DURING THE 1992 American presidential campaign, leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties made no mention of Afghanistan in their foreign policy platforms. As he sought reelection President George H. W. Bush spoke occasionally and vaguely about the continuing civil war between Hekmatyar and Massoud: “The heartbreak is on both sides, the tragedy is on both sides.” Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who focused his campaign on the weak American economy, was never quoted speaking about Afghanistan at all. Clinton devoted only 141 words to foreign affairs in his 4,200-word acceptance speech at the Democratic convention. Anthony Lake and the foreign policy team working for Clinton felt “very much apart from the center,” as Lake put it. The center was domestic policy. Lake had written a book about post–Cold War battlefields and had authored passages on Afghanistan, but as the campaign unfolded, it “was a small blip” on his radar screen, as he recalled it.1
Clinton sometimes spoke articulately about the global challenges America faced now that the Soviet Union was gone. He and Bush both identified terrorism and drug trafficking as emblematic threats of a new, unstable era. “The biggest nuclear threat of the 1990s will come from thugs and terrorists rather than the Soviets,” Clinton said early in the campaign. He wanted “strong special operations forces to deal with terrorist threats.” But these insights came in fleeting mentions.2
Clinton had never traveled to Central Asia or the Indian subcontinent. His knowledge of the region was based on impressions. He was intrigued by the recently deposed Pakistani prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who had been at Oxford University when Clinton attended as a Rhodes Scholar. Clinton had seen her in passing and was riveted by her beauty, poise, and reputation as a formidable debater, he told colleagues. His friends knew that he was also fascinated by India. He had no similar connection with Afghanistan. During his first months in office Clinton did not think of Afghanistan as a major base for international terrorism, he told colleagues years later. He was more seriously concerned about state sponsors of terrorism, such as Iraq and Iran, and about Shiite groups such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, which had killed dozens of Americans during the 1980s. Clinton knew nothing of bin Laden during the first few years of his presidency. As for Afghanistan’s war, the issue languished mainly from inertia, Lake said later; it had not been a major issue in the late Bush administration, either.3
After his election victory Clinton set up transition offices in Little Rock, Arkansas. Robert Gates, now the CIA director, installed a temporary CIA station—replete with security guards and secure communications—in a Comfort Inn near the Little Rock airport. Gates had decided to leave the CIA, but he agreed to stay on to help familiarize Clinton with intelligence issues and to give the new administration time to choose a new director.
Gates flew in to meet the president-elect at the Governor’s Mansion. He found Clinton exhausted, drinking copious amounts of coffee to stay awake, but engaged. Gates and Clinton were both natural analysts, sifters and synthesizers of complex data. Gates felt that Clinton did not have the anti-intelligence, anti-CIA biases of Jimmy Carter or Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee. Clinton consumed CIA analyses voraciously during the transition months. Gates dispatched his deputy director for intelligence to the station at the Comfort Inn. They began to provide the President’s Daily Brief to Clinton almost immediately and commissioned a series of special intelligence studies at Clinton’s request. The CIA quickly became the only department in the federal government whose senior officers were seeing the president-elect face-to-face every day. Gates became optimistic that President Clinton and the CIA would get along exceptionally well.4
He was wrong. The problems began with the selection of a new director. The choice was postponed until late in the transition process. Conservative Democrats on Capitol Hill urged Clinton to appoint someone with a right-leaning reputation to balance the liberals in his Cabinet. The Clinton team telephoned James Woolsey, a fifty-one-year-old Oklahoman, and told him to fly immediately to Little Rock. Woolsey was a lean, dome-headed man with soft gray eyes and a sharp, insistent voice. He had met Clinton only once, at a campaign fund-raiser held at the home of Washington socialite Pamela Harriman. But Clinton and Woolsey had common roots. Like the president-elect, Woolsey had risen from the rural southwest to win a Rhodes scholarship and graduate from Yale Law School. As a young army reserve lieutenant Woolsey had campaigned against the Vietnam War. Later, he had drifted to the political right, aligning himself with hard-line anticommunist Democrats such as Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson.5
Woolsey spent several hours with Clinton at the Governor’s Mansion. They talked at length about University of Arkansas and University of Oklahoma football, good places to fish in the Ozarks, and, at less length, their visions for the future of the CIA. At one point Clinton said that he really did not think the CIA director should be a policy adviser to the president. Woolsey agreed that the director “ought to just call the intelligence straight.”6
Their meeting ended with no mention of a job offer, but the next day Warren Christopher called Woolsey at his hotel and summoned him to a press conference.
