Afghan Campaign's Blueprint Emerges

By Dan Balz, Bob Woodward and Jeff Himmelman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 29, 2002

Third in a series of eight articles.

Shortly after 12:30 p.m., President Bush's limousine pulled into the White House driveway, stopping not far from the Oval Office. The president was returning from a visit to the burn unit of Washington Hospital Center, where he had had several emotional encounters with severe burn victims injured when a hijacked airliner hit the Pentagon two days before.

Before Bush could get out of the car, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., who had walked outside to meet the limousine, put up his hands. "Mr. President," Card said, "sit back down for a minute. I've got to tell you something."

Card climbed into the back seat next to Bush and closed the door.

"We've got another threat on the White House," the chief of staff said. "We're taking it seriously."

Terrorists were believed to have targeted the White House on Sept. 11, and the fear was they would do it again. Card explained to the president that the CIA had just sent over a warning from a foreign intelligence service that Pakistani jihadists -- Muslim extremists -- were planning a direct attack on the White House.

"Why are you telling me in here?" snapped Bush, irritated that Card had unnecessarily risked a scene that could be observed by the press pool that was just down the driveway. "You could have waited until I got into the Oval Office."

Bush got out of the car, and he and Card walked directly to the Oval Office, where Secret Service Director Brian L. Stafford and the head of Bush's personal Secret Service detail were waiting for them.

"We need to evacuate you," Stafford said, explaining that the threat was credible and consistent with other intelligence that established an immediate danger. Stafford wanted to take Bush to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, the bunker beneath the White House complex where Vice President Cheney and other officials had been taken two days before.

"I'm not leaving," Bush said.

He told Secret Service officials that he wanted more information if they got it. For now, he wasn't going anywhere. "And by the way," he added, to no one in particular, "I'm hungry." He located Ferdinand Garcia, the Navy steward on duty in the West Wing. "Ferdie," he said, "I want a hamburger."

Card realized that Bush was a bit of a fatalist, believing you could take reasonable precautions and make decisions, but if something was going to happen you could only do so much. Prior to the attacks, Bush had been eating lighter -- fruit and other healthy foods -- in an attempt to lose weight.

"Well," said Karen P. Hughes, his counselor who had joined them in the Oval Office, "you might as well have cheese."

But the mood quickly turned serious. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice had joined the group and they all agreed that, even if the president wasn't prepared to leave, they had an obligation to the rest of the employees in the White House. Many on the staff, particularly some of the younger, lower-level aides, were still suffering from anxiety after the trauma of Sept. 11, when the White House had been evacuated.

Bush and his advisers decided they should allow all nonessential employees to go home that afternoon. Card relayed the information at a senior staff meeting and announced that the Secret Service would implement additional measures to protect the building, such as expanding the secure perimeter around the White House complex.

Card said the vice president would be moved to an undisclosed location as a precaution against having the president and vice president together in the event of another attack. Continuity in government -- ensuring the survival of someone in the constitutional line of succession to the presidency -- remained an essential priority.

The decision to move Cheney was the starkest example of how seriously the federal government has taken the threat of additional attacks. Although the decision led to questions about the vice president's whereabouts and well-being, Cheney himself has insisted on staying away from the White House on a regular basis.

The stepped-up threats added a sense of urgency to the deliberations underway among the president and his war cabinet. They knew they were under pressure to strengthen defenses at home and develop a plan to go after the terrorists.

Earlier that morning, after his intelligence briefing from the CIA, Bush had met with the war cabinet in the White House Situation Room, one floor below the chief of staff's office in the southwest corner of the West Wing. Forty-eight hours after the attacks, Bush and his advisers began to focus more intently on how to go after Osama bin Laden, his al Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

CIA Director George J. Tenet and several other agency officials described in more detail the ideas Tenet had outlined the previous day. This was the second presentation in what became an increasingly detailed set of CIA proposals for expanding its war on terrorism.

Tenet's concept called for bringing together expanded intelligence-gathering resources, covert action, sophisticated technology, agency paramilitary teams and opposition forces in Afghanistan. They would then be combined with U.S. military power and Special Forces into an elaborate and lethal package designed to destroy the shadowy terrorist networks.

The CIA director was a holdover from the Clinton administration, but he had emerged as a key member of Bush's team. A former congressional staffer, Tenet was unexpectedly tapped first as deputy director in 1995 and then as director of central intelligence in 1997 after the nomination of Anthony Lake, President Clinton's national security adviser, was held up by the Senate and Lake requested that his name be withdrawn.

