U.S. Had Capability But Lacked Will To Act Against Bin Laden, Critics Say

by Mark Bowden
Knight Ridder News Service / Philadelphia Inquirer
September 16, 2001


The United States for years has had both the knowledge and capability necessary to kill exiled Saudi militant leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, but repeatedly declined to act, angry U.S. intelligence officials and military special operations soldiers said last week.

Bin Laden's organization is the chief suspect in the attacks that leveled the World Trade Center towers, destroyed part of the Pentagon and crashed a hijacked plane in western Pennsylvania. According to intelligence officials, bin Laden is once again in hiding, having moved his training bases in the days before the attacks. President Bush has vowed to pursue him and his far-flung network of terrorists if they are definitely linked to last week's attacks.

To some, this resolution comes too late. "We have known his whereabouts with varying degrees of precision, everything from a few miles to a few feet, intermittently for the last few years," said one high-ranking intelligence official who asked not to be named. "Ever since Desert One (the failed hostage rescue mission to Tehran in 1979), this country has spent countless millions, and some fine young men have died in training, just to make sure we had a force capable of carrying out such missions. We did not act because both the Clinton administration and even the current administration never had the will to push it through."

American special forces troops and CIA operatives actually moved into Afghanistan on reconnaissance missions on several occasions, but were prohibited from moving against bin Laden.

Intelligence officials say authorization fell victim to White House concerns about reactions to such a raid from Arab nations, and a general reluctance to place American commandos in harm's way.

Bush administration officials did not immediately respond to the charge, but a top Clinton official dismissed it.

"It is categorically untrue," said Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser during his second term. "We had contingency planning with various options concerning bin Laden, including all the ones you might imagine. We did have an aggressive surveillance enterprise continually, but at no point was there actionable intelligence, which would mean knowledge not only of where he might have been but where he was going to be."

Berger said that the Clinton administration "would have loved to go after bin Laden," but that "there was never a point where (Defense Secretary William) Cohen, (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) Henry Shelton or any of the national security advisers feel that we had enough information to act."

The key word seems to be "actionable." According to the special services officer, "you can keep setting the bar higher and higher, so that nothing ever gets done." By insisting on ever more specific targeting information, critics of the policy claim, cautious White House and Pentagon officials avoided authorizing a mission that might result in failure and its inevitable consequences - casualties and political criticism.

"The problem in the past hasn't been just at the top," said another former special forces officer. "People will get around to blaming Bill Clinton for refusing to pull the trigger, but in my experience he didn't necessarily shy away from making a decision. The problem was at the mid-levels of the military, where there has been a culture of risk-aversion. No one wanted to take a chance. Nobody wants to be the guy who authorizes a failed mission. Anybody who thinks that given the right level of resolve Osama bin Laden would still be with us today is just naive."

The army's top-secret Delta Force unit drew up plans and trained through the late 1990s to carry out raids in Afghanistan, a particularly difficult place to attack. The nearest staging area for an assault was 1,000 miles away, and the terrain was some of the most rugged in the world.

"We were ready to move," said a former Army special forces officer who helped draw up plans in 1998 against bin Laden. "We failed to receive an execute order from the president. The only way you can do something like this is to put people on the ground, and we were not allowed to do it because of this stubborn policy of risk avoidance. So out of concern for 60 Delta Force operators and SEALs who are ready and eager to perform the mission, we lose the thousands of people in the World Trade Center. It is a disgrace."

After bin Laden's group was linked to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Clinton signed a policy directive authorizing the CIA to draw up a plan for going after bin Laden. Using human intelligence and high-tech spying, the movements of the Islamic fundamentalist group came under close surveillance. U.S. military and intelligence officers drew up detailed profiles of bin Laden's daily routines, where he slept, what kind of motorcade he used, and special operations units at Fort Bragg, N.C., drew up detailed plans to move against him.

"We've been prepared to do this kind of thing for years," said Wayne Downing, a retired Army general who is a former commander of U.S. special operations, and a former member of the National Commission on Terrorism. "But they have always been rejected as too aggressive and too risky."

"For years, this guy has been sitting on top of his mountain preaching, planning, and making war against the United States of America," said a former member of the army's elite Delta Force unit. "He bombed our embassies, he blew up one of our ships. And now this. It made us sick to our stomach that we couldn't go after this guy."

Robert Oakley, the acting director of the Institute for National Strategic Security Studies and former ambassador to Somalia and to Pakistan, said the failure to go after bin Laden, in light of Tuesday's attacks, pointed to a profound policy failure.

"We have been living in a fantasy world," said Oakley, who served as President Clinton's special envoy to Somalia after the disastrous 1993 battle in Mogadishu that left 18 American soldiers and more than 500 Somalis dead.

"First, you have this policy of complete casualty avoidance," Oakley said, "and, second, you have this related fantasy of somehow protecting the United States through the development of technological weaponry alone, whether through the use of cruise missiles or some missile defense system.

"Both concepts are unrealistic and self-defeating and both took a big blow this week. The truth is that the United States cannot afford to withdraw from the world, militarily or any other way. We need to be more proactive, which sometimes means putting soldiers on the ground and doing things that are bold but dangerous."

The United States did launch a major cruise missile attack on bin Laden in 1998 that reportedly killed as many as 30 members of his organization, but failed to hit him or cripple it. The missiles were launched in an effort to hit meeting of high-level leaders of bin Laden's al Queda organization, possibly including bin Laden, but struck after the meeting had broken up.

