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Books: Ghost Wars

Steve Coll
Washington Post Managing Editor
Monday, February 23, 2004; 10:00 AM

For nearly 25 years, Afghanistan has been the playing field for intense covert operations by U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies. In the new book, "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001," Washington Post Managing Editor Steve Coll explores covert CIA operations in Afghanistan, the agency's work with warlords and militants in an effort to capture or kill America's most wanted foreign fugitive, and how they might have aided in the rise of the Taliban and, eventually, the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S.

Coll was online to discuss what American intelligence analysts knew about the rising threat of radical Islam before Sept. 11, 2001, who tried to stop bin Laden and why they failed.

Ghost Wars (washingtonpost.com)

Coll joined The Post in 1985. Before becoming managing editor, he served as financial correspondent, investigative correspondent and as The Post's South Asia correspondent from 1989 to 1992.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Greenbelt, Md.: Hi-

First of all, thank you for your excellent article. The detail and incisive analysis in your article is amazing.

But in reading the chronology of the pursuit of bin Laden, two questions kept nagging me:

1. If bin Laden is multi-millionaire, where did he keep his money in the 1990s? In banks in Saudi Arabia? In Afghanistan?

2. And if money fueled bin Laden's power, wasn't there some way in which the United States could freeze his bank accounts? Or at the very least, freeze the money in the banks in Saudi Arabia?

Steve Coll: Good questions. I know less about the answers than I'd like to know. There appear to have been some Saudi banks and perhaps banks elsewhere in the Persian Gulf that cooperated with bin Laden when he required formal banking help. During his exile in Sudan, he also ran a series of conventional businesses that had bank accounts. Later, he relied on the informal hawala money networks in the Middle East, among other means.


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.


Washington, D.C.: Your excerpts raise many questions, some of which may be answered in the book. Didn't the Clinton administration Justice Department people see the conflict between the Navy's attempts to take out bin Laden with cruise missiles and their lawyerly insistence that the CIA plan for arresting bin Laden -- vs. just killing him?

Did the Justice Department consider the cruise missile attacks after the African embassy bombings illegal? Or did the Justice lawyers believe the CIA operated under different legal constraints from the military? (If so, did the Clinton national security team simply consider turning the hunt for bin Laden over to military special forces to avoid the legal constraints on the CIA and its operatives?)

Does it go too far, based on your reporting, to hold Janet Reno and her team responsible for bin Laden continued elusion of justice? I can't help feeling angry and disillusioned after reading these excerpts.

Steve Coll: I too was interested in the legal questions and tried as best I could to describe the debates, but it was hard going, as this material is all classified at the highest levels and very difficult to get at through reporting.

There was a consensus about the legality of the cruise missile strikes, as I understand it, under doctrine dating back to Reagan's attack on Libya -- namely, that an enemy military commander is an exception to the ban on political assassination. So a cruise missile strike against bin Laden was seen as permissible under that doctrine -- certainly after the August embassy bombings. If they had had a chance to strike again, Clinton would have had to reaffirm this view, but my sense is that he certainly would have.

Much trickier and more convoluted were the legal authorities governing CIA covert action on the ground, operations conceived to capture bin Laden for trial, if possible, or kill him during an arrest attempt. Here the Clinton group tried to authorize both kinds of operations at the same time. In retrospect those involved at the White House emphasize their willingness to kill bin Laden in an arrest attempt. Yet those at the CIA emphasize that they never had a clear order to carry out a pure lethal attack.

One last issue that came up, as I understand, was a doctrine that permits lethal attacks if the target is himself preparing an imminent strike against the United States. Apparently Reno's Justice department wavered at times about whether bin Laden qualified under this standard. When warnings of al Qaeda strikes were intense, Justice agreed that there was an imminent threat. But when no attack materialized for months at a time, they questioned whether the threat was still imminent.


New York, N.Y.: You were the Washington Post's South Asia correspondent several years ago. Did that assignment figure much in the choice of your subject here? What -- would you say -- really made you choose your latest subject?

Steve Coll: I worked out of New Delhi from 1989 to 1992 and traveled frequently to Pakistan and Afghanistan. I covered the war and also U.S. policy there, including CIA covert action during that period. After September 11 I thought there was a story to tell about the antecedents of the attacks, as they were located in Afghanistan -- a story that I had sort of lived through, at least for a while.


Paris, France: Hi Steve,

I hope I'll be able to log into the discussion this morning (my afternoon). In any event, I have the following question.

Without having read your book (yet), I am curious whether the CIA, knowing it operates in an extremely difficult environment, and knowing that so much is on stake, has ever considered asking other governments' intelligence agencies (except for the Pakistanis ) for advice.

