Averting 9/11: How close we came

Hearings show the changed context since 9/11, and the difficulties in curbing Al Qaeda.

In the spring of 1998, a unit dedicated to Osama bin Laden at the CIA's counterterrorism center hatched a plan to snatch the Al Qaeda leader, who by then had declared war on the US.

The group of 17 women and 7 men who referred to themselves as "the Manson family," according to an official familiar with the plan, meticulously surveyed - through intelligence from Afghan tribal leaders and satellite photography - the Tarnak Farm, a mud-walled complex in an isolated stretch of desert near the airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

The plan called for a midnight raid of the compound through a drainage tunnel. An attack party of 30 fighters would emerge from the desert floor, scour the buildings for the terrorist leader who was believed to be sleeping with one of his four wives, and then spirit him away in a convoy of motorcycles.

The plan, however well conceptualized, was never approved. The reason: the likelihood that innocent bystanders would be killed. It was one of at least four opportunities the CIA identified in the late 1990s to either capture or kill the most infamous terrorist in the world.

The decision not to act in any of these cases highlights a central question emerging from the pointed and emotional 9/11 hearings on Capitol Hill this week: whether the context before 9/11 justified the lack of more forceful action against Al Qaeda.

In its preliminary report, the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks has suggested evidence existed in advance that some sort of terror strike in the US was imminent. But officials in both the Clinton and Bush administrations say not enough was known to justify a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan or a military incursion against Al Qaeda. They suggest such a move would have alienated much of the world or killed too many innocents.

Two days of extraordinary testimony from top officials in successive administrations have exposed other problems in America's war on terror as well: the difficulty of handing off intelligence from one White House to the next, especially when they're from different parties, and the limitations of using traditional diplomatic and military levers to deal with an amorphous threat like terrorism.

"It was a different kind of threat, and the tools are different," says Jim Walsh, an international expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "When you're competing against other states, like the Soviet Union, and have alliances, you can turn to your allies to help you. But with bin Laden and Al Qaeda, it was hard to politically persuade the Pakistanis, Saudis, and Afghans to give up their friends."

To be sure, all this information is being off-loaded in a highly charged political season, in which both presidential candidates are seeking to capitalize on their national security records. But what's emerged from the hearings is the near unanimity of two administrations on the limitations and difficulties of coping with a new threat - and the frequent frustrations of commission members about why it wasn't done better.

Former and current secretaries of State and Defense, as well as the director of central intelligence, and the former Clinton and Bush administration counterterrorism adviser testified about how the range of options was explored and exploited - from diplomatic to economic, covert, and military operations.

All expressed some angst over the options applied. For example, after it became clear that Al Qaeda was responsible for the August 1998 US Embassy bombings in Africa, in which 224 people died, the Clinton administration felt it needed to retaliate. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, responding to intelligence from CIA Director George Tenet, told the commission that she worried about the action. She said if the strikes didn't kill bin Laden, he may be strengthened in the eyes of his followers by eluding the US. "I did favor military action," Dr. Albright said. "But at the same time we had to continue to act diplomatically."

The diplomacy involved pressuring two Pakistani leaders - Nawaz Sharif, then Pervez Musharraf - as well as the leaders of the Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) governments, longtime allies of the US, and the new Taliban government in Afghanistan. Pakistan, especially, was difficult primarily because of the CIA's longtime involvement with the Pakistani intelligence service in fighting the 1980s Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Now they were being asked to work with the US against Kabul. In addition, Pakistan had helped train and install the Taliban government and was involved in a nuclear stand-off with its longtime rival, India.

Evidence emerged during these meetings, for example, that former Pakistani intelligence chief, Hamid Gul, forewarned bin Laden of the 1998 missile strikes so that he was able to escape. In fact, both Albright and current Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as other officials, said it took 9/11 to bring Pakistan on board with the US war against Al Qaeda.

"Because of the nuclear weapons sanctions [the Clinton administration had slapped on Pakistan], we didn't have any sticks" to get the Pakistani leadership to lean on the Taliban to turn over bin Laden, said Sandy Berger, Clinton's National Security adviser, Wednesday.

But the theme stressed over and over was the importance of receiving "actionable intelligence," and the conflict within both administrations over capturing bin Laden and bringing him to justice vs. covert or military options to kill him. Moreover, from the attempt to snatch bin Laden from the Tarnak Farm to several others, Mr. Tenet said the intelligence often wasn't good enough to ensure the success of the operation - especially without killing innocents. In early February 1999, for example, the CIA received information - human and electronic - that bin Laden planned a one-week visit to a hunting lodge in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.

It was an isolated area, where damage would be minimal, and the intelligence reportedly provided detailed descriptions of the camps. But according to CIA officials, policymakers worried that a strike might kill a prince or other officials from the UAE, who were also lodged at the camp. Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism official in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, reportedly talked with UAE officials, who denied anyone from their government was there. But evidence later confirmed that they were.

Besides the difficulty of collecting intelligence and convincing allies, there was criticism of a not-so-successful handoff between administrations and tit-for-tat claims of inattentiveness and lack of action from both sides. Still, most officials agreed that finding a comprehensive approach to dealing with terrorism is paramount. "We have learned an important lesson that we cannot race from threat to threat, disrupt it, and then move on," Mr. Tenet said.

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