“Let’s Just Blow the Thing Up”

PAKISTANI PRIME MINISTER Nawaz Sharif lived in continual fear of his own army. Generals had invented the Sharifs as a political dynasty. They endorsed Nawaz as the civilian face of their favored alliance, a center-right artifice of industrialists, landlords, Muslim clerics, and freelance opportunists. Sharif was attentive to his self-interest if not always witting about how to secure it. He was presumed to be raking millions from Pakistan’s treasury for his family’s benefit. He also knew that any Pakistani politician, especially one handpicked by the army, risked overthrow if the generals felt threatened by the civilian’s independence or popularity. Sharif sought to forestall this fate by manipulating appointments at the top of the army command. He stacked the senior ranks with generals he believed were loyal to him and his family. The two crucial jobs were the chief of army staff, traditionally the top military job in Pakistan, and the position of chief spy, the director-general of ISI.

Two months after the American cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan, Sharif fired his army chief. Jehangir Karamat was a secular thinker who supported civilian-led democracy. Yet Sharif interpreted speeches that Karamat had made about civil-military relations as portents of an army-led coup. Later it became clear that Sharif had badly misread the situation. Still, in typical style, the prime minister plunged ahead. He named Pervez Musharraf, a little-known general with a liberal reputation, to head the army. Although he had no intimate relationship with Musharraf, Sharif let it be known in the Pakistani press that Musharraf was his personally chosen general, his protégé. This was a public relations blunder that ensured Musharraf would distance himself from Sharif, at a minimum to preserve his credibility with other generals.1

At the same time Sharif appointed General Khwaja Ziauddin as the new chief of Pakistani intelligence. This, too, was an overtly political decision. Ziauddin had made his career in the engineering corps, a section of the military that rarely produced army leaders. But he had married into a wealthy, connected family in Lahore, and he was a frequent social visitor at the sprawling Model Town estate of Nawaz Sharif’s influential father. It was a violation of army protocol for a rising general to allow himself to become visible socially, especially under the wing of a civilian political family like the Sharifs. Still, Sharif’s father tapped Ziauddin as a favored brigadier, and he won an appointment to army headquarters, where he worked with the country’s top-secret nuclear program. When Sharif sent him in the fall of 1998 to run ISI, Ziauddin was widely regarded as an emissary and protector of the prime minister.2

Sharif hoped to further defend himself from his army by drawing close to the Clinton administration. This was by now an old tactic of weak civilian prime ministers in Pakistan. Bill Clinton seemed to have a soft spot for Sharif. They had spent long hours on the telephone in the spring of 1998 when Clinton unsuccessfully sought to persuade the prime minister to forgo nuclear weapons tests in response to a surprise test by India. But many of Clinton’s senior aides and diplomats, especially those who knew Pakistan well, regarded Sharif as an unusually dull, muddled politician. He seemed to offer a bovine, placid gaze in private meetings where he sometimes read awkwardly from note cards. Still, Sharif tried to make himself indispensable in continuing American-led talks over the region’s nuclear crisis. Now there was suddenly another way for Sharif to make himself useful to the Americans: He could aid the secret effort to capture or kill Osama bin Laden.

The new U.S. ambassador to Pakistan was a lively career diplomat named William Milam, an ambassador previously in crisisridden Liberia and Bangladesh. A mustached, suspender-snapping man with a potbelly and an easy laugh, Milam was accustomed to security threats and unstable politics, and he got along well with his CIA station chief, Gary Schroen. The pair opened private talks about bin Laden and Afghanistan with Musharraf and Ziauddin.

