Missed Opportunities: The CIA and bin Laden

Sep 10, 2006 7:35pm

The FBI agent assigned to put the handcuffs on Osama bin Laden had practiced what he would say.

"I would have said, ‘Mr. bin Laden, my name is Jack Cloonan. I’m from the FBI in New York.’" Jack Cloonan told ABC News. "’You are under arrest’…Then he would have been handcuffed…And that’s what I was looking forward to." But, of course, it never happened. Despite 10 years and tens of millions of dollars spent, the United States government has failed to capture or kill the world’s most infamous terrorist. Many CIA officers in the field, including Gary Bernsten, who was assigned to hunt bin Laden, blame officials in Washington. "CIA provided an American president, first Bill Clinton, multiple opportunities to capture or kill bin Laden," Bernsten said. "We provided those opportunities, tactical opportunities which were not taken." In its exhaustive report, the 9/11 Commission identified at least five separate times in 1998 and 1999 when operations were underway to get bin Laden. In only one case was there a decision to proceed. "The commission made no conclusion as to whether they should have gone ahead. I should emphasize," Daniel Marcus, the general counsel for the Commission, told ABC News, "that all of these decisions were difficult decisions because of the potential for collateral casualties among civilians and because of uncertainties as to the intelligence. The first plan in 1998 was to use Afghanis working for the CIA to capture bin laden from his Afghan compound, called Tarnak Farms, and turn him over to the FBI for a flight to the U.S. "The Afghanis were going to be the vanguard. So they were going to break into the compound essentially, shoot it out, because bin Laden obviously had a coterie of guards to protect him. If bin Laden had survived that assault, he was going to be essentially anesthetized," Cloonan said, "removed from that compound." There were four practice rehearsals in Texas and a capture date set, but the Commission said the director of the CIA George Tenet pulled the plug, citing the risk of civilian casualties and the poor odds of success. "Bin laden had two tanks. He had machine gun nests. All of these people that CIA had hired would have been gunned down, and so higher levels in the CIA said that plan won’t work, and I agreed with them, it wouldn’t have worked," Richard Clarke, then White House Director of Counter-terrorism and now an ABC News consultant, said. Two months later al Qaeda attacked two U.S. embassies in Africa, killing more than 250 people. "After the embassy bombings, we developed a very elaborate plan to go after bin laden and the al Qaeda network," Clarke said. That plan started with the launch of cruise missiles against a training camp where bin Laden was expected to be. "Our mission was clear to strike at the network of radical groups affiliated with Osama bin Laden," President Clinton said. But the U.S. missed its primary target, bin Laden. "It was clear that he had been there, and the CIA believes he left a couple of hours before the missile struck," said Marcus. "But, and there are some officials who think it is likely that some Pakistani official notified someone in the Taliban or al Qaeda and tipped off bin Laden to leave. But we don’t know." That was the last time, August of 1998, that the U.S. would actually try to capture or kill bin laden until post-9/11. Each time it would get close, CIA director Tenet would pull the plug, according to Clarke. "President Clinton authorized two U.S. cruise missile attack submarines to sit off the Pakistani coast and to sit there for months on end waiting for word that we might have sighted bin Laden," Clarke explained. And on three occasions, CIA sources, not CIA personnel, but people, Afghans, who were working for CIA, said they thought they knew where bin Laden was. And on all three occasions, those cruise missiles in the submarines were activated and began to spin up and get ready to launch. And on all three occasions, the director of the CIA, George Tenet, said he could not recommend the attack because the information from his one source wasn’t good enough. CIA officers in the field disagreed. And the 9/ll Commission report calls the third of those aborted attacks, Kandahar, May 1999, the last, most likely best chance to get bin Laden. "We thought that was the closest call. And that was one where I think the Commission thought the decision not to undertake that cruise missile strike was relatively murky compared to the decision-making process in other instances," recounted Marcus. Efforts by Richard Clarke to get the U.S. military to bomb the growing al Qaeda training camps were rejected, with generals deriding them as jungle-gym camps, not worth wasting a million dollar missile. "I think if we had taken that opportunity to wipe out the camps, and every time they rebuilt them to wipe them out again, we could have so thrown al Qaeda off that perhaps they wouldn’t have been able to get up," Clarke said. "And we could have done that anytime over the course of several years." In October of 2000, al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole in Yemen, killing 17 crew members. But neither the Clinton nor the Bush administration ordered retaliation. "I think it’s fair to say that the Commission was critical of both the Clinton administration and the Bush administration for dropping the ball, if you will, on the question of responding to the Cole attack," Marcus said. The failure by both Presidents to respond to the Cole is regarded by many as a huge mistake. "We now know from debriefings of captured al Qaeda leaders that the fact that they did the Cole attack and nothing happened did embolden them," Clarke said. Asked if he regrets that, Clarke replied, "I regret it very much."

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