In the second half of March 2002, as the Bush administration mapped its next steps against al Qaeda, Deputy CIA Director John E. McLaughlin brought an unexpected message to the White House Situation Room. According to two people with firsthand knowledge, he told senior members of the president's national security team that the CIA was scaling back operations in Afghanistan.
That announcement marked a year-long drawdown of specialized military and intelligence resources from the geographic center of combat with Osama bin Laden. As jihadist enemies reorganized, slipping back and forth from Pakistan and Iran, the CIA closed forward bases in the cities of Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Kandahar. The agency put off an $80 million plan to train and equip a friendly intelligence service for the new U.S.-installed Afghan government. Replacements did not keep pace with departures as case officers finished six-week tours. And Task Force 5 -- a covert commando team that led the hunt for bin Laden and his lieutenants in the border region -- lost more than two-thirds of its fighting strength.
One plan had President Bush offering Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf substitute funding for a radical network of Islamist schools.
(Ron Edmonds -- AP)
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The commandos, their high-tech surveillance equipment and other assets would instead surge toward Iraq through 2002 and early 2003, as President Bush prepared for the March invasion that would extend the field of battle in the nation's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Bush has shaped his presidency, and his reelection campaign, around the threat that announced itself in the wreckage of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Five days after the attacks, he made it clear that he conceived a broader war. Impromptu remarks on the White House South Lawn were the first in which he named "this war on terrorism," and he cast it as a struggle with "a new kind of evil." Under that banner he toppled two governments, eased traditional restraints on intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and reshaped the landscape of the federal government.
As the war on terrorism enters its fourth year, its results are sufficiently diffuse -- and obscured in secrecy -- to resist easy measure. Interpretations of the public record are also polarized by the claims and counterclaims of the presidential campaign. Bush has staked his reelection on an argument that defense of the U.S. homeland requires unyielding resolve to take the fight to the terrorists. His opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), portrays the Bush strategy as based on false assumptions and poor choices, particularly when it came to Iraq.
The contention that the Iraq invasion was an unwise diversion in confronting terrorism has been central to Kerry's critique of Bush's performance. But this account -- drawn largely from interviews with those who have helped manage Bush's offensive -- shows how the debate over that question has echoed within the ranks of the administration as well, even among those who support much of the president's agenda.
Interviews with those advisers also highlight an internal debate over Bush's strategy against al Qaeda and allied jihadists, which has stressed the "decapitation" of the network by capturing or killing leaders, but which has had less success in thwarting recruitment of new militants.
At the core of Bush's approach is an offensive strategy abroad that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said complements the defensive efforts he oversees at home. In an interview, Ridge said Bush's priority is to "play as hard and strong an offense as possible," most of it "offshore, overseas."
Published and classified documents and interviews with officials at many levels portray a war plan that scored major victories in its first months. Notable among them were the destruction of al Qaeda's Afghan sanctuary, the death or capture of leading jihadists, and effective U.S. demands for action by reluctant foreign governments.
But at least a dozen current and former officials who have held key positions in conducting the war now say they see diminishing returns in Bush's decapitation strategy. Current and former leaders of that effort, three of whom departed in frustration from the top White House terrorism post, said the manhunt is important but cannot defeat the threat of jihadist terrorism. Classified government tallies, moreover, suggest that Bush and Vice President Cheney have inflated the manhunt's success in their reelection bid.
Bush's focus on the instruments of force, the officials said, has been slow to adapt to a swiftly changing enemy. Al Qaeda, they said, no longer exerts centralized control over a network of operational cells. It has rather become the inspirational hub of a global movement, fomenting terrorism that it neither funds nor directs. Internal government assessments describe this change with a disquieting metaphor: They say jihadist terrorism is "metastasizing."
The war has sometimes taken unexpected turns, one of which brought the Bush administration into hesitant contact with Iran. For a time the two governments made tentative common cause, and Iran delivered hundreds of low-level al Qaeda figures to U.S. allies. Participants in Washington and overseas said Bush's deadlocked advisers -- unable to transmit instructions -- closed that channel before testing Iran's willingness to take more substantial steps. Some of al Qaeda's most wanted leaders now live in Iran under ambiguous conditions of house arrest.
