“We Are at War”

THE CIA’S MISSION was to prevent surprise attacks. In this it was joined by the eavesdropping National Security Agency and the intelligence arms of the Pentagon, State, FBI, and other departments. Many of the thousands of analysts, linguists, technicians, communicators, and operations officers employed in the intelligence bureaucracy spent their time on soft analytic subjects such as political and scientific trends. A sizable minority assessed and disseminated all credible evidence about active threats to American lives or facilities. This massive warning bureaucracy had been honed during the Cold War to protect the United States against a sudden nuclear strike. By 1998 it directed much of its attention to fragmentary evidence about terrorist threats. In physical form the system was a network of classified computer systems, fax machines, videoconference facilities, and other secure communications that linked American embassies and military bases worldwide with government offices in and around Washington. The network allowed for fast, secure distribution of classified warning reports between the CIA, the White House, the Federal Aviation Administration, and thousands of local U.S. law enforcement agencies. The rules for writing, categorizing, and distributing these daily warning reports were specific and routinized. What the specialists called “raw” or unedited intelligence—intercept transcripts and notes from interrogation reports—might be sent to one distribution list of professional analysts. “Finished” product, more carefully written and edited but also sometimes flat and homogenized, poured out by the ream to policy makers.

It was a vast, pulsing, self-perpetuating, highly sensitive network on continuous alert. Its listening posts were attuned to even the most isolated and dubious evidence of pending attacks. Its analysts were continually encouraged to share information as widely as possible among those with appropriate security clearances. History had taught the professionals who worked inside the warning network that even the most insignificant bits of evidence could occasionally provide a clue that stopped a catastrophic attack. Human nature led them to err heavily on the side of caution as they decided what information to pass along. No analyst wanted to be the one who mistakenly discounted an intercept that might have stopped a terrorist bombing. From George Tenet to the lowest-paid linguist in the Counterterrorist Center, the system was biased toward sounding the alarm.1 It was an imperfect arrangement, many on the inside believed, but it was the only way to ensure that the intelligence community did all it could to detect surprises before they erupted.

The daily operations of this threat and warning network dominated the American government’s reponse to the Africa embassy bombings. In effect, the government cranked up the volume on a warning system that was already sensitive. The CIA “surged,” in its jargon, to collect fresh intelligence about bin Laden’s network and strike plans. The Counterterrorist Center poured this threat reporting through classified electronic messaging channels, sometimes transmitting raw intercepts and cables at a rate of more than one dozen per hour. The White House encouraged these gushers of warning. Clinton’s counterterrorist and national security aides had been rocked by the bombings and dreaded a new wave of attacks. If bin Laden pummeled American targets while Clinton struggled through his impeachment crisis, the Saudi radical and his followers might seriously weaken the power and prestige of the United States, White House officials feared. Their job was to protect Clinton’s presidency from disaster; they felt isolated in their detailed, highly classified knowledge about just how vulnerable the country appeared to be, and how motivated the Islamist terrorists had become.2

In one respect the system reacted as it was programmed to do. The Africa bombings signaled a serious ongoing threat, and the government’s warning system recalibrated itself at a higher state of alert. In another sense bin Laden unwittingly achieved a tactical victory. The immediate American emphasis on threat reporting, warning, and defense helped define the next phase of the conflict on terms favorable to bin Laden. Al Qaeda generated massive amounts of nonspecific threat information. As it did, time, money, and manpower poured into the American government’s patchwork system of defensive shields. Yet there was a consensus among the professionals that no such system could ever be adequate to stop all terrorist attacks. “Focusing heavily on the stream of day-to-day threat reporting not only risks forgetting that the next real threat may go unreported,” Counterterrorist Center deputy director Paul Pillar believed, “it also means diversion of attention and resources.”3

The day-to-day work on terrorist threats was difficult, frustrating, and contentious. Soon after the Africa attacks Richard Clarke established a unit of the White House–led Counterterrorism Security Group to focus exclusively on incoming threat reports. Many of these reports were collected by CIA stations abroad and routed through Pillar’s office at the CIA Counterterrorist Center. The center’s policy was to “never sit on threat information that you can’t dismiss out of hand,” as one participant recalled it. CIA threat cables came to the White House with commentary that might cast doubt on the value or authenticity of a particular report. But the CIA’s customers across the administration began to feel as if they were drowning in unedited threats. Clarke’s aides grumbled that the CIA was giving Clinton too much unfiltered intelligence, especially in the President’s Daily Brief, warnings included not for their relevance but to protect the CIA’s reputation if a fresh attack came. For its part, the CIA Counterterrorist Center complained that the White House hectored and bullied them over reports that they had never intended to be taken so seriously. They were being pressured to share information, and then they got blamed for sharing too much.4

On both sides of the Potomac they tried not to let the friction interfere with their solemn duty to get the facts right. American lives were at stake. But the analytical work, one fragmentary telephone intercept at a time, could be elusive and unrewarding. Each time they gathered in the White House Situation Room or spoke by secure telephone or video conference, they had complex, practical decisions to make. Should they order CIA surveillance against an obscure Arab militant named by a suspect in detention in Egypt? Should they order the American embassy in Rome to close on the day of a specific, though vaguely worded threat? Should they instruct United Airlines to cancel a flight from Paris without explanation to its passengers because an intercepted phone call had made a passing reference to that air route? If they failed to cancel the flight and it was attacked, how could they justify their silence?