The CIA hoped to persuade Ziauddin to betray bin Laden, to set him up for capture or ambush. The Islamabad station remained heavily invested in its tribal tracking force of former anti-Soviet mujahedin. Bin Laden was suddenly a much more difficult target, however. He moved frequently and unpredictably. After newspapers disclosed that the Americans had tapped his satellite telephone, bin Laden stopped using it, making it harder still to track him. Schroen and other CIA officers concluded that the best way to capture bin Laden was to enlist help from Pakistani intelligence officers who had his trust. They wanted ISI to lure him into a trap.3

Milam, Schroen, and their colleagues in the Islamabad embassy found Ziauddin a straightforward, accessible character. The new Pakistani intelligence chief was a stocky man, about five feet nine inches tall, and his face looked as if it had been boxed around in a few fights. He was not shy, as some generals were, about talking openly with the CIA about Pakistani politics. He also acknowledged that neither he nor Sharif could work their will down the ranks by just snapping their fingers. He wanted to cooperate closely with the CIA and the Americans where he could, Ziauddin said, but the CIA would have to understand what was politically feasible in Pakistan.4

By the fall of 1998, CIA and other American intelligence reporting had documented many links between ISI, the Taliban, bin Laden, and other Islamist militants operating from Afghanistan. Classified American reporting showed that Pakistani intelligence maintained about eight stations inside Afghanistan, staffed by active ISI officers or retired officers on contract. CIA reporting showed that Pakistani intelligence officers at about the colonel level met with bin Laden or his representatives to coordinate access to training camps for volunteer fighters headed for Kashmir. The CIA suspected that Pakistani intelligence might provide funds or equipment to bin Laden as part of the operating agreements at these camps. There was no evidence that ISI officers worked with bin Laden on his overseas terrorist strikes, such as the embassy bombings in Africa. The reported liaison involved Pakistan’s regional agenda: bleeding Indian forces in Kashmir and helping the Taliban defeat Massoud’s Northern Alliance.5

American intelligence analysts assumed that it was very difficult for ISI headquarters in Rawalpindi to control officers who worked inside Afghanistan. There seemed little reason to hope that Nawaz Sharif, nervous as a cat around anyone in his military, could easily issue orders to undercover colonels in Afghanistan. Nor was Ziauddin, with no background in intelligence and a reputation as Sharif’s lackey, likely to exercise uncontested control.

Senior Clinton administration officials who consumed this classified reporting about Pakistan intelligence officers in Afghanistan “assumed,” as one of them put it later, “that those ISI individuals were perhaps profiteering, engaged in the drug running, the arms running.” Not only was Ziauddin probably unable to control them, but “headquarters, to some extent, probably didn’t know what they were doing.” At the same time these Pakistani intelligence officers clearly were following orders from Islamabad in a broad sense. In their use of jihad to extend Pakistan’s influence east and west, they had full backing from their country’s army and from sectors of the civilian political class. “The policy of the government, never declared, particularly in Kashmir, was to foster guerrilla warfare,” recalled one American official who regularly read the CIA’s reporting that autumn. Ziauddin and his senior colleagues, as well as their colonels on the ground, “thought they were carrying out the overall policy of their government.” At the White House, Clinton’s senior foreign policy team saw “an incredibly unholy alliance that was not only supporting all the terrorism that would be directed against us” but also threatened “to provoke a nuclear war in Kashmir.”6

Still, it was possible that Ziauddin would cooperate on bin Laden, CIA officers believed. Perhaps he or his men would help sell bin Laden out for money. Perhaps they could be persuaded of the political benefits to Pakistan. If bin Laden were removed as an impediment, the United States might eventually recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s rightful government. That, in turn, would crown a decade of covert Pakistani policy in the region and put India on the defensive. Although they were careful not to put it so bluntly, the Americans told Sharif’s generals that the army could better achieve its regional military aims if it betrayed bin Laden than if it stuck with him.7

Schroen’s main operations proposal was simple. Pakistani intelligence would schedule a meeting with bin Laden at Kandahar’s airport. ISI officers would tell bin Laden that they had a message for his eyes only. The CIA would then put its tribal agents into position on the long, open desert road to the airport. There was only one way in and out, and it would be relatively easy to set up the ambush. A senior ISI officer might fly into Kandahar for the supposed meeting. When bin Laden failed to turn up, the Pakistani officer could just shrug his shoulders and fly back to Islamabad.