Twenty months after the invasion of Iraq, the question of whether Americans are safer from terrorism because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power hinges on subjective judgment about might-have-beens. What is not in dispute, among scores of career national security officials and political appointees interviewed periodically since 2002, is that Bush's choice had opportunity costs -- first in postwar Afghanistan, then elsewhere. Iraq, they said, became a voracious consumer of time, money, personnel and diplomatic capital -- as well as the scarce tools of covert force on which Bush prefers to rely -- that until then were engaged against al Qaeda and its sources of direct support.
'What Does It Mean to Be Safer?'
Bush conducts the war on terrorism above all as a global hunt for a cast of evil men he knows by name and photograph. He tracks progress in daily half-hour meetings that Richard A. Falkenrath, who sometimes attended them before departing recently as deputy homeland security adviser, described as "extremely granular, about individual guys." Frances Fragos Townsend, who took the post of White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser in May, said in an interview that Bush's strategy -- now, as in the war's first days -- is to "decapitate the beast."
The president is also focused on states that sponsor terrorism. The danger he sees is a "great nexus," thus far hypothetical, in which an enemy nation might hand terrorists a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon. That danger is what Bush said drove him to war in Iraq.
Bush emphasizes force of will -- determination to prosecute the enemy, and equally to stand up to allies who disapprove. Bush and his aides most often deflect questions about recent global polls that have found sharply rising anti-U.S. sentiment in Arab and Muslim countries and in Europe, but one of them addressed it in a recent interview. Speaking for the president by White House arrangement, but declining to be identified, a high-ranking national security official said of the hostility detected in surveys: "I don't think it matters. It's about keeping the country safe, and I don't think that matters."
That view is at odds with the view of many career military and intelligence officials, who spoke with increasing alarm about al Qaeda's success in winning recruits to its cause and defining its struggle with the United States.
Retired Army Gen. Wayne A. Downing, who was summoned to lead the White House Office for Combating Terrorism a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, said the war has been least successful where it has the highest stakes: slowing the growth of jihadist sympathies in populations that can provide the terrorists with money, concealment and recruits. Bin Laden has worked effectively to "convince the Islamic world the U.S. is the common enemy," Downing said. He added, "We have done little or nothing. That is the big failure."
Townsend, who inherited Downing's duties this spring, said the best evidence of Bush's success "is every day that goes by that America doesn't suffer another attack."
"By any measure, to me, we're winning, they're losing," she said. "We know for a fact that it's very difficult for them to raise money and move money around. We've made it increasingly difficult to communicate. It is harder for them to travel without risk. . . . Is there something that they absolutely, 100 percent guaranteed, can't do? I'm not going to say that. The point is we have degraded their capability to act across the board."
John A. Gordon, Townsend's immediate predecessor, said in his first interview since leaving government in June that those measures of tactical success are no longer enough.
"People in the business would say, 'We've done all this stuff, we know we've pushed back some attacks,' but what does it mean to be safer?" he asked. "You decrease the probability of a major attack, but you haven't pushed it to anywhere near zero. If it happens, nobody's going to care whether we 'significantly affected' [the threat] or not."
'A Manageable Problem'
Two years ago, Gordon thought better of the strategy. He helped direct it.
Born in Jefferson City, Mo., Gordon spent a career in the Cold War Air Force, rising to four-star general in the missile and bomber force. Bush tapped him in June 2002 as chief of the Office for Combating Terrorism, with a rank just below that of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
From his vantage in Room 313 of the Old Executive Office Building, Gordon saw a colossal mismatch of strength between the global superpower and its stateless enemy. He sat down for an interview, after six months on the job, in a cautiously optimistic frame of mind.
With al Qaeda's Afghan training camps demolished and its troops dispersed, he said in 2002, the network's deadliest capabilities relied on "fewer than three dozen" uniquely dangerous men. "Where we're focusing is on the manhunt," he said. "That's still job number one, to break down and capture and kill . . . the inner core of Osama and his very, very closest advisers."