One of their rules was “no double standards.” Those around the table with access to highly classified threat information—Pillar or his designees from the CIA, Steven Simon or Daniel Benjamin in Clarke’s office at the White House, officers from the Pentagon and the FBI—should not be able to use threat reports to plan their own travel or activities if that intelligence could just as easily be used to warn the general population. They had to decide when a specific, credible threat warranted public announcement, and when it was enough to take narrower protective measures in secret. Inevitably their daily judgments about threat reports were partially subjective. There was no way for any of them to be certain whether an interrogated suspect was lying or whether an Islamist activist bragging about an attack on the telephone was just trying to impress a friend. The “no double standards” rule provided one intuitive check for any specific decision. If an incoming threat to blow up an unnamed public square in London next Saturday looked credible enough so that any one of them would avoid such areas if he happened to be in London, then their duty was to issue a public alert. If the threat was against the U.S. embassy, they might consider a more targeted, secret alert to employees there. They issued dozens of such warnings in public and private in the weeks after the Africa attacks.5

They were aware that bin Laden and his leadership group were probably planting disinformation to distract them. They assumed that the more they closed embassies and issued alerts, the more they encouraged this disinformation campaign. Yet they could see no alternative. They had to collect as much threat information as they could, they had to assess it, and they had to act defensively when the intelligence looked credible.

There was plenty that looked truly dangerous. The CIA pushed European security services, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other governments to crack down that autumn on known associates of bin Laden. Cooperation was mixed, but several dozen militants were arrested, including bin Laden’s longtime spokesman in London. Computers and telephone records seized in these cases made plain that al Qaeda’s global cells were metastasizing. The CIA saw a level of lethality, professionalism, and imagination among some of these detained Islamists—particularly among the well-educated Arabs who had settled in Europe—that was on a par with the more sophisticated secular Palestinian terrorist groups of the 1970s. Their connections with one another and with bin Laden often seemed loose. Yet increasingly the Islamist cells were united in determination to carry out the anti-American fatwas that had been issued by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri from Afghanistan.

Within the morass of intelligence lay ominous patterns. One was an interest by bin Laden’s operatives in the use of aircraft. A classified September 1998 threat report warned that in bin Laden’s next strike his operatives might fly an explosive-laden airplane into an American airport and blow it up. Another report that fall, unavailable to the public, highlighted a plot involving aircraft in New York and Washington. In a third case, in November, Turkish authorities broke up a plan by an Islamic extremist group to fly a plane loaded with explosives into the tomb of modern Turkey’s founder, Ataturk, during a ceremony marking the anniversary of his death. Some of these threats against aviation targets were included in classified databases about bin Laden and his followers maintained by the FBI and the CIA.6 There these strands joined the evidence about suicide airplane attacks and aircraft bombings dating back to the 1995 arrest of Ramzi Yousef. Yet at the Counterterrorism Security Group meetings and at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center there was no special emphasis placed on bin Laden’s threat to civil aviation or on the several exposed plots where his followers had considered turning hijacked airplanes into cruise missiles. Aviation had been a terrorist target for three decades; hijacking threats and even suicide airplane plots had for years been part of the analytical landscape. The threat reports and the pattern of past bin Laden attacks emphasized other target categories more prominently, such as embassies and military bases. If they had any analytical bias, Clinton, Tenet, and Clarke tended to be most worried about weapons of mass destruction because of the casualties and economic damage such an attack might produce. Several classified reports that fall warned that bin Laden was considering a new attack using poisons in food, water, or the air shafts of American embassies. Aviation was an issue but not a priority.7

A second pattern in the threats that fall did galvanize attention: It seemed increasingly obvious that bin Laden planned to attack inside the United States. In September the CIA and the FBI prepared a classified memo for Clinton’s national security cabinet outlining al Qaeda’s American infrastructure, including charities and other groups that sometimes operated as fronts for terrorist activity. In October the intelligence community picked up reports that bin Laden sought to establish an operations cell in the United States by recruiting American Islamists or Arab expatriates. In November came another classified report that a bin Laden cell was seeking to recruit a group of five to seven young men from the United States to travel to the Middle East for training. When the FBI announced a $5 million reward for bin Laden’s capture, the CIA picked up reports that bin Laden had authorized $9 million bounties for the assassination of each of four top CIA officers. Many of the intelligence reports were vague. Still, the pattern was unmistakable. “The intelligence community has strong indications,” declared a December classified memo endorsed by the CIA and circulated at the highest levels of the U.S. government, “that bin Laden intends to conduct or sponsor attacks inside the United States.”8

AFTER THE AFRICA EMBASSY BOMBINGS, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger ordered the Pentagon to station navy ships and two cruise-missile-bearing submarines beneath the Arabian Sea, off the coast of Pakistan. The secret deployment order was so closely held that even some senior directors at the CIA did not know the submarines were in place. Cruise missiles could twist and turn across hundreds of miles as they flew preprogrammed paths to their targets. Their software guided them to coordinates marked by satellites in fixed, stationary orbits. The White House hoped that CIA agents on the ground in Afghanistan—at this time mainly the tribal agents operating near Kandahar—would track bin Laden and relay the coordinates of one of his meeting places or overnight guest houses. Some of the coordinates of bin Laden’s known camps, such as the buildings in the Tarnak Farm compound, had already been loaded into the submarines’ missile computers. Other places could be marked by laser targeting equipment carried by the mobile tracking team, then quickly relayed as GPS coordinates to the submarines. Clinton made it clear to his senior White House aides that if they could produce strong intelligence about bin Laden’s location, he would give the order to strike. Clarke’s counterterrorism office initiated classified exercises with the Pentagon and discovered they could reduce the time from a presidential order to missile impact in Afghanistan to as little as four hours. Still, as they considered a launch, a vexing question remained: How certain did they need to be that bin Laden was really at the target? In a political-military plan he called “Delenda,” from the Latin “to destroy,” Clarke argued that they should move beyond trying to decapitate al Qaeda’s leadership and should instead strike broadly at bin Laden’s infrastructure. The Delenda Plan recommended diplomatic approaches, financial disruption, covert action inside Afghanistan, and sustained military strikes against Taliban and al Qaeda targets. Some of Clarke’s ideas rolled into continuing discussions about how to pressure bin Laden, but none of Clinton’s national security cabinet agreed with his approach to military targeting. Broad strikes in Afghanistan would provide “little benefit, lots of blowback against [a] bomb-happy U.S.,” recalled Deputy National Security Adviser James Steinberg, who like Berger opposed Clarke’s proposal for attacks against al Qaeda camps or Taliban infrastructure, such as it might be. Still, Clinton and his senior aides said they remained ready to fire missiles directly at bin Laden or his most senior leaders if they could be located precisely.9

