A top counterterrorism veteran puts the Bush White House on the defensive over 9/11 and the decision to invade Iraq
Almost obscured by the political drama were the 9/11 commission's own revelations. The portrait of the nation's spy agencies that emerges from four new staff reports is that of surprisingly conservative and legalistic bureaucracies scarred by past scandals. Clarke describes them as "risk averse," and the commission's cochair, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican, agrees, calling the agencies "gun-shy." The commission's staff wrote that CIA operatives in the field were much more aggressive than their bosses in Washington. "Before 9/11, the middle managers were protecting them and protecting their bureaucracy," Clarke says. "Unfortunately, they were not protecting the United States."
On this, the commission doesn't yet place blame, but it provides remarkable insight into the conduct of CIA covert actions. Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, told the commission that the 1998 missile strikes on bin Laden's terrorist training camps in Afghanistan made it clear that the White House wanted bin Laden killed. Perhaps. But CIA officials saw matters differently, insisting that the legal guidance drafted by the Clinton White House authorized killing bin Laden only if he resisted during a capture mission. "We always talked about how much easier it would have been to kill him," a former chief of the CIA's bin Laden unit told the commission. In its efforts to catch bin Laden, the CIA relied heavily on Afghan rebels. CIA teams were inserted into Afghanistan occasionally to meet with Afghan agents but not to conduct operations. This left CIA officers dependent on the rebels, whom they didn't fully trust. The commission's staff statement asked: "If officers at all levels questioned the effectiveness of the most active strategy the policymakers were employing to defeat the terrorist enemy, the commission needs to ask why that strategy remained largely unchanged."
The CIA's role, it seems, remains something of a conundrum. Runaway spy agencies have caused considerable damage in the past, and many Americans have long been uncomfortable with the idea of CIA assassinations, especially before 9/11. Some CIA officers told the commission that they would have been opposed to assassinations.
The commission will continue to explore to what extent such apparent ambivalence may have hobbled the CIA. By the time the government began to attack al Qaeda, after the 1998 bombings of the embassies in Africa, the CIA had trouble even finding bin Laden. The commission was able to describe only three episodes between 1998 and Sept. 11, 2001, when there was enough hard intelligence about bin Laden's whereabouts to even consider a cruise missile attack. In each case, the strikes were called off because the intelligence was too sketchy or civilians might be killed. One of the most frustrating incidents occurred in February 1999. U.S. officials received information that bin Laden was at a camp in the Afghan desert, located next to a hunting camp frequented by princes from the United Arab Emirates. CIA Director Tenet testified that the strike never occurred because he didn't trust the intelligence, adding, "You might have wiped out half the royal family in the UAE in the process."
The 9/11 commission's next set of hearings convenes on April 13 to address how intelligence is collected and analyzed. But as commissioners prepare their final report, due by July 26, they will have to wrestle with the hard questions about whether anything America could have done would have been enough to prevent 9/11. As Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage put it: "I just don't think we had the imagination required to consider a tragedy of this magnitude." Nobody yet knows whether the nation has mustered the imagination, determination, and ability to prevent the next one.
With David E. Kaplan, Kenneth T. Walsh and Angie C. Marek