January 1998 to September 10, 2001
THE FIRST FORMAL CIA PLAN to capture or kill Osama bin Laden began as a blueprint to arrest Mir Amal Kasi, the Baluchi migrant who had shot up the entrance to the agency’s headquarters in 1993.
Kasi remained a fugitive in the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran borderlands. The CIA’s Counterterrorist Center at Langley asked the Islamabad station for help recruiting agents who might be able to track him down. The station identified and contacted a family-based group of Afghan tribal fighters whose leadership had formal military training and who had worked for the CIA during the anti-Soviet jihad. Case officers met with the group and won their agreement to come back on the agency payroll to hunt for Kasi. At Langley, officers in the Counterterrorist Center’s Kasi cell secured budget approval for the recruitment. The headquarters unit shipped hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, AK-47 assault rifles, land mines, motorcycles, trucks, secure communications equipment, and electronic listening devices to put its new Afghan agents into business. Langley also supplied mobile beacons that could be used to pinpoint the exact location of buildings by connecting to satellites hovering miles overhead. The technology would allow an American counterterrorism team to swarm an obscure location quickly once it was lit up by the Afghan agents. The tribal team had been code-named GE/SENIOR during the anti-Soviet years. Now they were dubbed by a new cryptonym, FD/ TRODPINT. The suddenly enriched and provisioned Afghans set up residences around Kandahar, traveled back and forth to Pakistan, and began to track leads that might eventually take them to Kasi. In effect they had signed up as lethal, exceptionally well paid CIA bounty hunters.1
There were clear authorities for the recruitment under U.S. law. Kasi had been indicted for murder in the United States. Under federal law such fugitives could be arrested abroad and returned to the United States for trial. By collecting intelligence overseas about a suspect’s whereabouts, the CIA could aid such an arrest under standing legal authorities approved by the president. Under these federal rules, the role played by CIA case officers and paid Afghan agents in tracking Kasi down need never be known. If the tracking team found Kasi in Pakistan, they were to contact the CIA station in Islamabad. Case officers would then attempt to work with Pakistani intelligence and police to make an arrest without revealing the existence of their paid Afghan agents.
A trickier scenario would arise if the tribal agents found Kasi hiding in southern Afghanistan, however. The Taliban controlled most of the traditional Baluch territory where Kasi was presumed to be moving. Given the record of stilted, sometimes bizarre contacts between American officials and the Taliban’s Kandahar leadership, it was impossible to conceive of a cooperative approach with them. Legally, the United States did not even recognize the Taliban. Yet the Rabbani-Massoud government, which did have tentative legal standing, had no practical authority in Taliban country. If the CIA was going to take Kasi into custody in that area, it was going to have to find a way to do so on its own.
Agency case officers in Islamabad met with their tribal team to develop a formal, specific plan to capture Kasi in southern Afghanistan and fly him to the United States for trial. The plan would require the Afghan agents to hold Kasi securely in place long enough for an American arrest team to fly in secretly, bundle the fugitive aboard an airplane or helicopter, and lift off safely for the United States.
Because of their military training, the tribal agents talked convincingly about their ability to mount such a capture operation. The Afghan team worked well with maps. They had a sense of time and military sequence. They could identify assembly points, rally points, escape routes. One question was how to insert an American squad into Afghanistan if the tracking team located and detained Kasi on its own. The CIA’s case officers provided their Afghan recruits with specifications for a suitable landing strip that could be prepared in advance. The chosen desert ground had to be hard and stable enough to support an aircraft landing and takeoff. It had to be secure from Taliban forces, preferably in a lightly populated and isolated valley. It had to be adequate for pilot navigation. The Afghan agents struck out on their motorcycles around Kandahar. They carried satellite measuring devices to pinpoint coordinates for possible airstrip sites. When they found a candidate location, they transmitted the data to Islamabad, and the station then ordered satellite photography to examine the site’s parameters from above. Eventually the CIA found a remote strip that looked suitable, at least from the vantage of satellites.
The CIA and the Pentagon did not typically send American officers into harm’s way based solely on satellite pictures and the investigations of paid Afghan recruits.What if the dirt at the landing site proved too soft despite the agents’ assurances, and the American team’s plane got stuck in the sand?
At Langley the Counterterrorist Center proposed and won approval for what CIA officers call a “black op,” a secret operation classified at the highest possible level. The mission would both confirm the desert landing site’s suitability and rehearse for the day when Kasi was actually in agent custody. A special operations team flew secretly into Afghanistan. Without Pakistan’s knowledge, they mounted a nighttime low-level flight, tested the chosen landing zone marked by the tribal agents, found it satisfactory, double-checked its satellite coordinates, and withdrew. The CIA’s Afghan capture plan for Mir Amal Kasi was now as ready as it could be for launch.
But month after month passed during 1996 and early 1997, and Kasi could not be found. The CIA’s deteriorating relationship with Pakistani intelligence was one factor; the agency received little access to Pakistani police resources in the borderlands. The sprawling, centuries-rooted web of clan and tribal protection available to any Baluch in trouble in the territory of his birth was perhaps a greater problem. The CIA’s case officers sought to combat Kasi’s call on clan loyalty with appeals to greed. They offered multimillion-dollar rewards both openly and privately to anyone willing to reveal Kasi’s whereabouts. But for months there were no takers. Under traditional Baluch revenge codes, anyone exposed as Kasi’s betrayer risked not only his own life but his family’s as well. For a while the CIA picked up rumors that Kasi was staying in a massive fortress compound near the Afghan border, but the agency could not persuade Pakistani police to move against the place. The operation would have been unusually difficult because the compound was heavily defended. CIA officers tried a technical solution: They rigged a special television with a roving camera that looked out from behind the TV screen. They arranged to deliver the set inside the compound, hoping to catch a picture of Kasi on film. The operation turned up nothing, however. It was never clear whether Kasi had ever been inside the place.
Finally their luck turned. In late May 1997 a Baluch man walked into the U.S. consulate in Karachi and told a clerk he had information about Kasi. He was taken to a young female CIA officer who was chief of base in Karachi (an agency “base” is a subunit of a countrywide station). She interviewed the informant and concluded he was credible. The CIA officer and the FBI’s attaché in Pakistan, Scott Jessie, arranged more interviews. The source claimed that about two years earlier Kasi had been placed under the protection of a prominent Baluch tribal leader; the pair had become confidants and business partners, and traveled together frequently. Now, the source explained, the tribal leader had decided to sell out Kasi to the U.S. government in exchange for the reward money. The source handed over an application for a Pakistani driver’s license filled out by Kasi under an alias; it contained a photo and a thumbprint that confirmed they had their man. The tribal leader who had befriended Kasi flew to Karachi and worked out an arrest plan with the CIA and the FBI. The tribal chief would be visiting a central Pakistani town called Dera Ghazi Khan on business in mid-June. He promised to lure Kasi to the Shalimar Hotel where the FBI could arrest him.