Late in 1998 the CIA relayed a report to the White House from one of its agents that bin Laden had been tracked to Kandahar. The report was that bin Laden would sleep in the Haji Habash house, part of the governor’s residence complex. The CIA had reported that there were fifty-two Stinger missiles hidden on the grounds. A bomb or cruise missile might kill bin Laden and Omar or other senior Taliban, plus destroy the missiles—a counterterrorism trifecta. “Hit him tonight,” Gary Schroen cabled from Islamabad. “We may not get another chance.” The Cabinet principals on terrorism issues, including Tenet and Richard Clarke, discussed the report.10 Target maps showed that the building where they expected bin Laden to be was near a small mosque. Clinton knew from painful experience that for all the amazing accuracy of cruise missiles, they were far from perfect. When the president had launched missiles against the Iraqi intelligence headquarters in 1993, one missile had fallen a few hundred yards short and had killed one of the most prominent female artists in the Arab world. Clinton had never forgotten that. Now he and others around the table worried that if one of the missiles fell short again, it would destroy the mosque and whoever happened to be inside. Civilian casualties had not been an issue for Clinton during discussions about the August cruise missile strikes, he told a colleague years later, because Clinton felt they had a serious chance in that attack to get bin Laden. Now the prospect of success seemed less certain, Clinton believed. The president said that he would not allow minimizing civilian casualties to become a higher priority than killing or capturing bin Laden, but he wanted to achieve both objectives if possible. In a memo written at the time, Clarke said Clinton had been forced to weigh 50 percent confidence in the CIA’s intelligence against the possibility of as many as three hundred casualties. The two issues—the likelihood of innocent deaths and the uncertainty about bin Laden’s exact whereabouts—often were discussed together in the Small Group after mid-1998.

Tenet said the intelligence he had about bin Laden’s location this time was “single-threaded,” meaning that he lacked a second, independent source. The CIA was searching for confirmation of bin Laden’s presence but didn’t yet have it. As his Delenda memo reflected, Clarke believed that they should fire the missiles anyway. He felt that if they missed bin Laden, Clinton could just declare to the public that he had been targeting Taliban and al Qaeda “infrastructure” and “terrorist training camps” because of continuing threats. Clinton, however, was not enthusiastic about bombing Taliban and al Qaeda camps that Hugh Shelton derided as little more than “jungle gyms” if there was scant expectation that bin Laden or his top lieutenants would be killed. To strike at bin Laden and miss would hurt the United States, Clinton believed.11

Berger told his colleagues that the costs of failure might be very high. Every time the United States shot off one of its expensive missiles at bin Laden and failed to get him, it looked feckless, Berger argued, reinforcing Clinton’s view. As Berger later recalled it: “The judgment was [that] to hit a camp and not get top bin Laden people would have made the United States look weak and bin Laden look strong.”12 Berger did not demand absolute certainty from Tenet or the CIA about bin Laden’s location. The standard he laid down for a decision to strike was a “significant” or “substantial” probability of success. But could the CIA promise even that much?13

Tenet reported back to the group: He did not have a second source. He would not recommend a missile launch. In this judgment he was supported by several of his senior aides at the CIA and the Pentagon’s commanders. The submarines returned to their patrols off Pakistan, still on alert. “I’m sure we’ll regret not acting last night,” wrote Mike Scheuer, the bin Laden unit chief, to Gary Schroen. “We should have done it last night,” Schroen replied. Increasingly, the CIA was chasing a roving spectre.

IN ADDITION TO the submarine order Clinton signed a Top Secret “Memorandum of Notification” within days of the embassy bombings to authorize the CIA or its agents to use lethal force if necessary in an attempt to capture bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and several other top lieutenants. Clinton had a specific understanding of bin Laden’s leadership group. He understood al-Zawahiri as someone who was “as smart as bin Laden, not quite as charismatic, but equally ruthless.” The squat Egyptian doctor remained fixed in Clinton’s mind as a participant in the conspiracy that assassinated Anwar Sadat, whom Clinton saw as a rare progressive in the Middle East. His memo provided legal authority for CIA covert operations aimed at taking a specific list of al Qaeda leaders into custody for purposes of returning them to the United States for trial on federal charges of terrorism and murder.14

The MON, as it was called, added new specificity to a previously approved CIA covert action program. The agency already had legal authority to disrupt and arrest terrorists under the 1986 presidential finding that established its Counterterrorist Center. A new finding would trigger all sorts of complex bureaucratic, budgetary, and legal steps. It seemed wiser to use a MON to amend the legal authority the center already possessed, to make it more specific.

By 1998 government lawyers had been intimately woven into the American system of spying and covert action. After the Iran-Contra scandal the White House established a new position of chief legal counsel to the president’s national security adviser. This office, headed at the time of the Africa embassy bombings by Jamie Baker, occupied a suite on the third floor of the Old Executive Office Building, next to the chief White House adviser on intelligence policy. Baker ran a highly secret interagency committee of lawyers that drafted, debated, and approved presidential findings and MONs. They spent long hours on subtle legal issues that arose in America’s lethal covert action programs:When is a targeted killing not an assassination? When is it permissible to shoot a suspect overseas in the course of an attempted arrest?15

Those and similar questions swirled around the CIA’s secret program to track and capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. From Tenet on down, the CIA’s senior managers wanted the White House lawyers to be crystal clear about what was permissible and what was not. They wanted the rules of engagement spelled out in writing and signed by the president so that every CIA officer in the field who ever handed a gun or a map to an Afghan agent could be assured that he was operating legally.16

