A Strategy's Cautious Evolution
Before Sept. 11, the Bush Anti-Terror Effort Was Mostly Ambition
By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2002; Page A01
On a closed patch of desert in the first week of June, the U.S. government built a house for Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden would have recognized the four-room villa. He lived in one just like it outside Kandahar, Afghanistan, whenever he spent a night among the recruits at his Tarnak Qila training camp. The stone-for-stone replica, in Nevada, was a prop in the rehearsal of his death.
From a Predator drone flying two miles high and four miles away, Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency ground controllers loosed a missile. It carried true with a prototype warhead, one of about 100 made, for killing men inside buildings. According to people briefed on the experiment, careful analysis after the missile pierced the villa wall showed blast effects that would have slain anyone in the target room.
The Bush administration now had in its hands what one participant called "the holy grail" of a three-year quest by the U.S. government – a tool that could kill bin Laden within minutes of finding him. The CIA planned and practiced the operation. But for the next three months, before the catastrophe of Sept. 11, President Bush and his advisers held back.
The new national security team awaited results of a broad policy review toward the al Qaeda network and Afghanistan's Taliban regime, still underway in a working group two and three levels below the president. Bush and his top aides had higher priorities – above all, ballistic missile defense. As they turned their attention to terrorism, they were moving toward more far-reaching goals than the death of bin Laden alone.
Bush's engagement with terrorism in the first eight months of his term, described in interviews with advisers and contemporary records, tells a story of burgeoning ambition without the commitment of comparably ambitious means. In deliberations and successive drafts of a National Security Presidential Directive approved by Bush's second-ranking advisers on Aug. 13, the declared objective evolved from "rolling back" to "permanently eroding" and eventually to "eliminating" bin Laden's al Qaeda organization.
Cabinet-rank policymakers, or principals, took up the new strategy for the first time on Sept. 4. It called for phased escalation of pressure against Taliban leaders to present them with an unavoidable choice – disgorge al Qaeda or face removal from power.
The directive asked the CIA and the Pentagon to produce options involving force – covert and overt – but it deferred decisions on their use. It had not reached Bush's desk by Sept. 11, and on that day its multiyear plan of single steps became a race to start the war on every front at once.
Had hijackers not killed more than 3,000 people, senior advisers said, there is no way to predict how far Bush would have chosen to follow the path they were mapping.
"We won't really know, because the strategy doesn't unfold" before Sept. 11, said a central participant in developing it, who declined to be quoted by name. "It's a phased strategy that we lay out. And in some sense, whether you have to use the military option is going to depend [on] whether the first part of your strategy fails or succeeds. I can tell you the strategy we had, the sequencing we had in mind. I guess I can't prove to you that we would have done it."
Privately, as the strategy took form in spring and summer, the Bush team expressed disdain for the counterterrorist policies it had inherited from President Bill Clinton. Speaking of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, a colleague said that "what she characterized as the Clinton administration approach was 'empty rhetoric that made us look feckless.'‚"
Yet a careful review of the Bush administration's early record on terrorism finds more continuity than change from the Clinton years, measured in actions taken and decisions made. Where the new team shifted direction, it did not always choose a more aggressive path:
At the nexus of law enforcement and intelligence, where the United States has concentrated its work against al Qaeda since 1998, a longtime senior participant said he observed no essential change after the White House passed to new occupants.
- The administration did not resume its predecessor's covert deployment of cruise missile submarines and gunships, on six-hour alert near Afghanistan's borders. The standby force gave Clinton the option, never used, of an immediate strike against targets in al Qaeda's top leadership. The Bush administration put no such capability in place before Sept. 11.
- At least twice, Bush conveyed the message to the Taliban that the United States would hold the regime responsible for an al Qaeda attack. But after concluding that bin Laden's group had carried out the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole a conclusion stated without hedge in a Feb. 9 briefing for Vice President Cheney the new administration did not choose to order armed forces into action.
- In the spring, CIA officers traveled into northern Afghanistan to assess rebel forces commanded by Ahmed Shah Massoud. They found him worse than he had appeared the autumn before. The agency gave Massoud cash and supplies in small amounts in exchange for intelligence on al Qaeda but did not have the authority to build back his fighting strength against the Taliban.
- In his first budget, Bush spent $13.6 billion on counterterrorist programs across 40 departments and agencies. That compares with $12 billion in the previous fiscal year, according to the Office of Management and Budget. There were also somewhat higher gaps this year, however, between what military commanders said they needed to combat terrorists and what they got. When the Senate Armed Services Committee tried to fill those gaps with $600 million diverted from ballistic missile defense, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he would recommend a veto. That threat came Sept. 9.
