BY THE LATE SPRING OF 2000, Richard Clarke and his White House counterterrorism group had grown frustrated by the quality of intelligence reporting on Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. The CIA’s unilateral human sources and its liaisons with Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Massoud had generated volumes of fragmented hearsay but nothing solid enough to warrant missile strikes or a snatch operation. Clarke and his aides brainstormed for new ideas. Could they find a way to place a beacon on one of bin Laden’s aircraft so they could track the plane with bin Laden aboard and shoot it down in flight? Could they erect an enormous phony television tower near the Afghan border and use long-range spy cameras to watch for bin Laden? Clarke and his aides observed Pentagon Special Forces train British and French teams that planned to capture fugitive Balkan war criminals. Could one of these teams be inserted into Afghanistan?
Clarke asked his longtime acquaintance in the national security bureaucracy, Charles Allen, who ran all of the CIA’s intelligence collection efforts, to work with Admiral Scott Fry, head of operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on fresh approaches to the bin Laden problem. Clarke and his aides continued to hope the Pentagon would come up with a plan to use American commandos in Afghanistan. Their detailed tracking maps of bin Laden’s travels from Kandahar to Kabul to the eastern Afghan mountains seemed to offer a way forward. Clarke and the bin Laden unit at CIA felt they had established that it was highly probable, for instance, that bin Laden would return again and again to Tarnak Farm near the Kandahar airport. Wasn’t there a way to put reliable American eyes on that compound, equipped with secure communications that could be linked to missile submarines? Could a Special Forces team be provisioned to lie buried in the sand flats near Tarnak for a few weeks, ready to call in a strike whenever bin Laden turned up? As he pushed for answers, Clarke summoned the direct authority of President Clinton. In February 2000, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger had submitted a long memo to Clinton describing all the ongoing efforts to capture or disrupt bin Laden. Clinton had scribbled his dissatisfaction about the results in the margin. A savvy bureaucrat, Clarke photocopied the president’s scrawl and used it as a cudgel at interagency meetings.1
Several years later a number of people involved in these highly classified discussions claimed credit for the idea of sending Predator reconnaissance drones to Afghanistan to search for bin Laden. Despite the confusion of competing recollections, it seems clear, in a general sense, that Clarke, Fry, Berger, Allen, Black, and officers in the CIA’s bin Laden unit jointly conspired, amid persistent squabbling among themselves, to launch the Predator experiment. Allen recalled that CIA senior management were at first reluctant, and that it was “a bloody struggle.” They hoped to solve the primary problem that had dogged their hunt for bin Laden since the winter of 1999 when they had stared day after day at satellite pictures of the Arab hunting camp in western Afghanistan, unable to develop enough confidence to fire missiles. Satellite and U-2 reconnaissance photography could identify fixed targets such as buildings, homes, and training camps with high precision, but these systems could not single out mobile targets or individual faces. In the case of the hunting camp, Clinton’s counterterrorism group had been forced to rely on identifications provided by the CIA’s Afghan tracking team. They had not been able to look directly at live photographs or video of bin Laden to develop a consensus within the national security cabinet that the risks of a missile or bombing attack were justified. The Predator, they hoped, could bridge these intelligence gaps.2
The CIA and the Pentagon had each experimented with unmanned reconnaissance drones since the early 1980s. In the first years of the agency’s Counterterrorist Center, Dewey Clarridge had sought drones to help search for American hostages in denied areas of Beirut and rural Lebanon. As early as 1987 the CIA secretly adapted kit airplanes manufactured in California to carry cameras in a highly classifed project called the Eagle program. Clarridge hoped to operate the drones out of a hotel room in Beirut. The agency bought special wooden propellers made in Germany to help the drones fly quietly. Clarridge also experimented with arming the drones with small rockets that could be fired by remote control, but the rockets selected proved wildly inaccurate.3 In the same period, and sometimes in cooperation with the CIA, the Pentagon’s laboratory for experimental security technology, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, funded prototypes of a long-endurance, unmanned drone called Amber. This was an extraordinarily