Ziauddin took in the CIA’s proposal with apparent interest. He said that he would consult with Sharif and others in Pakistani intelligence to see if the trap could be arranged. Days later he reported back: Impossible. The politics were just too hot, he told the Americans. If the ambush failed and the plan was exposed, Pakistan would pay too high a price with the Taliban, with Islamist politicians and army officers in Pakistan.8

If Pakistani intelligence was going to cooperate with the CIA to capture bin Laden, they would have to come up with a different approach. Ziauddin had his own ideas about that.

NAWAZ SHARIF FLEW to Washington in early December 1998 to meet with President Clinton. Ziauddin came along as an undeclared senior member of the Pakistani delegation. The trip had been designed in part to boost Sharif’s political standing at home by showing that he was close to Clinton and could obtain benefits for Pakistan from his friendship. Clinton had agreed to waive certain trade sanctions and to announce the release of about $500 million in Pakistani funds frozen by the United States in 1991 because of the nuclear issue.9

Clinton, Albright, and Berger met with Sharif, Ziauddin, and other Pakistani officials in the Oval Office for a scripted meeting at 1:30 P.M. on Wednesday, December 2, 1998. Clinton made clear that the issue he cared most about was Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. The president’s college friend Strobe Talbott, now deputy secretary of state, ran the ongoing talks with Pakistan and India, trying to persuade them to freeze or dismantle their bomb programs. In the Oval Office that afternoon, as the Americans read out their formal talking points, “the number one issue on our agenda,” as National Security Council staffer Bruce Riedel put it, was Pakistan’s nuclear program. Second on the list was Pakistan’s economy. Clinton hoped that free trade would help lift Pakistan out of poverty and debt, easing its chronic political and social crises. Third came terrorism and bin Laden.10

Clinton repeatedly signaled to Pakistan’s highest leadership that bin Laden was a lesser priority than nuclear proliferation. Pakistan’s army saw its confrontation with India as a matter of national life or death. Compromise on either the nuclear issue or the use of jihadist guerrillas to tie down India’s large army would mark a sharp change in Pakistani strategy. With the stakes so high, “anything second on your list” was not likely to get the generals’ attention, as a White House official recalled. American officials ranking in the second tier sometimes met with Pakistani counterparts to talk forcefully—and solely—about bin Laden. But when Clinton himself met with Pakistani leaders, his agenda list always had several items, and bin Laden never was at the top. Afghanistan’s war fell even lower down.

The group meeting lasted that afternoon for thirty minutes. By prior arrangement, Sharif asked for time alone with Clinton. They met one-on-one for twenty minutes in the Oval Office.11 It was here, participants in the group meetings were told afterward, that Sharif first raised a proposal that Pakistani intelligence might, with CIA assistance, train a secret commando team for the purpose of capturing Osama bin Laden and “bringing him to justice,” as the American side put it.

The Pakistanis had not been told about the CIA’s Afghan tracking team. They were proposing a larger, more formal commando unit drawn from recently retired members of the Special Services Group, Pakistan’s elite special forces unit. As enlisted men, sergeants, and a few officers retired from the SSG, they could be placed on contract and sent directly to the new bin Laden strike force. Their skills and training would be fresh.12

Clinton made clear that he expected his aides to follow up on the offer, to put the plan into motion. “We tried to get the Pakistanis involved in this, realizing that it was a difficult thing for them,” Clinton said later. “They had both the greatest opportunity, but the greatest political risk in getting him,” Clinton believed.13

They discussed bin Laden again over lunch. Sharif joked that the Americans had wasted their money by launching so many expensive cruise missiles at the Saudi fugitive. They should just have sent a few men into Afghanistan with briefcases full of dollars, and they would have gotten the job done, Sharif said.