This was the role of the MON. It was typically about seven or eight pages long, written in the form of a presidential decision memo drafted for Clinton’s signature. The August 1998 memo began with what the lawyers called a “predicate,” or a statement about how bin Laden and his aides had attacked the United States. It also outlined and analyzed possible repercussions of the covert action being planned to arrest them. The MON made clear that the president was aware of the risks he was assuming as he sent the CIA into action. Any covert arrest operations in Afghanistan might go sour, and agents or civilians might be killed. Difficulties might be created for American diplomacy if the operations failed or were exposed. There was also language to address the issue of civilian casualties. Typically this was a boilerplate phrase which in effect urged that “every effort must be taken” by the CIA to avoid such casualties where possible.17

Some of the most sensitive language in the MON concerned the specific authorization to use deadly force. The lawyers had to make clear to the CIA in writing that it was okay to shoot and kill bin Laden’s bodyguards or bin Laden himself as long as the force was employed in self-defense and in the course of a legitimate attempt to make an arrest. “We wanted to make clear to the people in the field that we preferred arrest, but we recognized that that probably wasn’t going to be possible,” Richard Clarke said later. After the Africa bombings the intent of the White House, Clinton’s national security aides insisted later, was to encourage the CIA to carry out an operation, not to riddle the agency with constraints or doubts. Yet Clinton’s aides did not want to write the authorization so that it could be interpreted as an unrestricted license to kill. For one thing, the Justice Department signaled that it would oppose such language if it was brought to Clinton for a signature. Their compromise language, in a succession of bin Laden–focused MONs, always expressed some ambiguity. Typical language might instruct the CIA to “apprehend with lethal force as authorized.”18 Those sorts of abstract phrases had wiggle room in them. Some CIA officers and supervisors read their MONs and worried that if an operation in Afghanistan went bad, they would be accused of having acted outside the memo’s scope.

As time passed, private recriminations grew between the CIA and the White House. It was common among senior National Security Council aides to see the CIA as much too cautious, paralyzed by fears of legal and political risk. They were not alone in this view. Porter Goss, a former CIA officer who had entered Congress and now chaired the House intelligence committee, declared just six weeks after the Africa bombings that the Directorate of Operations had become too “gun-shy.” The CIA’s outgoing inspector general, Fred Hitz, wrote at the same time that the CIA “needs to recapture the esprit de corps it manifested during the height of the Cold War.”19 At Langley this criticism rankled. Midlevel officers noted that they were the ones who had developed the Tarnak snatch operation even before the Africa attacks, only to have it turned down. The CIA’s senior managers felt that Clinton’s White House aides, in particular, wanted to have it both ways. They liked to blame the CIA for its supposed lack of aggression, yet the White House lawyers wrote covert action authorities full of wiggle words. CIA managers had been conditioned by history to read their written findings and MONs literally.Where the words were not clear, they recommended caution to their officers in the field.

The classified legal memos reflected a wider ambiguity in Clinton’s covert policy toward bin Laden that autumn. There was little question at either the National Security Council or the CIA that under American law it was entirely permissible to kill Osama bin Laden and his top aides, at least after evidence showed they were responsible for the Africa attacks. The ban on assassinations contained in Executive Order 12333 did not apply to military targets, the Office of Legal Counsel in Clinton’s Justice Department had previously ruled in classified opinions.20 Tarnak Farm or other terrorist encampments in Afghanistan were legitimate military targets under this definition, the White House lawyers agreed. In addition, the assassination ban did not apply to attacks carried out in preemptive self-defense where it seemed likely that the target was planning to strike the United States. Clearly bin Laden qualified under this standard as well. Under American law, then, Clinton might have signed MONs that made no reference to seeking bin Laden’s arrest, capture, or rendition for trial. He might have legally authorized the agency to carry out covert action for the sole purpose of killing bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, and other al Qaeda leaders.

But Clinton did not choose this path. Janet Reno, the attorney general, from whom Clinton was somewhat estranged, opposed MONs that would approve pure lethal operations against bin Laden by the CIA. Reno’s position, expressed in Jamie Baker’s top-secret council of lawyers and in other communications with Richard Clarke’s counterterrorism group, was nuanced and complex, according to officials who interacted with the attorney general and her aides. She told the White House that she would approve lethal strikes against bin Laden if the Saudi threatened an imminent attack against the United States. But what was the definition of “imminent”? Clarke argued that the threat reporting about bin Laden made clear that al Qaeda had attacks in motion, but it was impossible to be sure about the timing or location of specific bin Laden operations. Reno accepted that they could not predict specific attacks, but when the strikes that Clarke warned about did not occur right away, Reno sometimes renewed her private objections to broad lethal authority for the CIA.

Reno’s disapproval mattered because National Security Adviser Sandy Berger sought a consensus within the Cabinet about the exact wording of the CIA’s instructions. Even though they felt they were on very solid legal ground, the language they were working with month after month, memo after memo, lived in uncomfortable proximity to the long-standing White House ban on assassinations. They did not want Reno to develop dissents to Clinton’s decisions about bin Laden in this area. In the midst of the impeachment mess, none of them wanted to wake up to a newspaper headline that read: ATTORNEY GENERAL OBJECTS TO CLINTON’S TERRORIST ASSASSINATION PLANS. So Jamie Baker’s group drafted and redrafted language to accommodate Reno’s concerns. The resulting consensus formulations, conceded one White House senior official involved, were often convoluted and “Talmudic.”

More broadly, the president’s covert policy—as fashioned by Sandy Berger, his deputy James Steinberg, Richard Clarke, and the national security cabinet—pursued two different goals at the same time. On the one hand, they ordered cruise missile–equipped submarines to patrol secretly under the Arabian Sea. They hoped to use the submarines to kill bin Laden if they could find him sitting still long enough to strike. On the other hand, they authorized the CIA to carry out operations designed at least on paper to take bin Laden alive. The Small Group debated “whether to consider this a law enforcement matter demanding a judicial response or a military matter in which the use of armed force was justified,” Madeleine Albright recalled. “We decided it was both.” William Cohen argued that debate over war versus law enforcement was a “false choice”; all instruments of American power were required at once.

