Losing bin Laden

The Washington Post is running a series by Steve Coll on the CIA’s unsuccessful efforts, prior to Sept. 11, 2001, to capture or kill bin Laden. This piece ran yesterday, along with this shorter one that focuses on the actions (or inaction) of Clinton’s White House security team. Taken together, these two pieces argue that “legal disputes over the hunt [for bin Laden] paralyzed Clinton’s aides.” Specifically, the Clintonistas, while willing to approve the capture or killing of bin Laden in principle, always used “compromise wording” with so much “ambiguity about how and when deadly force could be used” that the CIA became “paralyzed by fears of legal and political risks.” When the CIA did develop a plan to attack bin Laden, “members of the White House counterterrorism team reacted skeptically” because they feared that women and children would die, thus undermining U.S. interests in the Muslim world, while bin Laden might escape. In this environment, the CIA’s top leaders recommended against going forward. Two months later, two al Qaeda suicide teams attacked U.S. embassies in Africa, killing more than 200 people and wounding more than 4,000.
Today’s piece focuses on the CIA’s relationship with Afghan freedom fighter Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated two days before 9/11. The CIA viewed Massoud as a flawed ally but also its best hope of capturing or killing bin Laden. In October 2000, after the deadly bombing of the USS Cole, the CIA revived plans to supply Massoud with “extensive and lethal aid.” The Clinton White House nixed these plans. They were again revived following the election of President Bush, but the bureaucratic process moved so slowly that the plans were not approved until Sept. 4, five days before Massoud’s assassination, and a week before 9/11.
One personal footnote. A key player at the CIA during at least part of this period, Paul Pillar, attended Dartmouth with Rocket Man and me. In fact, Pillar who is mentioned several times by Coll, was one of my debate partners (as was Rocket Man) and my sophomore year roommate. Rocket Man and Pillar — now that’s what I call diversity.

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