“Does the president want me to be the director of the CIA?”Woolsey asked.
“Sure. Just come over to the press conference, and we’ll get it sorted out.” Woolsey asked Christopher to be certain about the job offer. Christopher stuck his head in Clinton’s office, came back on the phone, and said, “Yeah, that’s what he wants.”
In a living room of the mansion Woolsey found the Clintons, the Gores, Secretary of Defense nominee Les Aspin, Secretary of State nominee Warren Christopher, Tony Lake, Samuel L. “Sandy” Berger, and several political aides trying to anticipate questions they would hear from the press when Clinton introduced his new national security team. The president-elect’s media specialists worried that reporters would accuse Clinton of appointing a bunch of Carter administration retreads. Woolsey could understand why, since “we were, in fact, a bunch of Carter administration retreads.” Trying to be helpful, Woolsey mentioned that he had served in the Bush administration, leading a team that negotiated a reduction of conventional armed forces in Europe. Clinton’s press aide looked at Woolsey. “Admiral, I didn’t know you served in the Bush administration.” Dumbfounded, Woolsey pointed out that he had never been an admiral, only an army captain.7
The scene signaled the pattern of Clinton’s relationship with the CIA during his first term: distant, mutually ill-informed, and strangely nonchalant. At Langley the change arrived abruptly. Outgoing President Bush, who had served briefly as CIA director during the Ford administration, had been the agency’s most attentive White House patron in decades. He invited senior clandestine service officers to Christmas parties and to weekends at Camp David. He drew agency analysts and operators into key decision-making meetings. Within months of Clinton’s inauguration the CIA’s senior officers understood that they had shifted from being on the inside of a presidency to being almost completely on the outside.
They became puzzled and then angry. They interpreted Clinton’s indifference in varied ways. Thomas Twetten, who was running the Directorate of Operations, saw Clinton as “personally afraid of any connection with the CIA,” partly from long-standing suspicions of the agency and partly because he wanted to avoid immersing himself in foreign policy problems.8 The agency’s case officer population had grown more Republican during the 1980s, and many of these officers saw Clinton through a partisan lens. There remained many Democrats at the agency and it was difficult to generalize, but a substantial number of CIA officers began to see Clinton as softheaded and hostile to the intelligence services. Some of the agency’s more conservative case officers were Vietnam veterans who resented Clinton’s decision to evade the draft and who noted that both his new CIA director,Woolsey, and his national security adviser, Lake, had noisily protested the Vietnam War.
For their part, Clinton, Lake, and others in the new national security cabinet radiated a self-conscious nervousness around the Pentagon and the CIA. They seemed to avoid direct interaction. Hardly anyone from the CIA was ever invited to the White House, and Clinton did not visit Langley, even for major events such as a memorial for CIA officers killed in the line of duty. American defense and intelligence spending contracted after the Soviet Union’s demise, beginning in the Bush administration and continuing under Clinton. The CIA’s budgetary position was aggravated by its weak relations with the White House.
Woolsey himself got off to a troubled start. In an agency as large and secretive as the CIA, with so many career officers, a new director could have only limited influence. Yet the director had three crucial jobs that no one else could perform. He had to cultivate a personal relationship with the president of the United States, who alone could authorize CIA covert action. He had to massage the two intelligence committees in Congress, which wrote the agency’s budget and continually reviewed its operations. And he had to keep up morale among the Langley rank and file. Within months of his arrival Woolsey had pulled off a stunning triple play of failure, some of the agency’s senior officers felt. Woolsey forged strong connections with some CIA officers at Langley, especially those involved with technical and satellite intelligence collection, Woolsey’s main professional focus. But he alienated many others, especially those in the Directorate of Operations.While awaiting Senate confirmation, Woolsey consulted his acquaintance Duane Clarridge, founder of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. Clarridge concluded from their talk that Woolsey was “paranoid” about being “co-opted” by the insiders at the CIA, especially the career espionage officers in the Directorate of Operations. Some officers there saw Woolsey as aloof and untrusting. Worse, in closed hearings on Capitol Hill,Woolsey picked early fights with key senators who controlled the CIA’s funding. And worst of all, Woolsey alienated President Clinton, the CIA’s most important client.9
Woolsey did not have a private meeting with the president during Clinton’s first year in office. Typically, CIA directors have an opportunity to brief the president first thing each morning, presenting the latest intelligence about global crises. But Clinton was a voracious consumer of information with scant patience for briefers who sat before him to read out documents that he could more efficiently read on his own time. The president was a night owl, prowling the White House residence into the early morning hours, reading briefs and working the telephone, sometimes waking members of Congress or journalists with 2 A.M. phone calls. In the morning he was often rough and slow to reenergize. Many of the senior White House staff avoided him until he came fully awake. Clinton’s national security team, led by Tony Lake, found Woolsey a grating character: arrogant, tin-eared, and brittle. They didn’t want to sit and chat with him in the chilly dawn any more than Clinton did.Woolsey met weekly with Lake, his deputy Sandy Berger, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher, but the White House team concluded that Woolsey was too combative. They found him too quick to argue his opinions on an issue and unable to calmly analyze all the available intelligence. Woolsey was a bulldog for his own point of view, especially if the issue involved the merits of technical intelligence.10
Try as he might,Woolsey could not get a meeting with the president.When a pilot on an apparent suicide mission crashed a single-engine Cessna into the south lawn of the White House in September 1994, the joke quickly circulated that it was Woolsey trying to get an appointment with Clinton. The joke angered Woolsey when he first heard it, but in time he became so accustomed to his pariah status that he began to tell it on himself.