lightweight (815 pounds) wasplike drone invented by Abraham Karem, the former chief designer for the Israeli air force. A lively engineer with unbounded imagination, Karem immigrated to the United States in the late 1970s and started an experimental aircraft company in California. The Amber prototypes he produced flew longer and better than any drone to date. But Karem’s company went bankrupt amid bureaucratic battles in Washington. The Pentagon tended to invest in large, fast, complex drones that resembled pilotless fighter jets. These were very expensive, technically sophisticated, and politically unpopular. The CIA preferred smaller, lighter, cheaper drones that could take pictures and intercept communications in situations where satellites or high-flying spy planes did not offer enough coverage. Its experiments were easier to fund, but many at the Pentagon and in Congress dismissed the smaller prototypes as clunky toys of marginal value.4
The Predator had gasped to programmatic life in the early 1990s as an awkward bastard child of the Amber. A large defense contractor bought up Karem’s assets, including his designs, and the U.S. Navy pitched in funds for more prototypes. The CIA’s director of espionage operations in the early Clinton administration, Thomas Twetten, held a review of the agency’s own secret drone projects, all still in experimental stages. When he listed options for CIA director James Woolsey, the director’s eyes lit up. Woolsey had met Abe Karem in Israel, and he also knew about Amber. “I know the guy” who can get this done,Woolsey told Twetten. The pair flew to California and tracked Karem down at the defense contractor who had bailed him out. They were selling prototypes to Turkey. Woolsey declared that he would take five on the spot for the CIA. The only problem was that the nascent Predator—long and ungainly—sounded like “a lawnmower in the sky,” as Twetten recalled it. The CIA managers told Karem he had to silence the motor, and he agreed.5
From the CIA’s first purchases Predator operations required close cooperation between the agency and the Pentagon. This was never easy. The Air Force howled when it learned Woolsey had bought Predators in secret. The CIA chafed as it tried to sort out budgetary and operating rules with the Air Force. There were times when it seemed that the Predator’s chief innovations lay in its ability to generate table-thumping, vein-pumping bureaucratic agitation inside secure Virginia conference rooms. Ultimately the CIA arranged for Air Force teams trained by the Eleventh Reconnaissance Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, to operate the agency’s clandestine drones. First in Bosnia and then in Kosovo, CIA officers began to see the first practical returns on their decades-old fantasy of using aerial robots to collect intelligence.6
The Predators deployed secretly to Bosnia in 1995 were designed to loiter over targets for twenty-four hours and could fly as far as five hundred miles from their home base at an altitude of up to twenty-five thousand feet. They were extraordinarily slow—their average speed was just seventy miles per hour—and they were so light that they sometimes drifted backward in the teeth of headwinds. A Predator’s “pilot” sat with several enlisted “payload specialists” inside a sealed, unmarked van near the runway of the drone’s operating base. (In its Balkans operations, the CIA flew Predators secretly out of Hungary and Albania.) At first the Air Force recruited pilots for the drones who had been grounded from normal flight by medical disabilities. Generators and satellite dishes surrounded the flight van. Inside, the pilot toggled a joystick before a video screen that showed the view from the Predator’s nose. Radio signals controlled the drone’s runway takeoff and initial ascent. Then communications shifted to military satellite networks linked to the pilot’s van. The Predator’s nose carried a swiveling Sony camera similar to those used by TV station helicopters that report on freeway traffic. It also could carry radar imaging and electronic intercept equipment.7
In the first flights over Bosnia the CIA linked its Langley headquarters to the pilot’s van.Woolsey emailed a pilot as he watched video images relayed to Virginia. “I’d say, ‘What direction for Mostar? . . . Is that the river?’ ”Woolsey recalled. “And he’d say, ‘Yeah. Do you want to look at the bridge? . . . Is that a guy walking across the bridge? . . . Let’s zoom further, it looks like he has a big funny hat on.’ ”8
There were serious glitches. Pilots struggled to learn how to fly such a light, awkward plane from satellite-delayed television images. After tugging their joysticks, it would take several seconds for the plane to respond. There was no adequate system to control ice on the Predator’s wings. The drone was not stealthy and could be targeted by antiaircraft fire. And after Bosnia there were debates about the Predator’s ultimate mission.
