Published March 24, 2004
WASHINGTON – CIA efforts to stop Usama bin Laden (search) before the Sept. 11 attacks were hindered by confusion over whether intelligence officers were allowed to kill the Al Qaeda leader, a federal commission said Wednesday.
The CIA also had depended too much on Afghan indigenous groups to attack bin Laden and CIA Director George Tenet (search) understood its chances of succeeding were only 10 percent to 20 percent, the federal commission on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks said in a preliminary report.
If officers at all levels of the agency questioned the effectiveness of the most active strategy that policy-makers were employing to defeat the terrorist enemy, "the commission needs to ask why that strategy remained largely unchanged throughout the period leading up to 9/11," the report said.
Tenet was appearing before the panel Wednesday, the second day of hearings with Bush and Clinton administration officials as the commission examines diplomatic, military and intelligence efforts to stop Al Qaeda (search) before the Sept. 11 attacks against New York and Washington.
The commission's findings are to be released this summer and are likely to provide fodder for both Republicans and Democrats in their fall election campaigns.
Also appearing Wednesday was Richard Clarke (search), counterterrorism adviser in both administrations. In a newly published book, Clarke accuses President Bush of ignoring the threat posed by Al Qaeda until the day of the attacks.
Clarke's charges were strongly rebutted Tuesday by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) and Secretary of State Colin Powell (search). They said they were going beyond past practices of carrying out retaliatory strikes and had been developing a strategy for defeating Al Qaeda.
In August 2001, the CIA gave Bush a highly secretive assessment on whether terrorists might attack the United States. It included no "specific, credible information about any threatened attacks in the United States," according to a second report released by the commission Wednesday.
The White House was not informed about investigations that revealed that two Al Qaeda operatives - both future hijackers - were in the United States or about the FBI investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States with being a Sept. 11 conspirator.
The panel's report said the CIA's deputy director of operations, Jim Pavitt, told Bush shortly after he was elected that bin Laden was one of the gravest threats to the country.
"President-elect Bush asked whether killing bin Laden would end the problem. Pavitt said he and (Tenet) answered that killing bin Laden would have an impact but not stop the threat," the report said.
The CIA later told the White House that "the only long-term way to deal with the threat was to end Al Qaeda's ability to use Afghanistan as a sanctuary for its operations."
Bush in late 2001 ordered U.S. military forces, with British assistance, to help Afghan's Northern Alliance (search) depose the Taliban government that had been sheltering bin Laden. Bin Laden was not found, and sporadic military action has been ongoing there ever since against Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants.
After intelligence agencies began seeing strong indications in June and July 2001 that a terrorist attack was likely, some CIA officials were frustrated when some policy-makers questioned the intelligence. But Tenet, who was briefing Bush daily, "told us that his sense was that officials at the White House had grasped the sense of urgency he was communicating to them," the report said.
The report said that before the Sept. 11 attacks, "no agency did more to attack Al Qaeda, working day and night than did the CIA." But the agency also ran into major problems.
President Clinton had issued several orders for "the CIA to use its proxies to capture or assault bin Laden and his lieutenants in operations in which they might be killed. The instructions, except in one defined contingency, were to capture bin Laden if possible."
While Clinton administration officials believed those orders authorized the CIA to kill bin Laden, many CIA officials - including Tenet - believed they were authorized only to capture bin Laden. "They believed the only acceptable context for killing bin Laden was a credible capture operation," the report said.
An unidentified former chief of the CIA's bin Laden section told the committee that officers "always talked about how much easier it would have been to kill him," it said.
But Clinton's former national security adviser, Samuel Berger (search) said the CIA never complained about the restrictions to the White House, the report said.
Also, the CIA's reluctance to engage personnel in Afghanistan because of its dangers meant that the agency had to rely on local forces to provide intelligence or mount operations to capture bin Laden.
"For covert action forces, proxies meant problems," the report said. "First proxies tend to tell those who pay them what they want to hear." Proxies also require training to carry out operations.
Local forces reportedly considered attacking bin Laden convoys about six times before Sept. 11. Each time the operation was aborted because bin Laden took a different route, security was too tight, or women and children were believed to be in the convoy.
In another preliminary report issued Tuesday, the commission said U.S. officials planned missile attacks on bin Laden after receiving intelligence on his whereabouts, but didn't proceed with the strikes because the intelligence came from a single, uncorroborated source and there was a risk of innocents being killed.
Tuesday's report also said that both the Clinton and Bush administrations engaged in lengthy, ultimately fruitless diplomatic efforts instead of military action to try to get bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Both Rumsfeld and Powell expressed doubt that the administration, which took office less than eight months before the attacks, could have stopped them through military force.