Woolsey saw the White House as totally uninterested in foreign affairs. There was no appetite for strategy, no disciplined process for thinking about the big issues, he concluded. The Cold War had been won, Boris Yeltsin in Russia was a friend of America, and the Clinton team had decided not to be too tough on China. The White House’s one creative aspiration in foreign policy, Woolsey thought, was the global pursuit of free trade, as evidenced by the personal effort Clinton had put into passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Otherwise, Woolsey interpreted his inability to see the president as much more than a broken personal connection. Clinton and Lake, Woolsey believed, both saw the CIA as just one more instrument for shaping domestic politics. In their minds, as Woolsey saw it, the agency’s job was to help manage crises such as Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia with an eye toward minimizing their political fallout in the United States. As the months passed,Woolsey grew not only alienated by the Clinton White House but disgusted by what he saw as its crass emphasis on electoral politics.11
Unencumbered by presidential direction or oversight, Woolsey was free to push the CIA in whatever direction he chose. As he settled into the director’s office he concentrated on a campaign to refurbish the nation’s spy satellite system. During the 1980s, as an arms control negotiator who depended on covert satellite photography to monitor adversaries, Woolsey came to believe that America’s spy satellite capability had decayed dangerously. He understood the issues well. At Langley he put together a classified slide show that demonstrated how urgent the problem had become and what investments were required to fix it. Woolsey presented the spy satellite briefing again and again at the White House, in Congress, and at the Pentagon, lobbying hard for new funding. He was persuasive.12 By what he chose to emphasize he also signaled that the CIA’s major challenges lay in technical programs, not in human spying. By leaving the CIA alone, the White House had limited means to evaluate whether Woolsey’s emphasis on technical intelligence, as opposed to human intelligence, was the right one or not.
AS WOOLSEY SETTLED INTO OFFICE, two young men of Pakistani origin living separately in the United States worked through the last logistical problems of their terrorist conspiracies. One of them lived with a roommate in a garden apartment in suburban Virginia. The other bunked with acquaintances in suburban New Jersey. The two had never met, but they had much in common. Both grew up in large, relatively privileged families with roots in the impoverished Pakistani province of Baluchistan, along the Afghan frontier. They were the sons of ambitious and hardworking fathers who could afford schooling and travel abroad. Yet both had also endured precarious, disrupted lives. They moved abruptly between traditional Baluch households, with their strict codes of sexual and family honor, and secular, freewheeling cultures in Europe and the United States. Both had been exposed during these years to passionate preaching by radical Islamic clerics who denounced the United States as an oppressor of Muslims. Both drifted away from their families and became enraged by the violence they watched between Israelis and Palestinians on satellite television. Each had decided during 1992—without awareness of the other—to organize a violent attack on a prominent target in the United States. As they planned their strikes, both spent long hours thinking about the political and theological bases for their actions. They reached slightly different conclusions about the legitimacy of their violence against civilians, but their creeds were remarkably similar.
