U.S. INTELLIGENCE & COUNTERTERRORISM POLICY
THE ROLE OF THE CIA IN COUNTERING TERRORISM
By Christopher Kojm
INTRODUCTION BY PHILIP ZELIKOW
Today, we will focus on the role of the Central Intelligence Agency as an instrument of national policy.
This report reflects the results of our work so far. We remain ready to revise our understanding of events as our investigation progresses.
The Staff statement reflects the collective effort of a number of members of our Staff. Alexis Albion, Michael Hurley, Dan Marcus, Lloyd Salvetti, and Steve Dunne did much of the investigative work reflected in the statement.
For this area of our work, we were fortunate in being able to build upon a great deal of excellent work already done by the Congressional Joint Inquiry.
The Central Intelligence Agency has cooperated fully in making available both the documents and interviews that we have needed so far on this topic.
I'd now like to turn to Christopher Kojm, Deputy Executive Director of the 9-11 Commission's Staff.
When directed by the President, the CIA is also responsible for executing policy through the conduct of covert action.
The Director of Central Intelligence also has dual responsibilities. He is the President's senior intelligence advisor. He is also the head of the CIA, an agency that executes policy.
In speaking with the 9-11 Commission, DCI George Tenet was blunt: "I am not a policy-maker."
He presents intelligence and offers up operational judgments, but he says it is ultimately up to policy-makers to decide how best to use that intelligence. "It is their job to figure out where I fit into their puzzle," Tenet said.
Both the DCI and the Deputy Director for Operations, James Pavitt, invoked lessons learned from the Iran-Contra scandal: The CIA should stay well behind the line separating policy-maker from policy-implementer.
"The CIA does not initiate operations unless it is to support a policy directive," said Tenet.
For Pavitt, the lesson of Iran-Contra was: "We don't do policy from out here, and you don't want us to."
Yet, as a member of the National Security Council, the DCI is one of a handful of senior officials who advises the President on national security. The DCI's operational judgments can and did influence key decisions on the U.S. government's policy toward Al-Qa'ida.
In the case of Al-Qa'ida, the line between policy-maker and policy-implementer is hard to discern.
As regards the CIA's work with renditions, if a terrorist suspect is outside of the United States, the CIA helps to catch and send him to the United States or a third country.
Overseas officials of the CIA, the FBI, and the U.S. State Department may locate the terrorist suspect, perhaps using their own sources. If possible, they seek help from a foreign government. Though the FBI is often part of the process, the CIA is usually the main player, building and defining the relationships with the foreign government intelligence agencies and internal security services.
The CIA often plays an active role, sometimes calling upon the support of other agencies for logistical or transportation assistance.
Director Tenet has publicly testified that 70 terrorists were rendered and brought to justice before 9-11. These activities could only achieve so much. In countries where the CIA did not have cooperative relationships with local security services, the rendition strategy often failed.
In at least two such cases, when the CIA decided to seek the assistance of the host country, the target may have been tipped off and escaped.
In the case of Osama bin Laden, the United States had no diplomatic or intelligence officers living and working in Afghanistan, nor was the Taliban regime inclined to cooperate. The CIA would have to look for other ways to bring bin Laden to justice.
Where terrorists could not be brought to justice in the United States or a third country, the CIA could try to disrupt their operations, attacking the cells of Al-Qa'ida operatives or affiliated groups.
The CIA encouraged foreign intelligence services to make creative use of laws already in place to investigate, detain and otherwise harass known or suspected terrorists.
Disruptions of suspected terror cells thwarted numerous plots against American interests abroad, particularly during high-threat periods. After the embassy bombings of 1998, the U.S. disrupted planned attacks against at least one American embassy in Albania. In late 1999, preceding the millennium celebrations, the activities of 21 individuals were disrupted in eight countries.
In two subsequent phases of intensive threat reporting, the Ramadan period in late 2000 and the Summer prior to 9-11, the CIA again went into what the DCI described as millennium threat mode, engaging with foreign liaison and disrupting operations around the world.
At least one planned terrorist attack in Europe may have been successfully disrupted during the Summer of 2001.
Renditions and disruptions continued as an important component of U.S. counterterrorism policy throughout the period leading up to 9-11. They are still widely used today.
