(Copyright 2002 Al Aronowitz)



Could 9/11 Have Been Prevented?

Long before the tragic events of September 11th, the White House debated taking the fight to al-Qaeda. It didn't happen and soon it was too late. The saga of a lost chance

BY MICHAEL ELLIOTT                                                        

Timeline: Blown Chances                                                       

Cover Collection: Sept. 11 And Its Aftermath

From the Archive: Sept. 11 to the Present                             

Sunday, Aug. 04, 2002

Sometimes history is made by the force of arms on battlefields, sometimes by the fall of an exhausted empire. But often when historians set about figuring why a nation took one course rather than another, they are most interested in who said what to whom at a meeting far from the public eye whose true significance may have been missed even by those who took part in it.

One such meeting took place in the White House situation room during the first week of January 2001. The session was part of a program designed by Bill Clinton's National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, who wanted the transition between the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations to run as smoothly as possible. With some bitterness, Berger remembered how little he and his colleagues had been helped by the first Bush Administration in 1992-93. Eager to avoid a repeat of that experience, he had set up a series of 10 briefings by his team for his successor, Condoleezza Rice, and her deputy, Stephen Hadley.  

Berger attended only one of the briefings-the session that dealt with the threat posed to the U.S. by international terrorism, and especially by al-Qaeda. "I'm coming to this briefing," he says he told Rice, "to underscore how important I think this subject is." Later, alone in his office with Rice, Berger says he told her, "I believe that the Bush Administration will spend more time on terrorism generally, and on al-Qaeda specifically, than any other subject." The terrorism briefing was delivered by Richard Clarke, a career bureaucrat who had served in the first Bush Administration and risen during the Clinton years to become the White House's point man on terrorism. As chair of the interagency Counter-Terrorism Security Group (CSG), Clarke was known as a bit of an osessive---just the sort of person you want in a job of that kind. Since the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen on Oct. 12, 2000-an attack that left 17 Americans dead-he had been working on an aggressive plan to take the fight to al-Qaeda. The result was a strategy paper that he had presented to Berger and the other national security "principals" on Dec. 20. But Berger and the principals decided to shelve the plan and let the next Administration take it up. With less than a month left in office, they did not think it appropriate to launch a major initiative against Osama bin Laden. "We would be handing (the Bush Administration) a war when they took office on Jan. 20," says a former senior Clinton aide. "That wasn't going to happen." Now it was up to Rice's team to consider what Clarke had put together.

Berger had left the room by the time Clarke, using a Powerpoint presentation, outlined his thinking to Rice. A senior Bush Administration official denies being handed a formal plan to take the offensive against al-Qaeda, and says Clarke's materials merely dealt with whether the new Administration should take "a more active approach" to the terrorist group. (Rice declined to comment, but through a spokeswoman said she recalled no briefing at which Berger was present.) Other senior officials from both the Clinton and Bush administrations, however, say that Clarke had a set of proposals to "roll back" al-Qaeda. In fact, the heading on Slide 14 of the Powerpoint presentation reads, "Response to al Qaeda: Roll back." Clarke's proposals called for the "breakup" of al-Qaeda cells and the arrest of their personnel. The financial support for its terrorist activities would be systematically attacked, its assets frozen, its funding from fake charities stopped. Nations where al-Qaeda was causing trouble---Uzbekistan, the Philippines, Yemen---would be given aid to fight the terrorists. Most important, Clarke wanted to see a dramatic increase in covert action in Afghanistan to "eliminate the sanctuary" where al-Qaeda had its terrorist training camps and bin Laden was being protected by the radical Islamic Taliban regime. The Taliban had come to power in 1996, bringing a sort of order to a nation that had been riven by bloody feuds between ethnic warlords since the Soviets had pulled out. Clarke supported a substantial increase in American support for the Northern Alliance, the last remaining resistance to the Taliban. That way, terrorists graduating from the training camps would have been forced to stay in Afghanistan, fighting (and dying) for the Taliban on the front lines. At the same time, the U.S. military would start planning for air strikes on the camps and for the introduction of special-operations forces into Afghanistan. The plan was estimated to cost "several hundreds of millions of dollars." In the words of a senior Bush Administration official, the proposals amounted to "everything we've done since 9/11."