At the CIA's Counterterrorist Center in Langley, which then as now maintained wall-size charts of al Qaeda's global network, the approximately 30 names at the top were known as "high-value targets." At the time, a year into the manhunt, many of Gordon's peers agreed that "leadership targets," in the argot of U.S. military and intelligence agencies, were a "center of gravity" for al Qaeda -- a singular source of strength without which the enemy could be brought to collapse.
Hunting al Qaeda's leaders cut them off from their followers, Gordon said then, and "layers of interdiction" stood between would-be attackers and their targets. Some could be stopped in their country of origin, others as they crossed the U.S. border, and still others as they neared the point of attack. Each defensive measure, in theory, created U.S. opportunities to strike.
"If I can cut him in half every time he comes through," he said, "now I can give the FBI and local law enforcement a manageable problem."
'The Same People, Over and Over'
That did not happen. On its own terms -- as a manhunt, measured in "high-value" captures and kills -- the president's strategy produced its peak results the first year.
Classified tallies made available to The Washington Post have identified 28 of the approximately 30 names on the unpublished HVT List. Half -- 14 -- are known to be dead or in custody. Those at large include three of the five men on the highest echelon: bin Laden, his deputy Ayman Zawahiri and operational planner Saif al-Adel.
More significant than the bottom line, government analysts said, is the trend. Of the al Qaeda leaders accounted for, eight were killed or captured by the end of 2002. Five followed in 2003 -- notably Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the principal planner of the Sept. 11 attack. This year only one more name -- Hassan Ghul, a senior courier captured infiltrating Iraq -- could be crossed off.
"I'll be pretty frank," Gordon said this fall after leaving the administration. "Obviously we would have liked to pick up more of the high-value targets than have been done. There have been strong initiatives. They just haven't all panned out."
As the manhunt results declined, the Bush administration has portrayed growing success. Early last year, the president's top advisers generally said in public that more than one-third of those most wanted had been found. Late this year it became a staple of presidential campaign rhetoric that, as Bush put it in the Sept. 30 debate with Kerry, "75 percent of known al Qaeda leaders have been brought to justice."
Although some of the administration's assertions are too broadly stated to measure, some are not. Townsend, Bush's homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, said "three-quarters" of "the known al Qaeda leaders on 9/11" were dead or in custody. Asked to elaborate, she said she would have to consult a list. White House spokeswoman Erin Healy referred follow-up questions to the FBI. Spokesmen for the FBI, the National Security Council and the CIA did not respond to multiple telephone calls and e-mails.
Whatever its results, the manhunt remains at the center of Bush's war. He mentions little else, save the Taliban's expulsion from power, when describing progress against al Qaeda. According to people who have briefed him, Bush still marks changes by hand on a copy of the HVT list.
"This is a conversation he's been having every day, more or less, with his senior advisers since September 11th," Falkenrath said. It covers "the same people, over and over again."
When Townsend was asked to describe the most important milestones of the war, she cited individual captures and kills. She named Khalid Sheik Mohammed; Abu Issa al Hindi, accused of surveying U.S. financial targets for al Qaeda in 2000 and 2001; Riduan Isamuddin, the alleged Southeast Asia coordinator; Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of an al Qaeda affiliate in Indonesia; and Yazid Sufaat of Malaysia, who led efforts to develop a biological weapon.
Each of those men had significance "in a greater sense than just the individual," Townsend said, because they had "unique expertise, experience or access." Al Qaeda may replace them, "but does that person have the same strength and leadership and capability? The answer is no. Maybe he acquires it on the job, but maybe not."
Days after Bush declared an "axis of evil," one of its members dispatched an envoy to New York. Javad Zarif, Iran's deputy foreign minister, arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in the first week of February 2002 with a thick sheaf of papers. According to sources involved in the transaction, Zarif passed the papers to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who passed them in turn to Washington.