In 1996, as an organizational experiment undertaken with seed money, the Counterterrorism Center at the CIA created a special issues station devoted exclusively to bin Laden. Bin Laden was then still in Sudan and was considered by the CIA to be a terrorist financier. The original name of the apecial issues station was TFL, standing for Terrorist Financial Links. The bin Laden station was not a response to new intelligence, but reflected interest in and concern about bin Laden's connections.
The CIA believed that bin Laden's move to Afghanistan in May, 1996, might be a fortunate development. The CIA knew the ground in Afghanistan, as its officers had worked with indigenous tribal forces during the Afghan war against the Soviet Union.
The CIA definitely had a lucky break when a former associate of bin Laden walked into a U.S. embassy abroad and provided an abundance of information about the organization. These revelations were corroborated by other intelligence.
By early 1997, the OBL station knew that bin Laden was not just a financier, but an organizer of terrorist activity. It knew that Al-Qa'ida had a military committee planning operations against U.S. interests worldwide and was actively trying to obtain nuclear material.
Although this information was disseminated in many reports, the unit's sense of alarm about bin Laden was not widely shared or understood within the intelligence and policy communities. Employees in the unit told us they felt their zeal attracted ridicule from their peers.
In 1997, CIA headquarters authorized U.S. officials to begin developing a network of agents to gather intelligence inside Afghanistan about bin Laden and his organization, and prepare a plan to capture him.
By 1998, DCI Tenet was giving considerable personal attention to the bin Laden threat.
Since its inception, the OBL station had been working on a covert action plan to capture bin Laden and bring him to justice. The plan had been elaborately developed by the Spring of 1998. Its final variant in this period used Afghan tribal fighters recruited by the CIA to assault a terrorist compound where bin Laden might be found, capture him if possible, and take him to a location where he could be picked up and transported to the United States.
Though the plan had dedicated proponents in the bin Laden unit and was discussed for months among top policy-makers, all of the CIA's leadership and a key official in the field agreed that the odds of failure were too high. They did not recommend it for approval by the White House.
After the East Africa bombings, President Clinton signed successive authorizations for the CIA to undertake offensive operations in Afghanistan against bin Laden.
Each new document responded to an opportunity to use local forces from various countries against bin Laden himself and later his principal lieutenants. These were authorizations for the conduct of operations in which people on both sides could be killed. Policy- makers devoted careful attention to crafting these sensitive and closely held documents.
In accordance with these authorities, the CIA developed successive covert action programs using particular indigenous groups or proxies who might be able to operate in different parts of Afghanistan. These proxies would also try to provide intelligence on bin Laden and his organization with an eye to finding bin Laden and then ambushing him if the opportunity arose.
The CIA's Afghanistan assets reported on about a half a dozen occasions before 9-11 that they had considered attacking bin Laden, usually as he traveled in his convoy along the rough Afghan roads. Each time the operation was reportedly aborted. The Afghans said that, several times, bin Laden had taken a different route than expected. On one occasion, security was said to be too tight to capture him; another time they heard the voices of women and children from inside the convoy and, in accordance with CIA guidelines, abandoned the assault, for fear of killing innocents.
In the Summer of 1999, new leaders arrived at the Counterterrorism Center and the bin Laden unit. The new Director of that Center was Cofer Black. He and his aides worked on a new operational strategy for going after Al-Qa'ida. The focus was on getting better intelligence. They proposed a shift from reliance on the Afghan proxies alone to an effort to create the CIA's own sources.
They called the new strategy simply, "The Plan."
The Plan also proposed increasing contacts between the CIA and the Northern Alliance rebels fighting the Taliban.
President Clinton prodded his advisors to do better. National Security Council Counterterrorism Coordinator Richard Clarke helped Assistant DCI for Collection Charles Allen and Vice Admiral Scott Fry of the Joint Staff work together on the military's ongoing efforts to develop new collection capabilities inside Afghanistan.
With the NSC Staff's backing, the Counterterrorism Center and the U.S. military came up with a proposal to fly an unmanned drone, called the Predator, over Afghanistan to survey the territory below and relay video footage.
That information, the White House hoped, could either boost U.S. knowledge of Al-Qaida or be used to kill bin Laden with a cruise missile.
Assistant DCI Allen said that the CIA's senior management was originally reluctant to go ahead with the Predator program, adding: "It was a bloody struggle." But the NSC Staff was firm and the CIA agreed to fly the Predator as a trial concept.