The split policy reflected unresolved divisions inside the national security cabinet. Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI director Louis Freeh, along with others at Justice, had invested themselves deeply in the law enforcement approach to terrorism. American counterterrorist policy had since 1986 emphasized bringing terrorists to justice in courtrooms. Even though killing bin Laden would be legal under American law, some at Justice and the White House nonetheless felt uneasy at times about that approach. There might be unintended consequences. They had been willing to endorse the August cruise missile strikes in the immediate aftermath of the embassy bombings. There was a sense of proportion in those attacks. Now, as an ongoing matter, some of them preferred to seek bin Laden’s arrest, not to launch a low-grade war.21

Clinton himself seemed to lean in both directions. If anything, by his actions and decisions the president seemed to favor lethal force against bin Laden and al-Zawahiri if he could find a way to make an immaculate strike. “Clinton’s desire to kill them was very clear to us early on,” recalled one of his senior aides. But he did not commit himself all the way. The first MON he signed in the summer of 1998 authorized covert action aimed at taking bin Laden and his aides into custody for trial. The ambiguous language might have been crafted to assure Janet Reno’s support, but Clinton etched his own signature on the memo. Yet the president’s second MON explicitly authorized bin Laden’s death in one narrow set of hypothetical circumstances—without overriding the general order in the first memo.

At one of Richard Clarke’s Counterterrorism Security Group meetings that autumn, they reviewed intelligence about how bin Laden moved around Afghanistan. Sometimes he traveled by road in heavily armed convoys of Land Cruisers. Occasionally, however, he flew in helicopters and aircraft maintained by al Qaeda in conjunction with the Taliban’s small air force. The CIA received occasional reports from its tribal tracking team and other sources about bin Laden’s flights. They wanted to be certain their agents had legal permission to shoot at a helicopter or airplane if they knew that bin Laden was on board. The Pentagon also ordered planning late in 1998 for operations to intercept al Qaeda aircraft. Downing an airplane was not an operation likely to produce an arrest or capture, so it did not seem to be covered by the prevailing MON. Also, such an attack could violate international treaties banning air piracy. This was an area the National Security Council lawyers often worried about: A covert operation might be legal under domestic U.S. law, but it might at the same time violate American treaty commitments abroad. This could lead other countries to abandon their pledges under international treaties. Also, in some cases the United States had passed laws making any treaty violation a domestic crime. A MON might permit crimes abroad but nonetheless place an individual CIA officer in legal jeopardy inside the United States.22

Jamie Baker’s office presented a new MON for Clinton’s signature. It would authorize the CIA or the Pentagon to shoot down bin Laden’s helicopters or airplanes under certain circumstances. There was no pretense in this MON that bin Laden would be captured for trial. Clinton signed it.

The president had now authorized the CIA to capture bin Laden for trial and, separately, to kill him. Pentagon planning was equally divided: A December 1998 order sought options for capturing al Qaeda leaders and transporting them from Kandahar, while other plans contemplated stand-off air strikes. Some CIA managers saw their instructions from the White House as legalistic, restrictive, and ambiguous. The drafts of more straightforward proposed instructions they sent over to the White House from Langley came back full of abstract phrases open to multiple interpretations. The CIA received no “written word nor verbal order to conduct a lethal action,” one official involved recalled. “The objective was to render this guy to law enforcement.” Under its written authorities from the White House the CIA had to recruit agents “to grab [bin Laden] and bring him to a secure place where we can turn him over to the FBI.” Some CIA managers saw a big difference between the August 1998 MON language and a pure lethal action. “If they had said ‘lethal action,’ it would have been a whole different kettle of fish and much easier,” the official recalled. Credible planning and supervision of an arrest operation inside Afghanistan, transfer to FBI agents, and extraction to the United States was far more complicated than planning for a lethal strike. The exact language Clinton sent to Langley in his bin Laden-related MONS zigzagged on the issue of lethal force. The first document after the embassy bombings said the CIA’s tribal agents could use lethal force during a capture operation only in self-defense. The TRODPINTS were told they would only be paid if they captured bin Laden, not if they killed him. At the end of 1998 Clinton reversed course and approved paying the tribals either way, as long as they did not execute prisoners or otherwise grossly violate the rules. A new memo during this period also authorized the CIA’s agents to kill bin Laden if capturing him did not look feasible. Yet Clinton later signed at least two other classified memos about operations against bin Laden that reverted to the earlier, less permissive language. The changes demoralized CIA field officers and encouraged them to believe that they and their Afghan allies would be held to account on issues of legal nuance.23

White House aides saw the same instructions as providing the clearest possible signal that the CIA should get after bin Laden and his leadership group and kill them if necessary. Capture for trial was the stated objective of the August MON, yes, but the White House aides believed they had written the document to provide the CIA with the maximum flexibility to kill bin Laden in the course of an arrest operation. All of them, including the CIA’s managers and lawyers, knew that as a practical matter bin Laden and his bodyguards would resist capture. These were committed jihadists. They would likely martyr themselves long before they were handcuffed. Under the White House’s authorities, as soon as bin Laden’s men shot back, the CIA’s several dozen armed Afghan agents could take them out. Also, as the months passed and new MONs were written, the CIA’s authorizing language, while still ambiguous, was changed to make the use of lethal force more likely. At first the CIA was permitted to use lethal force only in the course of a legitimate attempt to make an arrest of bin Laden or his top aides. Later the key language allowed for a snatch operation or a pure lethal attack if an arrest was not plausible.