The Pakistanis offered an intelligence report: Bin Laden, they said, appeared to be seriously ill. Their information was that bin Laden suffered from kidney disease and that his illness might explain why he had recently disappeared from public view.14That day and afterward the Americans were never sure what to make of these reports and similar ones relayed by Saudi intelligence about bin Laden’s supposed poor health. A few thought the reports might be plausible. Others dismissed them as deliberate misdirection.

Across the lunch table the two sides exchanged their familiar stalemated opinions about the Taliban and Afghanistan. Albright said the United States had very serious problems with the Taliban, including their treatment of women and children. Sharif repeated his usual formulation: Pakistan itself was a victim of Afghanistan’s unfinished war, especially its spillover effects, such as refugees and drug trafficking. Pakistan, too, was a victim of terrorism, he said.

Berger and Albright both told Sharif that “of primary importance” to the U.S. government “is the expulsion of Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan so that he can be brought to justice.”15

Sharif rounded out his American visit with a few speeches and flew home.

Later, many of the Americans involved said they were deeply cynical about Pakistan’s proposal for joint covert action. They thought Sharif was just trying to cook up something that would distract the Americans and shut them up about bin Laden. They did not believe, they said later, that Pakistani intelligence would ever take the risk of ordering the commando team into action.

If Pakistani intelligence wanted to help the CIA capture bin Laden, they did not need an expensive commando team to get it done, many of the Americans involved believed. They could just tell the CIA reliably where bin Laden was, and the United States would strike either with cruise missiles or with a kidnap operation mounted by its Afghan agents. The Americans repeatedly asked ISI for this sort of intelligence on bin Laden, and they were repeatedly rebuffed. Pakistani intelligence officers sometimes complained to the CIA in private that bin Laden now distrusted them. As a result, the Pakistanis said, they did not have the ability to track bin Laden’s movements or predict his whereabouts effectively. The Americans doubted this. Even if bin Laden was now more wary of ISI than in the past, Pakistani intelligence had so many allies in the Afghan-rooted Islamist networks that it could easily set up bin Laden if its officers had the will to do so, they believed.16

Pakistan’s army and political class had calculated that the benefits they reaped from supporting Afghan-based jihadist guerrillas—including those trained and funded by bin Laden—outstripped the costs, some of Clinton’s aides concluded. As one White House official put it bluntly, “Since just telling us to fuck off seemed to do the trick,” why should the Pakistanis change their strategy?17

Sandy Berger, his deputy Jim Steinberg, Richard Clarke, and George Tenet discussed their options. The consensus among them was that the Pakistanis “had neither the ability nor the inclination” to carry the commando plan through, as one official put it. On the other hand, what was the downside? The CIA would be out a few hundred thousand dollars on salaries for some retired Pakistani soldiers plus the costs of training and equipment—small change. The commando project could provide a vehicle for deepening contacts and trust among CIA officers, Ziauddin, and other officers in Pakistani intelligence. This could be useful for intelligence collection and, potentially, unilateral recruitments by the CIA. And even if the chances that the commando team would be deployed against bin Laden were very small—less than 1 percent, the most cynical of the Americans estimated—they had to try every conceivable path.18

The White House approved the plan some months later. Through the Islamabad station, the CIA paid salaries and supplied communications and other gear, as directed by Ziauddin. As it turned out, even the most cynical Americans were perhaps not cynical enough about Ziauddin’s motivations. On paper the CIA-funded secret commando team was being trained for action against bin Laden in Afghanistan. But Ziauddin later demonstrated that he saw another role for the unit: as a small, elite strike force loyal to Pakistan’s prime minister and his intelligence chief. If the army ever moved against Sharif, the prime minister would have a secret bodyguard that might be called in to help defend him.