- On May 8, Bush announced a new Office of National Preparedness for terrorism at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. At the same time, he proposed to cut FEMA's budget by $200 million. Bush said that day that Cheney would direct a government-wide review on managing the consequences of a domestic attack, and "I will periodically chair a meeting of the National Security Council to review these efforts." Neither Cheney's review nor Bush's took place.
- Bush did not speak again publicly of the dangers of terrorism before Sept. 11, except to promote a missile shield that had been his top military priority from the start. At least three times he mentioned "terrorist threats that face us" to explain the need to discard the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
- The Treasury Department created a new deputy assistant secretary's post last summer to coordinate anti-terrorist efforts among its five enforcement arms, and it took the first steps toward hosting a Foreign Terrorist Assets Tracking Center. It also spent months fending off the new laws and old global institutions that are central to the war against al Qaeda's financing. Unresolved interagency disputes left the administration without a position on legislative initiatives to combat money laundering. And until the summer, Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill suspended U.S. participation in allied efforts to penetrate offshore banking havens, whose secrecy protects the cash flows of drug traffickers, tax evaders and terrorists.
"Ninety-nine point-something percent of the work going on and the decisions being made would have continued to be made whether or not we had an election," the career officer said. "I have a real difficult time pointing to anything from January 20th to September 10th that can be said to be a Bush initiative, or something that wouldn't have happened anyway."
'What Are You Going to Do About It?'
At 1:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, two weeks after receiving the nod as Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice walked into a room whose maps and charts only partly obscured the peeling of pale yellow paint. Room 302 of the Old Executive Office Building had become the unlikely seat of a bureaucratic empire built by Richard Clarke and Roger Cressey, his chief of staff.
Clarke's white crew cut imparts a military demeanor, but he actually came to government by way of Boston Latin School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Under Clinton, he had combined modest authority with immodest infighting skills to become the government's main engine of policy on terrorism. In this first meeting with Rice, on Jan. 3, he won a prompt invitation to keep the job.
"The focus was on al Qaeda – who is al Qaeda, what is al Qaeda and why is it an existential threat?" Clarke recalled in an interview.
Rice told him first, he said, that the dangers appeared to be greater than she had known.
"Her second reaction was 'What are you going to do about it?'‚" Clarke said. "I don't think we actually got a tasking at that meeting, but it was clear that she wanted an organized strategy review. She didn't just passively take this information."
Soon afterward, Rice had lunch with the man she would replace in the northwest corner office of the White House. Sitting face to face in blue wingback chairs, Rice and Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger traversed the policy horizon from Russia, China and the Middle East to the spread of nuclear weapons. Berger made what he thought might be an unexpected claim.
"I said to Condi, 'You're going to spend more time during your four years on terrorism generally and al Qaeda specifically than any other issue,' " he said. Bush administration officials gave a similar account.
In the Situation Room on Jan. 10, a CIA briefer showed Rice a video clip of bin Laden filmed by a Predator drone – then unarmed – some months before. The live-action image tracked him out the door of a villa and across the road. The same villa, in another five months, would rise and fall on the Nevada desert test range.
Across the Potomac River, outgoing defense secretary William S. Cohen and his chief of staff, Robert Tyrer, prepared what may stand as the shortest memo of consequence in Pentagon lore.
"There's a period in the transition where the building gets its hooks into you and you get 'death by briefing' by each component in every service," Tyrer recalled. Before that started, he said, "we wanted to lay out, from the perspective only the top guy has, what are some of the issues that may not occur to you that you need to be prepared for."
One of those came in a handwritten note, covering less than a page. The lined paper had nothing on it but three names and three telephone numbers – the Pentagon's top career specialists on terrorism. Cohen had found out the hard way that a defense secretary might need them fast.
"Literally, it was 'Here's a piece of paper, here are the names of your experts who you haven't met, here are their home phone numbers,' " said another top Cohen aide, who had prepared the list. "We tried to make it clear that you can wake up on the morning of your inauguration and have something very big in your face."
At a Jan. 10 meeting in the Tank, the secure conference room of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, President-elect Bush and his defense team took their first briefing from Gen. Henry H. Shelton, the chairman, and the four service chiefs. Participants said neither side, then or later, raised the subject of a six-hour alert force near Afghanistan.