And that's the point. The proposals Clarke developed in the winter of 2000-01 were not given another hearing by top decision makers until late April, and then spent another four months making their laborious way through the bureaucracy before they were readied for approval by President Bush. It is quite true that nobody predicted Sept. 11---that nobody guessed in advance how and when the attacks would come. But other things are true too. By last summer, many of those in the know---he spooks, the buttoned-down bureaucrats, the law-enforcement professionals in a dozen countries---were almost frantic with worry that a major terrorist attack against American interests was imminent. It wasn't averted because 2001 saw a systematic collapse in the ability of Washington's national-security apparatus to handle the terrorist threat.

 The winter proposals became a victim of the transition process, turf wars and time spent on the pet policies of new top officials. The Bush Administration chose to institute its own "policy review process" on the terrorist threat. Clarke told Time that the review moved "as fast as could be expected." And Administration officials insist that by the time the review was endorsed by the Bush principals on Sept. 4, it was more aggressive than anything contemplated the previous winter. The final plan, they say, was designed not to "roll back" al-Qaeda but to "eliminate" it. But that delay came at a cost. The Northern Alliance was desperate for help but got little of it. And in a bureaucratic squabble that would be farfetched on The West Wing, nobody in Washington could decide whether a Predator drone---an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and the best possible source of real intelligence on what was happening in the terror camps---should be sent to fly over Afghanistan. So the Predator sat idle from October 2000 until after Sept. 11. No single person was responsible for all this. But "Washington"---that organic compound of officials and politicians, in uniform and out, with faces both familiar and unknown---failed horribly.

Could al-Qaeda's plot have been foiled if the U.S. had taken the fight to the terrorists in January 2001? Perhaps not. The thrust of the winter plan was to attack al-Qaeda outside the U.S. Yet by the beginning of that year, Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, two Arabs who had been leaders of a terrorist cell in Hamburg, Germany, were already living in Florida, honing their skills in flight schools. Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar had been doing the same in Southern California. The hijackers maintained tight security, generally avoided cell phones, rented apartments under false names and used cash---not wire transfers---wherever possible. If every plan to attack al-Qaeda had been executed, and every lead explored, Atta's team might still never have been caught.

But there's another possibility. An aggressive campaign to degrade the terrorist network worldwide-to shut down the conveyor belt of recruits coming out of the Afghan camps, to attack the financial and logistical support on which the hijackers depended---just might have rendered it incapable of carrying out the Sept. 11 attacks. Perhaps some of those who had to approve the operation might have been killed, or the money trail to Florida disrupted. We will never know, because we never tried. This is the secret history of that failure.

  Richard Clarke's

Berger was determined that when he left office, Rice should have a full understanding of the terrorist threat. In a sense, this was an admission of failure. For the Clinton years had been marked by a drumbeat of terror attacks against American targets, and they didn't seem to be stopping.

In 1993 the World Trade Center had been bombed for the first time; in 1996 19 American servicemen had been killed when the Khobar Towers, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, was bombed; two years later, American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked. As the millennium celebrations at the end of 1999 approached, the CIA warned that it expected five to 15 attacks against American targets over the New Year's weekend. But three times, the U.S. got lucky. The Jordanians broke up an al-Qaeda cell in Amman; Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian based in Montreal, panicked when stopped at a border crossing from Canada while carrying explosives intended for Los Angeles International Airport; and on Jan. 3, 2000, an al-Qaeda attack on the U.S.S. The Sullivans in Yemen foundered after terrorists overloaded their small boat.