Naseem Rana, the director of Pakistani intelligence, had repeatedly told CIA station chief Gary Schroen that if he could locate Kasi, Pakistani police would help arrest him. Now Schroen and Jessie met with ISI officers and laid out their specific plan. They asked the Pakistanis to fly teams of CIA officers and FBI agents on a military plane to Multan, the largest Pakistani city near Dera Ghazi Khan. ISI would then provide ground transportation to the Shalimar and secure the perimeter while the FBI went in. Then they would all fly back to Islamabad where ISI would allow Kasi to be flown immediately to the United States. Rana agreed to the plan in its entirety.
The CIA’s Karachi base chief and the tribal leader flew into Multan for the big day. Just before dawn on June 15, 1997, Kasi’s betrayer knocked on the hotel room door and shouted that it was time to get up for dawn prayers. FBI agents stood at his shoulder. Schroen and two CIA colleagues waited outside, holding a secure satellite radio linked to Langley headquarters. FBI Special Agent Brad Garrett kicked through the door, straddled Kasi on the floor, pressed the suspect’s left thumb onto an ink pad, studied the result with a magnifying glass, and declared exultantly, “It’s a match!” They raced to the Multan airport in six sport utility vehicles, with gunmen from Pakistani intelligence hanging from the windows. On the tarmac next to a CIA helicopter an agency officer connected Schroen’s secure radio to Langley where Tenet and other senior officials had gathered to monitor the operation. “This is Red Light Zulu,” Schroen announced, declaring his call sign. “The package was successfully picked up and is safely bundled and being loaded onto an aircraft for movement to Islamabad. All personnel on the team are safe. This was a totally successful mission.”2
A case that ranked first at CIA headquarters had finally been closed. George Tenet summoned five hundred employees to the Langley auditorium and arranged a closed-circuit television broadcast throughout headquarters. He played a recording of Schroen’s “Red Light Zulu” message for the entire CIA staff. “No terrorist should sleep soundly as long as this agency exists,” Tenet announced triumphantly. He urged his colleagues to give one another high-fives and hugs, and to “have a cocktail before noon.”3
In the heady weeks that followed a question arose inside the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center about what would now become of their elaborately equipped and financed TRODPINT tracking team assets. It seemed a shame to just cut them loose. A few flimsy U.S. government partitions away from the Kasi tracking team stood the small cluster of analysts and operators who made up the bin Laden issue unit. (After a relatively brief life in a Virginia office park, the station had been reincorporated into the headquarters of the Counterterrorist Center.) By the summer of 1997 the unit was reporting regularly to policy makers in classified channels about threats issued by bin Laden against American targets, especially American military forces stationed in Saudi Arabia. The CIA continued to describe bin Laden as an active, dangerous financier of Islamist extremism in Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, and Kashmir.
Yet the CIA had few ways to keep track of bin Laden on its own. Now the tribal team beckoned. The paid, well-organized Afghan agents could monitor or harass bin Laden up close, under direct CIA control.
Paul Pillar, the Princeton-educated analyst who had helped shape the CIA’s thinking about the terrorist threat in the Middle East during the early 1990s, was now the center’s deputy director. His superior, the Counterterrorist Center’s director in the summer of 1997, Jeff O’Connell, was a veteran from the Directorate of Operations who had experience in Yemen, knew Egypt well, and had long studied the threat of Islamist extremism then rising in the Arab world.4 He approved a plan that summer to transfer the Afghan agent team from the Kasi cell to the bin Laden unit, which had been developing draft plans to attack bin Laden’s facilities and financial assets since 1996.
The agents’ new CIA controllers modified the Kasi capture plan so it could be used to seize bin Laden and bring him to justice. At the CIA’s Islamabad station this initiative arrived that summer of 1997 in the form of cables from Langley authorizing meetings with the tribal team leadership to explain that if they wanted to remain on the agency payroll, they now had to go after bin Laden. The Afghan TRODPINT team agreed.
As a target for capture, bin Laden was an easier mark than Kasi. At least they knew for certain where bin Laden lived some of the time: in the compounds provided by Mullah Omar in and around Kandahar. As Unocal’s executives and liaisons had discovered early in 1997, bin Laden moved freely through the Taliban capital. His bodyguard and some of his wives and children lived openly near the Kandahar airport.
Working with the Afghan agents, the CIA began to use satellites and other technology to map in detail Osama bin Laden’s Kandahar world. An anchor of the planning remained the southern Afghan desert airstrip confirmed by the American special operations team. The plan’s premise was that the tribal team would take bin Laden into custody near Kandahar, hold him under their own authority, and then summon the Americans.
By the time the Americans took physical custody of bin Laden, they would have arranged for their captive’s legal disposition. The plan presumed that a federal grand jury would deliver an indictment against bin Laden or that Egypt or Saudi Arabia would agree to accept him for trial. The Islamabad station was a little confused about these uncertain and seemingly provisional legal arrangements. As their plans progressed, station chief Gary Schroen kept asking the Counterterrorist Center at Langley, “Do we have an indictment?” The answers were cryptic: Bin Laden was “indictable,” the Islamabad station was assured. In Washington, Clinton’s aides approved the concept of the capture plan by the spring of 1998.5
A federal grand jury in New York had opened a secret investigation of bin Laden’s terrorist financing activity months before. The grand jury investigation was moving toward criminal charges, but none had yet been delivered.6 Under American law no one outside the Justice Department was supposed to know about the grand jury’s work or whether it was likely to produce criminal charges. Unofficially, however, the status of the investigation began to leak to people involved with the CIA’s planning.
Even if an indictment did not come through, Egypt was a serious possibility. The CIA worked closely during 1997 with Egyptian intelligence and security services in a large-scale, multinational campaign to break the back of its violent Islamist movement. CIA officers seized a number of Egyptian fugitives in foreign countries such as Azerbaijan and Albania and secretly shipped them to Cairo for trial.7 It seemed conceivable that if the CIA captured bin Laden, the Egyptians might be willing this time to accept him for trial even though they had turned down that idea when bin Laden was leaving Sudan. Then, too, it was possible that the American government, working harder than it had in 1996, might persuade Saudi Arabia to take bin Laden for trial if the Afghan agent team had him in physical custody.
