Friday, September 08, 2006

ABC - Dumb it Down TV - And The Path to 11/7 

What follows in this post below are excerpts from Steve Coll's book Ghost Wars: with specific attention to the early days of the incoming Bush administration and their apparent lack of "priority" with respect to the threat of al Qaeda sponsored terrorism. And with specific emphasis on the efforts of Richard Clarke and Sandy Berger (most specifically in the excerpts below) and both of their attempts to impress upon the new Bush team the need to be very attentive to, and place more emphasis on, the issue of terrorism; most importantly as it pertained to the imminent threat posed by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda at the time.

Also included below are excerpts from a 2004 Washington Post online readers forum discussion with Coll: which addresses some of the same questions being revisited today as they relate to the upcoming ABC action/thriller/figment of invention/miniseries "The Path to 911" being presented by ABC. Some of the Clinton White House's efforts to capture or kill bin Laden, and the ultimate failure to do so and the later terrible consequences, are revisited during the 2004 forum thread below.

Although, it seems to me that one could not simply conclude that killing bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998 or 2000 (for instance) would have actually prevented the murderous 911 attack in NYC from proceeding as it did. Bin laden was not alone the plotter and planner of the 911 attacks. And smoking him out of his hole at Tarnak Farm (for instance) may or may not have had any ultimate impact on the eventual outcome that took place in Manhattan on 9/11.

Afterall, those commercial airplanes that were flown into the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001 were not personally piloted by bin Laden and his Islamic-neocon board of directors.

To draw the conclusion that had bin Laden been killed or assasinated in 1998, or the autumn of 2000 - though it would have been a serious and welcome accomplishment - and to conclude therefore that the 911 attacks would have been thouroughly thwarted, is speculative backgazing at best. It would certainly in no way suggest or guarantee that the later 911 attacks would not have occured.

Al Qaeda is not simply some one man band. And to presume or recklessly conclude (as this upcoming ABC mini-thriller flick might perhaps attempt to suggest), that had bin Laden been mortally removed from the picture at an earlier date, and therefore the 911 terroist attacks would have been avaioded, would be almost as silly as suggesting that the New York Yankees baeball team could never again win another World Series should George Steinbrenner suddenly choke to death on a fork-full of veal cutlet and drop stone cold dead at the dinner table tomorrow evening.

In the pre-dawn of The ABC Television Network Boob-Toob Saloon's public presentation of something called "The Path to 911" ( a clearly politically motivated, public diplomacy styled, pre-election beer hall rally round the Bush flag revival ) its interesting to note now that many of the same questions about what happened in Afghanistan all those years ago still serve as partisan political ammo toady. As Coll says in the 2004 forum thread below: "These arguments will persist for some time, I'm sure."

"I don't know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don't care. It's not that important. It's not our priority." ~ George W. Bush, March, 13 2002.


Steve Coll, (Washington Post South Asia bureau chief 1989-1992) writing in Ghost Wars:
The warnings did not register. The CIA briefed Bush's senior national security team about al Qaeda, but its officers sensed no deep interests: Rice, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz - the four with the strongest ideas and the most influence - had spent many months thinking and talking about what they would emphasize during their first one hundred days in the white House. They were focused on missle defense, military reform, China and Iraq. Neither terrorism nor South Asia was high on the list.

In their early briefings, Clarke's office described bin Laden as an "existential" threat to the United States, meaning that the danger he posed went beyond the dozens or hundreds of casualties al Qaeda might inflict in serial bombing attacks. Bin Laden and his followers sought mass destruction in American cities if they could, Clarke and officers at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center firmly believed. But they failed to persuade Bush or his top advisers. [...] CIA briefers sensed that Bush's national security cabinet viewed terrorism as the kind of phenomenon it had been during the 1980's: potent but limited, a theatrical sort of threat that could produce episodic public crises but did not jeapordize the fundamental security of the United States. [Coll, page 541]

Sandy Berger, who felt the first President Bush had failed to arrange adequate transition briefings on national security for the incoming Clinton team, vowed to run a handoff fo the sort he would have wished to receive. The "number one" issue on his agenda, he recalled, "was terrorism and al Qaeda.... We briefed them fully on what we were doing, on what else was under consideration, and what the threat was." Berger ordered each directorate in the National Security Council to write an issues memo for Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley. The memos were then enhanced by oral briefings and slide show presentations. Berger himself attended only one, the session organized by Richard Clarke to talk about bin Laden and al Qaeda. "Im here because I want to underscore how important this issue is," Berger explained to Rice. Later, in the West Wing of the White House, Berger told his successor, "You're going to spend more time during your four years on terrorism generally and bin Laden specifically than any issue. [Coll, Ghost Wars; page 541]