From the start of the Clinton Administration, the job of thwarting terror had fallen to Clarke. A bureaucratic survivor who now leads the Bush Administration's office on cyberterrorism, he has served four Presidents from both parties---staff members joke that the framed photos in his office have two sides, one for a Republican President to admire, the other for a Democrat. Aggressive and legendarily abrasive, Clarke was desperate to persuade skeptics to take the terror threat as seriously as he did. "Clarke is unbelievably determined, high-energy, focused and imaginative," says a senior Clinton Administration official. "But he's totally insensitive to rolling over others who are in his way." By the end of 2000, Clarke didn't need to roll over his boss; Berger was just as sure of the danger.

The two men had an ally in George Tenet, who had been appointed Director of Central Intelligence in 1997. "He wasn't sleeping on the job on this," says a senior Clinton aide of Tenet, "whatever inherent problems there were in the agency." Those problems were immense. Although the CIA claims it had penetrated al-Qaeda, Republican Congressman Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, chairman of the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security, doubts that it ever got anywhere near the top of the organization.

"The CIA," he says, "were not able to recruit human assets to penetrate al-Qaeda and the al-Qaeda leadership." Nobody pretends that such an exercise would have been easy. Says a counterterrorism official: "Where are you going to find a person loyal to the U.S. who's willing to eat dung beetles and sleep on the ground in a cave for two or three years? You don't find people willing to do that who also speak fluent Pashtu or Arabic." 

In the absence of men sleeping with the beetles, the CIA had to depend on less reliable allies. The agency attempted to recruit tribal leaders in Afghanistan who might be persuaded to take on bin Laden; contingency plans had been made for the CIA to fly one of its planes to a desert landing strip in Afghanistan if he was ever captured. (Clinton had signed presidential "findings" that were ambiguous on the question of whether bin Laden could be killed in such an attack.) But the tribal groups' loyalty was always in doubt. Despite the occasional abortive raid, they never seemed to get close to bin Laden. That meant that the Clinton team had to fall back on a second strategy: taking out bin Laden by cruise missile, which had been tried after the embassy bombings in 1998. For all of 2000, sources tell Time, Clinton ordered two U.S. Navy submarines to stay on station in the northern Arabian Sea, ready to attack if bin Laden's coordinates could be determined.

But the plan was twice flawed. First, the missiles could be used only if bin Laden's whereabouts were known, and the CIA never definitively delivered that information. By early 2000, Clinton was becoming infuriated by the lack of intelligence on bin Laden's movements. "We've got to do better than this," he scribbled on one memo. "This is unsatisfactory." Second, even if a target could ever be found, the missiles might take too long to hit it. The Pentagon thought it could dump a Tomahawk missile on bin Laden's camp within six hours of a decision to attack, but the experts in the White House thought that was impossibly long. Any missiles fired at Afghanistan would have to fly over Pakistan, and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) was close to the Taliban. White House aides were sure bin Laden would be tipped off as soon as the Pakistanis detected the missiles.

Berger and Clarke wanted something more robust. On Nov. 7, Berger met with William Cohen, then Secretary of Defense, in the Pentagon. The time had come, said Berger, for the Pentagon to rethink its approach to operations against bin Laden. "We've been hit many times, and we'll be hit again," Berger said. "Yet we have no option beyond cruise missiles." He wanted "boots on the ground"-U.S. special-ops forces deployed inside Afghanistan on a search-and-destroy mission targeting bin Laden. Cohen said he would look at the idea, but he and General Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were dead set against it. They feared a repeat of Desert One, the 1980 fiasco in which special-ops commandos crashed in Iran during an abortive mission to rescue American hostages.