Clinton’s aides thought the CIA’s managers were using the legal issues as a dodge. The agency sometimes seemed to believe that under the MON, “unless you find him walking alone, unarmed, with a sign that says ‘I am Osama’ on him, that we weren’t going to attempt the operation,” one White House official involved recalled. “I think we were concerned that there were too many people [at Langley] who will just see the downsides and not enough people motivated to get the job done.” Yet CIA leaders and lawyers alike interpreted their instructions the same way—as orders to capture, not kill, except in certain circumstances.24

Sandy Berger later recalled his frustration about this hidden debate, confined at the time to only a few dozen officials and lawyers with the proper security clearances: “It was no question, the cruise missiles were not trying to capture him. They were not law enforcement techniques.” Berger said that if “there was ever any confusion, it was never conveyed to me or the president by the DCI or anybody else.”25 What the White House needed most was “actionable intelligence” about bin Laden’s precise location. They depended on the CIA to provide it. The agency had ample authority to put its Afghan agents into action, Berger believed.

The tension festered. It would not be resolved anytime soon.

IN THE SAME WEEK that bin Laden’s operatives struck two U.S. embassies in Africa, Mullah Omar’s turbaned Taliban soldiers, their ranks swollen with jihadist volunteers from Pakistan’s madrassas and aided by officers from Pakistani intelligence, finally captured their last major prize in the north of Afghanistan: the sprawling city of Mazar-i-Sharif. “My boys and I are riding into Mazar-i-Sharif,” the longtime ISI Afghan bureau officer Colonel Imam, once a close partner of the CIA, boasted in an intercepted telephone call at the height of the battle.26

Mazar’s defenders, commanders allied with Ahmed Shah Massoud, succumbed to bribes paid by Pakistani officers, Massoud told his men at a military assembly. The leading local warlord, Abdul Malik, “delivered his city for a fistful of dollars,” Massoud declared.27 Massoud and his militias still controlled the northern town of Taloqan, but increasingly they were being painted into a corner.

Just weeks after the embassy bombings Massoud wrote a letter to the United States Senate urging that America help him in his war against the Taliban, Pakistani intelligence, and bin Laden. After the expulsion of Soviet troops, Massoud wrote, Afghanistan’s people “were thrust into a whirlwind of foreign intrigue, deception, great-gamesmanship and internal strife. . . . We Afghans erred, too. Our shortcomings were a result of political innocence, inexperience, vulnerability, victimization, bickering and inflated egos. But by no means does this justify what some of our so-called Cold War allies did to undermine this just victory.” Pakistan and its Arab Islamist allies had fielded twenty-eight thousand paramilitary and military forces in Afghanistan to aid the Taliban’s drive for conquest, Massoud wrote. Afghanistan had been delivered to “fanatics, extremists, terrorists, mercenaries, drug mafias and professional murderers.” America should help him turn them away. Washington should break its long debilitating dependence on Pakistan in shaping its Afghan policies, Massoud urged.28

But the Clinton administration, especially diplomats at the State Department, remained disdainful of Massoud and his pleas. With the fall of Mazar, the Taliban seemed more than ever an irreversible force inside Afghanistan. Madeleine Albright, Undersecretary Tom Pickering, and regional specialists in State’s South Asia bureau all recommended that the administration continue its policy of diplomatic engagement with the Taliban. They would use pressure and promises of future aid to persuade Omar to break with bin Laden. The U.S. embassy in Islamabad promoted this argument in its cables to Washington. Most State diplomats saw Ahmed Shah Massoud as a spent force tainted by his recent deals to accept arms supplies from Iran and by his reliance on heroin trafficking for income. Some at State, including Inderfurth, said later that they thought it was useful for Massoud to remain viable as a military force in northern Afghanistan because he offered a check on the Taliban’s cross-border Islamist ambitions in Central Asia. But from Albright on down, the State Department certainly was not prepared to join Massoud’s military campaign against the Taliban.29

State diplomats sought to convince the Taliban’s leaders that America did not see them as the enemy, that the United States was targeting only bin Laden and his Arab lieutenants. The August cruise missile attack “was not directed against Afghanistan or the Taliban,” Assistant Secretary of State Rick Inderfurth explained in October 1998. The Taliban “need to understand that by harboring terrorists, they are becoming increasingly complicit in the acts those terrorists commit.” But there was still time for the Taliban to change its stripes. “We urge the Taliban to respond,” Inderfurth declared. “If it does not, we will have to respond accordingly and adjust our policies.”30

The underlying premise of this outreach, rarely stated aloud so as to preserve America’s bargaining position, was to trade U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government in exchange for custody of Osama bin Laden. Among other things, State’s diplomats hoped Pakistan and its intelligence service would use their presumed leverage over the Taliban to help cut this deal. In effect this was the continuation of an American policy that had long been willing to accept Pakistani hegemony over Afghanistan in the name of regional stability.

AT THE HEART OF the matter lay an unresolved factual and policy question: Who was the enemy? There was a second question, also unresolved: How dangerous, really, was the threat?

By the late 1990s, presiding over a historic economic and stock market boom, Bill Clinton had concluded that terrorism—along with ethnic war, diseases such as AIDS, and regressive religious regimes like the Taliban—represented “the dark side” of the “breathtaking increase in global interdependence” witnessed since the collapse of communism. Satellites, air travel, and more recently the World Wide Web had collapsed time and space, suddenly forcing disparate nations and religions and cultures into roiling interaction. America had reaped enormous benefits from these changes. Its rapidly rising wealth flowed directly from “tearing down the walls, collapsing the distances, and spreading the information that we have across the world,” as Clinton put it later. Yet at the same time “you cannot collapse walls, collapse differences, and spread information without making yourself more vulnerable to forces of destruction.” Clinton believed that America’s mission was to accelerate these trends, not resist them. He sought to lead the country and the world from a period of global “interdependence” to one of more complete worldwide “integration.” Terrorist attacks were a “painful and powerful example of the fact that we live in an interdependent world that is not yet an integrated global community,” he believed. Yet Clinton did not want to build walls. He saw the reactionary forces of terrorism, nationalism, and fundamentalism as inevitable; they were intricately connected to the sources of global progress. They were also doomed. In human history, he asserted with questionable accuracy, “no terrorist campaign has ever succeeded.”31