Tenet and Clinton had never really bonded; the former president preferred his daily briefing in writing. With Bush, who liked oral briefings and the CIA director in attendance, a strong relationship had developed. Tenet could be direct, even irreverent and earthy.

In his presentation, Tenet said the United States could begin to go after bin Laden and the Taliban by invigorating the Northern Alliance, the primary opposition force in Afghanistan, where bin Laden was hiding and operating. The alliance's roughly 20,000 fighters were decidedly a mixed bag dominated by five factions, but in reality probably 25 sub-factions.

It was a strained coalition of sometimes common interests, Tenet said. On top of that, its most charismatic leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, had been assassinated by two suicide bombers posing as journalists on Sept. 9, in what was believed to be an al Qaeda operation. Without Massoud, the Northern Alliance was more fractured and leaderless than ever.

But with the CIA teams and tons of money, the alliance could be brought together into a cohesive fighting force, Tenet said.

The president and war cabinet members knew the CIA was giving very limited financial and technical covert support to the Northern Alliance -- several million dollars a year -- under a previous intelligence order. The agency's paramilitary teams had periodically met clandestinely with alliance leaders over the past four years. Tenet said he could insert paramilitary teams inside Afghanistan with each warlord. Along with Special Forces teams from the U.S. military, they would provide "eyes on the ground" for further U.S. military action. American technological superiority could give the Northern Alliance a significant edge.

The CIA had been on the ground in Afghanistan for years and had engaged in developing a more aggressive approach toward bin Laden and the Taliban prior to Sept. 11. The Pentagon, by contrast, had not been asked or encouraged to do any new planning as part of this pre-Sept. 11 process. As a result, Pentagon thinking about fighting bin Laden was far more conventional -- to the frustration of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- at a time when Bush was looking for the unconventional.

Tenet was followed by Cofer Black, head of the CIA's counterterrorism center. Black, 52, a veteran covert operator, was one of the agency's legends, credited with helping in the 1994 capture of Carlos the Jackal, one of the most notorious international terrorists prior to bin Laden. Tall, well-dressed and almost hulking, Black was a bit of a throwback to the agency's earlier, more colorful days. Though Tenet was called George by almost everyone in the CIA, Black addressed him as "Mr. Director."

If Tenet had been businesslike in his presentation that morning, Black was theatrical in describing the effectiveness of covert action. Animated and enthusiastic about the plan's potential and the agency's capabilities, he kept popping up and down from his chair as he made his points, gesturing wildly, throwing paper onto the floor as he described putting forces on the ground in Afghanistan.

Black wanted the mission to begin as soon as possible, and he didn't have any doubt that it would succeed.

"You give us the mission," he said, "we can get 'em." At one point he threw his fist in the air.

"We'll rout 'em out," he said, echoing the president's public language about smoking out the terrorists from their caves.

"They'll have flies on their eyeballs," he said -- an image of death that left a lasting impression with a number of war cabinet members. Black became known in Bush's inner circle as "the flies-on-the-eyeballs guy."

It was a memorable performance, and it had a huge effect on the president, according to his advisers. For two days Bush had expressed in the most direct way possible his determination to track down and destroy the terrorists responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11. Now, for the first time, he was being told without reservation that there was a way to do this, that he did not have to wait indefinitely, that the agency had a plan.

Black's enthusiasm was infectious, and perhaps overly optimistic. It would never be quite as quick or as simple as he made it sound, but at that moment it was what the president wanted to hear. Bush was tired of rhetoric, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell thought; the president wanted to kill somebody.

Shortly before 11 a.m., White House aides ushered the press pool into the Oval Office for a scheduled conference call from Bush to New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and New York Gov. George E. Pataki.

The previous day, White House officials had decided to televise the conversation. They wanted Bush to be seen reaching out to the families of the thousands of victims who had died when the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed, as well as to the rescue workers who were laboring around the clock in a desperate search for survivors. Because it seemed doubtful that Bush could get to New York before the following Monday, the televised conference call was seen as the next best gesture.

But Bush decided he should go sooner. When he got the mayor and governor on the phone, he told them he would fly to New York the next afternoon, immediately after the prayer service at Washington National Cathedral.

Bush appeared slightly uncomfortable, almost distracted as he talked on the televised conference call. "I wish I was visiting under better circumstances," Bush said in closing. "But it will be a chance for all three of us to thank and hug and cry with the citizens of your good area."