After Tuesday's terrorist attacks against the United States, the Bush administration now faces demands for aggressive action. Congress has authorized $40 billion to the effort, and Bush has requested permission to call up 50,000 military reservists. Everywhere talk is of war.

But what kind of war? How would it be fought? What would an all-out American war against terrorism look like? What would it cost in lives, personal freedoms, and tax dollars? Could it be won?

It would not likely be a conventional war, with a nationwide mobilization of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Despite the authorization for a million reservists, the Pentagon will be seeking only those with specialized skills.

A war on terrorism will not be fought not by battalions of infantry, but by spies, by diplomacy, by hard international police work, small elite military units, and with cruise missiles and other precision weapons.

Such a war would be unlike any the United States has ever fought.

America has made forays against suspected terrorist sites - it bombed Libya in 1986 and hit Sudan and Afghanistan with cruise missiles in 1998 in retaliation for terrorist attacks on American installations - but it has never unleashed a full military offensive against a terrorist organization. It will require stealth and a far better human intelligence system (as opposed to high-tech surveillance) than any the United States now possesses.

"We're talking about something more than sending cruise missiles," said Oakley. "It will involve getting our hands bloody, putting special operations units into action. People are going to get killed, on both sides. We know how to do it, and we have well-trained people who are willing and capable of these missions. Until now, all we have lacked is the will."

A war against terrorism would take place on two major fronts. The first would involve going after the terrorists themselves. This involves intensive intelligence efforts to map the members of the suspected group worldwide, and locate them. Special forces troops, like the army's Delta Force and the Navy's SEALS, would then conduct rapid, small-scale assaults, either arresting or killing their targets.

The second front would involve placing intense diplomatic and, if necessary, military pressure on states that support terrorism. Likely targets for such efforts are Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Iran.

"We've got to cast our net wider than bin Laden," said Downing. "Possibly Saddam Hussein, possibly others. These attacks on Tuesday were a master stroke, and they have changed the dimensions of the war. Responding may require some tough, tough decisions. These organizations all require some degree of state sponsorship, and we may have to go after some pretty formidable enemies."

"It's not just simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable," said Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, "but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism."

Two recent examples of small-scale military action against a foreign enemy, not a state, took place in the early 1990s in Somalia and Colombia. In Somalia, U.S. special forces targeted clan leader Mohamed Farah Aidid, and in Colombia, they assisted that nation in going after the Medellin cocaine cartel boss Pablo Escobar. Both men were heads of large organizations. They stood, much as Osama Bin Laden does, at the top of a small mountain of supporters. Getting to them meant trying to take down the mountain.

In Colombia the process took about five years, beginning in 1989 with the introduction of U.S. special forces units, who worked with the Colombian National Police, the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration to map Escobar's far-flung, multi-billion-dollar organization. In the end, once the members of Escobar's organization were identified and located, a special unit of the Colombian police began rounding them up, arresting or killing them, and a vigilante squad calling itself Los PEPES ("People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar") assisted with a sustained murder campaign. The bloody, illegal tactics worked. Escobar was gradually stripped of his bankers, lawyers, gunmen, bombers, political supporters, and government collaborators. On Dec. 2, 1993, he was gunned down on a rooftop in Medellin.

Little attention was paid in the United States and rest of the world to the ruthlessness of the tactics employed against Escobar, and no one involved has ever been prosecuted for the murders committed by Los PEPES. Members of the U.S. special operations community see the effort as a textbook example of the difference between a strict law enforcement operation and war. Law enforcement is about bringing criminals to justice, and its agents are bound, in theory, to limit their pursuit to legal tactics. War is about defeating an enemy. It involves taking greater risks, and operating outside the rules of civil society. The only goal in war is to win.

The second front of a war against terrorism would involve punishing or even, as Wolfowitz said, "ending" states that support it.

When the United States bombed Belgrade in 1999 to stop Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleaning in Kosovo, it gave a chilling example to the rest of the world.

According to author David Halberstam in his new book, "War in a Time of Peace," B-2 bombers flying from bases in Kansas flew only 3 percent of the missions over Serbia and hit 33 percent of all the targets. Each plane carried up to 16 2,000-pound precision bombs with a radius of accuracy of only a few feet. The attacks destroyed Serbia's modern infrastructure, disabled its war-making powers, forced it to withdraw from Kosovo, and ultimately helped topple Milosevic, who is on trial for genocide in The Hague. One Air Force expert calculated that with such weaponry, the years-long bombing campaign over Germany in World War II would have taken only three days.

"The problem, in my opinion, has never been one of what we can do," said another special forces officer. "It's what we are willing to do. If we really want Afghanistan to turn over bin Laden, then why not start taking the country apart until they see the wisdom? It's not a pleasant option, but what happened Tuesday isn't pleasant either."

"We've entered a new phase, and it's about time," said a former member of the U.S. Army's top secret counter-terrorism unit Delta Force, who was involved in hunt for Escobar. "For the last 10 years or more we all felt as though our hands were tied. Now it's finally down to going after the bad guys. We're moving from 'counter-terrorism' to 'anti-terrorism.' Counter-terrorism is about self-defense, basically responding after the fact. Anti-terrorism is about identifying threats and taking them out before they can they can act."


� Copyright 2001

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