Clarke saw the early weeks of the Bush administration as an opportunity to win a more receptive audience for his ideas about bombing the Taliban and challenging bin Laden. He had on his desk analytical papers, recommendations and discarded Cabinet agendas from the last weeks of the Clinton administration. Clarke and his aides composed a three page memorandum to Rice dated January 25. A cabinet-level meeting about al Qaeda's imminent threat
was "urgently needed," he and his chief fo staff, Roger Cressey, wrote. This was not "some narrow little terrorist issue." Suspected al qaeda "sleeper cells" inside the United States were "a major threat in being." [Coll, Ghost Wars; page 542]

Clarke's January 25 memo went nowhere. No Cabinet meeting about al Qaeda, Afghanistan, or regional policy was scheduled. weeks later Rice completed the first phase of her NSC reorganization, and Clarke formally lost his cabinet-level status on terrorism issues. [Coll, Ghost Wars; page 543]

Condoleeza Rice on Iran's "far-reaching" influence:
At one point she described Iran as "the state hub for technology and money and lots fo other goodies to radical fundamentalist groups, some will say as far-reaching as the Taliban." But Iran's Shiite regime and the Taliban's radical Sunni mullahs were blood enemies, and Iran actually sent arms and money to Ahmed Shah Massoud, to aid his war against the taliban. Challenged by a reporter, Rice insisted that the Iranians were "sending stuff to the region that fell into the hands of bad players in Afghanistan and Pakistan." She did not explain what players. Asked about her statement once again, she said that of course she was aware of the enmity between Iran and the Taliban. [Coll, Ghost Wars; page 539]

4 Bush's Foreign Policy Tutor: An Academic in the Public Eye (New York Times, 15 June 2000.)
Of course, Afghanistan is also not Ms. Rice's primary area of expertise. Asked in an interview to support her assertion in her recent article in Foreign Affairs that Iran is trying to spread "fundamentalist Islam" beyond its borders, she replied, "Iran has been the state hub for technology and money and lots of other goodies to radical fundamentalist groups, some will say as far-reaching as the Taliban."

When reminded that Iran was a bitter enemy of the Taliban and that the two countries had almost gone to war in late 1998, she replied, "They were sending stuff to the region that fell into the hands of bad players in Afghanistan and Pakistan." She did not identify "the bad players." (In a subsequent conversation, she said that of course she knew that Iran and the Taliban were enemies).


WaPo online discussion with Steve Coll, February 23, 2004. Via the Freedom of Information Center/Missouri.edu. Excerpts of that online discussion forum follow below:

Springfield, Va.: Mr. Coll: The excerpts in the Post are fascinating. I look forward to reading your book. The article gives an impression of the CIA far different from what we have been led to believe. Am I right in taking from your article that the Agency was much more actively engaged in going after bin Laden than Congressional critics and many in the media have previously suggested? Do members of Congress not know of these efforts or do they just ignore them because in the end they did not succeed?

Steve Coll: The main congressional report to date about 9/11 was published last summer. Its investigators did learn about most if not all of the narrative I'm recounting in my book, so far as I can tell. However, they weren't able to publish that portion of their findings because the material was judged too classified. In their final report, the passages about CIA covert action in Afghanistan are published mainly as blank pages.


Oakton, Va.: Since Sept. 11, several books have popped up arguing that the Clinton administration bungled opportunities to kill or capture bin Laden before 2001. "Losing Bin Laden: How Bill Clinton's Failures Unleashed Global Terror" by Richard Miniter is the one I remember seeing at bookstores.

Before reading your book exceprts, I dismissed many of these accounts as a new outlet for the same old Clinton bashing that led to many best-selling Whitewater books.

Did you review any of those books while you were working on your own? Did you find any gaps or holes in these arguments? Or are these Clinton critics on to something?

Steve Coll: I haven't read the book you cite, although I too am aware of it. As I worked on this project I tried to cast my role as non-partisan, tried just to assemble the fullest and most balanced history that I could, including multiple points of view -- not just American, but also Afghan, Pakistani and Saudi. That seemed hard enough. I'll leave the political interpretations to others.


Silver Spring, Md.: It seems the Clinton Administration had a clear policy to capture or kill bin Laden, and if anyone was paralyzed it was the CIA. The two prong Clinton approach had submarines with cruise missiles at the ready, and an on the ground mission to capture bin Laden alive or kill if capture was not possible. And as you stated, the biggest problem was finding him. So isn't this really just another failure of George Tenet and the CIA?

