The Bin Laden's-Still-Alive Blame Game

September 29th, 2006 9:28 AM

There is potentially no more deplorable aspect of politics in the new millennium than the backwards-looking blame game played by both Parties on a daily basis. Whether it’s the economy, taxes, budget deficits, or corruption, members on both sides of the aisle always have an extended finger ready to accuse the other for the problems in the world.

In the past four weeks, a new category for contestants has been created: The bin Laden’s-Still-Alive Blame Game.

When Doves Lie

It is certainly no great surprise that once all the faux hawks – the doves that felt so threatened by the 9/11 attacks that they actually wanted to respond militarily – started feeling less vulnerable, the country would return to its 9/10 divisions. However, nobody could possibly have envisioned that five years later, the political parties would actually be debating who was more responsible for the national tragedy that fateful day.

Alas, here we are, and suddenly there isn’t enough soap in the world to make any rational American feel clean. How sad.

Yet, more despicable than this current condition is that it was actually precipitated by a former president’s disgust with a television program, and inflamed by a simple question from a Sunday talk show host. Maybe this was to be expected given the utter failure of the 9/11 Commission to dispassionately look at all of the information that was available to it, and give the nation an honest and nonpartisan assessment of what truly happened in the years leading up to the attacks.

Instead, what we received was a purely political report that tap-danced around specifics to protect both presidential Administrations involved from embarrassment. As a result, we ended up with more questions than answers, wasting a lot of time and taxpayer money in the process.

Retort to the Commissioner

With that in mind, I recently sought the opinion of Michael Scheuer to try and navigate the current landmine that has been laid by those pointing the fingers, and determine what the facts are from someone that was actually involved with both White Houses.

For those unfamiliar, Scheuer is a 22-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency who led the Osama bin Laden unit of the Counterterrorism Center from 1996 through 1999, and was Special Advisor to it from 2001 until he left the agency in 2004. He is the author of two books on the war on terror. He now serves as a terror analyst for CBS News and the Jamestown Foundation.

There are few people who have more inside information as to what was going on with the hunt for bin Laden than Scheuer, and, as he has no specific ties to either political party at this point in his career, his opinions appear nonpartisan.

Scheuer feels the 9/11 Commission did the country a huge disservice. The picture this panel painted was of an intelligence community in total disarray. Yet, the inability to catch bin Laden prior to the 2001 attacks was by no means due to a lack of information about the terrorist leader, or his whereabouts.

As Scheuer has said and written on many occasions, America had between eight and ten opportunities to kill or capture bin Laden. The failure to do so was not one of intelligence, but, instead, the inability of those given the information to literarily and figuratively pull the trigger.

For instance, the controversial scene depicted in ABC’s Path to 9/11 about an operation to capture bin Laden in 1998 is largely based on fact according to Scheuer, and is detailed on pages 111 – 115 of the 9/11 Commission report. Despite inaccuracies which are greatly up for debate, there was indeed such a mission that was cancelled for reasons that none of the principles questioned by the Commission agreed on.

But, that’s just one of the missed opportunities. According to Scheuer, there was another mission cancelled in late 1998 due to the fear that a nearby mosque could be accidentally hit with some shrapnel, and that this would inflame the region. This view is supported on pages 130 and 131 of the 9/11 Commission report. Keep in mind that “Mike” is actually Scheuer:

On December 20, intelligence indicated Bin Ladin would be spending the night at the Haji Habash house, part of the governor’s residence in Kandahar. The chief of the Bin Ladin unit, “Mike,” told us that he promptly briefed Tenet and his deputy, John Gordon. From the field, the CIA’s Gary Schroen advised: “Hit him tonight—we may not get another chance.” An urgent teleconference of principals was arranged.117

