A Strategy's Cautious Evolution

By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2002

On a closed patch of desert in the first week of June, the U.S. government built a house for Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden would have recognized the four-room villa. He lived in one just like it outside Kandahar, Afghanistan, whenever he spent a night among the recruits at his Tarnak Qila training camp. The stone-for-stone replica, in Nevada, was a prop in the rehearsal of his death.

From a Predator drone flying two miles high and four miles away, Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency ground controllers loosed a missile. It carried true with a prototype warhead, one of about 100 made, for killing men inside buildings. According to people briefed on the experiment, careful analysis after the missile pierced the villa wall showed blast effects that would have slain anyone in the target room.

The Bush administration now had in its hands what one participant called "the holy grail" of a three-year quest by the U.S. government -- a tool that could kill bin Laden within minutes of finding him. The CIA planned and practiced the operation. But for the next three months, before the catastrophe of Sept. 11, President Bush and his advisers held back.

The new national security team awaited results of a broad policy review toward the al Qaeda network and Afghanistan's Taliban regime, still underway in a working group two and three levels below the president. Bush and his top aides had higher priorities -- above all, ballistic missile defense. As they turned their attention to terrorism, they were moving toward more far-reaching goals than the death of bin Laden alone.

Bush's engagement with terrorism in the first eight months of his term, described in interviews with advisers and contemporary records, tells a story of burgeoning ambition without the commitment of comparably ambitious means. In deliberations and successive drafts of a National Security Presidential Directive approved by Bush's second-ranking advisers on Aug. 13, the declared objective evolved from "rolling back" to "permanently eroding" and eventually to "eliminating" bin Laden's al Qaeda organization.

Cabinet-rank policymakers, or principals, took up the new strategy for the first time on Sept. 4. It called for phased escalation of pressure against Taliban leaders to present them with an unavoidable choice -- disgorge al Qaeda or face removal from power.

The directive asked the CIA and the Pentagon to produce options involving force -- covert and overt -- but it deferred decisions on their use. It had not reached Bush's desk by Sept. 11, and on that day its multiyear plan of single steps became a race to start the war on every front at once.

Had hijackers not killed more than 3,000 people, senior advisers said, there is no way to predict how far Bush would have chosen to follow the path they were mapping.

"We won't really know, because the strategy doesn't unfold" before Sept. 11, said a central participant in developing it, who declined to be quoted by name. "It's a phased strategy that we lay out. And in some sense, whether you have to use the military option is going to depend [on] whether the first part of your strategy fails or succeeds. I can tell you the strategy we had, the sequencing we had in mind. I guess I can't prove to you that we would have done it."

Privately, as the strategy took form in spring and summer, the Bush team expressed disdain for the counterterrorist policies it had inherited from President Bill Clinton. Speaking of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, a colleague said that "what she characterized as the Clinton administration approach was 'empty rhetoric that made us look feckless.' "

Yet a careful review of the Bush administration's early record on terrorism finds more continuity than change from the Clinton years, measured in actions taken and decisions made. Where the new team shifted direction, it did not always choose a more aggressive path:

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