One camp favored using the drone only for traditional intelligence collection: taking pictures and verifying reports from human agents on the ground. But others argued that the Predator could be a powerful weapon if it was integrated into what military officers sometimes called “the kill chain.” The Air Force had long struggled to develop weapons systems that could accurately track and attack isolated mobile targets such as cars and trucks. Its new airborne sensor and command system, known as J-Stars, could follow moving vehicles on a battlefield and identify, for example, whether the vehicles had wheels or tank tracks. But the J-Stars system could not make a close-up identification of a human face or a license plate number. The Predator’s cameras might provide this ability if the drone’s roving eye could be connected in real time to the larger Air Force command network. In that case the Predator might hover over a moving vehicle, transmit a running image of its license plate to CIA officers or Pentagon commanders in Virginia, tag the truck with a laser beam, and hold the beam on the target while a bomber swooped in to drop computer-aided munitions directly onto the truck. Or possibly the Predator itself could be armed with a remotely fired air-to-ground weapon if the technical problems of weight and missile velocity could be solved. As early as 1995 the Navy fashioned tests to link the Predator’s roving cameras to cruise missile submarines submerged offshore. In the Kosovo conflict of 1999 the Air Force secretly equipped Predators with laser target finders and satellite links that would make drone-guided bombing operations possible for the first time, although no such attacks were actually carried out.9
All of this history—all of these unresolved questions about the Predator’s purpose and value—shaped debate among CIA officers, White House aides, and Pentagon brass as they considered how to use the drone in the hunt for bin Laden in the summer of 2000. The Predator was cheap by the lavish standards of Pentagon weapons programs, but at about $3 million per drone, each one lost would take a bite out of the CIA’s pinched budgets. Influential skeptics such as Thomas Pickering worried about the intelligence community’s built-in bias for “a near-term technical solution, rather than the long-term buildup” of reliable sources and recruits. Jim Pavitt feared that funds allocated to the Predator would inevitably come at the expense of money for human intelligence—HUMINT, in Washington’s acronym vernacular. Richard Clarke replied with his usual bluntness: “Your valuable HUMINT program hasn’t worked for years. I want to try something else.” Cofer Black, at the Counterterrorist Center, sided with Clarke while trying not to offend Pavitt. Frustrated at the hand-wringing and endless argument, Clarke enlisted Sandy Berger to formally order the Predator to Afghanistan. Berger did.10
Then they argued more about the scope of the Predator’s mission. Clarke was intrigued by the idea of linking the Predator’s camera to the cruise missile submarines lurking secretly in the Arabian Sea. He pushed for a lethal operation in Afghanistan, not one that would solely take pictures. Berger was interested, but officers at the CIA were skeptical about the submarine proposal. There were too many unknowns. It would take too long to get munitions to the target even if the Predator saw bin Laden. “The Agency was very clear,” remembered a White House official. “They wanted to do an initial period of testing. . . . They didn’t want to hardwire it to the submarines” or to some other bombing plan. This official recalled “some skepticism” at the CIA “that you could get that kind of clarity” from the drone’s cameras to justify a missile launch.11
Black advocated arming the Predator itself with an air-to-ground missile so it could fire instantly if it located bin Laden. But State Department lawyers objected, arguing that an armed drone might violate the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned the United States from acquiring new long-range cruise missiles. Was an armed Predator the same as a cruise missile? While the lawyers debated, Black and the Counterterrorist Center, now officially in command of the nascent mission ordered by the White House, proposed a different kind of experiment.12
In the Balkans and in Iraq, Predator pilots and their support equipment (the pilot’s van, satellite dishes, and generators) had been parked at air bases in friendly neighboring nations. The operations were sensitive and clandestine, but the host governments were not unduly frightened about exposure. Here the situation was different. As the planning developed in the early summer of 2000, Uzbekistan agreed to allow secret Predator flights from one of its air bases for a limited period of time, but Islam Karimov’s government was adamant about secrecy. The agency’s officers feared that even the small cluster of vans and satellite dishes necessary to pilot a Predator would attract unwanted attention among Uzbek soldiers and officers. The cooperation between the CIA and the Uzbeks was so secret that many people in Karimov’s own government still did not know about it.13
To address this problem the CIA proposed to experiment with a new stage in Predator operations. Improvements in communications systems now made it possible, at least in theory, to fly the drone remotely from great distances. It was no longer necessary to use close-up radio signals during the Predator’s takeoff and ascent. The entire flight could be controlled by satellite from any command center with the right equipment. The CIA proposed to attempt over Afghanistan the first fully remote Predator flight operations, piloted from Langley. The drone itself would be housed and recovered at hangars on a remote Uzbek airfield, but it would be flown with a joystick propped on a table inside a CIA operations center in Virginia.
President Clinton approved a limited “proof of concept” mission to launch Predators over Afghanistan in September. The concept to be proven, recalled Air Force Secretary Whit Peters, was the CIA’s ability to fly the Predator “from barren and difficult airfields, controlled via satellites from a ground site many thousands of miles away.” The CIA would complete the mission without its pilots or commanding officers ever leaving the Virginia suburbs.14
The bin Laden unit drew up maps and plans for fifteen Predator flights, each lasting just under twenty-four hours. They decided to fly over places they had previously identified as bin Laden’s main haunts, especially in eastern and southern Afghanistan. They also lit up their agent network on the ground. They sought detailed reporting about bin Laden’s movements, hoping to steer the Predator overhead and photograph him. Clarke urged the White House to be prepared to attack bin Laden if the Predator found him. Berger cautioned that they would need more than just bin Laden’s location—they would also want a reliable forecast of his plans or movements during any cruise missile flight times.