The tribal team developed a detailed plan for the CIA in which it would hold bin Laden in a cave in southern Afghanistan for thirty days before the Americans flew in clandestinely to take him away. The tribal team located a cave where they could hide out comfortably. They assured the CIA that they had acquired and stored at the cave enough food and water to keep bin Laden healthy during his stay. The main purpose of the cave detention was to allow some time to pass after bin Laden’s initial capture so that al Qaeda’s agitated lieutenants would be less alert when the Americans moved in to bundle bin Laden off. Also, the thirty-day detention would allow time to arrange for legal authorities. Under the plan, as soon as the Afghan agents had bin Laden on his way to the provisioned cave, the team would notify the Islamabad station, which in turn would signal Langley and Washington that they needed an indictment or a nod from an Arab government in a hurry. Once this indictment or rendition was arranged, an American special operations team would fly to the prearranged rural Kandahar airstrip, and the tribal team would hand over their Saudi captive.
Under American law and policy, this kidnapping plan looked acceptable because there was no Afghan government or law to offend. Freelance Afghans would be detaining bin Laden for an indefinite time on Afghan territory that was effectively ungoverned. CIA authority to transfer suspects offshore from one place to another—as in the case of rendition to Egypt or Saudi Arabia—was carefully documented in a succession of classified White House executive orders and national security memoranda, all of them briefed repeatedly to Congress. These included a Presidential Decision Directive, signed by President Clinton in 1995, which explicitly instructed the CIA to undertake covert “rendition” programs if they would enhance American national security. As for the scenario where CIA officers might fly in to receive bin Laden for an American trial, they would then be operating under the authority of Executive Order 12333, signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and renewed by successive presidents. This order stated that while the CIA may not participate directly in law enforcement, the agency and its employees could “provide specialized equipment, technical knowledge or assistance, or expert personnel for use by any department or agency” and could “render any other assistance and cooperation to law enforcement authorities not precluded by applicable law.” A thick archive of Justice Department memoranda and court cases upheld the right of American agents to abduct fugitives overseas and return them to U.S. courts in most instances.8
The CIA plan to capture bin Laden also had to accommodate another layer of American law governing covert action: the presidential ban on assassination by the CIA or its agents, a ban initiated by President Gerald R. Ford in 1976 and renewed by Reagan in the same Executive Order 12333. To comply with this part of the law, when they met with their agents to develop their plan, the CIA officers had to make clear that the effort to capture bin Laden could not turn into an assassination hit. The Afghans had to try to take bin Laden alive. CIA officers were assigned to sit down with the team leaders to make it as clear as possible. “I want to reinforce this with you,” station chief Gary Schroen told the Afghans, as he later described the meeting in cables to Langley and Washington. “You are to capture him alive.”9
Bin Laden always traveled with armed bodyguards who were certain to defend him fiercely. These Arab jihadists guarded the entrances to his several residences and packed into bin Laden’s Land Cruiser with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Everyone involved in the CIA planning understood that a firefight was likely if the Afghan agents attempted a kidnapping. But as long as the agents made a reasonable effort to capture bin Laden alive—as long as they used their weapons in the course of a legitimate attempt to take bin Laden into custody—this would not pose a legal problem. The Islamabad case officers tried to ram this point home in their meetings with the tribal team, but they could never be sure how their pleadings actually registered, unconditioned as the Afghans were by any culture of nitpicking lawyers. As a backup, Langley and the Islamabad station created a careful paper trail to document their meetings and instructions.
Both at the CIA and the White House, almost everyone involved in the closely held planning knew what was likely: The tribal agents would say that they were going to try to take bin Laden captive, but in fact they would launch what CIA officers referred to as “the Afghan ambush,” in which you “open up with everything you have, shoot everybody that’s out there, and then let God sort’em out,” as Gary Schroen put it. Schroen figured that the agents would return to them and say, “We killed the big guy. I’m sorry.” That would be all right as far as nearly everyone at the CIA and the White House was concerned—if the instructions had been clear and sincere, the paper trail was in place, and nothing too awful went wrong during the operation. As soon as the Afghans began to move on such an operation, they were supposed to communicate with the Islamabad station and describe their circumstances, but they were granted autonomy to initiate a strike.
The team reported one unsuccessful ambush during 1997, on a road near Kandahar, against what the agents described as bin Laden’s convoy. The ambush site had been favored by the agents during the anti-Soviet war. In this case, however, they failed to properly seal off bin Laden’s convoy by forming an L-shape at the ambush site. In an L-shaped ambush, attackers rake a convoy first from the side and then seal the vehicles off from the front. The Afghan agents lined up only along the side of the road and opened fire. By the agents’ account, several Arabs traveling with bin Laden were killed, but bin Laden himself managed to escape by driving through the crossfire. The CIA had no way to confirm this account. Its officers concluded that bin Laden had probably been in the reported convoy and that he had probably been shot at, but it was impossible to know for certain. White House officials who reviewed the reports were skeptical. They wondered if the Afghan agents, like the spy protagonist of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, were making up stories of derring-do for the home office in order to hold on to their retainers.
By early 1998 the CIA had studied the compound where bin Laden frequently stayed outside of Kandahar. The Saudi made only limited efforts to disguise his visits. He talked openly on a satellite telephone that the Americans could tap. The question arose: Could the tribal agents be equipped to raid Osama bin Laden’s house and take him from his bed?
AS THE CIA PLOTTED, bin Laden expanded his ambitions. He had settled comfortably into Afghanistan. His increasingly intimate relationship with the Taliban leadership in Kandahar, girded by bin Laden’s lavish construction projects and generous donations, was plain for anyone in the Pashtun capital to see. He also moved freely through the Taliban-controlled eastern Afghan territory around Khost where his legend as an anti-Soviet jihadist had been born almost a dozen years before. His sponsorship of training camps for Pakistani and other volunteer fighters bound for Kashmir and Chechnya provided a way for bin Laden to organize his own private international fighting force outside of Taliban control—a force far more potent than the loose collection of hardened bodyguards he had retained in Sudan. His continued openness to print and television media, and his ability to fund technology-laden promotional offices in London and elsewhere, ensured that his voice remained prominent in worldwide radical Islamist politics.
Nearing middle age, bin Laden clearly saw himself as a man of destiny, an exiled sheikh battling in the name of Islam to liberate occupied lands from Jerusalem to Central Asia. His emotion about American military occupation of his native Saudi Arabia was undimmed. He raged publicly at everything about American policy in the Middle East: its support of Israel, its alliance with the Saudi royal family, and its killing of Iraqi soldiers and civilians during the Gulf War. Increasingly bin Laden’s political vision and the secret operations he funded had global reach.