I could imagine that, for example, the British MI6 or one of Israel's services, could bring on very valuable input.

Best regards

Steve Coll: My impression is that the CIA works pretty closely with a whole series of allied intelligence services, of which Britain is perhaps the most important partner, and Israel a very important one.


Langley, Va.: Two questions, both dealing with journalistic ethics and norms. First, how helpful was the CIA and did you remove anything from your book at their request. Second, what journalistic purpose was served by your use of the actual classified cryptonyms, i.e., TRODPINT and JAWBREAKER?

Steve Coll: I can't comment on any of my reporting methods. I did conclude after reporting the question out that the use of the cryptonyms would do no harm to anyone. Their value, as with all specificity in journalism, was to convey the authentic details and texture of the history I was writing.


Washington, D.C.: Hello Mr. Coll:

I must concur with the other viewers here; your article in the Post was fascinating and very well written. What concerns me is not necessarily the covert activity, but the seemingly back and forth questioning of Masood's loyalty to defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban, versus American policy of just rooting out al-Qaeda's top leadership. What effect do you think this had on the success, or failure of the relationship to achieving its ultimate goal? And furthermore, why do you feel that Washington had this intransigence about fully equipping Massood and his fighters to go after the Taliban when statements during the Clinton presidency clearing pointed to the necessity to rid Afghanistan of that regime?

Steve Coll: With the benefit of hindsight, I think everyone would agree that trying to go after bin Laden in isolation was a mistake. The Taliban and the networks that supported the Taliban -- Pakistani intelligence, radical proseltyzers from the Gulf, etc. -- just looked to daunting to American policymakers at the time, however. They feared destablizing Pakistan. They feared becoming embroiled in Afghanistan's seemingly endless war. They also feared that if they chose sides in the war and armed Massoud, they would just be condemning more innocent Afghans to death -- without changing the equation against bin Laden. These were honorable arguments, it seems to me. It's just that, in retrospect, it does seem that more risk-taking was warranted.


Washington, D.C.: What role did foreign governments perhaps, UK, Israel, Germany or France play in any of the intelligence gathering?

Steve Coll: The UK and France had their own relationships with Massoud over the years. During the 1980s their support for Massoud started earlier even than the CIA's, and they had more faith in Massoud at times than the Americans did. Yet by the late 1990s they saw much less at stake in Afghanistan than the Americans did, because al Qaeda was openly focused by that time on attacking American targets.


Tulsa, Okla: Was Shah Massoud's assassination a link in a chain of events to 9-11 or was it relative at all?

Steve Coll: One unanswered question is whether bin Laden and his aides set the assassination team against Massoud and the hijackers in the United States in motion with a deliberate hope that these strikes would occur simultaneously. It's possible, but I don't know. Perhaps they've figured this out from recent interrogations, but if so, I haven't learned the answer.


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.


Laguna Hills, Calif.: How difficult, or why is it so difficult for our CIA to infiltrate terrorist organizations? Isn't this the best way to be ahead of them?

Thanking you in advance.

Steve Coll: Terrorist organizations are usually deeply paranoid about their own security. They're small, compartmented, secretive. In some cases, as with bin Laden, they are motivated by deep religious fervor. Intelligence agencies usually have the best success penetrating these groups when the spies share geographical, cultural and linguistic space with their adversaries -- the Brits in Northern Ireland, for example. Penetrating a hardened terrorist group in a distant country where the United States has few friends and little experience is a pretty tall order. The best way to do it, I gather, is to turn members of the group against their own, either for money or ideological reasons.


New Haven, Conn.: In the article, you attribute the Clinton administration's unwillingness to endorse CIA schemes to capture or kill Bin Laden to its fear of failure and international repercussions of U.S. intervention in the Afghan civil war. At the same time, the Taliban controlled over 90% of the Afghanstan and was desperately seeking international recognition. The regime's pariah status undoubtedly contributed its dependence on Bin Laden and Pakistan. During your research, did you encounter any indication of interest from either the Clinton or Bush administration to engage the Taliban? For example, the State Department acknowledged the Taliban's ruthlessly effective eradication of opium cultivation. Even after 9/11, Mullah Omar, under enormous pressure to handover Bin Laden, consulted a council of religious elders who made a "recommendation" that Bin Laden leave the country. Of course, the Bush administration was impatient with negotiations and lumped al Qaeda and the Taliban together, and the rest is history. But in doing so, did the U.S. make the enemy much bigger than it needed to as the bulk of the on-going fighting remains against the indigenous Taliban supporters. From a nation-building standpoint, the Northern Alliance-dominated government have not been able to replicate the law and order and unified governance that the Taliban were able to impose. Opium production has sky-rocketed. The status quo ante of the pre-Taliban era lawlessness has returned to much of the Afghanistan with regional warlord competition only held in check by U.S. / NATO military presence. Given this repetition of history, is the U.S. government's pre-9/11 hesitation about the Northern Alliance warlords that unreasonable?