Nor did ISI change its conduct on the Afghan frontier. Just weeks after the Oval Office meeting, white Land Cruisers pulled up at the darkened Peshawar compound of Abdul Haq, the anti-Soviet Afghan commander and estranged former CIA client. Now a businessman in Dubai, Haq had begun to organize anti-Taliban opposition among prominent Pashtun tribal families such as his own. Pakistani intelligence had warned him to stop making trouble, but Haq had persisted. Ever since his first meeting with CIA station chief Howard Hart, he had seen himself as an independent leader, disdainful of the manipulations of ISI.19

That night, January 12, 1999, mysterious assailants smothered Haq’s bodyguards, entered his home, and murdered his wife and children. Haq’s aides investigated the case and concluded that the attack had been organized with help from Pakistani intelligence. Pakistani police made no arrests. The former American ambassador to the mujahedin, Peter Tomsen, who remained close to Haq, later reported that the killers had been trained at the Taliban intelligence school supported by bin Laden at Tarnak Farm.20

This was the war as many Afghans who challenged the Taliban knew it. It was not a war in which ISI cooperation against bin Laden seemed remotely plausible. By contrast, as far as these Afghans could tell, those who openly defied bin Laden or Pakistani intelligence risked everything they had.

WITHIN WEEKS of Sharif’s visit to Washington, the CIA station in Islamabad received its most promising report on bin Laden’s whereabouts since the August cruise missile strikes. In early February 1999 agents in Afghanistan reported that bin Laden had traveled to Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan to join an encamped desert hunting party organized by wealthy Bedouin sheikhs from the Persian Gulf.21

The CIA sent its tracking team on the road, equipped with sighting equipment, satellite beacons to determine GPS coordinates, secure communications, and other spy gear. They raced out on the nomad highways that snaked through the barren desert. By February 9 the team reported to the Islamabad station: They had found the hunting camp. It was an elaborately provisioned place far from any city but near an isolated airstrip big enough to handle C-130 cargo planes. The camp’s tents billowed in the wind, cooled by generators and stocked with refrigerators. The tracking team reported that they strongly believed they had found bin Laden. He was a guest of the camp’s Arab sheikhs, they reported, and it looked as if he would be staying for a while. There would be plenty of time to bomb the camp with precision weapons or to launch cruise missiles from ships or submarines in the Arabian Sea.

Bin Laden had grown up in Bedouin tradition. Falcon hunting, especially for the elusive houbara bustard, had been a passionate and romanticized sport in Saudi Arabia and neighboring kingdoms for generations. Each year Arab sheikhs with the money to do so chased the houbara across its winter migration route. Pakistan granted special permits to the visiting Arab sheikhs, dividing its northern hills and southwestern deserts into carefully marked zones where rival royals pitched their tents and sent their falcons aloft.22

One of the most passionate hunters was Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, the billionaire crown prince of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Equally devoted was Sheikh Maktoum, the leader of Dubai, another emirate in the oil-rich confederation. Scores of other fabulously rich U.A.E. notables flew to Pakistan each season to hunt. So entrenched did the alliance with Pakistan around houbara hunts become that the Pakistani air force agreed secretly to lease one of its northern air bases to the United Arab Emirates so that the sheikhs could more conveniently stage the aircraft and supplies required for their hunts. Pakistani personnel maintained the air base, but the U.A.E. paid for its upkeep. They flew in and out on C-130s and on smaller planes that could reach remote hunting grounds.23

Some of the best winter houbara grounds were in Afghanistan. Pakistani politicians had hosted Arab hunting trips there since the mid-1990s. They had introduced wealthy sheikhs to the leadership of the Taliban, creating connections for future private finance of the Islamist militia. Bin Laden circulated in this Afghan hunting world after he arrived in the country in 1996.24 So the CIA report that he had joined a large, stationary camp in western Afghanistan that winter seemed consistent with previous reporting about bin Laden.