On February 23, 1998, bin Laden unveiled a coalition that reflected his spreading ambition and rising international charisma. He announced a new enterprise: the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders. Bin Laden had worked for hours on the front’s manifesto. Its contents were dictated over his satellite telephone to editors at a prominent London-based Arabic-language newspaper.10 An angry litany of anti-American threats and grievances, the manifesto was signed by militant leaders from Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Kashmir. Its publication represented bin Laden’s first explicit attempt to lead an international coalition of Islamic radicals in violent attacks against the United States.
At the center of bin Laden’s reasoning lay the cause of his own personal humiliation in late 1990. Then he had sought to persuade the Saudi royal family to let him lead a jihad against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Instead the royal family had invited the American military to wage the war and had banished bin Laden from the kingdom for protesting. Since the Gulf War in 1991, bin Laden now declared, the United States “has been occupying the most sacred lands of Islam: the Arabian Peninsula. It has been stealing its resources, dictating to its leaders, humiliating its people, and frightening its neighbors. It is using its rule in the Peninsula as a weapon to fight the neighboring peoples of Islam.” The Americans had declared war “on Allah, His Prophet, and Muslims.” In reply, the signatories of the manifesto “hereby give all Muslims the following judgment: The judgment to kill and fight Americans and their allies, whether civilians or military, is an obligation for every Muslim who is able to do so in any country.”11
Among the signatures at the bottom of the declaration was that of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician and Islamist who had first encountered bin Laden in 1987 at a charity hospital for anti-Soviet mujahedin in Peshawar. They had remained in contact over the ensuing decade as each became forcibly exiled from his native country. In Sudan, bin Laden provided support for al-Zawahiri’s faction of the Egyptian Islamist movement, an exceptionally violent splinter group known as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. At a personal level, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri had much in common, compared to the teenage drifters from Tunis or Algiers or Karachi who made up the infantry troops of the international jihadist movement. They both had university educations. They both came from privileged, modern families. Al-Zawahiri was the son of a university professor and the great nephew of a Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Islam’s theological citadel. His brother was a dermatologist and his cousins were chemists, pharmacists, judges, and politicians. But like bin Laden in Saudi Arabia, al-Zawahiri had grown up near the Egyptian elite but never had belonged to it. Like bin Laden he had embraced Islam as a teenager while many others in his family lived secular, multinational lives. Al-Zawahiri struck his relatives as shy and insular, and they interpreted his religiosity as a kind of escape, an insistent choice of tradition as a refuge from the confusions of modernity. This was also the way some of bin Laden’s relatives saw Osama.12
Among Western intelligence analysts it became common to view al-Zawahiri as dominant over bin Laden. He was often described as a mentor, a successor to Abdullah Azzam as an intellectual father figure in bin Laden’s life. The Egyptian had grown from a lean, awkward youth whose face was framed by oversized eyeglasses into a fleshy, squat man with a round head and a long gray-flecked beard. He still wore square, plastic eyeglass frames, but the effect now was owlish. Al-Zawahiri was eight years older than bin Laden; he came from a more sophisticated Cairo world, and he had traveled more widely. He was a practicing physician who had been tortured while in prison, and he had emerged as a more hardened terrorist operator, a veteran of long prison debates about Islam and politics. He had the sharp convictions that bin Laden sometimes seemed to lack.
Certainly al-Zawahiri was by 1997 a more experienced killer than the still soft-mannered, long-winded, project-oriented, media-conscious bin Laden. He had supervised terrorist operations from Cairo to Islamabad for nearly two decades. Some aspects of their personalities and careers might suggest that it was bin Laden who was the real leader between them. Accounts of al-Zawahiri’s life from family friends and prison cellmates paint him as an awkward, withdrawn, disputatious man of little grace and much violence. Between them it was bin Laden who had developed a greater sense of entitlement, presence, and public ambition. Al-Zawahiri and his Egyptian colleagues entered into endless internal battles over ideology, power, and leadership, struggles in which al-Zawahiri became increasingly isolated and reviled even among hard-core Egyptian radicals.13 This was not bin Laden’s style. Through his wealth and his personal charisma he managed over many years to ingratiate himself with a wide range of fellow Islamists, even those whose outlooks and interests differed markedly from his own. It is difficult to know, then, how bin Laden and al-Zawahiri interacted in private—where the power in their relationship lay, how much tension was present and when.
In Sudan they began to work together on at least some terrorist operations against Egyptian and American targets, including an effort to train Somali militiamen to kill U.S. soldiers there. But when bin Laden migrated to Afghanistan in the spring of 1996, al-Zawahiri did not follow. He tried initially to travel to Chechnya to restart his own independent branch of the Islamic Jihad. He was arrested by Russian authorities in Dagestan and jailed for months, but because he was traveling on a false passport, the Russians never learned who he was and eventually released him.14 Hunted by Egyptian authorities, he slipped into Afghanistan and reunited with bin Laden. The manifesto they jointly published on February 23, 1998, marked the public rebirth of their partnership.
Al-Zawahiri had spent most of his life in determined personal warfare against the government of Egypt, but by early 1998, exiled to Afghanistan and repudiated by many of his Egyptian colleagues, he had no plausible way to carry that battle on. Like bin Laden, al-Zawahiri decided to redirect his effort and his anger from “the near enemy” in Cairo toward the United States, which he called “the distant enemy.”15
Bin Laden often spoke about the imperative for Islamist violence in frightening but general terms. Al-Zawahiri, on the other hand, spoke like a bloodthirsty staff sergeant just back from the trenches. “Tracking down the Americans and the Jews is not impossible,” he wrote. “Killing them with a single bullet, a stab, or a device made up of a popular mix of explosives, or hitting them with an iron rod is not impossible. . . . With the available means, small groups could prove to be a frightening horror for the Americans and the Jews.”16
Like bin Laden, al-Zawahiri believed that it was time for jihadists to carry the war to “the distant enemy” because, once provoked, the Americans would probably reply with revenge attacks and “personally wage the battle against the Muslims,” which would make them ripe for a “clear-cut jihad against infidels.”
A key war-fighting principle, al-Zawahiri believed, was “the need to inflict the maximum casualties against the opponent, for this is the language understood by the West, no matter how much time and effort such operations take.”17
THE BIN LADEN UNIT at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center issued an alert memo within days of this manifesto’s issuance. The unit’s professional analysts, specialists in political Islam—the majority of them women, as it happened—had become nuanced students of bin Laden’s threats, media appearances, and self-styled fatwas. They recognized an escalation in the February 23 attack on “Crusaders and Jews.” The statements were “the first from these groups that explicitly justify attacks on American civilians anywhere in the world. . . . This is the first religious ruling sanctifying such attacks,” the CIA’s analysts wrote.18 Within weeks the State Department issued a worldwide alert calling attention to bin Laden’s threat.19 The government travel warning could offer no specifics, however. This would become a familiar limitation in the months and years ahead.