Mir Amal Kasi was then twenty-eight years old. He had arrived in the United States in 1991. His father owned hotels and expansive orchards in and around Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, only a few hours’ drive from Afghanistan. Kasi was the only child of his father’s second wife, who died when Kasi was nineteen years old. He earned a master’s degree in English literature at Baluchistan University in 1989. Like many in frontier Pakistan he carried a sidearm. After his father’s death that year from a heart attack, he began to travel abroad, first to Germany, then to the United States, where he took a job at a suburban courier company. Alone in Virginia, orphaned, and half a world from home, he spent hours watching news from the Middle East on CNN: the Gulf War, the subsequent upheaval in Iraq, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. He told his roommate that he was going to do “something big,” maybe at the White House, maybe at the Israeli embassy in Washington. Eventually Kasi concluded that a better target would be the CIA, whose secluded entrance he passed regularly along the dual carriageway of Virginia’s Route 123. Kasi believed that the agency was directly responsible for the deaths of many Muslims. From a Virginia gun shop he acquired an AK-47 assault rifle. Kasi expected to confront police in a shootout during his attack, but just in case he escaped, he bought an airline ticket home to Pakistan. On the day before his scheduled flight, he awoke in his garden apartment, pulled on a tan overcoat, loaded his weapon and five hundred rounds of ammunition into his brown station wagon, and drove to the entrance of the CIA.13
It was clear and cold that early morning of January 25, 1993. Cars lined up at the headquarters gate, their warm exhaust smoke billowing in steamy clouds. Kasi pulled his car into a left-hand-turn lane, stopped, swung his door open, and stepped into the road. He saw a man driving a Volkswagen Golf and fired at him through the car’s rear window, then walked around and shot him three more times. Frank Darling, twenty-eight, an officer in the clandestine service, died on the floor of his car, his wife seated beside him. Kasi walked down the line and fired at four other men, killing one, Lansing Bennett, sixty-six, a doctor who analyzed the health of world leaders for the Directorate of Intelligence. Kasi looked around. He could see no more men in the cars nearby. He had decided before his attack that he would not shoot at women. He jumped back into his station wagon, drove a few miles to a McLean park, and hid there for ninety minutes. When no one came looking for him, he returned to his apartment and stuffed his AK-47 under the living room couch. He drove to a Days Inn hotel and checked in.14 The next day he flew to Pakistan and disappeared.
The man who would become known as Ramzi Yousef was younger, then only twenty-four years old. His family, too, had roots in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. Like hundreds of thousands of other Pakistanis seeking opportunity in the oil boom era, Yousef’s father, an engineer, had migrated to the Persian Gulf. The Bedouin Arabs in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, enriched by the oil bonanza, were thin in number and poorly trained in the technical skills required to construct a modern economy. They recruited fellow Muslims—drivers, cooks, welders, bricklayers, engineers, doctors, pilots—from impoverished neighboring countries such as Pakistan. For Baluchis such as Yousef’s father the Gulf’s pay scales delivered a middle-class urban life. He could send his children to private school and even European universities.
The Baluchis had been travelers and migrants for centuries, staunchly independent. They were historical cousins of the Pashtuns, with whom they mixed freely, blurring ethnic and tribal lines. Their population spilled indifferently across the borders drawn by imperial mapmakers. In the early 1990s large numbers of Baluchis lived contiguously in three countries: southwest Pakistan, southeast Iran, and southeast Afghanistan. In Pakistan their tribal leaders dominated politics and provincial government in Baluchistan, a vast but sparsely populated desert and mountain territory that ran along the Afghan and Iranian borders and south to the Arabian Sea. As with the Pashtuns, the Baluchis adhered to very conservative tribal honor codes that defined women as property and revenge as justice.