Previous operations in the Balkans and Iraq had shown that the Predator was most effective in daylight hours. The drone could carry night vision equipment, but the images were much harder to decipher. Daylight hours in Afghanistan began in the dead of night in Virginia. A large video screen loomed in the middle of the CIA’s makeshift flight operations center. Air Force drone pilots and CIA officers from the Counterterrorist Center and the bin Laden unit huddled in the darkened room on the wooded Langley campus from midnight to dawn, watching black-and-white aerials of Afghanistan unfurl eerily before them.
Richard Clarke would drive out after midnight, clear the CIA’s security gates, park in the darkened parking lots, and wander through empty hallways to the flight center. Other curious visitors arrived at odd hours as well. They were like a secret society of video game junkies, role-players in a futuristic scenario, and they were well aware of their role in pioneering a kind of technical espionage that Hollywood might promote. They sipped coffee and talked to their pilot. “Oh, look at that truck! That truck looks like the one he uses! Follow that truck!” Remembered one participant: “It was very much the O.J. thing, with a helicopter following a car down the freeway.” Clarke wrote Berger that the images were “truly astonishing.” Berger replied with encouragement, but also cautioned: “Unfortunately, the light at the end of the tunnel is another tunnel.”15
The Taliban’s air defense units monitored flights across the Uzbek border. One night the CIA’s drone flew above a Taliban airfield where a MiG fighter jet prepared to take off on an intercept mission. In the Langley operations room they could see the fireball light up the MiG’s tail as it thundered down the runway. The Predator’s eavesdropping equipment captured chatter between the MiG pilot and the control tower. “I can’t find it! There’s nothing here!” the Taliban pilot complained to his commander. Suddenly the Predator’s camera picked up the MiG flying right toward the drone at jet speed. “As the MiG flew by, half the people in the room ducked,” recalled an American official who was watching from Langley. The MiG pilot never spotted the drone and returned to base. At Langley the audience slumped in its chairs, relieved and amazed.16
While hovering over Tarnak Farm outside of Kandahar, the Predator photographed a man who appeared to be bin Laden. An agent reporting from Kandahar suggested that the Saudi had come to visit one of his wives. The camera showed a tall man in Arab robes surrounded by armed bodyguards walking from a building previously mapped by the CIA as bin Laden’s residence to a tiny mud-brick mosque across the way. There was no way to be 100 percent certain that the man was bin Laden, but the evidence was very strong. On two other missions the Predator recorded images of a man who CIA analysts later concluded was probably bin Laden, but in these cases they were less certain than they were about the Tarnak case.17
Their arguments about the mission continued even as the Predator flew. One issue was security and secrecy. As Taliban radar tracked the flights, some at the CIA worried about Uzbekistan’s exposure. They did not want to jeopardize their work with the Uzbek commando unit. A downed Predator would also be a propaganda coup for the Taliban. The drone carried little sensitive equipment—most of its sophisticated electronics were housed in the pilot’s remote console. Yet nobody wanted a Predator to be captured, and CIA officers sometimes felt that the Pentagon overestimated the drone’s ability to hide from enemy aircraft and ground fire. Richard Clarke discounted the strength of the Taliban air force: Its pilots never fired the few air-to-air missiles they carried on their MiGs, and if they tried, they would probably just blow themselves up, he said. He badgered the CIA not to worry so much about Predator accidents. “The pilot will return safely to base,” he noted sarcastically.18
Their fights about money were even more pointed. When one Predator crashed on takeoff, the Air Force tried to bill the CIA for the replacement cost. Tenet, Pavitt, and Black protested. They had not budgeted money for broken $3 million drones. Aggravated, the Pentagon’s officials battled back. Whit Peters at the Air Force felt that the CIA’s managers wanted “to run everything and pay for nothing,” as he recalled it. “They like to have sexy toys that do interesting things so they can claim credit . . . and of course, they don’t want to pay for it.” For their part the CIA’s officers felt they were pushing the Pentagon to innovate. Left to its own devices the Air Force would bury the Predator’s development in excruciating testing schedules, reams of written specifications, and elaborate contracts. The CIA could move much faster, the agency’s officers felt. The Air Force ought to pay for the Afghan operation, CIA officers believed, in part because the Pentagon was learning more about the drone’s capabilities in a month than they could in half a year of sterile testing in Nevada. Memos and emails ricocheted around Virginia and back and forth to the White House, but still the funding question went unresolved.19
By mid-October fierce winds gathered in northern Afghanistan. On some flights the Predator’s meek engine had trouble propelling the drone across the mountains. The Predator kept drifting back toward Uzbekistan. Temperatures plummeted, and wing icing became a more worrisome problem. They knew from Balkans experience that the Predator was a very difficult plane to fly in bad weather. The White House and the Counterterrorist Center halted the operation. The Afghan mission had always been designed as a finite experiment.20
During the winter hiatus Black and others at the CIA hoped the lawyers would resolve the treaty questions that had postponed testing of an armed version of the Predator. Having seen the images of bin Laden walking toward the mosque at Tarnak, Black was now a vocal advocate of affixing missiles to the drone. Here was the clean shot they had been seeking for more than two years: positive identification of their target, no questionable human agents, no delay.