Neatly arranged inside were photos of 290 men and copies of their travel documents. Iran said they were al Qaeda members, arrested as they tried to cross the rugged border from Afghanistan. Most were Saudi, a fact that two officials said Saudi Arabia's government asked Iran to conceal. All had been expelled to their home countries.
"They did not coordinate with us, but as long as the bad guys were going -- fine," a senior U.S. national security official said.
Diplomats from Tehran and Washington had been meeting quietly all winter in New York and Bonn. They found common interests against the Taliban, Iran's bitter enemy. Iranian envoys notified their U.S. counterparts about the 290 arrests and proposed to cooperate against al Qaeda as well. The U.S. delegation sought instructions from Washington.
The delegation's room to maneuver, however, was limited by a policy guideline set shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In late November 2001, the State Department's policy planning staff wrote a paper arguing that "we have a real opportunity here" to work more closely with Iran in fighting al Qaeda, according to Flynt Leverett, a career CIA analyst then assigned to State, who is now at the Brookings Institution and has provided advice to Kerry's campaign. Participants in the ensuing interagency debate said the CIA joined the proposal to exchange information and coordinate border sweeps against al Qaeda. Some of the most elusive high-value targets were living in or transiting Iran, including bin Laden's son Saad, al-Adel and Abu Hafs the Mauritanian.
Representatives of Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld fought back. Any engagement, they argued, would legitimate Iran and other historic state sponsors of terrorism such as Syria. In the last weeks of 2001, the Deputies Committee adopted what came to be called "Hadley Rules," after deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, who chaired the meeting. The document said the United States would accept tactical information about terrorists from countries on the "state sponsors" list but offer nothing in return. Bush's State of the Union speech the next month linked Iran to Iraq and North Korea as "terrorist allies."
Twice in the coming year, Washington passed requests for Tehran to deliver al Qaeda suspects to the Afghan government. Iran transferred two of the suspects and sought more information about others.
Iran, in turn, asked the United States, among other things, to question four Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. They were suspects in the 1998 slayings of nine Iranian diplomats in Kabul.
Participants said Bush's divided national security team was unable to agree on an answer. Some believe important opportunities were lost.
"I sided with the Langley guys on that," Downing said. "I was willing to make a deal with the devil if we could clip somebody important off or stop an attack."
Back to Afghanistan
Two months ago, a team of soldiers from a highly classified special operations squadron arrived in the southeastern mountains of Afghanistan, along the Pakistani border. They were back to hunt bin Laden, many of them after a two-year gap.
"We finally settled in at our 'permanent' location 8 days ago after moving twice in three weeks," one team member wrote to a friend. "New territory, right at the border, up in the mountains. Interesting place. We need to start from scratch, nothing operational in place. Guess we'll spend our whole time developing a basic structure for our ops."
At the peak of the hunt for bin Laden and his lieutenants, in early 2002, about 150 commandos operated along Afghanistan's borders with Pakistan and Iran in a top-secret team known as Task Force 5. The task force included a few CIA paramilitaries, but most of its personnel came from military "special mission units," or SMUs, whose existence is not officially acknowledged. One is the Army squadron once known as Delta Force. The other -- specializing in human and technical intelligence operations -- has not been described before in public. Its capabilities include close-in electronic surveillance and, uniquely in the U.S. military, the conduct of "low-level source operations" -- recruiting and managing spies.
These elite forces, along with the battlefield intelligence technology of Predator and Global Hawk drone aircraft, were the scarcest tools of the hunt for jihadists along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. With Bush's shift of focus to Iraq, the special mission units called most of their troops home to prepare for a new set of high-value targets in Baghdad.
"There is a direct consequence for us having taken these guys out prematurely," said Leverett, who then worked as senior director for Middle Eastern affairs on Bush's NSC staff. "There were people on the staff level raising questions about what that meant for getting al Qaeda, for creating an Afghan security and intelligence service [to help combat jihadists]. Those questions didn't get above staff level, because clearly there had been a strategic decision taken."