The call over, Bush decided to take questions from the reporters standing only a few feet away, including one about the upcoming prayer service. "Mr. President," the reporter asked, "could you give us a sense as to what kind of prayers you are thinking and where your heart is, for yourself, as you -- "

"Well I don't think about myself right now," he said, and it was instantly obvious he was struggling with his own emotions. "I think about the families, the children." He turned his head and his eyes filled with tears.

"I am a loving guy," he said, as he started to regain his composure, "and I am also someone, however, who has got a job to do, and I intend to do it. And this is a terrible moment. But this country will not relent until we have saved ourselves and others from the terrible tragedy that came upon America."

Tears still in his eyes, Bush ended the question-and-answer period with a slight nod of his head, and the pool reporters were escorted out.

"Presidents don't particularly like to cry in front of the American public, particularly in the Oval Office, but nevertheless I did," Bush said in an interview last month. But he said he believed his "mood reflected the country in many ways. People in our country felt the same way I did."

As the reporters filed out, Bush walked back to his private study off the Oval Office. Karl Rove, his longtime political adviser, was there, and he too was overcome with emotion. Rove looked away, and Bush turned his back. Rove realized they were both in tears.

After his call to Giuliani and Pataki, Bush met with his speechwriting team to begin preparing for the prayer service at Washington National Cathedral the next day. The service had been Bush's idea, and he had instructed his aides to include in the program leaders of all the major faiths -- Christian, Jewish, Muslim -- and denominations.

Michael Gerson, the president's chief speechwriter, had worked with Bush since the formative days of his presidential campaign and, with Hughes, was the author of Bush's most important speeches. He had a sense of history, a strong belief in the concept of compassionate conservatism and a flair for language, which Hughes would sometimes distill into Bush's earth-bound style.

On the morning of the Sept. 11 attacks, Gerson had been on Interstate 395, trying to get to the White House, when the Pentagon was hit. He watched the plane, American Airlines Flight 77, come right over the highway, so low he could see the windows. The plane disappeared below the tree line and he never saw the impact, but almost immediately he could see the smoke rising in the distance. He never made it to the White House that day, nor did he see Bush on Sept. 12. Now Bush's first words jolted Gerson.

"Mike, we're at war," Bush said.

It was said almost as if Bush couldn't quite believe it himself, and for Gerson, who had written mostly about education, taxes and compassionate conservatism, it was sobering.

Seeing Bush break down in the Oval Office a few minutes earlier had moved Gerson, and he told the president he believed it was an important moment for the public to see a president who refused -- or was unable -- to conceal his true emotions, the same emotions experienced by all Americans.

Bush said little, steering the discussion toward the prayer service the next day. Gerson already had some ideas for the speech, mentioning a quote he thought would fit the event, about how adversity introduces us to ourselves.

Bush said the speech had to acknowledge the reality that the attacks were not some distant event and that this could not be a conventional memorial service. They were still in the midst of tragedy. It was too early for the kind of closure a traditional memorial service sometimes brings.

The president said he had one other element he wanted his speechwriters to weave into the text. He wanted to express full confidence in the outcome of the conflict, to make it clear that he believed they would win this war. There was to be no doubt left in anyone's mind about where he stood on that. "Go produce it," Bush said. "I want to see it tonight."

Bush left for the tour of the burn unit at Washington Hospital Center, where a number of the victims from the Pentagon attack were being treated. It was his first face-to-face meeting with attack survivors, who were burned, bathed in oils and dressings and swathed in bandages, some almost unrecognizable.

Since airplanes weren't flying, about 70 square feet of human skin, kept on dry ice, had been sent by van from Texas to stabilize the wounds. Some of those who were burned over large percentages of their bodies talked about crawling through fire. In one room, Bush encountered a young Navy lieutenant named Kevin Shaeffer, who was in bad shape.

"He wants to play golf with you when he gets out," said one of Shaeffer's friends.

"Tell him he has a date," the president said.

By now, the war cabinet was moving in many different directions. At the State Department, Powell and his team were working on building an international coalition against terrorism.

They were focusing on Pakistan, regarding it as the linchpin of their plan. It was one of only two nations in the world that formally recognized the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan, and the radical Islamic movement had a substantial following within its borders. Gen. Pervez Musharraf had come to power in a military coup in 1999, and the year before the United States had imposed sanctions after the Pakistanis set off a nuclear test. This had significantly increased the danger of nuclear war with India and raised tensions in the South Asian subcontinent.

Powell had told Bush that whatever action he took, it could not be done without Pakistan's support. But the Pakistanis had to be put on notice, and Powell had in mind a pitcher's brushback pitch to a particularly dangerous batter -- high, fast and hard to the head. Squeezing Musharraf too hard was risky, given the potential for fundamentalist unrest inside his country, but Powell believed they had no other choice.