At the White House and the Pentagon, too, those involved hoped to be flying Predators again in the spring—if they could find the money.
THE DRONE IMAGERY had brought them back once again to Tarnak Farm on the sagebrush-strewn desert flats outside of Kandahar. Tarnak had been the target of the CIA’s first secret plan to kidnap bin Laden, back in 1998. More than two years later the United States, an unchallenged global power with a military larger than all of its serious rivals combined, with aircraft carrier groups and B-2 bomber wings that could strike any target worldwide in twenty-four hours or less, still found itself stymied by this lightly defended mud-walled compound of several hundred acres, a fort that would not even have intimidated horsebacked Pashtun raiders several centuries before. Tarnak’s water-streaked concrete office building—the onetime agricultural extension office of a doomed Afghan communist government—peeked over an empty plain that could be crossed from all directions. There were no mountains within miles, no rock walls, no gorges, no natural defenses of any kind. Yet Tarnak flummoxed Clinton and his closest national security advisers. To a great extent the problem was one of foreign policy: As Massoud’s intelligence aides put it, the Americans insisted on capturing the king without disturbing the pawns. By refusing to declare the Taliban an enemy Clinton and his Cabinet made Tarnak a very complicated target. In another sense, however, the farm was a symbol of the political-military problem now commonly referred to in Washington as “asymmetric warfare,” which described the advantages that terrorists and guerrillas can exploit against a superpower by virtue of being small, dispersed, and blended with civilian populations.
Clinton’s national security and intelligence team spent many hours studying satellite photographs of Tarnak’s flat-roofed, one-story residential buildings, clustered in several tiny villages behind the compound walls. At the Pentagon, targeters with the Joint Chiefs of Staff crunched trigonometry equations and blast calculations to determine which of Tarnak’s little concrete boxes—no more than sheds, by American standards—would collapse on their inhabitants if one or two or three cruise missiles slammed into the particular house where bin Laden slept. One of the nearby sheds was a mosque. Another was a medical clinic. American military doctrine presumed the sanctity of such buildings. This was the purpose of the Pentagon’s missile math: to determine which available munitions would be most likely to destroy the Tarnak house where bin Laden stayed while knocking down the fewest neighboring houses. Alone among the world’s militaries, the United States had the capacity to ask and answer such questions. It was also the first military power in world history whose leaders argued day after day in conference rooms about the mathematical nuances of their destructive power.21
Then there was the child’s swing. Families lived at Tarnak. The CIA estimated that the compound contained about one hundred women and children—bin Laden’s family and family members of some top aides. There were laundry lines, and agent reporting and satellite imagery clearly showed a wooden swing near some of the residential buildings. There were no pictures of any kids actually swinging, but the children were officially presumed to be nearby.22
The swing made an impression on Clinton. The president recognized that his conflict with bin Laden was multidimensional. The propaganda war mattered. “It’s almost like he was daring me to kill them,” Clinton recalled of the women and children at Tarnak. He had learned through hard experience: “I do not care how precise your bombs and your weapons are, when you set them off, innocent people will die.”23
Tarnak was now the visual locus of their elusive enemy. The Predator image of bin Laden in his flowing robes at the farm compound was copied onto videotape by the CIA. It was a startling loop, convincing and ominous. Tenet brought the tape to the White House and played it for Berger and Clinton. The video’s eerie power seemed to convert Tenet to the Predator’s cause. He carried the video to classified briefings on Capitol Hill and raved about the drone’s achievements. They were getting closer to their mark, he hoped. Clinton, too, was encouraged by the Predator experiment. The president remained interested in the possibility of a Special Forces raid in Afghanistan against bin Laden. But the Pentagon and CIA’s “strong and constant view,” as Clinton recalled it years later, was that such operations were likely to fail without better intelligence and a great deal of lead time. The Predator images were intriguing, but they did not provide enough.24
AS THE PREDATOR FLEW above him, bin Laden pressed his two-front war below, against Massoud and the United States.
