mission over Afghanistan to 
build a baseline of intelligence outside the areas ^vhere the tribals had cover- 
age. Clarke was nervous about such a mission because he continued to fear that 
Bin Ladin might leave for someplace less accessible. He wrote Deputy National 
Security Advisor Donald Kerrick that one reliable source reported Bin Ladin 's 
having met with Iraqi officials, who "may have offered him asylum." Other 
intelligence sources said that some Taliban leaders, though not Mullah Omar, 
had urged Bin Ladin to go to Iraq. If Bin Ladin actually moved to Iraq, wrote 
Clarke, his network would be at Saddam Hussein s service, and it would be "vir- 
tually impossible" to find him. Better to get Bin Ladin in Afghanistan, Clarke 
declared. 134 Berger suggested sending one U-2 flight, but Clarke opposed even 
this. It would require Pakistani approval, he wrote; and "Pak[istan's] 
intelligence service] is in bed with" Bin Ladin and would warn him that the 
United States was getting ready for a bombing campaign: "Armed with that 
knowledge, old wily Usama will likely boogie to Baghdad."i35'j'hough told also 
by Bruce Riedel of the NSC staff that Saddam Hussein wanted Bin Ladin in 
Baghdad, Berger conditionally authorized a single U-2 flight. Allen meanwhile 
had found other ways of getting the information he wanted. So the U-2 flight 
never occurred. ^36 



4.5 SEARCHING FOR FRESH OPTIONS 

"Boots on the Ground?" 

Starting on the day the August 1998 strikes were launched. General Shelton 
had issued a planning order to prepare follow-on strikes and think beyond just 
using cruise missiles. '37 The initial strikes had been called Operation Infinite 
Reach. The follow-on plans were given the code name Operation Infinite 
Resolve. 

At the time, any actual military action in Afghanistan would have been car- 
ried out by General Zinni's Central Command. This command was therefore 
the locus for most military planning. Zinni was even less enthusiastic than 
Cohen and Shelton about follow-on cruise missile strikes. He knew that the 
Tomahawks did not always hit their targets. After the August 20 strikes. Presi- 
dent Clinton had had to call Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif to apologize for 
a wayward missile that had killed several people in a Pakistani village. Sharif 
had been understanding, while commenting on American "overkill."i38 

Zinni feared that Bin Ladin would in the future locate himself in cities, 
where U.S. missiles could kill thousands of Afghans. He worried also lest Pak- 
istani authorities not get adequate warning, think the missiles came from India, 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 135 

and do something that everyone -would later regret. Discussing potential reper- 
cussions in the region of his military responsibility, Zinni said, "It was easy to 
take the shot from Washington and walk away from it. We had to live there."!-'' 

Zinni's distinct preference would have been to build up counterterrorism 
capabilities in neighboring countries such as Uzbekistan. But he told us that 
he could not drum up much interest in or money for such a purpose from 
Washington, partly, he thought, because these countries had dictatorial govern- 
ments. I'^o 

After the decision — in which fear of collateral damage ^vas an important fac- 
tor — not to use cruise missiles against Kandahar in December 1998, Shelton 
and officers in the Pentagon developed plans for using an AC-130 gunship 
instead of cruise missile strikes. Designed specifically for the special forces, the 
version of the AC-130 known as"Spooky" can fly in fast or from high altitude, 
undetected by radar; guided to its zone by extraordinarily complex electron- 
ics, it is capable of rapidly firing precision-guided 25, 40, and 105 mm projec- 
tiles. Because this system could target more precisely than a salvo of cruise 
missiles, it had a much lo\ver risk of causing collateral damage. After giving 
Clarke a briefing and being encouraged to proceed, Shelton formally directed 
Zinni and General Peter Schoomaker, ^vho headed the Special Operations 
Command, to develop plans for an AC-130 mission against Bin Ladin's head- 
quarters and infrastructure in Afghanistan. The Joint Staff prepared a decision 
paper for deployment of the Special Operations aircraft. ^^^ 

Though Berger and Clarke continued to indicate interest in this option, the 
AC- 130s were never deployed. Clarke wrote at the time that Zinni opposed 
their use, and John Maher, the Joint Stafii"'s deputy director of operations, agreed 
that this was Zinni's position. Zinni himself does not recall blocking the option. 
He told us that he understood the Special Operations Command had never 
thought the intelligence good enough to justify actually movingAC-130s into 
position. Schoomaker says, on the contrary, that he thought the AC-130 option 
feasible. i« 