At State’s Foggy Bottom headquarters, across the Potomac River from the CIA, bin Laden did not loom as a special concern that winter even in the small South Asia bureau. There the focus remained on larger, seemingly more pressing regional issues: nuclear proliferation in India and Pakistan; the steady rise of Hindu nationalism in India; corruption and political opportunism in Pakistan. State’s diplomats understood the poisonous alliance growing among the Taliban, al Qaeda, and Pakistani intelligence. When a U.S. diplomat formally protested to Pakistan about bin Laden’s threats on March 9, he discussed Pakistan’s arms shipments to the Taliban and its decision to let the Taliban “load up their planes” with fuel at Pakistani air bases. But bin Laden figured mainly as a subset of an already low-ranked issue. He was a talking point in routine démarches (from the French term for formal diplomatic communications). He could not be described as a priority.20
When Madeleine Albright became secretary of state, she left the post of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. President Clinton appointed as her successor Bill Richardson, a lively, candid, and pudgy Hispanic former congressman from New Mexico with an adventurous spirit and a keen instinct for publicity. Richardson seemed to be a student of the Jesse Jackson school of international diplomacy: He was a self-promoting troubleshooter who loved to make lightning strikes behind enemy lines in search of dramatic negotiating breakthroughs, especially if they might deliver soundbite opportunities on the national network news programs. The post of ambassador to the United Nations was an ideal platform for such forays. It offered a ticket to the world and few political constraints. During Albright’s tour at the U.N., one of her key deputies had been Rick Inderfurth, the former ABC News correspondent who in 1997 had followed her to Foggy Bottom as assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. During a brief overlap at the U.N., Inderfurth had suggested that Richardson consider Afghanistan as a destination for one of his signature foreign tours. Nobody had claimed Afghanistan as a policy priority at the State Department, Richardson recalled, and as a result “our policy seemed a little rudderless.” He saw opportunity.21
In the winter of 1998, Richardson scheduled a South Asian trip. He invited the NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell to accompany him. Richardson planned to travel to India and Pakistan to talk about nuclear proliferation, to Sri Lanka to discuss the civil war, and to Afghanistan to see if he could jump-start peace negotiations with the Taliban. Mitchell could follow along and file exclusive reports to NBC Nightly News.
Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri issued their anti-American manifesto just as Richardson was preparing to leave. The CIA caught wind of his schedule and set up an intelligence briefing before he departed. Bin Laden had been “a secondary issue,” as Richardson recalled, but the manifesto against Crusaders and Jews demonstrated the Saudi’s “growing strength” and presented a fresh opportunity to lobby the Taliban for bin Laden’s extradition. To whom bin Laden might be extradited was not clear since no American grand jury had yet handed down an indictment. Still, Richardson developed talking points that urged the Taliban “to extradite him . . . [that] we have evidence that he is a terrorist that is conspiring to hurt the American people.”22
Richardson discussed his plans in a brief sidebar chat with President Clinton after a White House Cabinet meeting. Clinton half-joked with Richardson, as the latter recalled it: “Hey, geez, I’m really jealous. You’re going to Afghanistan. . . . That should be a lot of fun.” He added, turning serious, “God, if we can get some stability there . . . that would be terrific.”
Clinton pointed at Richardson and told him, “Make sure you get briefed by Langley.” As Richardson understood it, the president was referring to bin Laden’s recent threats.23
Bruce Riedel, a CIA officer assigned to the National Security Council, walked Richardson through the Afghanistan issue set, including bin Laden, but he did not inform him about the Counterterrorist Center’s ongoing plans to use Afghan agents to kidnap the Saudi and render him to justice. To protect the integrity of such operations and the identity of paid agents, the CIA compartmented such material at a level of Top Secret classification so high that hardly anyone at the State Department knew of its existence.
The CIA’s main worry about Richardson’s trip was that bin Laden would seize the presence of an American Cabinet member in Kabul to make good on the threats in his February declaration. The agency urged Richardson to consider canceling the Afghan leg of his travel. But Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.N., seeing an opportunity to legitimize the Taliban in international eyes, promised to make Richardson’s visit a success. Any harm to Richardson would rebound disastrously on Pakistan, now widely seen as the Taliban’s sponsors. Richardson figured that he could count on Pakistan’s self-interested influence with Mullah Omar to keep his travel party safe.
Just in case, American fighter jets tailed Richardson’s U.N. plane as it banked across the barren Hindu Kush Mountains toward the Afghan capital. “God, the mountains,” Richardson exclaimed as he deplaned in the same lucky blue blazer he wore on all his troubleshooting journeys.24
His bearded, robed Taliban hosts proudly drove him, Inderfurth, and Andrea Mitchell to the Kabul traffic circle where they had strung up the former Afghan president Najibullah and his brother eighteen months before. Their tour continued at the shuttered U.S. embassy. Afghan employees who swept the compound’s empty walkways greeted Richardson in celebration, hoping vainly that his visit marked an American return. On a Kabul parade ground the Taliban mustered an honor guard bearing swords.
Mullah Rabbani, chairman of the Kabul shura, swept into a meeting room with bearded colleagues who carried Kalishnikov rifles and immediately began to pray. They were cordial but never looked at Richardson directly. The ambassador declared that he hoped to begin political negotiations that would lead to a cease-fire between the Taliban and Massoud’s Northern Alliance. To his amazement Mullah Rabbani said that he would be willing to participate in such talks. They adjourned to a nearby hall. Richardson and Rabbani talked privately about bin Laden over lunch, a heaping banquet of Afghan rice, meats, and fruits spread across a long table.
“Look, bin Laden is in your territory,” Richardson told Rabbani. “He’s a bad guy.We have evidence that he has a terrorist network, that he’s conducted terrorist acts, that he’s using your country as a base, and we want you to turn him over to us. We would then legally find a way for this to happen.”25
The conversation about bin Laden lasted for about forty-five minutes, as Richardson remembered it, with himself, Rabbani, Inderfurth, U.S. ambassador to Islamabad Tom Simons, and two CIA officers listening intently. In-derfurth noticed that in a bookshelf behind them lay tattered leather-bound volumes of the Complete Works of George Washington, apparently left behind by some long-forgotten cultural exchange program of the United States Information Agency.26
The Taliban offered no concrete concessions. They denied that bin Laden was under their direct control or that he represented a significant threat to the United States.