In September, al Qaeda’s jihadist volunteers in Brigade 55, based at Rishikor, a former Afghan army camp on Kabul’s southern outskirts, joined the Taliban’s late-summer thrust against the Northern Alliance. The CIA estimated al Qaeda’s annual budget at $30 million, much of it spent on the Taliban and war-fighting operations in Afghanistan. Thousands of Pakistani madrassa students, aided by ISI, joined Taliban forces on the outskirts of Taloqan, the ramshackle northern town that now served as Massoud’s headquarters. Loaded with cash, they bribed Northern Alliance commanders to switch sides. Aided by unusually precise artillery fire—a bombardment that some American analysts interpreted as evidence of direct participation by Pakistani army officers—they stormed the town and sent Massoud and his men reeling into nearby Badakhshan province. Suddenly Massoud faced the loss of his overland supply lines to Tajikistan. It might take another summer of fighting for the Taliban to cut him off completely, but if they did, Massoud would have to either seek exile in Dushanbe or bottle himself up in the Panjshir, living off what he could capture and forage. The Taliban might be weakening politically among Pashtuns, but its resources—money for bribes, ammunition, and vehicles; volunteers from abroad; expert military advice from Pakistan—did not slacken.25
A month after Taloqan’s fall, on October 12, a small tender boat packed with explosives glided alongside a 505-foot, American Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer docked at Aden, Yemen. The USS Cole was a billion-dollar command and attack ship equipped with computer-linked radar that could follow more than one hundred airplanes, ships, and missile targets at once. It had relatively little defense, however, against three suicide bombers in a thousand-dollar skiff. The attackers blew a hole twenty feet high and forty feet wide in the Cole’s hull, killed seventeen American sailors, and wounded thirty more. With just slightly more skilled execution, CIA analysts later concluded, the bombers would have killed three hundred and sent the destroyer to the bottom.26
There had been no specific tactical warning that the Cole was a target. The CIA had circulated a classified analysis the day before the attack that highlighted the growing al Qaeda threat in the region, but it provided no specific warning about the Cole. A Pentagon intelligence analyst resigned on October 13, declaring that his warnings about al Qaeda in the region had been ignored and suppressed by his superiors. None of his analysis involved specific threats against the Cole, however. Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, the former White House counterterrorism aides in Richard Clarke’s office, who had left government by the time of the Cole attack, later accused the U.S. Navy of blatantly ignoring the al Qaeda threat. “A more telling display of the persistent disbelief” that bin Laden and his network posed a danger “would be hard to imagine,” they wrote. They also blamed Anthony Zinni, the regional commander in chief, for permitting refueling operations in Yemen. Zinni defended his Yemen policy with arguments similar to those he called upon to advocate American engagement with General Musharraf in Pakistan. Even where Arab and Muslim governments were highly imperfect, Zinni argued, it was in America’s best interests to deepen contacts and alliances despite the risks.27
The Cole attack hit officers and analysts in the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center very hard. The millennium period had been a succession of terrifying near misses, but they had gotten through unscathed. Now they had taken the first big loss at bin Laden’s hands since the Africa embassy attacks. In the initial weeks the center was consumed by searches for evidence about the attackers and their links to bin Laden. They found connections between the bombers and an al Qaeda operative who had recently spent time at a Kandahar guest house. But they could not prove bin Laden’s personal responsibility for the attack—at least, the evidence would not meet the standards of a criminal indictment. Nor could they provide specific proof of bin Laden’s role that Clinton could cite if he wished to publicly justify retaliation. Yet the CIA’s officers told colleagues that they were dead certain of bin Laden’s involvement.28
“We’ve got to change the rules,” the CIA’s bin Laden unit chief argued in the aftermath. It was time for the agency to try to break the policy stalemate about the Taliban. Al Qaeda was growing, and its sanctuary in Afghanistan allowed ever more ambitious operations. Within the CIA and at interagency White House sessions the Counterterrorist Center officers spoke starkly. “Al Qaeda is training and planning in Afghanistan, and their goal is to destroy the United States,” they declared, as one official recalled it. “Unless we attack their safe haven, they are going to get continually stronger and stronger.”29