More specifically, Clinton saw bin Laden and Islamic radicals like him as part of a long historical continuum of “fanatics” who “think they’ve got the truth, and if you share their truth, your life has value. And if you don’t, you’re a legitimate target.” Clinton often described his own Christian faith—shaped in part by his exposure at Georgetown University to the Jesuit tradition—as rooted in a search for God that was constrained by human fallibility. “Most of us believe that no one has the absolute truth,” Clinton said. “As children of God, we are by definition limited in this life, in this body, with our minds.” Life could only be “a journey toward truth,” never fully completed until salvation. The Taliban, bin Laden, and al Qaeda had “very different ideas [than] we have about the nature of truth, the value of life.”32

Clinton was prepared to “take Mr. Bin Laden out of the picture” if he could, he said later. Yet he defined the broader purpose of his foreign policy as one that would “spread the benefits” of global integration and “reduce the risks” of terrorism by making “more partners and fewer terrorists in the future.” He was inclined to see bin Laden as an isolated fanatic, flailing dangerously but quixotically against the forces of global progress.33

Most of the Clinton administration’s debates about counterterrorism policy took place far from public view. Some of the most pointed occurred within the Counterterrorism Security Group where virtually every memo was highly classified. Here the CIA’s main representative, Paul Pillar, joined tense, sometimes hostile debates with Richard Clarke and his principal counterterrorism aides, Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin. Their day-to-day arguments involved some of the most critical strategic issues.

Their discussions were substantive, intellectual, and visceral. They involved basic questions about modern terrorism, bin Laden’s network, its threats, and American policy. All four men were exceptionally intelligent and well spoken. They were bookish, intense, well read, nervous, and argumentative. Their disagreements had the hyperarticulate character and unyielding passion of ideological disputes among Ivy League faculty. The hours they worked together were long beyond count, and the pay was mediocre. Yet they were debating day to day the most important issues in their country’s clandestine war against bin Laden. The pressure was almost unbearable. There was little reward for being right in these disputes. There was the continual potential of catastrophe for being wrong.

The four of them agreed about a great deal. Their differences were often subtle, yet they were also substantial. As the longtime deputy director of the Counterterrorist Center, Pillar wielded great influence over the CIA’s terrorism analysis. Along with Clarke, Simon and Benjamin were instrumental in White House counterterrorism policy in the first year after the Africa embassy bombings.

Pillar saw terrorism fundamentally as “a challenge to be managed, not solved,” as he put it later. Terrorist attacks seemed likely to become a permanent feature of American experience, he believed. He objected to the metaphor of waging “war” against terrorism because “it is a war that cannot be won” and also “unlike most wars, it has neither a fixed set of enemies nor the prospect of coming to closure.” A better analogy than war might be “the effort by public health authorities to control communicable diseases.” A lesson of American counterterrorism efforts since the 1980s was that the threat could not be defeated, only “reduced, attenuated, and to some degree controlled.” Striving for zero terrorist attacks would be as unhealthy for American foreign policy as pushing for zero unemployment would be for the economy, Pillar believed. In a broad sense, Pillar’s outlook accorded with Clinton’s: Terrorism was an inevitable feature of global change.34

The White House aides felt Pillar did a solid job, although Clarke could be viciously critical of him in meetings. But they worried that CIA careerists like Pillar did not feel a sense of urgency—and political vulnerability—about terrorism, as they did. It sometimes seemed to his White House colleagues that Pillar looked out on the terrorist threat from the CIA’s wooded Langley campus in the weary way a veteran homicide detective might gaze out his office window at a darkened city, listening to the ambulance sirens wail in mournful repetition. The best way to attack the terrorists, Pillar argued, was through painstaking professional work, cell by cell, case by case, working closely with foreign intelligence and police services. This might not be glamorous or exciting, but it was effective, essential, pragmatic. “The U.S. hand can stay hidden, and the risk of terrorist reprisals is minimal” in this approach, Pillar argued. America should work the terrorist threat one interrogation room at a time, with foreign partners close at hand.35

The emphasis Clinton, Clarke, Simon, and Benjamin placed on the danger of terrorists acquiring weapons of mass destruction seemed overwrought to Pillar. It was a diversion, a kind of hysteria, he thought. It produced “often sensational public discussion of seemingly ever-expanding ways in which terrorists could use chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear terrorism to inflict mass casualties in the United States.” The Clinton team seemed obsessed with the most unlikely scenarios. Clinton’s personal interest had catalyzed these discussions and diverted resources from more sensible uses, Pillar wrote at the time, such as funding anemic CIA liaisons with foreign intelligence and police forces. The hype about weapons of mass destruction created “skewed priorities and misdirected resources.” The White House would be better off spending more money and time on the basics of CIA-led intelligence collection and counterterrorist work.36

Also, those at the White House, Congress, and elsewhere who criticized the CIA for not being aggressive enough, for failing to station enough officers undercover overseas, just didn’t understand the intelligence business. As Pillar put it sarcastically, “The image of the Ivy Leaguer who goes where it is dangerous to drink the water and, unencumbered by annoying instructions from headquarters, applies his brilliance and James Bond–like daring to the job of saving America from terrorism appeals to our imaginations but has little to do with the real business of intelligence and counterterrorism.”37

Pillar worried that Osama bin Laden had become “a preoccupation” for the United States after the Africa embassy bombings. Capturing bin Laden had become “a grail” whose pursuit threatened to overshadow all else. “Certainly bin Laden is a significant foe,” Pillar acknowledged, “whose call to kill Americans . . . is backed up by considerable ability to do just that.” Religiously motivated terrorism such as that preached by bin Laden was on the rise, and this terrorism threatened greater casualties than past forms, Pillar acknowledged. Taking bin Laden out of action would be “a positive development,” he believed, yet al Qaeda would likely survive, other leaders would emerge, and Sunni Islamist extremism in Afghanistan and across the Arab world would continue. Pillar worried that “fixating” on bin Laden personally only inflated the Saudi’s global reputation and represented another “misallocation of attention and resources” by the Clinton White House. As Pillar summed it up: “Having counterterrorist managers and many of their officers concentrating on a single enemy may be an unaffordable luxury when the same people have to handle other current terrorist threats as well as staying ahead of the next bin Laden.”38