It wasn't just Pentagon nerves that got in the way of a more aggressive counterterrorism policy. So did politics. After the U.S.S. Cole was bombed, the secretive Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., drew up plans to have Delta Force members swoop into Afghanistan and grab bin Laden. But the warriors were never given the go-ahead; the Clinton Administration did not order an American retaliation for the attack. "We didn't do diddly," gripes a counterterrorism official. "We didn't even blow up a baby-milk factory." In fact, despite strong suspicion that bin Laden was behind the attack in Yemen, the CIA and FBI had not officially concluded that he was, and would be unable to do so before Clinton left office. That made it politically impossible for Clinton to strike---especially given the upcoming election and his own lack of credibility on national security. "If we had done anything, say, two weeks before the election," says a former senior Clinton aide, "we'd be accused of helping Al Gore."

For Clarke, the bombing of the Cole was final proof that the old policy hadn't worked. It was time for something more aggressive-a plan to make war against al-Qaeda. One element was vital. The Taliban's control of Afghanistan was not yet complete; in the northeast of the country, Northern Alliance forces led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, a legendary guerrilla leader who had fought against the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan in the 1980s, were still resisting Taliban rule. Clarke argued that Massoud should be given the resources to develop a viable fighting force. That way, terrorists leaving al-Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan would have been forced to join the Taliban forces fighting in the north. "You keep them on the front lines in Afghanistan," says a counterterrorism official. "Hopefully you're killing them in the process, and they're not leaving Afghanistan to plot terrorist operations. That was the general approach." But the approach meant that Americans had to engage directly in the snake pit of Afghan politics.

Who was
the last man

In the spring of 2001, Afghanistan was as rough a place as it ever is. Four sets of forces battled for position. Most of the country was under the authority of the Taliban, but it was not a homogeneous group. Some of its leaders, like Mullah Mohammed Omar, the self-styled emir of Afghanistan, were dyed-in-the-wool Islamic radicals; others were fierce Afghan nationalists. The Taliban's principal support had come from Pakistan---another interested party, which wanted a reasonably peaceful border to its west---and in particular from the hard men of the I.S.I. But Pakistan's policy was not all of a piece either. Since General Pervez Musharraf had taken power in a 1999 coup, some Pakistani officials, desperate to curry favor with the U.S.---which had cut off aid to Pakistan after it tested a nuclear device in 1998-had seen the wisdom of distancing themselves from the Taliban, or at the least attempting to moderate its more radical behavior. The third element was the Northern Alliance, a resistance movement whose stronghold was in northeast Afghanistan. Most of the Alliance's forces and leaders were, like Massoud, ethnic Tajiks---a minority in Afghanistan. Massoud controlled less than 10% of the country and had been beaten back by the Taliban in 2000. Nonetheless, by dint of his personality and reputation, Massoud was "the only military threat to the Taliban," says Francesc Vendrell, who was then the special representative in Afghanistan of the U.N. Secretary-General.

And then there was al-Qaeda. The group had been born in Afghanistan when Islamic radicals began flocking there in 1979, after the Soviets invaded. Bin Laden and his closest associates had returned in 1996, when they were expelled from Sudan. Al-Qaeda's terrorist training camps were in Afghanistan, and bin Laden's forces and money were vital to sustaining the Taliban's offensives against Massoud.

By last spring, the uneasy equilibrium among the four forces was beginning to break down. "Moderates" in the Taliban---those who tried to keep lines open to intermediaries in the U.N. and the U.S.---were losing ground. In 2000, Mullah Mohammed Rabbani, thought to be the second most powerful member of the Taliban, had reached out clandestinely to Massoud. "He understood that our country had been sold out to al-Qaeda and Pakistan," says Ahmad Jamsheed, Massoud's secretary. But in April 2001, Rabbani died of liver cancer. By that month, says the U.N.'s Vendrell, "it was al- Qaeda that was running the Taliban, not vice versa."