The most likely explanation for the two generals' differing recollections is 
that both of them thought serious preparation for any such operations would 
require a long-term redeployment of Special Operations forces to the Middle 
East or South Asia. The AC- 130s would need bases because the aircraft's unre- 
fueled range was only a little over 2,000 miles. They needed search-and-rescue 
backup, which \vould have still less range. Thus an AC-130 deployment had to 
be embedded in a wider political and military concept involving Pakistan or 
other neighboring countries to address issues relating to basing and overflight. 
No one ever put such an initiative on the table. Zinni therefore cautioned about 
simply ordering up AC-130 deployments for a quick strike; Schoomaker 
planned for what he sa\v as a practical strike option; and the underlying issues 
were not fully engaged. The Joint Stafli" decision paper was never turned into 
an interagency policy paper. 



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136 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT 

The same ^vas true for the option of using ground units from the Special 
Operations Command. Within the command, some officers — such as 
Schoomaker — ^wanted the mission of "putting boots on the ground" to get at 
Bin Ladin and al Qaeda. At the time. Special Operations ^vas designated as a 
"supporting command," not a "supported command": that is, it supported a 
theater commander and did not prepare its own plans for dealing with al 
Qaeda. Schoomaker proposed to Shelton and Cohen that Special Operations 
become a supported command, but the proposal was not adopted. Had it been 
accepted, he says, he Avould have taken on the al Qaeda mission instead of defer- 
ring to Zinni. Lieutenant General William Boykin, the current deputy under 
secretary of defense for intelligence and a founding member of Delta Force, 
told us that "opportunities \vere missed because of an un\villingness to take risks 
and a lack of vision and understanding." ^'^^ 

President Clinton relied on the advice of General Shelton, ^vho informed 
him that ^vithout intelligence on Bin Ladin's location, a commando raid's 
chance of failure was high. Shelton told President Clinton he would go for- 
ward with "boots on the ground" if the President ordered him to do so; how- 
ever, he had to ensure that the President \vas completely aware of the large 
logistical problems inherent in a military operation, i'*'* 

The Special Operations plans ^vere apparently conceived as another quick 
strike option — an option to insert forces after the United States received 
actionable intelligence. President Clinton told the Commission that "if we had 
had really good intelligence about . . . where [Usama Bin Ladin] was, 1 would 
have done it." Zinni and Schoomaker did make preparations for possible very 
high risk in-and-out operations to capture or kill terrorists. Cohen told the 
Commission that the notion of putting military personnel on the ground with- 
out some reasonable certitude that Bin Ladin was in a particular location would 
have resulted in the mission's failure and the loss of life in a fruitless effort. ^^^ 
None of these officials ^vas aware of the ambitious plan developed months ear- 
lier by lower-level Defense officials. 

In our interviews, some military officers repeatedly invoked the analogy of 
Desert One and the failed 1980 hostage rescue mission in Iran. ^^^ They were 
dubious about a quick strike approach to using Special Operations Forces, 
which they thought complicated and risky. Such efforts would have required 
bases in the region, but all the options were unappealing. Pro-Taliban elements 
of Pakistan's military might warn Bin Ladin or his associates of pending oper- 
ations. With nearby basing options limited, an alternative was to fly from ships 
in the Arabian Sea or from land bases in the Persian Gulf, as was done after 
9/11. Such operations would then have to be supported from long distances, 
overflying the airspace of nations that might not have been supportive or a\vare 
of U.S. efforts.147 

However, if these hurdles were addressed, and if the military could then 
operate regularly in the region for a long period, perhaps clandestinely, it might 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 137 

attempt to gather intelligence and wait for an opportunity. One Special Oper- 
ations commander said his vie\¥ of actionable intelligence ^vas that if you "give 
me the action, I will give you the intelligence." i'*^ But this course would still 
be risky, in light both of the difficulties already mentioned and of the danger 
that U.S. operations might fail disastrously. We have found no evidence that such 
a long-term political-military approach for using Special Operations Forces in 
the region was proposed to or analyzed by the Small Group, even though such 
capability had been honed for at least a decade within the Defense Depart- 
ment. 