The principals considered a cruise missile strike to try to kill Bin Ladin. One issue they discussed was the potential collateral damage—the number of innocent bystanders who would be killed or wounded. General Zinni predicted a number well over 200 and was concerned about damage to a nearby mosque. The senior intelligence officer on the Joint Staff apparently made a different calculation, estimating half as much collateral damage and not predicting damage to the mosque. By the end of the meeting, the principals decided against recommending to the President that he order a strike. A few weeks later, in January 1999, Clarke wrote that the principals had thought the intelligence only half reliable and had worried about killing or injuring perhaps 300 people. Tenet said he remembered doubts about the reliability of the source and concern about hitting the nearby mosque. “Mike” remembered Tenet telling him that the military was concerned that a few hours had passed since the last sighting of Bin Ladin and that this persuaded everyone that the chance of failure was too great.118

Some lower-level officials were angry. “Mike” reported to Schroen that he had been unable to sleep after this decision. “I’m sure we’ll regret not acting last night,” he wrote, criticizing the principals for “worrying that some stray shrapnel might hit the Habash mosque and ‘offend’ Muslims.”

Hillary’s Questionable Claim

This revelation is all the more fascinating in the context of a recent statement made by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) concerning what the former president would have done if he had received the famed August 2001 Presidential Daily Brief.

“I’m certain that if my husband and his national security team had been shown a classified report entitled `Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside United States,’ he would have taken it more seriously than history suggests it was taken by our current president and his national security team,” Hillary Clinton said.

What makes this statement by Sen. Clinton so astounding are the following sentences from page 128 of the 9/11 Commission report:

On Friday, December 4, 1998, the CIA included an article in the Presidential Daily Brief describing intelligence, received from a friendly government, about a threatened hijacking in the United States. This article was declassified at our request.

The title of this PDB was “Bin Ladin Preparing to Hijack US Aircraft and Other Attacks.” Somehow this little piece of history slipped the Senator’s mind. Makes one wonder what Sen. Clinton feels “taken it more seriously” means.

So, what we have here is a PDB on December 4, 1998, warning the Clinton administration of an al Qaeda plot to hijack American planes. Sixteen days later, the CIA believed it knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts in Kandahar, and had a plan to take him out. Yet, for at least the second time that year, absolutely no action was taken.

Of course, what’s potentially more despicable concerning this issue is that the last time the powers-that-be chose not to act on a covert mission to capture or kill bin Laden in 1998, the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa occurred just a few months later.

Almost unbelievably, just four months after those embassy attacks, with a PDB warning of new ones in their hands, this December 20, 1998, plan to take out bin Laden was scuttled due to the risks to civilians and holy religious structures in the area. Despite protestations to the contrary, it quite seems the Clinton administration was more concerned with the politics of the region than in preventing the loss of life to Americans.

He Tried, But He Couldn’t Do It

This brings us to another glaring contradiction between recent statements made by former president Clinton, and what was in the 9/11 Commission report. During the now infamous Fox News Sunday interview, Mr. Clinton said repeatedly that he tried to kill bin Laden. However, for some reason, in February 1999, Mr. Clinton added ambiguous language to directives concerning bin Laden that made it more difficult for CIA operatives to actually kill him:

In February 1999, another draft Memorandum of Notification went to President Clinton. It asked him to allow the CIA to give exactly the same guidance to the Northern Alliance as had just been given to the tribals: they could kill Bin Ladin if a successful capture operation was not feasible. On this occasion, however, President Clinton crossed out key language he had approved in December and inserted more ambiguous language. No one we interviewed could shed light on why the President did this. President Clinton told the Commission that he had no recollection of why he rewrote the language.129

Later in 1999, when legal authority was needed for enlisting still other collaborators and for covering a wider set of contingencies, the lawyers returned to the language used in August 1998, which authorized force only in the context of a capture operation. Given the closely held character of the document approved in December 1998, and the subsequent return to the earlier language, it is possible to understand how the former White House officials and the CIA officials might disagree as to whether the CIA was ever authorized by the President to kill Bin Ladin.130 [emphasis added]

This appears to be another instance when supposedly the most intelligent president in American history couldn’t recall himself doing something, or why.