Ramzi Yousef was born in Kuwait on April 27, 1968, as Abdul Basit Mahmoud Abdul Karim. He grew up in the tiny oil-addled emirate in the great years of its petrodollar expansion. In the first twenty years of his life Yousef saw Kuwait City transformed from a trash-blown minor port into a neon-blinking sprawl of marble shopping malls and luxury car dealerships. Like Kasi, Yousef trafficked among worlds, belonging to none. He lived among the ramshackle colonies of Pakistani, Palestinian, Egyptian, and Bangladeshi guest workers, cauldrons of resentment about issues near and far. He spoke Arabic, Baluch, Urdu, and English. He was a teenager in Kuwait when Abdullah Azzam preached for alms in the emirate’s wealthy mosques, delivering fiery sermons about the Afghan jihad. Azzam’s message was everywhere—on underground cassette tapes, in newspapers, in pamphlets—and it echoed sermons delivered by members of Yousef’s own family. His great-uncle was a leader at a suburban mosque attended by Pakistani guest workers. After attending primary and secondary school in Kuwait, Yousef was sent to a technical institute in Swansea, Wales, between 1986 and 1989, to obtain a degree in electrical engineering and computer-aided electronics. It was the sort of practical English education that many upwardly mobile Pakistani families living in the Gulf wanted for their sons, so that the rising generation could expand the family’s income in the big Arab oil cities. What Yousef made of coeducational campus life in Wales isn’t known. His uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was active in the Muslim Brotherhood and worked with the Saudi-backed Afghan leader Sayyaf in Pakistan.When he returned to the Gulf from Britain, Yousef found a job as a communications engineer in the National Computer Center of Kuwait’s Ministry of Planning, a government sinecure that could ensure a comfortable life.15
A year later his family’s upward trajectory came to an abrupt halt. Saddam Hussein’s army invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, sacked the city, and sent thousands of foreign guest workers into hurried exile. Yousef’s family fled to Quetta. They were refugees, albeit relatively wealthy ones. At some point after their return Yousef’s parents slipped across the border and set up residence in Iran’s province of Baluchistan.16
Yousef was a tinkerer. As a young unattached man with an advanced degree from Britain, he was ripe for a marriage arranged by his extended family. But Yousef was not ready to settle down. He gravitated toward another respectable vocation: He volunteered for jihad. He was an admirer of the anticommunist mujahedin. Two of his uncles had been martyred in battle against the Soviets. Yousef had his own pedigree: He was an Arabic speaker from the Persian Gulf with access to the transnational networks of Arab Islamist volunteers.
One of his uncles offered a connection to the Peshawar Islamist world: He was regional manager for a Kuwait-based charity called the Committee for Islamic Appeal. Yousef crossed into Afghanistan in late 1990 for training at an entry-level jihadist camp called Khalden, run by and for Arab mujahedin, not Afghans. He trained for about six months. He learned weapons tactics, basic explosives, and military maneuvers. There were about four or five dozen other Arab Islamists at the camp who were training to return to their home countries in the Middle East. Yousef later moved to a graduate-level camp for bomb makers, where he could apply his skills in electronics to the art of remote-controlled explosives. He learned the bombing techniques originally developed in the border-straddling guerrilla sabotage camps of Pakistani intelligence, which had been supplied with timing devices and plastic explosives by the CIA. He carried out a few attacks in Afghanistan, not because he sought to participate in the Afghan civil war, he said later, but mainly to experiment.
Early in 1991 he shifted back to Pakistan and married. During eighteen months of ensuing domesticity, he was in regular touch with radical Islamists along the Afghan border. He may have been in Peshawar during the spring of 1992 when bin Laden returned briefly from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan to participate with Prince Turki in an effort to mediate the Afghan civil war. But Yousef and bin Laden could not have been very close: Yousef had little money, and in the two years he lived along the Afghan border, he does not appear to have acquired a wealthy patron.17
In September 1992, Yousef flew to New York on a false Iraqi passport he had purchased in Peshawar for $100. His partner, Ahmed Ajaj, packed bomb-making manuals and materials into checked luggage. Yousef said later that his plan initially was to see what the United States was like, acquire an American passport, select targets to bomb, and then return to Pakistan to raise funds for his operation. But once in New York he decided to go forward with an attack immediately, despite his limited means. He may have had the World Trade Center in mind all along, but he seems to have chosen it firmly as a target only after arriving in New York. He decided that he should construct his bomb so that its force would wreck the central beam of one of the center’s 110-story twin towers. Yousef hoped that as the first tower fell it would topple the second building. He calculated this would cause about 250,000 deaths, which he believed was roughly the number of casualties caused by America’s atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
Although his father was a Baluchi, he had Palestinian heritage on his mother’s side. He considered attacking Israeli targets but found them extremely difficult because of high security. If it was impossible to attack the enemy directly, then the next best thing was to “attack a friend of your enemy,” as he put it later.18
Yousef connected with Islamists in the New York area, a loose network of radicals who followed Sheikh Omar Abdal Rahman, a blind Egyptian preacher who had known Abdullah Azzam and other Muslim Brotherhood–inspired Islamists in Peshawar during the 1980s. Members of Rahman’s group were in telephone contact with al Qaeda–related safehouses in Peshawar, but none of them could afford the materials needed for a bomb powerful enough to fell the two towers of the World Trade Center, to Yousef’s regret.