Therefore the debate looked to some like bold proposals from civilians 
meeting hypercaution from the military. Clarke saw it this ^vay. Of the military, 
he said to us, "They were very, very, very reluctant." ''*' But from another per- 
spective, poorly informed proposals for bold action were pitted against expe- 
rienced professional judgment. That was how Secretary of Defense Cohen 
viewed it. He said to us: "I would have to place my judgment call in terms of, 
do I believe that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, former commander of Spe- 
cial Forces command, is in a better position to make a judgment on the feasi- 
bility of this than, perhaps, Mr. Clarke?"i50 

Beyond a large-scale political-military commitment to build up a covert or 
clandestine capability using American personnel on the ground, either military 
or CIA, there was a still larger option that could have been considered — invad- 
ing Afghanistan itself. Every official ^ve questioned about the possibility of an 
invasion of Afghanistan said that it was almost unthinkable, absent a provoca- 
tion such as 9/11 , because of poor prospects for cooperation from Pakistan and 
other nations and because they believed the public would not support it. Cruise 
missiles ^vere and would remain the only military option on the table. 

The Desert Camp, February 1999 

Early in 1999, the CIA received reporting that Bin Ladin was spending much 
of his time at one of several camps in the Afghan desert south of Kandahar. At 
the beginning of February, Bin Ladin \vas reportedly located in the vicinity of 
the Sheikh Ali camp, a desert hunting camp being used by visitors from a Gulf 
state. Public sources have stated that these visitors were from the United Arab 
Emirates. 151 

Reporting from the CIA's assets provided a detailed description of the hunt- 
ing camp, including its size, location, resources, and security, as well as of Bin 
Ladin 's smaller, adjacent camp. ^ 5- Because this was not in an urban area, mis- 
siles launched against it would have less risk of causing collateral damage. On 
February 8, the military began to ready itself for a possible strike. 1^3 The next 
day, national technical intelligence confirmed the location and description of 
the larger camp and showed the nearby presence of an official aircraft of the 
United Arab Emirates. But the location of Bin Ladin 's quarters could not be 
pinned down so precisely. i54Xhe CIA did its best to answer a host of questions 



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138 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT 

about the larger camp and its residents and about Bin Ladin's daily schedule 
and routines to support military contingency planning. According to report- 
ing from the tribals, Bin Ladin regularly went from his adjacent camp to the 
larger camp where he visited the Emiratis; the tribals expected him to be at the 
hunting camp for such a visit at least until midniorning on February IIJ^^ 
Clarke ^vrote to Berger's deputy on February 10 that the military was then 
doing targeting work to hit the main camp with cruise missiles and should be 
in position to strike the following morning. 1^6 Speaker of the House Dennis 
Hastert appears to have been briefed on the situation. 1^7 

No strike ^vas launched. By February 12 Bin Ladin had apparently moved 
on, and the immediate strike plans became moot. 1^8 According to CIA and 
Defense ofEcials, policymakers were concerned about the danger that a strike 
would kiU an Emirati prince or other senior officials ^vho might be ^vith Bin 
Ladin or close by. Clarke told us the strike was called ofli" after consultations with 
Director Tenet because the intelligence ^vas dubious, and it seemed to Clarke 
as if the CIA was presenting an option to attack America's best counterterror- 
ism ally in the Gulf. The lead CIA official in the field, Gary Schroen, felt that 
the intelligence reporting in this case was very reliable; the Bin Ladin unit chief, 
"Mike," agreed. Schroen believes today that this was a lost opportunity to kill 
Bin Ladin before 9/11.159 

Even after Bin Ladin's departure from the area, CIA officers hoped he might 
return, seeing the camp as a magnet that could dra^v him for as long as it was 
still set up.The military maintained readiness for another strike opportunity. ii^" 
On March 7, 1999, Clarke called a UAE official to express his concerns about 
possible associations bet^veen Emirati officials and Bin Ladin. Clarke later wrote 
in a memorandum of this conversation that the call had been approved at an 
interagency meeting and cleared ^vith the CIA. ^^^ When the former Bin Ladin 
unit chief found out about Clarke's call, he questioned CIA officials, who 
denied having given such a clearance. i*^- Imagery confirmed that less than a 
week after Clarke's phone call the camp ^vas hurriedly dismantled, and the site 
was deserted. 1 1^3 CIA officers, including Deputy Director for Operations 
Pavitt, were irate. "Mike" thought the dismantling of the camp erased a possi- 
ble site for targeting Bin Ladin. ^'^'^ 

The United Arab Emirates was becoming both a valued counterterrorism 
ally of the United States and a persistent counterterrorism problem. From 1999 
through early 2001, the United States, and President Clinton personally, pressed 
the UAE, one of the Taliban's only travel and financial outlets to the outside 
world, to break off its ties and enforce sanctions, especially those relating to 
flights to and from Afghanistan. I'^^'phese efforts achieved little before 9/11. 