The CIA’s tracking team marked the hunting camp with beacons and obtained its GPS coordinates. They began to watch on the ground from a safe distance. At Langley the Counterterrorist Center immediately ordered satellite coverage. Photographs of the billowing tents unspooled daily in the secure communications vault in the Islamabad embassy. The pictures confirmed what the agents had reported from the ground. Working closely with the Counterterrorist Center, the Islamabad station reported: “It’s still a viable target.”25

Richard Clarke, Sandy Berger, and a few White House aides with the highest security clearances reviewed the satellite pictures and the reporting from the TRODPINT tracking team. Along with senior managers at the CIA, they began to fire questions back to the Islamabad station: Which tent is he in? What time of day is he in the tent? Where does he go to pray? Bin Laden was reported to visit frequently a camp next to the main hunting camp. The CIA radioed the tracking team that was hovering near the camp, asking for answers. One person involved remembered that the CIA actually identified the specific tent where they believed bin Laden was sleeping. Still, Clarke worried that the sightings by the Afghan tracking team might not be reliable; they were roaming far from their home territory. Clarke told Deputy National Security Adviser Donald Kerrick on February 10 that the Pentagon might be able to launch cruise missiles the next morning, but that other options, possibly involving a Special Forces raid, would take longer.

The questions kept pouring into the Islamabad station. Langley and the White House wanted more precision. Days passed. Some of the CIA officers involved thought the evidence was very solid, good enough to shoot. As the questions seeking more targeting detail poured across their computer screens, Islamabad station chief Gary Schroen and his case officer colleagues began to ask sarcastically: “What is it going to come down to—when is he going to take a leak?”26

The feeling of some of the officers involved was, as Schroen put it, “Let’s just blow the thing up. And if we kill bin Laden, and five sheikhs are killed, I’m sorry. What are they doing with bin Laden? He’s a terrorist. You lie down with the dog, you get up with fleas.”27

Support for a missile or bombing strike was especially passionate inside the bin Laden unit at the Counterterrorist Center in Langley. This was their life. They felt bin Laden had the United States in his sights. They came in every morning to new in-trays full of threat reports. They had been down this road of near misses too many times before. They wanted to shoot.

Years later, recollections differed about exactly when and how it first became apparent that the hunting camp had been organized by royalty from the United Arab Emirates. Several officials remembered that the satellite photography showed a C-130 on the ground near the camp and that the plane was painted in a camouflage pattern used by the U.A.E. air force. One participant recalled that the satellite photos also captured a tail number on the C-130 that was eventually traced to the U.A.E. government.

Richard Clarke knew the U.A.E. royal family very well. He had worked for years with the U.A.E.’s intelligence service as well as its royal family and military. He negotiated arms deals and basing agreements, and he exchanged occasional tips and favors with the U.A.E. security services. He had just returned from the country, where he had held talks on terrorism and arms purchases. The likelihood that U.A.E. royalty were on the ground raised the stakes mightily. The emirates were crucial suppliers of oil and gas to America and its allies. They cooperated with the American military on basing agreements. The port of Dubai received more port calls by the U.S. Navy than any port in the region; it was the only place in the Persian Gulf that could comfortably dock American aircraft carriers. The U.A.E. royal family had also been targeted by the Clinton administration’s “buy American” campaign to win overseas contracts for weapons manufacturers and other corporations. And Sheikh Zayed had come through in a very big way: In May 1998, in a deal partially smoothed by Clarke, the U.A.E. had agreed to an $8 billion multiyear contract to buy 80 F-16 military jets. The contract would enrich American defense companies. The planes were to be manufactured in Texas, creating good jobs in a politically crucial state.28 If the United States bombed the camp and killed a few princes, it could put all that in jeopardy—even if bin Laden were killed at the same time. Hardly anyone in the Persian Gulf saw bin Laden as a threat serious enough to warrant the deaths of their own royalty. They would react to such a strike angrily, with unknown consequences for the United States. And if it turned out that bin Laden was not in the hunting camp after all, the anti-American reaction would make the controversy over the cruise missile strike on the al Shifa plant in Sudan the previous summer seem mild by comparison.