It was this sort of commentary that fueled suspicions in Clinton’s White House that the CIA was just not up to the job at hand. Clarke, Simon, and Benjamin had their “hair on fire” over their fear of bin Laden’s next strike, they readily admitted to their colleagues. They endorsed much of Pillar’s analysis and his painstaking cell-by-cell counterterrorism tactics, but it frustrated them that one of the CIA’s most senior counterterrorism managers and thinkers did not, in their estimation, share their sense of urgency or alarm. After the Africa bombings Simon and Benjamin began to call attention to what they later called “a new, religiously motivated terrorism” whose most important feature was that it did not feel “constrained by the limits on violence that state sponsors have observed themselves or placed on their proxies.” Where Pillar saw a permanent condition of chronic disease, Simon and Benjamin saw “unmistakable harbingers of a new and vastly more threatening terrorism, one that aims to produce casualties on a massive scale.”39

Simon and Benjamin recast the terrorism analyst Brian Jenkins’s 1970s-era observation that terrorists wanted a lot of people watching their attacks but not a lot of people dead. Osama bin Laden and his adherents, Simon and Benjamin warned, “want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead.”40

To an extent the major Cabinet departments involved in counterterrorism in the autumn of 1998 possessed institutional viewpoints on bin Laden. The White House, most sensitive to the political consequences of both terrorism and failed covert action, rang loud alarm bells about the threats but also proved cautious about operations that might go bad. The State Department emphasized diplomatic engagements and the value of enduring alliances with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The Justice Department promoted law enforcement approaches. Yet within each department there was debate among senior officials. Office mates in the South Asia bureau of the State Department disagreed vehemently about whether the Taliban would ever negotiate in good faith or whether Ahmed Shah Massoud deserved American aid. At the FBI some senior agents were alarmed and engaged by the al Qaeda threat, while others dismissed it as a distraction, one terrorism problem among many.

At the CIA, Pillar’s articulate skepticism reflected in part the intellectual traditions of the Directorate of Intelligence. They would not be cowed by political fashion; they would take the long view. Spies and operators from the Directorate of Operations tended to have a more openly alarmist, aggressive view of the bin Laden threat. This was also true inside the bin Laden unit of the Counterterrorist Center, where analysts and operations officers became nearly obsessive about their mission after the Africa bombings. If anyone suffered from a “grail” complex about capturing bin Laden, it was Pillar’s own colleagues in the CIA’s bin Laden tracking group.

Increasingly George Tenet seemed to be with them, at least in spirit. The CIA director talked frequently with Berger and Clarke at the White House. He absorbed their anxieties, and he could read the threat reporting for himself; it was often scary stuff. Reading the cables every day, it did not take Pillar’s Princeton Ph.D. to see that bin Laden could easily be the source of a sudden, terrible attack. Tenet would call Berger regularly and urge him to share particularly worrisome threat reports with President Clinton.41

Nor did Tenet share Pillar’s wariness about the metaphor of waging “war” on bin Laden. In fact, Tenet’s instinct was to think of the challenge in just those terms. As the weeks passed that autumn he worried that his colleagues were losing their momentum. On December 4, 1998, Tenet wrote a memo to his senior deputies at Langley headquarters.

“We must now enter a new phase in our efforts against bin Laden,” Tenet declared. “Our work to date has been remarkable and in some instances heroic; yet each day we all acknowledge that retaliation is inevitable and that its scope may be far larger than we have previously experienced. . . .

“We are at war. I want no resources or people spared in this effort.”42

It did not happen. Resources and people at the Counterterrorist Center remained tight. Tenet and other managers tried to shift budgets around to help the bin Laden unit but they did not have the money to fight anything more than a metaphorical war. Tenet was not prepared to tear down other bureaus of the CIA and pour every dollar into the campaign against al Qaeda. There were too many other active threats and important national priorities that demanded expensive intelligence collection, he believed. On paper, as Director of Central Intelligence, Tenet set priorities for all of the resources of the American intelligence community, including those at the behemoth Pentagon. In practical reality he could only control the CIA’s relatively modest budget. In the classified bureaucratic system that tried to define priorities for all government intelligence collection, targets were ranked in tiers. Late in 1998 Tenet designated the bin Laden threat as “Tier 0,” the very highest. Yet few elsewhere in the scattered and Balkanized intelligence bureaucracy took notice. The prioritization process was so broad and diffuse that it was worthless, some involved believed. The result was that an American government that spent hundreds of billions of dollars annually on defense and national security directed an infinitesimally tiny fraction of that money to disrupt and combat an enemy group identified by the CIA director as a mortal, even existential threat to the United States. Who, ultimately, was responsible? President Clinton had perhaps the greatest power to change these resource allocations; the Republican-controlled Congress was a close second. Tenet and other intelligence department heads had some discretionary power over the budgets they did possess. “In hindsight, I wish I had said, ‘Let’s take the whole enterprise down’ and put five hundred more people there sooner,” Tenet said later. But he did not. The practical result was that “we never had enough officers from the Directorate of Operations,” recalled one former chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. “The officers we had were greatly overworked. . . . We also received marginal analytic support from the Directorate of Intelligence.” Tenet felt the CIA’s budget needed an infusion of about $1 billion annually for at least five years, but when he advocated for these numbers at the White House and in classified hearings on Capitol Hill, he “never got to first base.”43

To wage even a modest war it was usually necessary to fight with reliable allies. For nearly two decades the CIA had been running covert action in Afghanistan through its liaison with Pakistani intelligence. To disrupt bin Laden’s embedded network in Afghanistan and capture al Qaeda’s leaders, the agency would have to revive its partnership with Pakistan’s ISI—or, if this failed, the CIA would soon have to find another intelligence service to work with in Afghanistan’s rough neighborhood.

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