Shelton had no interest in returning Los Angeles-class submarines, which carry cruise missiles, or AC-130 gunships, which fire computer-directed cannon, to their previous Afghan stations. The intelligence community had yet to give him a target for bin Laden that he thought he could strike in time.
Those on Bush's team had different reasons. They had already begun discussions, one adviser said, of whether bin Laden's death would be enough. And they were convinced that "this wasn't about [bin Laden], this was about al Qaeda, and that's why we had to go after the network as a whole."
Personalizing the struggle to one man, he said, was "one of the fallacies" of the Clinton team's approach.
'There Must Be a Consequence'
In his first week on the job, deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley instructed NSC team leaders to propose subjects for high-level review. Much of the incoming staff was still finding its way around the 553 rooms and two miles of corridors in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, once the world's largest.
Clarke did not need a map, or a second invitation. He had a three-page proposal on Hadley's desk that day.
The Jan. 25 memorandum spoke starkly. Clarke and Cressey had just navigated through the most intensive period of counterterrorist activity in American history. The millennium year marked its start with al Qaeda plots – stopped by improbable good fortune – to mount synchronized strikes on airports in Boston and Los Angeles, and on American tourists in Jordan. It ended with a suicide attack that killed 17 sailors and crippled the USS Cole in Yemen three weeks before the presidential election.
More attacks had almost certainly been set in motion, Clarke and Cressey wrote. American intelligence believed there were al Qaeda "sleeper cells" in America – not a potential problem but "a major threat in being," according to people who read their proposal.
Clarke had pressed superiors since the Cole bombing on Oct. 12, 2000, to mount a military attack on al Qaeda's Afghan training camps. Clinton left the question for his successor, and what little public record there was hinted that Bush might choose to act.
"I hope that we can gather enough intelligence to figure out who did the act and take the necessary action," candidate Bush said the morning after the explosion. "There must be a consequence."
Clarke argued that the camps were can't-miss targets, and they mattered. The facilities amounted to conveyor belts for al Qaeda's human capital, with raw recruits arriving and trained fighters departing – either for front lines against the Northern Alliance, the Afghan rebel coalition, or against American interests somewhere else. The U.S. government had whole libraries of images filmed over Tarnak Qila and its sister camp, Garmabat Ghar, 19 miles farther west. Why watch al Qaeda train several thousand men a year and then chase them around the world when they left?
Clarke asked Rice to let him begin an interagency review. As it began, he recommended five immediate steps.
Massoud's Northern Alliance fighters, in danger of defeat by the Taliban, needed enough aid "to keep them alive until we figured out what our overall strategy would be," as a new Bush appointee put it. In neighboring Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov needed more help for an American-trained battalion he sent against fundamentalist rebels allied with al Qaeda. Treasury had to get moving on a terrorist assets tracking center, months overdue. The CIA's Counterterrorism Center could buy a lot more cooperation from foreign intelligence services if it had more cash – the center's whole budget, sources said, did not exceed $50 million. And the Voice of America had to start answering bin Laden – in local languages – to counter his appeal in the Islamic world.
Not much came of Clarke's immediate requests. It would be months before the new team's appointees arrived in force. But Rice and Hadley liked his zeal. The inherited strategy of battling al Qaeda cell by cell, they believed, could not work.
"The premise was, you either had to get the Taliban to give up al Qaeda, or you were going to have to go after both the Taliban and al Qaeda, together," Hadley said in an interview. "As long as al Qaeda is in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban . . . you're going to have to treat it as a system and either break them apart, or go after them together."
Work began in the Counterterrorism Strategy Group, or CSG, by the first week of February. There it stayed for months.
"The U.S. government can only manage at the highest level a certain number of issues at one time – two or three," said Michael Sheehan, the State Department's former coordinator for counterterrorism. "You can't get to the principals on any other issue. That's in any administration."
Before Sept. 11, terrorism did not make that cut.
Army Lt. Gen. Donald Kerrick, who had come from top posts on the Joint Staff and the Defense Intelligence Agency to manage Clinton's National Security Council staff, remained at the NSC nearly four months after Bush took office.
He noticed a difference on terrorism. Clinton's Cabinet advisers, burning with the urgency of their losses to bin Laden in the African embassy bombings in 1998 and the Cole attack in 2000, had met "nearly weekly" to direct the fight, Kerrick said. Among Bush's first-line advisers, "candidly speaking, I didn't detect" that kind of focus, he said. "That's not being derogatory. It's just a fact. I didn't detect any activity but what Dick Clarke and the CSG were doing."
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