In July 1999, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hamdan bin Zayid 
threatened to break relations ^vith the Taliban over Bin Ladin.^i^* The Taliban 
did not take him seriously, ho\vever. Bin Zayid later told an American diplo- 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 139 

mat that the UAE valued its relations with theXaliban because the Afghan rad- 
icals offered a counterbalance to "Iranian dangers" in the region, but he also 
noted that the UAE did not want to upset the United States. ^'^^ 

Looking for New Partners 

Although not all CIA officers had lost faith in the tribals' capabilities — many 
judged them to be good reporters — few believed they would carry out an 
ambush of Bin Ladin.The chief of the Counterterrorist Center compared rely- 
ing on the tribals to playing the lottery. i'^^ He and his associates, supported by 
Clarke, pressed for developing a partnership with the Northern Alliance, even 
though doing so might bring the United States squarely behind one side in 
Afghanistan's long-running civil war. 

The Northern Alliance was dominated by Tajiks and drew its strength 
mainly from the northern and eastern parts of Afghanistan. In contrast, Taliban 
members came principally from Afghanistan's most numerous ethnic group, the 
Pashtuns, who are concentrated in the southern part of the country, extending 
into the North- West Frontier and Baluchistan provinces of Pakistan, i*' 

Because of the Taliban's behavior and its association with Pakistan, the 
Northern Alliance had been able at various times to obtain assistance from 
Russia, Iran, and India. The alliance's leader was Afghanistan's most renowned 
military commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud. Reflective and charismatic, he had 
been one of the true heroes of the \var against the Soviets. But his bands had 
been charged ^vith more than one massacre, and the Northern Alliance was 
widely thought to finance itself in part through trade in heroin. Nor had Mas- 
soud shown much aptitude for governing except as a ruthless warlord. Never- 
theless, Tenet told us Massoud seemed the most interesting possible new ally 
against Bin Ladin.^^o 

In February 1999, Tenet sought President Clinton's authorization to enlist 
Massoud and his forces as partners. In response to this request, the President 
signed the Memorandum of Notification whose language he personally 
altered. Tenet says he saw no significance in the President's changes. So far as 
he was concerned, it was the language of August 1998, expressing a preference 
for capture but accepting the possibility that Bin Ladin could not be brought 
out alive. "We were plowing the same ground," Tenet said.^^i 

CIA officers described Massoud's reaction when he heard that the United 
States wanted him to capture and not kill Bin Ladin. One characterized Mas- 
soud's body language as "a wince." Schroen recalled Massoud's response as "You 
guys are crazy — you haven't changed a bit." In Schroen's opinion, the capture 
proviso inhibited Massoud and his forces from going after Bin Ladin but did 
not completely stop them.i^^xhe idea, however, ^vas a long shot. Bin Ladin's 
usual base of activity was near Kandahar, far from the front lines ofTaliban oper- 
ations against the Northern Alliance. 



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140 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT 

Kandahar, May 1999 

It was in Kandahar that perhaps the last, and most likely the best, opportunity 
arose for targeting Bin Ladin with cruise missiles before 9/11. In May 1999, 
CIA assets in Afghanistan reported on Bin Ladin 's location in and around Kan- 
dahar over the course of five days and nights. The reporting was very detailed 
and came from several sources. If this intelligence was not "actionable," 
working-level officials said at the time and today, it was hard for them to imag- 
ine how any intelligence on Bin Ladin in Afghanistan would meet the stan- 
dard. Communications were good, and the cruise missiles were ready."This was 
in our strike zone," a senior military officer said. "It was a fat pitch, a home 
run." He expected the missiles to fly When the decision came back that they 
should stand do^vn, not shoot, the officer said, "we all just slumped." He told 
us he knew of no one at the Pentagon or the CIA who thought it was a bad 
gamble. Bin Ladin "should have been a dead man" that night, he said. '^^ 