“He’s with you,” Simons told the Taliban official next to him. “He is not obeying you, whatever you told him, not to be politically active. There’s this fatwa in February which says that it’s an individual obligation to kill Americans.” The Taliban leaders listened, seemingly puzzled. Bin Laden was not a qualified Islamic scholar, they assured the Americans.27
And with that, it was over. Richardson was back at Kabul’s airport in the afternoon, boarding his U.N. jet for another leg of his tight itinerary. The Taliban and their political sponsors in Pakistan had achieved their objective: a highly publicized visit with a Clinton Cabinet officer that showed the Taliban as accommodating, reasonable, and open to negotiations.
The all-Afghan political talks initially agreed to by Rabbani collapsed within weeks. The Taliban’s war with Massoud resumed as if there had been no pause. In June, Richardson left his post at the United Nations for a new job as secretary of energy.
At the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Ambassador Tom Simons watched the empty aftermath of Richardson’s flying tour with cynical bemusement. Richardson was a “good guy,” hard to dislike, an able troubleshooter, but the visit seemed typical of the Clinton administration’s approach to Afghanistan. “I won’t call it fey,” Simons said later, “but you know the Clinton administration: ‘Hey, let’s try something!’ ”28
IN RANK Richard Clarke labored one or two rungs down the Washington ladder from Bill Richardson. In political character he represented the other end of the capital’s spectrum. Richardson was an elected politician, a campaigner, a gifted popularizer, a master of media and public mood. Richard Clarke was a shadowy member of Washington’s permanent intelligence and bureaucratic classes, a self-styled “national security manager” who seemed to wield enormous power precisely because hardly anyone knew who he was or what exactly he did for a living.29
As Richardson jetted with a camera crew around South Asia that spring, Clarke secluded himself for long hours in his high-ceilinged third-floor suite in a corner of the Old Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. He was working on three classified presidential decision directives that would transform the Clinton administration’s management of terrorism threats, catastrophic attacks, budgets, and decision-making. In doing so, the directives would elevate Clarke’s own power, confirming him formally as a de facto member of Clinton’s Cabinet on terrorism issues. Yet only a handful of other bureaucrats in Washington understood what Clarke was up to that spring. The memoranda he worked with were all classified, and the organizational issues were so obscured by jargon and the complex flowcharts of the Washington interagency process that they could not be easily understood even if they were accessed. Clarke’s plans seemed at once obscure and ambitious. THINK GLOBALLY—ACT GLOBALLY read a small sign near his desk.30
Clarke’s tall office windows looked south across the Ellipse to the Potomac River and National Airport. His suite had been occupied during the mid-1980s by Colonel Oliver North, and it was possible to believe that Clarke had chosen it for just this reason, so palpably did he thrive on an air of sinister mystery. His preferred method of communication was the short, blunt intra– White House email delivered down classified channels in a signature red font. The son of a Boston chocolate factory worker, Clarke was a pale, stout man whose cropped red hair had turned steadily gray under the pressures of his work. He had ascended through education and restless work, winning entrance by competitive exam to the Boston Latin School, a centuries-old six-year high school whose Revolutionary War–era alumni included John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Benjamin Franklin, and which more recently had launched Joseph Kennedy, the political family’s patriarch. Clarke enrolled at age eleven, just as John F. Kennedy became president. Kennedy’s message about the importance of government service was drummed into Clarke and his classmates “to the extent of brainwashing,” as he recalled it.
Clarke moved on to the University of Pennsylvania and then the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At college he was active in student government and was selected to join The Sphinx, an elite club for Penn seniors. It became only the first in a series of hidden, self-selected social networks in which Clarke thrived. After working as an intelligence analyst at the Pentagon he was appointed in 1985, at age thirty-four, as the deputy chief of intelligence and research at the State Department. There he authored a plan to spook Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafy by detonating sonic booms over Tripoli, floating rubber rafts mysteriously to the Libyan shore, and spreading false rumors of American military action. The scheme fell apart when the Reagan administration was exposed for planting false stories in an American newspaper. Later Clarke became embroiled in a bitter struggle over accusations that he had turned a blind eye to transfers of military equipment from Israel to China. The State Department’s inspector general concluded that Clarke had usurped his superiors, turning himself into a one-man foreign policy czar and arms-trafficking shop. But Clarke battled back, survived, and transferred to the National Security Council at the White House. His reputation for deft bureaucratic maneuvering grew. Even his friends conceded that he was a blunt instrument, a bully, and occasionally abusive. His enemies regarded him as not only mean but dangerous. Either way, the Israel affair would not be the last time Clarke was accused of running a unilateral American foreign policy.31
During the first Clinton term Clarke popped up as an indispensable figure in some of the administration’s most interesting foreign policy episodes. He managed the American withdrawal from Somalia, the campaign to replace Boutros Boutros-Ghali as U.N. secretary general, the refugee crisis in east Africa after the Rwandan genocide, and dozens of other complex issues that required White House coordination of vast, divided federal departments. Officially a member of the Senior Executive Service, the highest class of permanent civil servant in the U.S. government, Clarke honed the art of the interagency maneuver in national security affairs. It was not only that he worked hard and bullied opponents until they did his bidding, but he understood in a precise, disciplined way how to use his seat at the White House to manipulate money in the federal budget to reinforce policy priorities that he personally championed. Clarke had also learned how to manage a formal, seemingly inclusive interagency decision-making process—one that involved regular meetings at which minutes were kept—while privately priming the process through an informal, back-channel network of personal connections. Rivals attributed to Clarke the unseen powers of a Rasputin, and even where these fears were exaggerated, Clarke did little to disabuse the believers. He shook his head modestly and said he was just trying to bring people together.
One of Clarke’s talents was to sense where national security issues were going before most other people did, and to position himself as a player on the rising questions of the day. By 1997 he gravitated toward counterterrorism. In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing and the downing of TWA Flight 800 (mistakenly believed at first to be a terrorist incident), the White House requested and Congress wrote enormous new appropriations for counterterrorist programs in a dozen federal departments. In an era of tight federal budgets, terrorism was a rare bureaucratic growth industry. From his National Security Council suite Clarke shaped these financial decisions. He also took control over interagency reviews of terrorist threats and counterterrorist policy. Backed by National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Clarke reorganized day-to-day policy making on terrorism and what later would become known as homeland defense.32
Clarke declared that America faced a new era of terrorist threats for which it was woefully unprepared. He proposed a newly muscled Counterterrorism Security Group to be chaired by a new national security official, the National Coordinator for Infrastructure Protection and Counterterrorism. Naturally, his colleagues noted as memoranda and position papers flew back and forth to define this new job, it emerged that no one was better qualified to take it on than Richard Clarke himself.