"Do what you have to do," the president said. Working with his deputy, Richard L. Armitage, Powell realized he had a blank check. Let's make it up, he said to Armitage. What do we want out of these guys? The two started making a list:

"Stop al Qaeda operatives at your border, intercept arms shipments through Pakistan and end ALL logistical support for bin Laden."

Second: "Blanket overflight and landing rights."

Third: Access to Pakistan, naval bases, air bases and borders.

Fourth: Immediate intelligence and immigration information.

Fifth: Condemn the Sept. 11 attacks and "curb all domestic expressions of support for terrorism against the [United States], its friends or allies." Powell and Armitage knew that was something they couldn't even do in the United States.

Sixth: Cut off all shipments of fuel to the Taliban and stop Pakistani volunteers from going into Afghanistan to join the Taliban.

The seventh demand was one Powell thought would trip up the Pakistanis or cause Musharraf to go into a fetal position: "Should the evidence strongly implicate Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network in Afghanistan AND should Afghanistan and the Taliban continue to harbor him and this network, Pakistan will break diplomatic relations with the Taliban government, end support for the Taliban and assist us in the aforementioned ways to destroy Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network."

In so many words, Powell and Armitage would be asking Pakistan to help destroy what its intelligence service had helped create and maintain: the Taliban.

Armitage called the Pakistani intelligence chief, Gen. Mahmoud Ahmad, with whom he had met the previous day, to the State Department. This is not negotiable, he told the general, handing him a single sheet of paper with the seven demands. You must accept all seven parts.

At 1:30 p.m. Powell called Musharraf. "As one general to another," Powell said, "we need someone on our flank fighting with us. Speaking candidly, the American people would not understand if Pakistan was not in this fight with the United States."

Musharraf said that Pakistan would support the United States with each of the seven demanded actions.

The Pentagon briefing that day was conducted by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a senior defense official under Cheney during the administration of Bush's father, George H.W. Bush. Wolfowitz often gave voice to the views of an outspoken group of national security conservatives in Washington, many of them veterans of the Reagan and senior Bush administrations. These conservatives believed there was no greater menace in the world than Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and they argued that if Bush was serious about going after those who harbor terrorists, he had to put Hussein at the top of that list.

Iraq posed nearly as serious a problem for the president and his team as Afghanistan. If Hussein, a wily and unpredictable survivor, decided to launch a terrorist or even a limited military strike on U.S. facilities after Sept. 11 and the president had failed to move against him, the recriminations might never end.

Rumsfeld had raised the issue of Iraq during the previous day's national security meetings. Now, in the daily briefing, Wolfowitz issued an implicit public warning to terrorist states that was quickly taken as another effort to prod the president to include Iraq in his first round of targets.

"It's not just simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism," Wolfowitz said. "It will be a campaign," he said, "not a single action. And we're going to keep after these people and the people who support them until it stops."

In its most benign form, it was merely a provocative restatement of the Bush Doctrine from the night of Sept. 11, but it was certain to alarm many U.S. allies. "Ending states who sponsor terrorism" -- regime change -- was not an easy task. The earlier Bush administration had gone to war with Hussein in 1991 but never attempted to oust him with military force.

Toppling Hussein would mark a major escalation of what the administration was trying to do. Nobody at that point had even agreed that Iraq should be part of the initial phase of the war on terrorism; in truth, at that point nobody other than Tenet was even talking about dislodging the Taliban, only threatening to punish the regime if it didn't break with bin Laden.

Wolfowitz's words caught others in the administration by surprise. A few days later, Powell publicly distanced himself from the deputy defense secretary, saying, "Ending terrorism is where I would like to leave it, and let Mr. Wolfowitz speak for himself."

At the Pentagon, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was firmly opposed to bringing Iraq into the military equation at this early stage. In Shelton's analysis, the only justification for going after Iraq would be clear evidence linking the Iraqis to the Sept. 11 attacks. Short of that, targeting Iraq was not worth the risk of angering moderate Arab states whose support was crucial not only to any campaign in Afghanistan but to reviving the Middle East peace process.

At State, Powell and others were alarmed by the Wolfowitz drumbeat. At the end of one early meeting of Bush's war cabinet, during which Rumsfeld had raised Iraq as a potential target, Powell approached Shelton and rolled his eyes.

"What the hell, what are these guys thinking about?" asked Powell, who had once held Shelton's job as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Can't you get these guys back in the box?"