Working-level CIA officials agreed. While there was a conflicting intelli- 
gence report about Bin Ladin s whereabouts, the experts discounted it. At the 
time, CIA working-level officials were told by their managers that the strikes 
were not ordered because the military doubted the intelligence and ^vorried 
about collateral damage. Replying to a frustrated colleague in the field, the Bin 
Ladin unit chief wrote: "having a chance to get [Bin Ladin] three times in 36 
hours and foregoing the chance each time has made me a bit angry. . . . [T]he 
DCI finds himself alone at the table, \vith the other princip[als] basically say- 
ing 'we'll go along with your decision Mr. Director,' and implicitly saying that 
the Agency will hang alone if the attack doesn't get Bin Ladin." i^"* But the mil- 
itary officer quoted earlier recalled that the Pentagon had been ^villing to act. 
He told us that Clarke informed him and others that Tenet assessed the chance 
of the intelligence being accurate as 50—50. This officer believed that Tenet's 
assessment was the key to the decision. ^^^ 

Tenet told us he does not remember any details about this episode, except 
that the intelligence came from a single uncorroborated source and that there 
was a risk of collateral damage. The story is further complicated by Tenet's 
absence from the critical principals meeting on this strike (he was apparently 
out of town); his deputy, John Gordon, was representing the CIA. Gordon 
recalled having presented the intelligence in a positive light, ^vith appropriate 
caveats, but stating that this intelligence was about as good as it could get.^^*^ 

Berger remembered only that in all such cases, the call had been Tenet's. 
Berger felt sure that Tenet was eager to get Bin Ladin. In his view. Tenet did 
his job responsibly. "George would call and say, 'We just don't have it,'" Berger 
said. 177 

The decision not to strike in May 1999 may now seem hard to understand. 
In fairness, we note two points: First, in December 1998, the principals' ^vari- 
ness about ordering a strike appears to have been vindicated: Bin Ladin left his 
room unexpectedly, and if a strike had been ordered he would not have been 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 141 

hit. Second, the administration, and the CIA in particular, was in the midst of 
intense scrutiny and criticism in May 1999 because faulty intelligence hadjust 
led the United States to mistakenly bomb the Chinese embassy in Belgrade 
during the NATO ^var against Serbia. This episode may have made officials 
more cautious than might otherwise have been the case.^^^ 

From May 1999 until September 2001, policymakers did not again actively 
consider a missile strike against Bin Ladin.^^'The principals did give some fur- 
ther consideration in 1999 to more general strikes, reviving Clarke's "Delenda" 
notion of hitting camps and infrastructure to disrupt al Qaeda's organization. 
In the first months of 1999, the Joint Staffhad developed broader target lists to 
undertake a "focused campaign" against the infrastructure of Bin Ladin's net- 
work and to hit Taliban government sites as well. General Shelton told us that 
the Taliban targets were "easier" to hit and more substantially^' 

Part of the context for considering broader strikes in the summer of 1999 
was renewed worry about Bin Ladin's ambitions to acquire weapons of mass 
destruction. In May and June, the U.S. government received a flurry of omi- 
nous reports, including more information about chemical weapons training or 
development at the Derunta camp and possible attempts to amass nuclear mate- 
rial at Herat. 181 

By late June, U.S. and other intelligence services had concluded that al 
Qaeda was in pre-attack mode, perhaps again involving Abu Hafs the Mauri- 
tanian. On June 25, at Clarke's request, Berger convened the Small Group in 
his office to discuss the alert. Bin Ladin's WMD programs, and his location. 
"Should we pre-empt by attacking UBL facilities?" Clarke urged Berger to ask 
his colleagues. 182 

In his hand^vritten notes on the meeting paper, Berger jotted down the pres- 
ence of 7 to 11 fannlies in theTarnak Farms facility, which could mean 60—65 
casualties. Berger noted the possible "slight impact" on Bin Ladin and added, 
"if he responds, we're blamed." 1*3 xhe NSC staff raised the option of waiting 
until after a terrorist attack, and then retaliating, including possible strikes on 
the Taliban. But Clarke observed that Bin Ladin \vould probably empty his 
camps after an attack. 1^4 

The military route seemed to have reached a dead end. In December 1999, 
Clarke urged Berger to ask the principals to ask themselves: "Why have there 
been no real options lately for direct US military action?"i85 There are no notes 
recording whether the question was discussed or, if it ^vas, how it was answered. 

Reports of possible attacks by Bin Ladin kept coming in throughout 1999. 
They included a threat to blow up the FBI building in Washington, D.C. In 
September, the CSG revie\ved a possible threat to a flight out of Los Angeles 
or NewYork. 186 These warnings came amid dozens of others that flooded in. 