Steve Coll: That's certainly one passionately held point of view. The Clinton folks argue, Look, we had the submarines in place. We asked the CIA to find bin Laden. We made clear we were prepared to shoot if we had a good fix on him. So why is it our fault? Why didn't the CIA find him? And on the CIA side, they say, Well, first of all, it would have been a lot easier to kill him if we didn't have to do it with cruise missiles, which require exacting intelligence. And working-level CIA officers also say that in one case, in early 1999, they did feel they had bin Laden pinpointed for a cruise missle strike, but neither the CIA leadership nor the Clinton cabinet was ready to pull the trigger. The CIA leadership and the Clinton folks say in reply, well, the evidence was not strong enough -- it was "single-threaded," meaning there were not two independent sources.

These arguments will persist for some time, I'm sure. I'm just trying to lay out in fullness what they sound like, not take sides.


McLean, Va.: Was there a difference in opinions between the higher levels of the military (Shelton) and the middle over the ability to use ground forces to capture bin Laden? I read that Shelton considered a special operations force against bin Laden in Afghanistan to be too "Hollywood" and not very realistic without a much larger logistics footprint in place.

Steve Coll: I gather there were a few special operators in the military who would have welcomed a chance to get more involved in Afghanistan, but generally, I think there was a consensus at the Pentagon, both uniformed and civilian, that the risks of military involvement on the ground in Afghanistan were too great. Shelton did indeed think the idea of a commando raid was unrealistic. The book describes his views in some detail, and they're very interesting. They involve the specific tactical problems of mounting a commando raid in Afghanistan when you can't trust Pakistan in the slightest. I don't consider myself enough of a military expert to judge fully the merits and demerits of his arguments, but there's no question that the Pentagon's passivity during this period was very frustrating for those who wanted to confront bin Laden and the Taliban more actively.


McLean, Va.: The "orders" passed on to CIA by the White House during Clinton's oversight of this initiative seem to be classic "Clintonesque" in that they provide sufficient justification to argue a position/policy from any perspective. Are the orders from the Bush White House equally wishy-washy?

Can you definitively state that the CIA was given a green light by the Clinton (or Bush) White House to take bin Laden out... to kill him?

Steve Coll: I'll try to avoid the partisan comparisons and leave that to others. As to the Clinton administration, they did fire cruise missiles at bin Laden once. Their most permissive orders for CIA covert action, as I understand it, said that it was okay to kill bin Laden if an arrest was not possible. This was more aggressive than earlier permissions to kill him in the course of an arrest. I've done less reporting on the Bush Administration's classified guidance, but my understanding is that they have authorized the killing of a specific list of terrorist leaders, including bin Laden. I would assume that their guidance also states that, all things being equal, it would be better to take him in for questioning, but I don't really know how that guidance is calibrated.


Springfield, Mo.: Has Executive Order 12333, signed into law in 1981 by Ronald Reagan, dramatically hindered the CIA's ability to preemptively fight terrorism, or do events like the formation of FD/TRODPINT demonstrate the surreptitious way that the agency has adapted to circumvent the spirit of the law?

Steve Coll: My sense is that the order has been interpreted and implemented so as to encourage lethal CIA covert action against certain terrorist groups. The larger questions that surround the order -- what role, if any, should assassination play in American national security policy? Is assassination effective in preventing terrorism even if it is acceptable? and so on -- still hang over the landscape.


Singapore: Any thoughts on why the Bush administration took so long to create a policy on Afghanistan? Did they fail to understand the threat?

Steve Coll: They were slow to recognize the scale of the threat, yes. They had other priorities they wanted to work on -- missile defense, Iraq, Iran. I think they also thought of terrorism in 1980s terms -- small groups, theatrical but not devastating strikes, important but at the margins of national security policy. By the time they realized that bin Laden had active plans afoot to carry out potentially massive strikes against American targets, it was summer, and their policy papers were still in the pipeline.

[end note] Coll writes above: "I'll try to avoid the partisan comparisons and leave that to others. As to the Clinton administration, they did fire cruise missiles at bin Laden once." -- Coll is referring here to an August 20, 1998 (if i'm not mistaken) cruise missle strike on Zawhar Kili which killed a handful of Pakistani jihadist. The Zawhar Kili meeting intel sugested bin Laden's presence at the time (as well as up to 300 other participants). However, the intel was not "solid" as Anthony Zinni noted and "a long shot, very iffy." This attack took place at about the same time as the heavily publicized cruise missle attack on a suspected bin Laden location in Khartoum, Sudan. Coll writes about both of these incidents and their outcomes on page 410 - 411 of Ghost Wars.

4 Ghost Wars: The Secret History Of the CIA, Afghanistan, And Bin Laden, From The Soviet Invasion To September 10, 2001 - by Steve Coll; published 2004 by The Penguin Press.


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