Clarke was the only senior White House official who agreed. Clinton would be president of the United States for just three more months. His vice president, Al Gore, from whom Clinton had grown estranged, was locked in a close election campaign against the Republican governor of Texas, George W. Bush. Any military attack Clinton launched now would rebound on Gore one way or another. If the president fired at bin Laden and missed or if he killed Arab or Afghan women and children, he risked making the White House appear reckless or incompetent on the eve of the national vote. Undoubtedly Clinton would be accused by talk show conservatives, however absurdly, of launching the strike to boost Gore’s chances. In any event, few of Clinton’s senior national security aides supported a retaliatory attack. Even after the Cole bombing, Clarke could not persuade Defense Secretary William Cohen or his top uniformed officer, Hugh Shelton, to take an offensive strike against al Qaeda or the Taliban seriously. “Although we fully shared Mr. Clarke’s anger and frustration,” recalled Madeleine Albright, “it was not clear that air strikes directed at training camps would cause any significant disruption to al Qaeda.” Shelton produced a paper after the attack describing thirteen options for the use of American military forces in Afghanistan, including several plans to conduct Special Forces raids to capture or kill bin Laden. Shelton’s chief of operations later described the paper as essentially a primer designed to “educate” Sandy Berger and aides such as Clarke about the “extraordinary complexity” of actually going ahead with any of the options. Clarke had by now given up on the Pentagon. Their “overwhelming message,” he said later, “was ‘We don’t want to do this.’ ” Even after a direct assault on American sailors aboard theCole, the consensus among the Pentagon’s civilian and uniformed leaders, Clarke remembered, was “that their capacity not be utilized for commando operations in Afghanistan.” That left the CIA and the possibility of using Massoud’s Northern Alliance as a proxy force to attack al Qaeda. Clarke had set aside his earlier skepticism about Massoud and now agreed on the need for infusions of guns and money. He encouraged Black and Rich, the bin Laden unit chief, to go ahead with a new Afghan plan.30
The bin Laden unit and the Afghan specialists in the Near East Division of the Directorate of Operations traded ideas. They had to confront a basic question: Were they willing to go in deeper with Ahmed Shah Massoud?
Gary Schroen, now the deputy chief in Near East, accepted the Counterterrorist group’s ardent view that Massoud was the only game in town. The scattered Pashtun opposition to the Taliban—Hamid Karzai, Abdul Haq, and the rest—simply could not get anything done, Schroen and his colleagues argued. On the other hand, continuing with outreach to supposed Taliban moderates, as urged by the State Department, “is crap,” Schroen said. Schroen had flown with a State team to Europe for secret meetings with supposed Taliban intermediaries that fall. It was all a game, he reported. The Taliban only sought to string the United States along and discourage them from launching military attacks. If the CIA was going to pressure the Taliban in a new and serious way, Schroen said, they had to work with Massoud.31
The purpose of CIA covert aid, they all decided, should be to strengthen Massoud, keep him in the fight after the loss of Taloqan, put more pressure on al Qaeda and Taliban troops, and create conditions for more effective counterterrorist work on the ground, directed at bin Laden and his lieutenants. “From an intelligence perspective,” as Black recalled their thinking later, “to have a fighting chance” against bin Laden, the CIA “needed to attack the Afghan terrorist sanctuary protected by the Taliban.”32
This meant a new and sizable covert action program to shore up Massoud’s finances and supplies. They sat down at Langley in November and drew up a specific list of what Massoud needed based on the assessments of the Counterterrorist JAWBREAKER and NALT teams who had been traveling regularly to the Panjshir. They agreed that Massoud needed cash to bribe commanders, to counteract a Taliban treasury swollen with Arab money. He needed trucks, helicopters, light arms, ammunition, uniforms, food, and maybe some mortars and artillery. He did not need combat aircraft. Tanks were not a priority. The plan they had in mind was not designed to help Massoud conquer Afghanistan or challenge Taliban control of Kabul. The goal was to disrupt al Qaeda’s safe haven and put the CIA into a better position to attack bin Laden. The list of covert supplies they proposed for Massoud would cost between $50 million and $150 million, depending on how aggressive the White House wanted to be.33
Under the plan, the CIA would establish a permanent base with Massoud in the Panjshir Valley. Rich, the bin Laden unit chief at the Counterterrorist Center, argued that the CIA had to show Massoud a more serious commitment. The agency’s officers had to be down around the campfire with Massoud’s men, drawing up plans and looking for opportunities to attack. They needed to be on the ground and on the front lines all the time, the CIA’s proposal documents argued. To overcome the confusion and mistrust that had developed with Massoud about snatch operations, CIA officers would now be able to go directly into action alongside the Northern Alliance if they developed strong intelligence about bin Laden’s whereabouts. There would be no more embarrassments like the episode where the CIA had attempted to call back Massoud’s rocket attack on Derunta.
