Clinton's covert policy against bin Laden pursued two goals at the same time. He ordered submarines equipped with cruise missiles to patrol secretly in waters off Pakistan in the hope that CIA spotters would one day identify bin Laden's location confidently enough to warrant a deadly missile strike.
But Clinton also authorized the CIA to carry out operations that legally required the agency's officers to plan in almost every instance to capture bin Laden alive and bring him to the United States to face trial.
Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, struggled to forge a consensus within the White House national security team over how to handle the CIA's search for bin Laden.
(1999 Photo James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
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
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This meant the CIA officers had to arrange in advance for detention facilities, extraction flights and other contingencies -- even if they expected that bin Laden would probably die in the arrest attempt. These requirements made operational planning much more cumbersome, the CIA officers contended.
In fashioning this sensitive policy in the midst of an impeachment crisis that lasted into early 1999, Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, struggled to forge a consensus within the White House national security team. Among other things, he had to keep on board a skeptical Attorney General Janet Reno and her Justice Department colleagues, who were deeply invested in law enforcement approaches to terrorism, according to senior officials involved.
As the months passed, Clinton signed new memos in which the language, while still ambiguous, made the use of lethal force by the CIA's Afghan agents more likely, according to officials involved. At first the CIA was permitted to use lethal force only in the course of a legitimate attempt to make an arrest. Later the memos allowed for a pure lethal attack if an arrest was not possible. Still, the CIA was required to plan all its agent missions with an arrest in mind.
Some CIA managers chafed at the White House instructions. The CIA received "no written word nor verbal order to conduct a lethal action" against bin Laden before Sept. 11, one official involved recalled. "The objective was to render this guy to law enforcement." In these operations, the CIA had to recruit agents "to grab [bin Laden] and bring him to a secure place where we can turn him over to the FBI. . . . If they had said 'lethal action' it would have been a whole different kettle of fish, and much easier."
Berger later recalled his frustration about this hidden debate. Referring to the military option in the two-track policy, he said at a 2002 congressional hearing: "It was no question, the cruise missiles were not trying to capture him. They were not law enforcement techniques."
The overriding trouble was, whether they arrested bin Laden or killed him, they first had to find him.