All this was discussed at the White House just two days before President Clinton faced a final vote on impeachment charges in the U.S. Senate. It seemed clear that Clinton would win the trial and finish out his term, but his power had fallen to its nadir. This hardly seemed an ideal time for an all-or-nothing attack against a terrorist who made few Americans feel directly menaced.

Some of the CIA officers involved could not understand the White House’s hesitation. The CIA’s reporting—human agents, the tracking team outside the camp, the satellite photography, signals intelligence—left some officers involved with an unusually high feeling of certainty that bin Laden was really there. It was rare to see bin Laden sit still in one place for so long. Some in the U.S. embassy in Islamabad speculated that perhaps the recent Pakistani report about bin Laden’s illness was truthful and bin Laden had traveled to the luxurious camp to recuperate.29

Neither the Islamabad station nor the Counterterrorist Center at Langley could offer a 100 percent guarantee that bin Laden was in the hunting camp, however. They did not have a picture of bin Laden standing outside his tent. The satellites could not take a photograph of that quality, and the tracking team could not get close enough. If they launched a strike, they would have to accept some doubt. George Tenet, for one, was not convinced that the reporting was completely solid.

The U.S. military relied heavily on its alliances with the wealthy Persian Gulf emirates despite their occasional support for Islamists. To even consider a strike against bin Laden they needed to be completely sure, some of those involved argued. In the American military, recalled Gary Schroen, “Nobody wanted to say, ‘Well, you blew up a camp full of U.A.E. princes and half of the royal family of the U.A.E.’s dead—and you guys didn’t get him.’ ”30

Clinton’s national security cabinet had been tracking the camp for more than a week. They had learned what they could; they had to decide. Richard Clarke recommended against a cruise missile shot. George Tenet, too, recommended no. By February 12, the day of Clinton’s acquittal on impeachment charges, bin Laden reportedly had left the camp.

Afterward, the U.S. embassy in Abu Dhabi, capital of the U.A.E., contacted Sheikh Zayed’s government and asked for precise coordinates of the family’s Afghan hunting camp. The aviation maps and other data supplied through the U.A.E. foreign ministry confirmed that it had been the royal family’s camp. The U.A.E. later reported to the White House that no members of the royal family had been present at the hunt and that as far as they could determine, bin Laden had not been there, either. The Americans later concluded that high-level U.A.E. officials had, in fact, been at the camp, which was quickly torn down in March, after Clarke called U.A.E. officials. The call angered some CIA officers who had hoped to watch the camp quietly, hoping bin Laden would return. The U.S. embassy in Abu Dhabi began pressuring the royal family to cease its hunting trips altogether. The Americans argued that the trips violated United Nations sanctions meant to isolate the Taliban. Based on United Nations and other reporting, the Americans also suspected that the C-130s flying out of Dubai carried weapons to the Taliban. The U.A.E. government was one of three in the world that recognized the Taliban, yet its officials told the Americans that they “wanted to cooperate and wanted to know what they could do to help,” recalled a State Department officer involved in relaying the map data about the Afghan hunting camps.

For its part the U.A.E. was anxious to make sure the data it handed over were properly entered into American targeting computers. The royal family “had its own concern, in the aftermath of al Shifa, about making sure their camps were properly understood,” the State official recalled.31

For some of the ground-level officers involved in the bin Laden chase the decision to hold fire seemed almost unforgivable. It had been one thing before the Africa embassy bombings to have their plan to raid Tarnak Farm and kidnap bin Laden turned down. That plan contained a great deal of risk and uncertainty. But with the desert camp, recalled Schroen, reflecting the views of other officers as well, “We knew he was there. We had assets in place. There was little risk to life and limb to anybody—not our Afghan colleagues, nobody on the American side. And it would have been, we thought, definitive. We could take him out. Yeah, some of these other people would be killed, but we would really be able to take him out.” Some of them blamed Clarke, speculating that he was so close to the U.A.E. royal family because of defense deals he had previously negotiated that he would never take the risk of offending them.32