In this elevated role, he would chair a new working group whose core members would be the heads of the counterterrorist departments of the CIA, FBI, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Departments of Defense, Justice, and State. At the Pentagon and the FBI, officials who had been running counterterrorist programs without any White House oversight balked at Clarke’s power grabs. They protested that he was setting himself up to become another Oliver North, that the National Security Council would “go operational” by running secret counterterrorist programs. Clarke said his critics were “paranoid.” He was just trying to “facilitate” decision-making. In the end Clarke’s opponents did force President Clinton to insert language in his final, classified decision directive to make clear that Clarke had no operational power. But the rest of Presidential Decision Directive-62, as it was called, signed by Clinton on May 22, 1998, anointed Clarke as the White House’s new counterterrorism czar, with unprecedented authority. Over time he acquired a seat at Clinton’s Cabinet table as a “principal,” equal in rank to the secretary of defense or the secretary of state, whenever the Cabinet met to discuss terrorism. No national security staffer of Clarke’s rank had ever enjoyed such Cabinet status in White House history. PDD-62, formally titled “Protection Against Unconventional Threat to the Homeland and Americans Overseas,” laid out a counterterrorism mission on ten related tracks, with a lead federal agency assigned to each one. The CIA’s track was “disruption” of terrorist groups.33
Clarke’s ascension meant the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center managers had a new man to please at the White House. CIA director Tenet enjoyed a close working relationship with Sandy Berger and others at the National Security Council because of Tenet’s years on the White House staff. But the CIA managers who worked two rungs down now had to build an equally effective relationship with Richard Clarke, no easy task given his forceful personality. On policy issues the CIA managers mainly regarded Clarke as an ally. He “got” the seriousness of the bin Laden threat, it was commonly said in the agency’s Counterterrorist Center, and Clarke generally supported the CIA’s nascent programs to capture or disrupt bin Laden in Afghanistan. Indeed, Clarke sometimes pushed harder for action on bin Laden than the CIA’s own officers recommended. The trouble was, Clarke could be such a bully that when the CIA managers felt he was wrong, they had no way to go around him. On the whole, this suited a White House wary of Langley’s unwieldy bureaucracy. As Berger said later: “I wanted a pile driver.”
Bin Laden was by no means Richard Clarke’s only counterterrorist priority. Reflecting President Clinton’s private fears, he repeatedly sounded alarms about the danger of a biological weapons attack against the United States. He pushed for new vaccination stocks against smallpox and other threats, and he lashed departments such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prepare for unexpected terrorist-spawned epidemics. Clarke spent equally long hours on new policies to guard government and business against the threat of cyberterrorism—“an electronic Pearl Harbor,” as he called it.34
To galvanize action he repeatedly issued frightening statements about the new terrorist danger facing the United States. American military superiority “forces potential future opponents to look for ways to attack us other than traditional, direct military attacks. How do you do that? Through truck bombs. Through nerve gas attacks on populated areas. Through biological attacks on populated areas.” Clarke compared his crusade to Winston Churchill’s lonely, isolated campaign during the 1930s to call attention to rising Nazi power before it was too late. If Churchill had prevailed when he first called for action, Clarke said, he would have gone down in history “as a hawk, as someone who exaggerated the threat, who saber-rattled and did needless things.”35 Increasingly, this was the charge Clarke himself faced. National security analysts and members of Congress accused him of hyping the terrorist threat to scare Congress into allocating ever greater sums of federal funds so that Clarke’s own influence and authority would grow.
“I would be delighted three or four years from now to say we’ve wasted money,” Clarke said in reply. “I’d much rather have that happen than have to explain to the Congress and the American people why we weren’t ready, and why we let so many Americans die.”36
AS THEY REFINED their snatch plans in the spring of 1998, the bin Laden unit at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center looked with rising interest at Tarnak Farm. This was a compound of perhaps a hundred acres that lay isolated on a stretch of desert about three miles from the American-built terminal building at Kandahar airport. On many nights, the CIA learned, bin Laden slept at Tarnak with one of his wives.
Tarnak presented a raiding party with no challenges of terrain or urban maneuver. It had been constructed by the Afghan government years before as an agricultural cooperative. The farm itself was encircled by a mud-brick wall perhaps ten feet high. Inside were about eighty modest one-story and two-story structures made from concrete or mud-brick. These included dormitory-style housing, storage facilities, a tiny mosque, and a building that bin Laden converted into a small medical clinic for his family and his followers. On the edge of the compound stood a crumbling, water-streaked, six-story office building originally erected for bureaucrats from the government’s agricultural departments. Immediately outside the compound walls were a few irrigated plots, canals, and drainage ditches. But the most remarkable feature of Tarnak Farm was its stark physical isolation. Flat plains of sand and sagebrush extended for miles. Vineyards and irrigated fields dotted the landscape in checkerboard patches, but there were virtually no trees in any direction. The nearest buildings, haphazard extensions of the airport complex, were more than a mile away. Kandahar’s crowded bazaars lay half an hour’s drive beyond. 37
Case officers in Islamabad spent long hours with the tribal team’s leaders devising a plan to attack Tarnak in the middle of the night. The Afghans would seize and hold bin Laden prisoner until the Americans figured out what to do with him. They ran two rehearsals in the United States late in 1997. Tenet briefed Berger in February. A third rehearsal took place in March. Still, Clarke wrote Berger that he felt the CIA seemed “months away from doing anything.”