Task Force 5 dropped in strength at times to as few as 30 men. Its counterpart in Iraq, by early 2003, burgeoned to more than 200 as an insurgency grew and Hussein proved difficult to find. Late last year, the Defense Department merged the two commando teams and headquartered the reflagged Task Force 121 under Rear Adm. William H. McRaven in Baghdad.
"I support the decision to go into Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein's regime," said Downing, a former U.S. Special Operations Command chief. "But in fact it was a gamble of sorts because Iraq did take focus and energy away from the Afghanistan campaign."
"It's been extraordinarily painful, very frustrating," said a member of one elite military unit who watched what he considered the main enemy slip away. Even now, with a modest resurgence in U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, the task force "is not getting as much attention from the home office as Iraq."
Much the same drawdown took place in the CIA.
With the closing of forward bases, the remaining case officers formed mobile teams of four or five, traveling in SUVs with translators, a medic and tribal allies they recruited. In some posts with former full-time presence, according to an operations officer who served there, they left empty safe houses for "almost a circuit riding thing -- just bring your communications equipment in" for each visit. Others shut down altogether.
In 2002, the CIA transferred its station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, to lead the new Iraq Issue Group. At least 30 case officers, a knowledgeable official said, joined the parallel Iraq Operations Task Force by mid-2002. By the time war came in Iraq nearly 150 case officers filled the task force and issue group on the "A Corridor" of Langley's top management. The Baghdad station became the largest since the Vietnam War, with more than 300.
Early this year, the CIA's then-station chief in Kabul reported a resurgence of Taliban and al Qaeda forces in three border provinces. He proposed a spring intelligence offensive in South Waziristan and in and around Kunar province farther north. The chief, whose first name is Peter, estimated he would need 25 case officers in the field and an additional five for the station. A national security official who tracked the proposal said CIA headquarters replied that it did not have the resources to make the surge. Peter finished his year as station chief in June.
'A Lot of Little Cancers'
Townsend, the White House terrorism and homeland security adviser, gives two framed courtroom sketches from a former life a place of honor on her West Wing wall. The color portraits, from 1990, depict her as lead prosecutor in a case against New York's Gambino crime family. When she took her White House job in May, she told the Associated Press that the transition from organized crime to terrorism "actually turns out not to be that big a leap." She added, "Really in many ways you're talking about a group with a command-and-control structure."
Jihadist terrorism has always posed what strategists call an "asymmetric threat," capable of inflicting catastrophic harm against a much stronger foe. But the way it operates, they said, is changing. Students of al Qaeda used to speak of it as a network with "key nodes" that could be attacked. More recently they have described the growth of "franchises." Gordon and Falkenrath pioneered an analogy, before leaving government, with an even less encouraging prognosis.
Jihadists "metastasized into a lot of little cancers in a lot of different countries," Gordon said recently. They formed "groups, operating under the terms of a movement, who don't have to rely on al Qaeda itself for funding, for training or for authority. [They operate] at a level that doesn't require as many people, doesn't require them to be as well-trained, and it's going to be damned hard to get in front of that."
Bruce Hoffman of the government-funded Rand Corp., who consults with participants in the war in classified forums, said U.S. analysts see clearly that "you can only have an effective top-down strategy if you're also drying up recruitment and sources of support."
Marc Sageman, a psychologist and former CIA case officer who studies the formation of jihadist cells, said the inspirational power of the Sept. 11 attacks -- and rage in the Islamic world against U.S. steps taken since -- has created a new phenomenon. Groups of young men gather in common outrage, he said, and a violent plan takes form without the need for an outside leader to identify, persuade or train those who carry it out.
The brutal challenge for U.S. intelligence, Sageman said, is that "you don't know who's going to be a terrorist" anymore. Citing the 15 men who killed 190 passengers on March 11 in synchronized bombings of the Spanish rail system, he said "if you had gone to those guys in Madrid six months prior, they'd say 'We're not terrorists,' and they weren't. Madrid took like five weeks from inception."
Much the same pattern, officials said, preceded deadly attacks in Indonesia, Turkey, Kenya, Morocco and elsewhere. There is no reason to believe, they said, that the phenomenon will remain overseas.