On February 26, 1993, just a month after Kasi’s highly publicized attack at the CIA, Yousef led his confederates in a two-vehicle convoy from Brooklyn to the B-2 level of an underground garage at the World Trade Center. Yousef set an electronic timer on the bomb and jumped into a rented red Chevrolet Corsica. The materials needed to construct Yousef’s bomb cost about $400. When it detonated at 12:18 P.M., it killed six people lunching in a cafeteria above it, injured one thousand more who worked several floors higher, and caused just over $500 million in estimated damage. That night Yousef boarded a Pakistan International Airlines flight to Karachi and disappeared.
He mailed letters claiming responsibility to New York newspapers. The letters claimed the attack for the “Liberation Army, Fifth Battalion” and issued three political demands: an end to all U.S. aid to Israel, an end to diplomatic relations with Israel, and a pledge to end interference “with any of the Middle East countries [sic] interior affairs.” If these demands were not met, Yousef and his colleagues wrote, the group would “continue to execute our missions against military and civilians [sic] targets in and out of the United States. This will include some potential Nuclear targets.” The Liberation Army had 150 “suicidal soldiers ready to go ahead,” the letters claimed. “The terrorism that Israel practices (which is supported by America) must be faced with a similar one.” The American people should know “that their civilians who got killed are not better than those who are getting killed by the American weapons and support.”19
For a terrorist sermon composed by a graduate of Arab jihad training camps in Afghanistan, his letter struck remarkably secular political themes. It made no references to Islam at all. Its specific demands might have been issued by Palestinian Marxists. Its talk of retaliation and eye-for-an-eye revenge echoed Baluch and Pashtun tribal codes. It seemed to define America as an enemy solely because of its support for Israel. Yousef had never been a serious student of theology. His letter and his later statements exuded a technologist’s arrogance, a murderous cool. His confederates in the World Trade Center attack had been involved in the conspiracy to murder Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the militant Jewish Defense League. These New York residents in Yousef’s cabal focused largely on anti-Israeli causes; their outlook may have shaped some of the letter’s themes. At the same time Yousef and his confederates allied themselves with Muslim Brotherhood–inspired Islamists such as Sheikh Rahman and bin Laden. Above all the bomb maker in him searched for the spectacular. His lazy list of political demands may have reflected an essential pyromania. He wanted a big bang; he wanted to watch one tall building knock down another.
An earlier, discarded draft of Yousef’s demand letter, found by American investigators on a computer belonging to one of his co-conspirators, added a warning which captured Yousef’s frustration that he could not afford a potent enough bomb. “Unfortunately, our calculations were not very accurate this time” read the deleted sentence. “However, we promise you that next time, it will be very precise and WTC will continue to be one of our targets unless our demands have been met.”20
THE CIA'S COUNTERTERRORIST CENTER immediately established a seven-day, twenty-four-hour task force to collect intelligence about the World Trade Center bombing. It set up a similar task force to hunt for Mir Amal Kasi. For weeks the sixth-floor cubicles at Langley hummed with activity and urgency.Woolsey issued a worldwide call for all-source intelligence collection about the bombing. The National Security Agency ramped up its telephone intercept network and combed its databases for clues. The NSA’s listeners searched the airwaves for suggestive fragments: a foreign intelligence agent talking about the case in celebratory tones, or a foreign head of government hinting at credit in a private meeting. CIA stations worldwide reached out to their paid agents for reports and rumors about who had organized the New York attack.Weeks passed, but nothing of substance came in. The NSA could not find credible suggestions of a hidden hand in the attack.21
There was a strong presumption within the CIA that a foreign government lay behind the bombing and perhaps the Langley assault as well. Yousef and Kasi had such murky personal histories, National Security Adviser Tony Lake recalled, that it took a long time for their biographies to come into focus. State-sponsored terrorism had been the pattern throughout the 1980s:Whatever their declared cause, successful terrorists usually sought money, passports, asylum, or technical support from radical governments such as Iran or Libya.
This time Iraq led the list of suspects. During the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party government had secretly dispatched professional two-man terrorist teams to strike American targets. It was a clumsy operation. The Iraqi agents were issued passports with sequential numbers. The CIA soon intercepted most of the agents before they could act and worked with local governments to have the Iraqis arrested or deported. But the operation had signaled Saddam’s active interest in striking American targets through terrorist attacks. Later in 1993, Saddam’s intelligence service tried to assassinate former president Bush during a visit to Kuwait, and evidence emerged that one of Yousef’s confederates had flown to Baghdad after the World Trade Center bombing.