Drones were flown successfully over Afghanistan 16 times in Fall, 2000. At least twice, the Predator saw a security detail around a tall man in a white robe whom some analysts determined was probably bin Laden. The Predator was spotted by Taliban forces. They were unable to intercept it, but the Afghan press service publicized the discovery of a strange aircraft that it speculated might be looking for bin Laden.
When Winter weather prevented the Predator from flying during the remainder of 2000, the Counterterrorism Center looked forward to resuming flights in 2001.
The Counterterrorism Center developed an offensive initiative for Afghanistan, regardless of policy or financial constraints. It was called the "Blue Sky memo."
In December, 2000, the CIA sent the Blue Sky memo to the NSC Staff. The memo recommended increased support to anti-Taliban groups and to proxies who might ambush bin Laden. The Counterterrorism Center also proposed a major effort to back Northern Alliance forces in order to stave off the Taliban army and tie down Al-Qa'ida fighters, thereby hindering terrorist activities elsewhere.
No action was taken on these ideas in the few remaining weeks of the Clinton administration.
The Blue Sky memo itself was not apparently discussed with the incoming top Bush administration officials during the transition. The Counterterrorism Center began pressing these proposals after the new team took office.
DCI George Tenet and Deputy Director for Operations James Pavitt gave an intelligence briefing to President-elect Bush, Vice President-elect Cheney, and Dr. Rice -- a briefing which included the topic of Al-Qa'ida. Pavitt recalled conveying 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 the DCI answered that killing bin Laden would have an impact, but would not stop the threat.
The CIA later provided more formal assessments to the White House reiterating that conclusion. It added that the only long-term way to deal with the threat was to end Al-Qa'ida's ability to use Afghanistan as a sanctuary for its operations, and this entailed arming the Predator.
During the Fall of 2000, Clarke and other counterterrorism officials learned of a promising and energetic Air Force effort that was already trying to arm the Predator with missiles. Clarke and Assistant DCI Charles Allen urged flying the reconnaissance version of the Predator in the Spring as soon as the weather improved and using the armed Predator against bin Laden as soon as possible.
DCI Tenet, supported by military officers and the Joint Staff, balked at this plan. They did not want to go ahead with reconnaissance flights alone and argued for waiting until the armed version was ready before flying Predator again.
Given the experience in the Fall of 2000, they worried that flying the reconnaissance version would forfeit the element of surprise for the armed Predator. They also feared one of these scarce aircraft might be shot down, since Taliban radar had previously tracked it, forcing it into a more vulnerable flight path. They also contended that there were not enough Predators to be able to conduct reconnaissance flights over Afghanistan and still have aircraft leftover for the testing then under way in the United States to develop the armed version.
Clarke believed that these arguments were stalling tactics by CIA's risk-adverse Directorate of Operations. He wanted the reconnaissance flights to begin on their own, both for collection and to allow for possible strikes with other military forces.
He thought that the reconnaissance flights could be conducted with fewer aircraft than had been used in 2000 and, therefore, testing on the armed version might continue.
DCI Tenet's position prevailed: The reconnaissance flights were deferred while work continued on the armed version.
The armed Predator was being readied at an accelerated pace during 2001. The Air Force officials who managed the program told us that the policy arguments, including quarrels about who would pay for the aircraft, had no effect on their timetable for operations. The timetable was instead driven by a variety of technical issues.
A program that ordinarily would have taken years was, they said, finished in months. They were "throwing out the books on the normal acquisition process just to press on and get it done."
In July, 2001, Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley ordered that the armed Predator be ready by September 1. CIA officials supported these accelerated efforts. The Air Force program manager told us that they were still resolving technical issues as of 9-11 and "We just took what we had and deployed it."
Meanwhile, policy-makers were arguing about the unprecedented step of creating a missile system for use by an agency outside of the Department of Defense. DCI Tenet was concerned.
At a meeting of NSC Principals on September 4, 2001, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice summarized the consensus that the armed Predator was not ready, but that the capability was needed. The group left open issues related to command and control.
In the meantime, the Principals' Committee agreed the CIA should consider going ahead with flying reconnaissance missions with the Predator. Shortly after the meeting, DCI Tenet agreed to proceed with such flights.
At the end of May, National Security Advisor Rice met with DCI Tenet and their Counterterrorism Experts. She asked about "taking the offensive" against Al-Qa'ida and asked Clarke and the Counterterrorism Center Chief, Cofer Black, to develop a full range of options.
