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A Secret Hunt Unravels in Afghanistan

Back at Langley, the bin Laden unit, using classified channels, regularly transmitted reports to policymakers about threats issued by bin Laden against American targets -- via faxed leaflets, television interviews and underground pamphlets. The CIA's analysts described bin Laden at this time as an active, dangerous financier of Islamic extremism, but they saw him as more a money source than a terrorist operator.

To senior career officers in the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, the TRODPINT tribal team now beckoned as a way to watch bin Laden in Afghanistan. The paid Afghan agents could monitor or harass the Saudi up close, under CIA control -- and perhaps capture him for trial, if the White House approved such an operation. Operators and analysts in the bin Laden unit argued passionately for more active measures against him. Jeff O'Connell, then director of the Counterterrorist Center, and his deputy, Paul Pillar, agreed in the summer of 1997 to hand them control of the TRODPINT agent team, complete with its weapons and spy gear.

Afghan fighters signed up by the CIA to find Mir Aimal Kasi, center, executed in 2002 for killing two CIA employees, were later used to track Osama bin Laden. (1997 Photo Susan Walsh -- AP)

_____Ghost Wars_____
Steve Coll This report was adapted from "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001," The Penguin Press (New York: 2004), by Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll, who discussed the book online. (Read the discussion transcript).
Interview With Coll
Audio: Coll on WTOP
_____More From The Post_____
Flawed Ally Was Hunt's Best Hope (The Washington Post, Feb 23, 2004)
Legal Disputes Over Hunt Paralyzed Clinton's Aides (The Washington Post, Feb 22, 2004)
Bin Laden's Tarnak Farm
The CIA in the Panjshir
Where the CIA Wages Its New World War (The Washington Post, Sep 9, 1998)
Killings Boost Retaliation Fears (The Washington Post, Nov 16, 1997)
Kasi Guilty In Slayings Outside CIA (The Washington Post, Nov 11, 1997)
Saudi Sought in Bombings Moves to Afghan Militia Capital (The Washington Post, Apr 11, 1997)

_____News From Afghanistan_____
Persian New Year Celebrations Unite Afghans (The Washington Post, Apr 4, 2005)
Taliban Suspected in New Attacks (The Washington Post, Apr 3, 2005)
First Lady Applauds Afghans (The Washington Post, Mar 31, 2005)
More News from Afghanistan

As bin Laden's bloodcurdling televised threats against Americans increased in number and menace during 1997, the CIA -- with approval from Clinton's White House -- turned from just watching bin Laden toward making plans to capture him.

Working with lawyers at Langley in late 1997 and early 1998, the TRODPINT agents' CIA controllers modified the original Kasi capture plan -- with its secret airstrip for extraction flights -- so it could be used to seize bin Laden and prosecute him, or kill him if he violently resisted arrest.

A long and frustrating hunt for bin Laden had formally begun.

During the three years before the Sept. 11 attacks, the hunt would eventually involve several dozen local paid CIA agents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a secret commando team drawn from Uzbek special forces, another drawn from retired Pakistani special forces and a deepening intelligence alliance with Massoud, the northern Afghan guerrilla leader. Despite these varied efforts, bin Laden continually eluded their grasp.

Years later, those involved in the secret campaign against bin Laden still disagree about why it failed -- and who is to blame.

On the front lines in Pakistan and Central Asia, working-level CIA officers felt they had a rare, urgent sense of the menace bin Laden posed before Sept. 11. Yet a number of controversial proposals to attack bin Laden were turned down by superiors at Langley or the White House, who feared the plans were poorly developed, wouldn't work or would embroil the United States in Afghanistan's then-obscure civil war. At other times, plans to track or attack bin Laden were delayed or watered down after stalemated debates inside Clinton's national security cabinet.

At Langley, CIA officers sometimes saw the Clinton cabinet as overly cautious, obsessed with legalities and unwilling to take political risks in Afghanistan by arming bin Laden's Afghan enemies and directly confronting the radical Taliban Islamic militia. But at the Clinton White House, senior policymakers and counterterrorism analysts sometimes saw the CIA's efforts in Afghanistan as timid, naïve, self-protecting and ineffective.

Some of the agency's efforts involved collecting intelligence about bin Laden's whereabouts; others grew into covert actions designed to capture or kill leaders of bin Laden's al Qaeda network. Both tracks were carried out in deep secrecy mainly by career clandestine service officers in the CIA's Counterterrorist Center and the Near East Division of the agency's Directorate of Operations.

Audacious Plans Take Root

As the TRODPINT team began its work on bin Laden early in 1998, a federal grand jury in New York opened a secret investigation into the Saudi's terrorist-financing activity. The probe had been prompted by a defector from bin Laden's inner circle, financial evidence from terrorist attacks in Egypt and elsewhere, and old files from earlier terrorist cases in New York. No one outside the Justice Department was supposed to know about the grand jury's work, but it began to leak to officials involved with the CIA's planning.

CIA officers working from Islamabad, led by station chief Gary Schroen, assumed in early 1998 that if their agents captured bin Laden in southern Afghanistan, a U.S. grand jury would quickly indict him. If not, the CIA or the Clinton White House would ask Egypt or Saudi Arabia to take custody of bin Laden for trial. Schroen kept asking the Counterterrorist Center at Langley, "Do we have an indictment?" The answers, according to several officials involved, were cryptic: Bin Laden was "indictable," the Islamabad station was told.

The TRODPINT team developed a detailed plan to hold bin Laden in a cave in southern Afghanistan for 30 days before U.S. Special Forces flew in secretly to take him away. The agents located a cave where they could hide out comfortably. They assured their CIA handlers that they had stored enough food and water in the cave to keep bin Laden healthy while he was there.

By imprisoning bin Laden in the cave, the agents hoped to ease his extraction. If enough time passed after bin Laden's initial capture, al Qaeda's agitated lieutenants would be less alert when the Americans flew in to bundle bin Laden off. Also, the detention would allow time to persuade either a U.S. attorney or a foreign government to hand down criminal charges.

If CIA offiers and their paid agents detained bin Laden for an eventual trial in the United States, they would be operating under the authority of Executive Order 12333, which allowed the CIA to aid the pursuit of international fugitives. The measure was signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and renewed by successive presidents. A thick archive of Justice Department memorandums and court opinions upheld the right of American agents to abduct fugitives overseas and return them to U.S. courts in many instances.

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