A few weeks before Rabbani's death, Musharraf's government had started to come to the same conclusion: the Pakistanis were no longer able to moderate Taliban behavior. To worldwide condemnation, the Taliban had announced its intention to blow up the 1,700-year-old stone statues of the Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley. Musharraf dispatched his right-hand man, Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider, to plead with Mullah Omar for the Buddhas to be saved. The Taliban's Foreign Minister and its ambassador to Pakistan, says a Pakistani official close to the talks, were in favor of saving the Buddhas. But Mullah Omar, says a member of the Pakistani delegation, listened to what Haider had to say and replied, "If on Judgment Day I stand before Allah, I'll see those two statues floating before me, and I know that Allah will ask me why, when I had the power, I did not destroy them." A few days later, the Buddhas were blown up.

By summer, Pakistan had a deeper grievance. The country had suffered a wave of sectarian assassinations, with gangs throwing grenades into mosques and murdering clerics. The authorities in Islamabad knew that the murderers had fled to Afghanistan (one of them was openly running a store in Kabul) and sent a delegation to ask for their return. "We gave them lists of names, photos and the locations of training camps where these fellows could be found," says Brigadier Javid Iqbal Cheema, director of Pakistan's National Crisis Management Cell, "but not a single individual was ever handed over to us." The Pakistanis were furious.

As the snows cleared for the annual spring military campaign, a joint offensive against Massoud by the Taliban and al-Qaeda seemed likely. But the influence of al-Qaeda on the Taliban was proving deeply unpopular among ordinary Afghans, especially in the urban centers. "I thought at most 20% of the population supported the Taliban by early summer," says Vendrell. And bin Laden's power made Massoud's plea for outside assistance more urgent. "We told the Americans---we told everyone---that al-Qaeda was set upon a transnational program," says Abdullah Abdullah, once a close aide to Massoud and now the Afghan Foreign Minister. In April, Massoud addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, seeking support for the Northern Alliance. "If President Bush doesn't help us," he told a reporter, "these terrorists will damage the U.S. and Europe very soon."

But Massoud never got the help that he needed-or that Clarke's plan had deemed necessary. Most of the time, Northern Alliance delegates to Washington had to be satisfied with meeting low-level bureaucrats. The Alliance craved recognition by the U.S. as a "legitimate resistance movement" but never got it, though on a visit in July, Abdullah did finally get to meet some top National Security Council (NSC) and State Department officials for the first time. The best the Americans seemed prepared to do was turn a blind eye to the trickle of aid from Iran, Russia and India. Vendrell remembers much talk that spring of increased support from the Americans. But in truth Massoud's best help came from Iran, which persuaded all supporters of the Northern Alliance to channel their aid through Massoud alone.

Only once did something happen that might have given Massoud hope that the U.S. would help. In late June, he was joined in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, by Abdul Haq, a leading Pashtun, based in Dubai, who was opposed to the Taliban. Haq was accompanied by someone Massoud knew well: Peter Tomsen, a retired ambassador who from 1989 to '92 had been the U.S. State Department's special envoy to the Afghan resistance. Also present was James Ritchie, a successful Chicago options trader who had spent part of his childhood in Afghanistan and was helping bankroll the groups opposed to the Taliban. (Haq was captured and executed by the Taliban last October while on a quixotic mission to Afghanistan.) Tomsen insists that the June 2001 trip was a private one, though he had told State Department officials of it in advance. Their message, he says, was limited to a noncommittal "good luck and be careful."

The purpose of the meeting, according to Tomsen, was to see if Massoud and Haq could forge a joint strategy against the Taliban. "The idea," says Sayeed Hussain Anwari, now the Afghan Minister of Agriculture, who was present at the meeting, "was to bring Abdul Haq inside the country to begin an armed struggle in the southeast." Still hoping for direct assistance from Washington, Massoud gave Tomsen all the intelligence he had on al-Qaeda and asked Tomsen to take it back to Washington. But when he briefed State Department officials after his trip, their reaction was muted. The American position was clear. If anything was to be done to change the realities in Afghanistan, it would have to be done not by the U.S. but by Pakistan. Massoud was on his own.




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