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A Secret Hunt Unravels in Afghanistan

Some of the working-level CIA officers involved in the planning reacted bitterly to the decision. They believed the kidnapping plan could succeed.

Less than two months later, on Aug. 7, 1998, two teams of al Qaeda suicide bombers launched synchronized attacks against two U.S. embassies in Africa. In Nairobi, Kenya, 213 people died and 4,000 were injured. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the toll was 11 dead and 85 wounded. Within months, the New York federal grand jury previously investigating bin Laden delivered an indictment of the Saudi for directing the strikes, among other alleged crimes.

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

At Langley's Counterterrorist Center, some CIA analysts and officers were devastated and angry as they watched the televised images of death and rescue in Africa. One of the bin Laden unit's analysts confronted Tenet. "You are responsible for those deaths," she said, "because you didn't act on the information we had, when we could have gotten him" through the Tarnak raid, one official involved recalled her saying. The woman was "crying and sobbing, and it was a very rough scene," the official said.

Tenet stood there and took it. He was a boisterous, emotional man, and he did not shrink from honest confrontation, some of his CIA colleagues felt. After the Africa attacks, Tenet redoubled his pressure on the bin Laden unit's covert campaign to find their target.

By then, however, bin Laden had dramatically increased his security. He discarded his traceable satellite phone and moved much more stealthily around Afghanistan.

For those who had worked on the Tarnak raid plan, the questions lingered. Why had the CIA's leaders turned the idea down?

Down in the trenches of a bureaucracy enveloped in secrecy, the resentments festered, amplified by rumors, office grievances and the intensity of the daily grind.

On Aug. 20, acting on intelligence reports of a scheduled meeting of bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders, Clinton ordered 75 cruise missiles launched from a submarine in the Arabian Sea against a network of jihadist training camps in eastern Afghanistan. The attack killed at least 21 Pakistani volunteers but missed bin Laden.

'Weekend Warriors'

By mid-1999, the sense both at the White House and in Tenet's seventh-floor suite at CIA headquarters in Langley was that the Counterterrorist Center had grown too dependent on the TRODPINT tribal agents. One of Tenet's aides referred to them derisively as "weekend warriors," middle-aged and now prosperous Afghan fighters with a few Kalashnikovs in their closets.

At the White House, among the few national security officials who knew of the agents' existence, the attitude evolved from "hopeful skepticism to outright mockery," as one official recalled it.

At one point the agents moved north to Kabul's outskirts and rented a farm as a base. They moved in and out of the Afghan capital to scout homes where bin Laden occasionally stayed. They developed a new set of plans in which they would strike a Kabul house where bin Laden slept, snatch the Saudi from his bed and retreat from the city in light trucks. The CIA supplied explosives to the agents because their plan called for them to blow up small bridges as they made their escape.

The agents never acted. Their rented farm was a working vineyard. William B. Milam, then U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, who was briefed on the operation, asked his CIA colleagues sarcastically, "So what are they waiting for -- the wine to ferment?"

To shake up the hunt, Tenet appointed a fast-track executive assistant from the seventh floor, known to his colleagues as Rich, to take charge of the bin Laden unit. Tenet also named Cofer Black, a longtime case officer in Africa who had tracked bin Laden in Sudan, as the Counterterrorist Center's new director. The bin Laden unit and its chief reported directly to Black; during the next two years they would work closely together.

When Black took over, the bin Laden unit had about 25 professionals. Most of them were women, and two-thirds had backgrounds as analysts. They called themselves "the Manson Family," after the crazed convicted murderer Charles Manson, because they had acquired a reputation within the CIA for wild alarmism about the rising al Qaeda threat.

Their reports described over and over bin Laden's specific, open threats to inflict mass casualties against Americans. They could not understand why no one else seemed to take the threat as seriously as they did. They pleaded with colleagues that bin Laden was not like the old leftist, theatrical terrorists of the 1970s and 1980s who wanted, in terrorism expert Brian Jenkins's famous maxim, "a lot of people watching but not a lot of people dead." Bin Laden wanted many American civilians to die, they warned. They could be dismissive of colleagues who did not share their sense of urgency.

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