A plan for a larger covert action effort was a major component of the new Al-Qa'ida strategy, codified in a draft presidential directive that was first circulated in early June.
The emerging covert action plan built upon the ideas the CIA and Clarke had been working on since December, 2000. A notable change was that Rice and Hadley wanted to place less emphasis on the Northern Alliance and more on anti-Taliban Pashtuns. Clarke was impatient to get at least some money to the Northern Alliance right away in order to keep them in the fight.
Meanwhile, the intelligence community began to receive its greatest volume of threat reporting since the millennium plot. By late July, there were indications of multiple, possibly catastrophic, terrorist attacks being planned against American interests overseas. The Counterterrorism Center identified 30 possible overseas targets and launched disruption operations around the world.
Some CIA officials expressed frustration about the pace of policy-making during the stressful Summer of 2001. Although Tenet said he thought the policy machinery was working in what he called a rather orderly fashion, Deputy DCI McLaughlin told us he felt a great tension, especially in June and July, 2001, between the new administration's need to understand these issues and his sense that this was a matter of great urgency.
Officials including McLaughlin were also frustrated when some policy-makers who had not lived through such threat surges before questioned the validity of the intelligence or wondered if it was disinformation, although they were persuaded once they probed it.
Two veteran Counterterrorism Center officers who were deeply involved in bin Laden issues were so worried about an impending disaster that one of them told us that they considered resigning and going public with their concerns. DCI Tenet, who was briefing the President and his top advisors daily, told us that his sense was that officials at the White House had grasped the sense of urgency he was communicating to them.
DCI Tenet said that, by early August, intelligence suggested that whatever terrorist activity might have been originally planned had been delayed. At the same time, the Deputies' Committee reached a consensus on a new Afghan policy, paving the way for Northern Alliance aid. NSC Principles apparently endorsed the new presidential directive on Al-Qa'ida at their meeting on September 4.
On September 10, Deputy National Security Advisor Hadley formally tasked DCI Tenet to draw up new draft authorities for the broad covert action program envisioned in that directive, including significant additional funding and involving Pashtun elements as well as the Northern Alliance.
Events would, of course, overtake this task. Within days of the September 11 attacks, a new counterterrorism policy was in place.
Many CIA officers, including Deputy Director for Operations Pavitt, have criticized policy-makers for not giving the CIA authorities to conduct effective operations against bin Laden. This issue manifests itself in a debate about the scope of the covert actions in Afghanistan authorized by President Clinton. NSC Staff and CIA officials differ starkly here.
Senior NSC Staff members told us they believe the President's intent was clear: He wanted bin Laden dead. On successive occasions, President Clinton issued authorities instructing 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.
Senior legal advisors in the Clinton administration agreed that, under the law of armed conflict, killing a person who posed an imminent threat to the United States was an act of self-defense, not an assassination.
As former National Security Advisor Berger explained, "If we wanted to kill bin Laden with cruise missiles, why would we not want to kill him with covert action?" Clarke's recollection is the same.
But if the policy-makers believed their intent was clear, every CIA official interviewed on this topic by the 9-11 Commission, from DCI Tenet to the official who actually briefed the agents in the field, told us they had heard a different message. "What the United States would let the military do is quite different," Tenet said, "from the rules that govern covert action by the CIA."
CIA senior managers, operators, and lawyers uniformly said that they read the relevant authorities signed by President Clinton as instructing them to try to capture bin Laden, except in the defined contingency.
They believed that the only acceptable context for killing bin Laden was a credible capture operation. "We always talked about how much easier it would have been to kill him," a former chief of the bin Laden station said.
Working-level CIA officers said they were frustrated by what they saw as the policy restraints of having to instruct their assets to mount a capture operation. When Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood was briefed on the carefully worded instructions for him, the briefer recalls that Masood laughed and said: "You Americans are crazy. You guys never change."
To further cloud the picture, two senior CIA officers told us they would have been morally and practically opposed to getting CIA into what might look like an assassination. One of them, a former Counterterrorism Center chief, said that he would have refused an order to directly kill bin Laden.
Where NSC Staff and CIA officials agree is that no one at CIA, including Tenet and Pavitt, ever complained to the White House that the authorities were restrictive or unclear. Berger told us, "If there was ever any confusion, it was never conveyed to me or the President by the DCI or anybody else."