It took some time to develop a consensus around the Massoud plan among the CIA’s leadership. There was still a sense in some quarters at Langley that the Counterterrorist Center’s bin Laden unit—the Manson Family—was over the top. Tall and intense, Rich was seen by some of his colleagues as typical of the unyielding zealots the unit had seemed to produce one after another since about 1997. The bin Laden team talked about the al Qaeda threat in apocalyptic terms. And if you weren’t with them, you were against them.
Cofer Black tried to keep the discussions in balance and tried to see the other side’s point of view, but at the end of almost every argument, he backed the bin Laden unit. There was a continual undercurrent of bureaucratic tension between the Counterterrorist Center and the Directorate of Operations. The center was quasi-independent, with a direct line to Tenet, but it drew on D.O. resources and officers. There were always questions about where budget funds would come from and who would have operational control. These tensions were heightened by the emotion that seemed to surround the bin Laden issue. If Jim Pavitt, who ran the D.O., questioned details about the new covert plan to aid Massoud, somebody from the Counterterrorist Center would jump on him, arguing that he just didn’t understand how serious this was. They bristled at each other, but soon they had a finalized plan of options for the White House. The “Blue Sky memo,” as it was called, landed at the National Security Council in December. Yet Pavitt scribbled on one draft of the memo that he did not believe “a proposal of this magnitude should be on the table” so late in the Clinton Administration. This was the sort of ambivalence at what he called the “passive-aggressive” CIA that drove Richard Clarke to distraction.
They were worse than lame ducks now at the White House. The November presidential election had deadlocked and then devolved into a weeks-long national crisis over Florida recounts and constitutional disputes. It looked as if George W. Bush would prevail, but Clinton’s White House aides were enduring the strangest postelection transition in a century as the CIA’s options paper landed.
The national security cabinet met on December 20. Apart from Clarke there was hardly any support for the CIA’s covert action proposals. The cabinet members raised old objections and new ones. Massoud was a drug trafficker; if the CIA established a permanent base in the Panjshir, it risked entanglements with the heroin trade. Pickering and others at the State Department still believed there was at least a 25 percent chance that, through patient negotiation, the Taliban could be persuaded to hand bin Laden over for trial. Berger believed that it would be a mistake to break with Pakistan by backing Massoud. In Islamabad in March, Musharraf had promised Clinton that he would deliver on the bin Laden problem. The general had not done much yet, but it would be rash to change horses now. Moreover, by sending covert aid to Massoud they would be handing the next administration a new proxy war in one of the most dangerous corners of the world. What if Pakistan responded to the Massoud aid by escalating its jihad attacks in Kashmir, provoking a nuclear crisis? Wasn’t that the sort of risk the next administration should calculate for itself? They discussed other options to pressure al Qaeda that had been prepared by Clarke in a detailed strategy memo that sought to “roll back” al Qaeda over three to five years, in part through aid to Massoud. These included new efforts to secure cooperation from Pakistani intelligence and to seek bin Laden’s expulsion. Clinton’s Cabinet remained enticed by the promises of partnership with Pakistan’s army and fearful of a total break.34
The word went back to the Counterterrorist Center: There would be no covert action program for Massoud. The CIA’s continuing aid to Massoud—its relatively small payments and its intelligence collection and sharing program—could not be redesigned in any way that would “fundamentally alter” the Afghan battlefield.
The decision chilled the CIA’s liaison with Massoud. Both the CIA’s officers and Massoud’s leadership group felt they were approaching the limits of cooperation under the existing White House ground rules. Massoud’s contact with the CIA went “a bit” cold that winter, recalled one of the commander’s intelligence aides. The Panjshir visits from Langley halted, but Massoud’s men were not completely sure why. “I presume that they were searching for a clear demonstration of willingness from [our] side to conduct a capture operation” against bin Laden or one of his lieutenants, said the intelligence aide.35
A CIA team flew out to Uzbekistan early that winter. They inspected the agency’s recently purchased Mi-17 helicopter and decided to prepare it for winter storage. “They kind of mothballed it,” recalled Gary Schroen, speaking of the CIA helicopter but also of the agency’s liaison with Massoud.36
The Clinton administration’s eight-year struggle with Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and Afghanistan had ended. “You replay everything in your mind, and you ask, ‘Was there anything else that could have been done?’ ” Clinton said later. “I tried to take Mr. Bin Laden out of the picture for the last four years-plus I was in office. . . . I don’t think I was either stupid or inattentive, so he is a formidable adversary.”37