Around the time this change in presidential directives was inked in February 1999, America had another chance to get bin Laden according to Scheuer. Operatives had spotted the terrorist leader spending some time at camps south of Kandahar. An attack plan was again submitted, and, again scuttled as documented on pages 137 and 138 of the Report:

No strike was launched. By February 12 Bin Ladin had apparently moved on, and the immediate strike plans became moot.158 According to CIA and Defense officials, policymakers were concerned about the danger that a strike would kill an Emirati prince or other senior officials who might be with Bin Ladin or close by. Clarke told us the strike was called off after consultations with Director Tenet because the intelligence was dubious, and it seemed to Clarke as if the CIA was presenting an option to attack America’s best counterterrorism ally in the Gulf. The lead CIA official in the field, Gary Schroen, felt that the intelligence reporting in this case was very reliable; the Bin Ladin unit chief, “Mike,” agreed. Schroen believes today that this was a lost opportunity to kill Bin Ladin before 9/11.159 [emphasis added]

According to Scheuer, something the Commission chose not to include in its report was that the real concern about this mission was that it might jeopardize a large sale of F16s to the United Arab Emirates, the homeland of the “Emirati prince” referred to. It appears this financial transaction was more important to the Clinton administration than preventing further terrorist attacks by America’s public enemy number one.

Three Times Not a Charm

Adding it all up, there were three good, documented chances to take out bin Laden in about a nine-month period between May 1998 and February 1999. In all three, information and intelligence were not the problems. Some person or persons not being able to decide to act was.

This suggests that all the furor over ABC’s docudrama was a smokescreen, as was Mr. Clinton’s rant on Fox News. After all, regardless of the factual errors presented in the one depiction of a failed opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden in that program, there were others that the docudrama chose not to deal with. In particular, Path didn’t reference the December 4, 1998, PDB, about a hijacking plan by bin Laden, or the decision not to attack him sixteen days later.

Yet, the August 2001 PDB was referenced in the docudrama. With all the finger-pointing concerning this Brief, Scheuer addressed the constraints upon the Bush administration to actually act on its contents. At the time, bin Laden’s specific whereabouts were unknown, leaving virtually no military options at Team Bush’s disposal. In Scheuer’s words, “should Bush have bombed Cairo?”

In reality, there was a lot more that could have been depicted in this miniseries, but for time’s sake wasn’t. And, the inaccuracies presented regarding events immediately before 9/11 were conceivably much more fallacious than anything surrounding what occurred in the ’90s.

Path painted a picture of an extraordinary amount of information coming into the FBI and the CIA in the days just prior to 9/11 that made it seem as if a fool could have connected all the dots. At one point in the docudrama, the Northern Alliance’s Ahmed Shah Massoud called his contact in the CIA to warn him that: the attacks were imminent; they would be significant, and; would be by air. He also told his CIA contact that they had uncovered a plot by al Qaeda to attack the Northern Alliance, and that if he (Massoud) was indeed assassinated, it meant that a terrorist attack on America was just days away.

According to Scheuer, this is a total fiction. His recollection is that “chatter” was indeed higher than normal, but that large volumes of information are always coming into such agencies. Furthermore, at that time, there was nothing so definitive about anything imminent involving airplanes. And, this entire call from Massoud to someone inside the agency in his view was literary license.

This raises an important question: given the factual misrepresentations of events in 2001 by this docudrama, why didn’t the Bush administration lodge complaints to ABC? Is it possible that it recognized that this was just a television program, and that most Americans are intelligent enough to understand the difference between a documentary and a docudrama?

Oh What a Tattered Web We Weave

Finally, Mr. Clinton in his interview with Chris Wallace stated that after the USS Cole was attacked in October 2000, he and his team had come up with a detailed plan to get bin Laden, and that this was passed on to the Bush administration in January 2001. According to Scheuer, nothing could be further from the truth.

The Clinton administration’s reaction to the Cole attack in Scheuer’s view was one of inconvenience, as the presidential and Congressional elections were just weeks away, and they didn’t want to do anything that might upset the apple cart. As far as he was concerned, the only planning involved at that time was the identification of possible targets to hit inside of Afghanistan if another attack occurred before the January inauguration.

In the end, it is truly sad that America is actually having this discussion in such a political and acrimonious fashion. After all, Democrats and Republicans died on 9/11, and we are all still at risk from terrorism regardless of political affiliation. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could analyze what happened during this period in an exclusively factual manner in order to better protect this country from future attacks without the seemingly requisite blame game?