With military and diplomatic options practically exhausted by the sum- 
mer of 1999, the U.S. government seemed to be back where it had been in 
the summer of 1998 — relying on the CIA to find some other option. That 



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142 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT 

picture also seemed discouraging. Several disruptions and renditions aimed 
against the broader al Qaeda network had succeeded. i*^ But covert action 
efforts in Afghanistan had not been fruitful. 

In niid-1999, new leaders arrived at the Counterterrorist Center and the 
Bin Ladin unit. The ne\v director of CTC, replacing "Jeff" was Cofer Black. 
The new head of the section that included the Bin Ladin unit was "Richard." 
Black, "Richard," and their colleagues began working on a ne\v operational 
strategy for attacking al Qaeda; their starting point was to get better intelli- 
gence, relying more on the CIA's own sources and less on the tribals.^^^ 

In July 1999, President Clinton authorized the CIA to work with several 
governments to capture Bin Ladin, and extended the scope of efforts to Bin 
Ladin 's principal lieutenants. The President reportedly also authorized a covert 
action under carefully limited circumstances which, if successful, would have 
resulted in Bin Ladin 's death. ^^^ Attorney General Reno again expressed con- 
cerns on policy grounds. She ^vas worried about the danger of retaliation. The 
CIA also developed the short-lived effort to work with a Pakistani team that 
we discussed earlier, and an initiative to work with Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks 
needed basic equipment and training. No action could be expected before 
March 2000, at the earliest.i^o 

In fall 1999, DCI Tenet unveiled the CIA's new Bin Ladin strategy. It was 
called, simply, "the Plan."The Plan proposed continuing disruption and rendi- 
tion operations worldwide. It announced a program for hiring and training bet- 
ter officers with counterterrorism skills, recruiting more assets, and trying to 
penetrate al Qaeda 's ranks. The Plan aimed to close gaps in technical intelli- 
gence collection (signal and imagery) as well. In addition, the CIA would 
increase contacts ^vith the Northern Alliance rebels fighting the Taliban. ^'^ 

With a new operational strategy, the CIA evaluated its capture options. None 
scored high marks. The CIA had no confidence in the Pakistani effort. In the 
event that Bin Ladin traveled to the Kandahar region in southern Afghanistan, 
the tribal network there \vas unlikely to attack a heavily guarded Bin Ladin; the 
Counterterrorist Center rated the chance of success at less than 10 percent. To 
the northwest, the Uzbeks might be ready for a cross-border sortie in six 
months; their chance of success was also rated at less than 10 percent. ^''^ 

In the northeast were Massoud's Northern Alliance forces — ^perhaps the 
CIA's best option. In late October, a group of officers from the Counterter- 
rorist Center fle^v into the Panjshir Valley to meet up with Massoud, a haz- 
ardous journey in rickety helicopters that would be repeated several times in 
the future. Massoud appeared committed to helping the United States collect 
intelligence on Bin La din's activities and whereabouts and agreed to try to cap- 
ture him if the opportunity arose. The Bin Ladin unit \vas satisfied that its 
reporting on Bin Ladin would no\v have a second source. But it also knew that 
Massoud would act against Bin Ladin only if his o^vn interests and those of the 



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RESPONSES TO AL QAEDA'S INITIAL ASSAULTS 143 

United States intersected. By early December, the CIA rated this possibility at 
less than 15 percent, i'-* 

Finally, the CIA considered the possibility of putting U.S. personnel on the 
ground in Afghanistan. The CIA had been discussing this option with Special 
Operations Command and found enthusiasm on the working level but reluc- 
tance at higher levels. CIA saw a 95 percent chance of Special Operations 
Command forces capturing Bin Ladin if deployed — but less than a 5 percent 
chance of such a deployment. Sending CIA officers into Afghanistan was to be 
considered "if the gain clearly out\veighs the risk" — but at this time no such 
gains presented themselves to ^varrant the risk.i'^ 

As mentioned earlier, such a protracted deployment of U.S. Special Opera- 
tions Forces into Afghanistan, perhaps as part of a team joined to a deployment 
of the CIA's o^vn officers, would have required a major policy initiative (prob- 
ably combined with efforts to secure the support of at least one or two neigh- 
boring countries) to make a long-term commitment, establish a durable 
presence on the ground, and be prepared to accept the associated risks and 
costs. Such a military plan was never developed for interagency consideration 
before 9/ 11. As 1999 came to a close, the CIA had a new strategic plan in place 
for capturing Bin Ladin, but no option was rated as having more than a 1 5 per- 
cent chance of achieving that objective.