Steve Coll: Here's a comment posed in the form of questions. Well-informed, however, and worth reading.


Raleigh, N.C.: Will al Qaeda break apart if bin Laden and other key leaders are killed or captured?

Steve Coll: It sort of depends on what you mean by al Qaeda. There's a hardcore leadership group that carried out the 9/11 attacks that is already under a lot of pressure, has lost a lot of commanders, and would be further weakened if bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and others were captured. But al Qaeda is better understood as a series of concentric circles -- a loose coalition of regional, militant Sunni Islamic groups, some of them very violent and focused on American targets. And these groups are not going to be directly weakened by bin Laden's capture.


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.


Wheaton, Md.: There have been accusations from the left that have directly accused the CIA of funding and training bin Laden. Is there any truth to this ?

Steve Coll: I did not discover any evidence of direct contact between CIA officers and bin Laden during the 1980s, when they were working more or less in common cause against the Soviets. CIA officials, including Tenet, have denied under oath that such contact took place. The CIA was certainly aware of bin Laden's activities, beginning in the mid- to late-1980s, and they generally looked favorably on what he was doing at that time. But bin Laden's direct contacts were with Saudi intelligence and to some extent Pakistani intelligence, not with the Americans. There's a lot more detail about this in the book than I have space for here.


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.


Dunkirk, Md.: Mr. Coll, I find myself hardpressed to find any flaws with the article, it is well-written and incites the pathos of the progression of events well! I did however have two questions:
Were any attempts made to negotiate with the UAE or Saudi Arabia for information they may have possesed about who the financiers were?

What do you think the main reason for avoiding conflict with the Taliban was?

Steve Coll: There was a very intensive CIA liaison with Saudi intelligence. It was pretty frustrating for those involved, however, and yielded marginal insights, by their account. The problem was seen as mainly the unwillingness of the Saudi Interior Ministry to cooperate with the U.S. in any investigations of Saudi militants or citizens.

I think I took a pass at the good question about the Taliban above: Fear of destablizing Pakistan, fear of grinding involvement in Afghanistan's war without success, a sense that they would be condemning more innocent Afghans to die but still would not reach bin Laden.


Washington, D.C.: Can you talk about what role former Vice President Gore played in the NSC meetings? Did he side with the CIA or Justice?

Steve Coll: I actually don't have a good fix on Gore's participation in these discussions, or his views.


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.


Culver City, Calif.: Because of the U.S. economic interests described in the book 'The Taliban' (such as the oil pipeline cutting through Afghanistan) isn't it surprising that the CIA wouldn't have developed better intelligence assets in that country? Also do you think those interests influenced how much support the U.S. government gave the Afghan rebels against the Taliban?

Steve Coll: Good question. Despite the pipeline project, the United States simply did not see any compelling interests in Afghanistan in these years -- neither the massive humanitarian crisis in the country, nor the threats of terrorism and drug-trafficking, attracted muich attention.


Penzance,UK: Given the history of foreign interventions in Afghanistan and the extreme hostility around the world to any US intervention anywhere, the Clinton administration's reluctances seem understandable. Janet Reno was severely criticized over the extermination of the Branch Davidians at Waco. Do you think this kind of pain might have been in some people's minds at the Justice Department/White House at the prospect of indiscriminate shooting of women and children at the Tarnak camp?

Steve Coll: Very hard to speculate on people's motivations in a situation like this. But surely all of the Clinton cabinet was cautioned by pass failures. Not just Waco, but the CIA's targeting error in Belgrade in the spring of 1999, the controversy over the cruise missile strikes in Sudan in 1998, problems with cruise missile attacks in Iraq. All of these were part of the context for decision-making.


Washington, D.C.: What sources did you primarily use for your research and how were you able to access them?

Steve Coll: The book is based on about 200 interviews with American, Afghan, Pakistani and Saudi participants in the events described. It also relies on documents and secondary sources. Unfortunately, on the most sensitive subjects, the documentary record is pretty thin, so I tried to keep going back and back on the interviews to try get the fullest and most accurate account possible.

Thanks for all the questions.


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