Such attacks do not rely on leaders as the Bush administration strategy has conceived them. New jihadists can acquire much of the know-how they need, Sageman and his counterparts still in government said, in al Qaeda's Saudi-published magazines, Al Baatar and the Voice of Jihad, available online.
Townsend acknowledged in an interview this month that "as you put more pressure on the center" of al Qaeda, "it pushes power out." That does not change the strategy, she said: "While you want to decapitate the beast, you also want to be able to cut the tentacles off. . . . Do we find there are others who emerge on the screen as leaders of their operational cadre? Of course. We capture and kill them, too."
'Test of Wills'
Downing, Bush's first counterterrorism adviser after Sept. 11, said in a 2002 interview that hunting down al Qaeda leaders could do no more than "buy time" for longer-term efforts to stem the jihadist tide. This month he said, "Time is not on our side."
"This is not a war," he said. "What we're faced with is an Islamic insurgency that is spreading throughout the world, not just the Islamic world." Because it is "a political struggle," he said, "the military is not the key factor. The military has to be coordinated with the other elements of national power."
Many of Downing's peers -- and strong majorities of several dozen officers and officials who were interviewed -- agree. They cite a long list of proposals to address terrorism at its roots that have not been carried out. Among them was a plan by Wendy Chamberlin, then ambassador to Pakistan, to offer President Pervez Musharraf a substitute for Saudi funding of a radical network of Islamist schools known as madrasas. Downing backed Chamberlin in the interagency debate, describing education as "the root of many of the recruits for the Islamist movement." Bush promised such support to Musharraf in a meeting soon after Sept. 11, said an official who accompanied him, but the $300 million plan did not survive the White House budget request.
The formal White House strategy for combating terrorism says that the United States will "use every instrument of national power -- diplomatic, economic, law enforcement, financial, information, intelligence, and military" to triumph. A central criticism in the Sept. 11 commission's report is that the efforts at nonmilitary suasion overseas lack funding, energy from top leaders and what the commission's executive director, Philip D. Zelikow, called "gravitas."
Most officials interviewed said Bush has not devised an answer to a problem then-CIA Director George J. Tenet identified publicly on Feb. 11, 2003 -- "the numbers of societies and peoples excluded from the benefits of an expanding global economy, where the daily lot is hunger, disease, and displacement -- and that produce large populations of disaffected youth who are prime recruits for our extremist foes."
The president and his most influential advisers, many officials said, do not see those factors -- or U.S. policy overseas -- as primary contributors to the terrorism threat. Bush's explanation, in private and public, is that terrorists hate America for its freedom.
Sageman, who supports some of Bush's approach, said that analysis is "nonsense, complete nonsense. They obviously haven't looked at any surveys." The central findings of polling by the Pew Charitable Trust and others, he said, is that large majorities in much of the world "view us as a hypocritical huge beast throwing our weight around in the Middle East."
When Bush speaks of al Qaeda's supporters, he refers to the leaders, not the citizens, of foreign nations. In a May 2003 speech about the Middle East, he said the "hateful ideology of terrorism is shaped and nurtured and protected by oppressive regimes." His approach centers not on winning support for U.S. values and policy, but on confronting evil without flinching.
Citing two governments he toppled by force and promising to "confront governments that support terrorists," Bush said in a speech on Oct. 6: "America is always more secure when freedom is on the march, and freedom is on the march in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere."
Thomas W. O'Connell, who is assistant defense secretary in charge of special operations and low-intensity conflict, said Rumsfeld sometimes gathers Pentagon leaders to discuss the nature of the threat. After one such discussion recently, O'Connell concluded that "battle of ideas" is a poor term for the conflict underway.
"Perhaps the term 'test of wills,' " he said, "is more like what we're up against." Battles, he said, are "short, sharp events" against an external enemy. A test is "something that's internal" and "more reflective of a long, drawn-out ordeal."
Staff writer Craig Whitlock and researchers Robert Thomason and Julie Tate contributed to this report.