Shelton could not have agreed more. He had been trying, arguing practicalities and priorities, but Wolfowitz was fiercely determined and committed.

At the National Security Council meeting that afternoon in the Situation Room, the president said he was going to approve the CIA proposal to give paramilitary and financial support to the Northern Alliance.

"I'd like to tell you what we told the Pakistanis today," Powell said, getting out a copy of the seven demands he had presented to them. He knew the president didn't like to sit still for long readings, but he was proud of what they had done, unencumbered by a long interagency debate. So he read them aloud. When he finished, Powell reported that Musharraf had already accepted all of them.

"It looks like you got it all," the president said. He thought it was the State Department at its best, no striped-pants formality.

"Can I have a copy of that?" some of the others asked. Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill reported on the effort to go after the finances of the terrorists. In early, pre-Sept. 11 deliberations about what to do with bin Laden during the spring and summer, Treasury officials had resisted efforts to go after terrorists' financial assets and there was continuing institutional resistance to imposing sanctions.

Bush noted that some bureaucrats were nervous about this new authority but dismissed concerns that the moves might be unsettling to the international financial order. "This is war, this isn't peace. Do it," he said. "He [bin Laden] needs money and we need to know whoever is giving him money and deal with them."

Shelton continued to offer a pessimistic assessment of the immediate military options. The contingency plans on the shelf were only cruise missiles against training camps. "It's just digging holes," he said.

Rumsfeld said they needed new tasks for the military if they wanted to go after states harboring bin Laden. "We've never done that before," he said.

Bush was concerned that the meetings with his national security advisers were too much on the fly, sometimes lasting 90 minutes or an hour, sometimes much less. Bush's time was being chopped into small pieces to accommodate the demands of both his private and public roles in the crisis. They had not had time to chew on the issue the way he wanted, so he asked his advisers to come to Camp David with their spouses that weekend, in the hope that a day together at the presidential retreat in Maryland would give them the setting and the time to talk at greater length and in more detail about what they wanted to do.

"This is a new world," Bush said insistently. "General Shelton should go back to the generals for new targets. Start the clock. This is an opportunity. I want a plan -- costs, time. I need options on the table. I want Afghan options by Camp David. I want decisions quick."

Rumsfeld was trying to push the Pentagon, and he applauded Bush's decisiveness and sense of urgency. But he reminded the president of the embarrassments of some earlier attacks -- the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the 1999 Kosovo conflict or the missile attack on the Sudan chemical plant in 1998 that was part of the unsuccessful operation on bin Laden in Afghanistan.

"We owe you what can go wrong," Rumsfeld said, "things that can take wind out of our sails. For example, hitting camps with no people."

"Tell the Afghans to round up al Qaeda," Bush said. "Let's see them, or we'll hit them hard. We're going to hurt them bad so that everyone in the world sees, don't deal with bin Laden. I don't want to put a million-dollar missile on a five-dollar tent."

A note-taker at the meeting wrote down snatches of dialogue that captured the sense of urgency.

"We need new options," Rumsfeld said at one point. "This is a new mission."

The president seemed to agree. "Everything is on the table," Bush said. "Look at the options."

The president also told his military advisers that the British really wanted to participate. "Give them a role," he said.

"Time is of the essence," Bush said. "By the time we get to Camp David, we need a clear timetable for action -- but I want to do something effective."

That afternoon, Bush met with the congressional delegations from New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, the states whose constituents had been most directly affected by the Sept. 11 attacks. Prior to the full meeting, he invited Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) into the Oval Office.

The day before, Bush had sent a letter to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), requesting a supplemental appropriation of $ 20 billion to defray the costs of recovery and rebuilding efforts and other expenses associated with the war on terrorism. Schumer said they were grateful for the supplement but that New York was going to need more money. Ticking off a list of priorities, Schumer said, "We figure we'll need at least another $ 20 billion."

"You've got it," the president said, looking at the senator. "I'll agree to that."

It was about midnight that third night of the crisis when Condi Rice returned home to her apartment at the Watergate. She had spent the first night of the crisis at the White House; the Secret Service had told her it wasn't safe to go home, and she was preparing to sleep in the bunker when the president and first lady invited her to stay in the residence. She slept for a few hours that night and again on Wednesday night, but she had been operating, like everyone, on adrenaline. Now she had a few moments at home to unwind. She flipped on her television for the first time since the crisis began, and the screen showed a familiar scene -- the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace in London. But it was the music that caught her attention. In a gesture of solidarity and sympathy with the United States, the queen's band was playing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Rice listened for a few seconds, and then she started to weep.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company