Iran and Libya also seemed possible suspects in the World Trade Center case. The Counterterrorist Center staffed a permanent branch targeting Hezbollah. It had files of evidence about Tehran’s sponsorship of terrorist strikes by Hezbollah’s Shiite cadres, who saw themselves at war with Israel. The CIA’s analysts viewed Iran as the world’s most active sponsor of terrorism. “It was the priority,” Lake recalled. Sudan, where an Islamist government had recently taken power in a coup, also seemed a possibility. Working with early, fragmentary evidence from informers and from the World Trade Center crime scene that seemed to connect the plot to Sudan’s government, the Federal Bureau of Investigation initially called its investigation “Sudafed,” meaning “Sudan Federal.”22
This scattered list of suspects reflected the fractured character of terrorism worldwide. There had been fifteen officially designated terrorist incidents on United States soil between 1990 and 1992. Many involved attacks by Puerto Rican nationalists; one involved an Iranian Marxist group; others were carried out by American extremists. Globally the most active terrorist groups included Maoists in Peru and Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka. The pattern seemed to be that there was no pattern.
The CIA’s Counterterrorist Center had evolved into a different organization from the one Duane Clarridge and Bill Casey had envisioned amid the hostage crises of 1986. In the years following the Iran-Contra scandal, with CIA operators facing trial for perjury and other crimes, it was much harder to win support in Washington for clandestine or preemptive strikes against terrorists. The Counterterrorist Center remained close to the CIA’s clandestine service, and it continued to run risky espionage operations to collect intelligence, but there was little appetite at the CIA or the White House for covert paramilitary operations, either in the Bush administration or the early Clinton administration. More and more the Counterterrorist Center moved from operations to analysis. It was also under heavy budgetary pressure. As they investigated the World Trade Center bombing and the Kasi murders, the center’s managers attended a succession of budget reduction meetings. There were no layoffs, but the center’s resources shrank steadily. When an analyst or operator quit or retired, he or she often could not be replaced because of budget constraints.23 No more than one hundred people worked at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center during this period. They were divided into about a dozen branches. They still focused heavily on secular terrorist groups such as Abu Nidal. One branch tracked Islamic extremism in the mainstream Sunni Muslim world, but until 1993 it concentrated primarily on the violent Islamic radicals who challenged Algeria’s socialist government.24
Washington’s broader counterterrorist bureaucracy in 1993 was dispersed, plagued by interagency rivalries, and fraying under budgetary pressure. The State Department’s counterterrorism office, on paper a focal point for policy, was in a state of near chaos, wracked by infighting, leadership turnover, and budget cuts. The National Security Council had yet to issue any formal directive about which government agency should take the lead in a case like the World Trade Center bombing or how different agencies should work together. Early draft proposals about those issues sat at the White House unresolved for nearly two years.25 The Federal Bureau of Investigation, meanwhile, led by Louis Freeh, pushed to expand its role in criminal cases with international connections, including terrorism cases. Freeh wanted to place FBI agents in U.S. embassies worldwide. Some CIA officers resisted the FBI’s global expansion, seeing it as an incursion into the agency’s turf. Even those at Langley who believed the CIA could profit by partnering with the FBI were uncertain how the new system was supposed to work in detail.
One basic unresolved question was whether to tackle terrorism as a national security problem—as a kind of war—or as a law enforcement problem, with police and prosecutors in the lead. In some cases terrorists looked like enemy soldiers. At other times they were easy to dismiss as common criminals. Their sometimes spectacular media-conscious attacks might generate widespread fear and draw intense scrutiny, but the actual impact of terrorism on American society was minimal. Americans were still much more likely to die from bee stings than from terrorist strikes during the early 1990s. In that respect it made more sense to treat terrorism as a law enforcement problem. Prosecuting and jailing a terrorist as an ordinary murderer effectively dismissed his claims to political legitimacy. This seemed to many American national security thinkers a more rational reply to terrorists than waging a paramilitary war or treating some half-educated Marxist thug with the dignity accorded to enemy soldiers.