They did, however, take on significant risk. CIA teams penetrated deep into Afghanistan on numerous occasions before 9-11. The purposes of these penetrations included, for example, evaluation of airfields suitable for capture operations.
These were hazardous missions. Officers flew through mountainous terrain, on rickety helicopters exposed to missile attack from the ground. CIA personnel continued these missions over the course of the next year, and, on each occasion, risked their lives.
But reluctance to authorize direct action by CIA personnel against bin Laden inside the Afghanistan sanctuary led policy-makers to rely on local forces or proxies. For covert action programs, proxies meant problems.
First, proxies tend to tell those who pay them what they want to hear. The CIA employs many means to test and verify the truth of the intelligence its agents provide, but these tests are not foolproof.
Second, a strategy emphasizing proxies takes significant time to produce the desired results. Proxy forces invariably need training and instruction to carry out operations.
Both of these factors bedeviled the CIA's use of proxy forces in Afghanistan before 9-11.
The most widely used forces were tribal fighters with whom CIA officers had established relations dating back over a decade to the jihad against Soviet occupation. CIA officers dealing with these tribal fighters had some confidence in their ability to target bin Laden. These agents collected valuable intelligence at great personal risk; yet, when it came to their ability to conduct paramilitary operations, senior CIA officials had their doubts.
As was mentioned earlier, senior CIA officials did not go forward with the Spring, 1998, plan to use Afghan forces to capture bin Laden. This was, in part, because they were not convinced that the Afghans could carry out the mission successfully.
There is little evidence that the CIA leadership ever developed greater faith in the operational skills of these proxy forces for paramilitary action.
Deputy Director for Operations Pavitt said he does not know if the attempted ambushes against bin Laden that the tribal fighters reported ever actually occurred.
The CIA employed proxy forces other than the Afghan tribal groups against bin Laden, but with no more confidence in their abilities. DCI Tenet thought the most able proxies were the hardened warriors of Masood's Northern Alliance, who had been at war with the Taliban for years.
Though there was continuing disagreement within the agency about relying on the Northern Alliance, CIA leaders put more and more weight behind this option through 2000 and 2001. They were always aware that the primary objective of Masood's forces was to defeat the Taliban, not to find bin Laden or attack Al-Qa-ida.
By deciding to use proxies to carry out covert actions in Afghanistan before 9-11, both the Clinton and Bush administrations placed the achievement of policy objectives in the hands of others.
CIA officers were aware of these limitations. As early as mid-1997, one CIA officer recognized that the CIA alone was not going to solve the bin Laden problem. In a memo to his supervisor, he wrote: "All we're doing is holding the ring until the cavalry gets here."
Deputy Director for Operations Pavitt told the 9-11 Commission Staff: "Doing stuff on the margins was not the way to get this job done. If the U.S. government was serious about eliminating the Al-Qaida threat, it required robust offensive engagement across the entire U.S. government."
DCI Tenet also understood the CIA's limitations. He told the Commission Staff:
Indeed, serendipity had led to some of the CIA's past successes against Al-Qa'ida. But absent a more dependable government strategy, CIA senior management relied on proxy forces to get lucky for over three years, through both the late Clinton and early Bush administrations.
There was growing frustration within this Counterterrorist Center and in the NSC Staff with this lack of results. The development of the Predator and the push to aid the Northern Alliance were certainly products of this frustration.
The 9-11 Commission has heard numerous accounts of the tireless activity of officers within the Counterterrorism Center and the OBL station trying to tackle Al-Qa'ida before 9-11.
DCI Tenet was also clearly committed to fighting the terrorist threat. But, if officers at all levels questioned the effectiveness of the most active strategy the 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.
Islamism & Jihadism -- The Threat of Radical Islam
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War & Peace in the Real World
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Islamist Terrorist Attacks on the U.S.A.
Terrorism & U.S. Homeland Security
Osama bin Laden & the Islamist Declaration of War
Against the U.S.A. & Western Civilization
Islamist International Terrorism &
U.S. Intelligence Agencies
U.S. National Security Strategy
Dr. Philip Lelikow is Executive Director of the Staff of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (9-11
Commission). Christopher Kojm, Deputy Director of the Commission's Staff, is former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for
Intelligence. The foregoing statements were presented, on March 24, 2004, as testimony at the hearings of the 9-11 Commission.
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