The raid plan was meticulously detailed. The Afghans had scouted and mapped Tarnak up close, and the CIA had photographed it from satellites. The agents had organized an attack party of about thirty fighters. They identified a staging point where they would assemble all of their CIA-supplied vehicles—motorcycles, trucks, and Land Cruisers. They would drive from there to a secondary rallying point a few miles away from Tarnak. The main raiding party, armed with assault rifles, secure communications, and other equipment, planned to walk across the flat plain toward Tarnak in blackened night, arriving at its walls around 2 A.M. They had scouted a path to avoid minefields and use deep gulleys to mask their approach. On the airport side of the compound a drainage ditch ran underneath Tarnak’s outer wall. The attackers intended to enter by crawling through the ditch. As they did, a second group would roll quietly and slowly toward the front gate in two jeeps. They would carry silenced pistols to take out the two guards stationed at the entrance. Meanwhile the walk-in party would have burst into each of the several small huts where bin Laden’s wives slept. When they found the tall, bearded Saudi, they would cuff him, drag him toward the gate, and load him in a Land Cruiser. A second group of vehicles at the rally point would approach in sequence, and they would all drive together to the cave complex thirty miles away that had been stocked with food and water. Recalled station chief Gary Schroen, “It was as well conceived as a group of amateur soldiers with some training could do.” He wrote Langley on May 6 that the tribals were now “almost as professional” as U.S. commandos.38
As they finalized the plan, the CIA officers found themselves pulled into emotional debates about legal authorities and the potential for civilian casualties if a shoot-out erupted at Tarnak. Satellite photography and reports from the ground indicated that there were dozens of women and children living at Tarnak. Langley headquarters asked for detailed explanations from the tribal team about how they planned to minimize harm to women and children during their assault. Case officers sat down with the team leaders and walked through a series of questions: “Okay, you identify that building. What if he’s not in that building? What if he’s next door? And what are you going to do about collateral damage?” It was a frustrating discussion on both sides. The Americans thought their agents were serious, semiprofessional fighters who were trying to cooperate with the CIA as best they could. Yet “if you understood the Afghan mind-set and the context,” Schroen put it later, you understood that in any raid on Tarnak, realistically, the Afghans were probably going to have to fire indiscriminately to get the job done.39
During these talks the tribal agents would say, in effect, as Schroen recalled it, “Well, we’re going to do our best. We’re going to be selective about who we’ll shoot.” But by the time the cables describing these assurances and conversations circulated at Langley, where the plan awaited approval from senior managers, there were some at CIA headquarters who began to attack the proposed Tarnak raid as reckless. Schroen urged his superiors to “step back and keep our fingers crossed” and hope the tribals “prove as good (and as lucky) as they think they will be.” But the deputy chief of the CIA’s clandestine service, James Pavitt, worried aloud about casualties and financial costs. A classified memo to approve the raid reached the White House in May. The CIA ran a final rehearsal late that month and awaited a decision.40
BIN LADEN CONTINUED to call public attention to himself. When India unexpectedly tested a nuclear weapon that May, bin Laden called on “the Muslim nation and Pakistan” to “prepare for the jihad,” which should “include a nuclear force.” In an interview with ABC News, broadcast to the network’s sizable national audience, bin Laden declared that his coalition’s “battle against the Americans is far greater than our battle was against the Russians. We anticipate a black future for America. Instead of remaining the United States, it shall end up separated states and shall have to carry the bodies of its sons back to America.” Americans would withdraw from Saudi Arabia “when the bodies of American soldiers and civilians are sent in the wooden boxes and coffins,” he declared.41
As these threats echoed, Richard Clarke pulled meetings together at the White House to consider options. The CIA Counterterrorist Center was represented at these sessions, but the CIA officer present was cautious about discussing the center’s tribal assets. Very few people in or out of the agency knew of the draft plan to snatch bin Laden at Tarnak Farm.
There was a natural tension between Richard Clarke’s counterterrorism shop at the White House and the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. Clarke personified presidential authority and control over CIA prerogatives. He could influence budgets and help write legal guidance. There was a suspicion at the CIA that Clarke wanted direct control over agency operations. For their part, Clarke and his team saw Langley as self-protectively secretive and sometimes defensive about their plans. The White House team suspected that the CIA used its classification rules not only to protect its agents but also to deflect outside scrutiny of its covert operations. In one sense Clarke and the CIA’s counterterrorist officers were allies: They all strongly believed by the spring of 1998 that bin Laden was a serious threat and that action was warranted to bring him into custody. In other respects, however, they mistrusted each other’s motives and worried about who would be blamed if something went wrong in a risky operation. The CIA, in particular, had been conditioned by history to recoil from gung-ho “allies” at the National Security Council. Too often in the past, as in the case of Oliver North, CIA managers felt the agency had been goaded into risky or illegal operations by politically motivated White House cowboys, only to be left twisting after the operations went bad. White House officials came and went in the rhythm of electoral seasons; the CIA had permanent institutional interests to protect.
Clarke and his counterterrorism group were interested in a snatch operation against bin Laden that could succeed. But they were skeptical about the Tarnak raid. Their sense was that the agents were old anti-Soviet mujahedin who had long since passed their peak fighting years and that they were probably milking the CIA for money while minimizing the risks they took on the ground. Some in the White House felt that the agents seemed unlikely to mount a serious attack on Tarnak. Worse, if they did go through with it, they would probably not be able to distinguish between a seven-year-old girl on a tricycle and a man who looked like Osama bin Laden holding an assault rifle. Women and children would die, and bin Laden would probably escape. Such a massacre would undermine U.S. national interests in the Muslim world and elsewhere.42
The CIA’s leadership reviewed the proposed raid in late May. The discussion surfaced doubts among senior officers in the Directorate of Operations about the raid’s chances for success. In the end, as Tenet described it to colleagues years later, all of the CIA’s relevant chain of command—Jack Downing, then chief of the D.O., his deputy Jim Pavitt, Counterterrorist Center Chief O’Connell, and his deputy Paul Pillar—told Tenet the Tarnak raid was a bad idea. There was also no enthusiasm for it at the White House. Recalled one senior Clinton administration official involved: “From our perspective, and from George’s, it was a stupid plan. It was an open plain. . . . I couldn’t believe this was their great plan—it was a frontal assault.” Richard Clarke, by this official’s account, did little to disguise his disdain. He asked his White House colleagues and the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center team sarcastically, “Am I missing something? Aren’t these people going to be mowed down on their way to the wall?”
Tenet never formally presented the Tarnak Farm raid plan for President Clinton’s approval. Tenet’s antennae about political risk had been well calibrated during his years as a congressional and White House staffer. He was unlikely to endorse any operation that posed high risks of civilian casualties. He also was in the midst of a new, secret diplomatic initiative against bin Laden involving Saudi Arabia; a failed attack on Tarnak might end that effort.
The decision was cabled to Islamabad: There would be no raid. Mike Scheuer, the chief of the bin Laden unit, wrote to colleagues that he had been told that Clinton’s cabinet feared “collateral damage” and accusations of assassination. Decision-makers feared that “the purpose and nature of the operation would be subject to unavoidable misinterpretation . . . in the event that bin Laden, despite our best intentions and efforts, did not survive.”43 The tribal team’s plans should be set aside, perhaps to be revived later. Meanwhile the agents were encouraged to continue to look for opportunities to catch bin Laden away from Tarnak, traveling only with his bodyguard.
Some of the field-level CIA officers involved in the Tarnak planning reacted bitterly to the decision. They had put a great deal of effort into their work. They believed the raid could succeed. If bin Laden was not stopped now, the challenge he presented would only deepen.
As it happened, this was only the beginning of their frustration.