The cycle of frustration repeated itself that May. A CIA source reported with unusual specificity about bin Laden’s movements and sleeping patterns over five nights in Kandahar. A cruise missile attack was again prepared; the national security cabinet again discussed whether they had enough intelligence to fire, and whether the risk of civilian deaths was too great. As the White House hesitated, Mike Scheuer, the discouraged chief of the Counterterrorist Center’s bin Laden unit, wrote to a colleague in the field that “having a chance to get UBL three times in 36 hours and foregoing the chance each time has made me a bit angry . . . the DCI finds himself alone at the table, with the other princip[als] basically saying ‘we’ll go along with your decision Mr. Director,’ and implicitly saying that the Agency will hang alone if the attack doesn’t get bin Laden.” For his part, even when he “knew more or less” where bin Laden might spend the night, Clinton remembered how he had been told that bin Laden would attend a leadership meeting in eastern Afghanistan just after the Africa embassy bombings, and yet, “he left a couple of hours before” the missiles struck. As new single-threaded reports of bin Laden’s whereabouts arrived, Clinton remembered, “So what did I have? A 40 percent chance of knowing we could have hit it.”

Around this time Scheuer fired off more emails protesting the agency’s heavy reliance on its liaison with untrustworthy allies in the Persian Gulf. The bin Laden unit leader personified the single-minded passion that prevailed inside the Counterterrorist Center’s partitioned office suite. He was a disheveled, blunt, undiplomatic career officer who felt the United States ought to kill Osama bin Laden as a matter of the greatest urgency. The White House sometimes complained to Tenet that Scheuer was not well suited to manage the bin Laden group; he was too myopic in his approach. The email exchanges Scheuer generated after the hunting camp incident were angry, unusual, and widely circulated, according to one person who read them. During his three years in the bin Laden unit, Scheuer said later, he believed the CIA’s Directorate of Operations “was the only component of the Intelligence Community that could be said to have been waging the war that bin Laden declared against the United States in August of 1996. The rest of the CIA and the Intelligence Community looked on our efforts as eccentric and, at times, fanatic.” Afterward Scheuer transferred to another position at Langley headquarters. In the heavily compartmented CIA, where by careful design officers knew little about one another’s work, his colleagues could not be sure exactly what had happened, but among at least a few of them a belief settled in that Scheuer had been exiled, in effect, for becoming too passionate about the bin Laden threat, too angry about the failure to attack at Tarnak Farm and at the desert hunting camp.33

Tenet did not widely explain his reasoning. He made clear years later that in every case where Clinton’s Cabinet discussed cruise missile strikes, a decisive problem was the lack of absolute certainty that bin Laden was present. Tenet concluded that the CIA’s strategy against bin Laden had to be reexamined. Early in 1999, Tenet ordered the Counterterrorist Center to begin a “baseline” review of the CIA’s operational strategy against bin Laden. He wanted the entire operation turned upside down, looked at from fresh angles. From the White House, Clarke lobbied Tenet for change, arguing that neither Scheuer at the bin Laden unit nor senior managers such as Paul Pillar were the right leaders for a campaign against bin Laden.34

Within months Tenet had dispatched a fast-track executive assistant from the seventh floor—a traditional breeding ground of CIA leadership—to replace Scheuer in the bin Laden unit. When the Counterterrorist Center’s director, Jeff O’Connell, rotated out of his position (he soon became the CIA station chief in Tel Aviv), Tenet had another opportunity to shake things up. Who would know better how to get after Osama bin Laden—or be better motivated to break the stalemate—than a CIA officer bin Laden had once tried to kill?

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