By the time the Clinton administration settled into office, this legalistic approach to terrorism was well established within the American bureaucracy. In 1995 when Clinton at last made a decision about his antiterrorism policy, he formally designated the FBI as the lead agency in terrorism cases where Americans were victims. Clinton’s relationship with Louis Freeh and the FBI was perhaps even worse than his relationship with Woolsey and the CIA. Clinton seemed to regard Freeh as a self-righteous Boy Scout drone, and the White House political team resented the FBI’s role in what they saw as trivial, politically motivated investigations. Still, Clinton was a Yale Law School graduate, a former law professor, and a deep believer in the principles of the American legal system. As a matter of policy Clinton sought to cloak American power with the legitimacy of international law wherever possible. Emphasizing police work and courtroom prosecutions against terrorists seemed both a practical and principled approach.
The CIA did not typically work inside the American legal system. The agency was chartered by an American law—the National Security Act of 1947—and its employees were subject to prosecution in the United States if they defied orders, carried out unauthorized operations, or lied under oath. But the CIA’s espionage and paramilitary operations overseas were conducted in secret and were not subject to review by American courts. CIA operators routinely burglarized foreign embassies to obtain intelligence. They paid warlords and murderers for inside information about American adversaries. The intelligence they collected often could not withstand scrutiny in an American courtroom. Nor did Congress want the CIA to participate in prosecuting criminals inside the United States. The CIA was created to prevent another Pearl Harbor. But in the aftermath of a catastrophic war against Nazism, Congress also sought to protect the American people from the rise of anything like Hitler’s Gestapo, a secret force that combined spying and police methods. The CIA was therefore prohibited from spying on Americans or using intelligence it collected abroad to support directly criminal prosecutions in the American court system.26
Prosecutors and police, including the FBI, were also discouraged from sharing with the CIA leads or evidence they collected in domestic criminal cases. In many cases if an FBI agent or federal prosecutor passed along to the CIA files or witness statements obtained during a terrorism investigation before a grand jury—no matter how important that evidence might be to American national security—he or she could go to jail.
The FBI’s hermetic culture had become infamous by the early 1990s: FBI agents would not tell local police what they were doing, were deeply reluctant to work on interagency teams, and would withhold crucial evidence even from other FBI agents. There were FBI agents stationed inside the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center to aid information exchange, and in some respects the FBI’s relations with the CIA were better than its relations with many other government agencies. Even so, after the World Trade Center bombing, as the FBI began to communicate with the CIA about Islamist terrorism cases, its agents carefully followed the laws banning disclosure of grand jury evidence.27
All of this inhibited the CIA’s reaction to the World Trade Center attack. Since 1989 the FBI had been running paid informants inside circles of Islamic radicals in New York and New Jersey. In 1990, FBI agents carted away forty-seven boxes of documents and training manuals from the home of El Sayyid Nosair, Rabbi Meir Kahane’s assassin. The FBI did not translate the material from Arabic into English for two years, and even then it did not share with the CIA crucial evidence about the terrorists’ international network. The documents provided rich details about Afghan training camps and the growth of al Qaeda along the Afghan border and throughout the Middle East. Osama bin Laden’s name surfaced in this initial FBI investigation because a relative of Nosair traveled to Saudi Arabia and received money from bin Laden to pay for Nosair’s defense lawyers. The CIA was not told.28 The CIA’s analysts only learned about the full richness of the FBI’s files several years after the World Trade Center bombing. National Security Council files from 1993 record at least one meeting between Woolsey and Lake at which bin Laden was discussed as a terrorist financier worthy of attention, but he was not a focus of the World Trade Center investigation. A CIA paper circulated on April 2, 1993, described bin Laden as an “independent actor [who] sometimes works with other individuals or governments” to promote “militant Islamic causes.” The agency also continued to report on the Afghan training camps where bin Laden sometimes appeared. An issue of the classified National Intelligence Daily reported on April 20 that hundreds of Islamist militants had passed through the camps during the previous twelve months. In September, Langley cabled CIA stations worldwide to assess the vulnerabilities of bin Laden’s network and in November the agency identified a series of bin Laden–related targets for further intelligence collection. Still, there was no clear picture during 1993 of what role bin Laden played, if any, in violent operations.29
Like the CIA’s analysts, FBI agents were slow to see the jihadists emerging as an independent transnational force. They were slow to allocate resources to study and combat Sunni Islamic radicalism in general. They saw Shiite Iran as the primary fountainhead of religiously motivated terrorism. “Did we screw up, in retrospect?” asked Clinton’s national security adviser, Tony Lake, years later, speaking of this broad array of problems. “Of course.” Poorly understood and lightly challenged, the Afghanistan-spawned Islamist cells began to spread.30