By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2001 12:26 AM
President Bush last month signed an intelligence order directing the CIA to undertake its most sweeping and lethal covert action since the founding of the agency in 1947, explicitly calling for the destruction of Osama bin Laden and his worldwide al Qaeda network, according to senior government officials.
The president also added more than $1 billion to the agency's war on terrorism, most of it for the new covert action. The operation will include what officials said is "unprecedented" coordination between the CIA and commando and other military units. Officials said that the president, operating through his "war cabinet," has pledged to dispatch military units to take advantage of the CIA's latest and best intelligence.
Bush's order, called an intelligence "finding," instructs the agency to attack bin Laden's communications, security apparatus and infrastructure, senior government officials said. U.S. intelligence has identified new and important specific weaknesses in the bin Laden organization that are not publicly known, and these vulnerabilities will be the focus of the lethal covert action, sources said.
"The gloves are off," one senior official said. "The president has given the agency the green light to do whatever is necessary. Lethal operations that were unthinkable pre-September 11 are now underway."
The CIA's covert action is a key part of the president's offensive against terrorism, but the agency is also playing a critical role in the defense against future terrorist attacks.
For example, each day a CIA document called the "Threat Matrix," which has the highest security classification ("Top Secret/Codeword"), lands on the desks of the top national security and intelligence officials in the Bush administration. It presents the freshest and most sensitive raw intelligence on dozens of threatened bombings, hijackings or poisonings. Only threats deemed to have some credibility are included in the document.
One day last week, the Threat Matrix contained 100 threats to U.S. facilities in the United States and around the world -- shopping complexes, specific cities, places where thousands gather, embassies. Though nearly all the listed threats have passed without incident and 99 percent turned out to be groundless, dozens more take their place in the matrix each day.
It was the matrix that generated the national alert of impending terrorist action issued by the FBI on Oct. 11. The goal of the matrix is simple: Look for patterns and specific details that might prevent another Sept. 11.
"I don't think there has been such risk to the country since the Cuban missile crisis," a senior official said.
During an interview in his West Wing office Friday morning, Vice President Cheney spoke of the new war on terrorism as much more problematic and protracted than the Persian Gulf War of 1991, when Cheney served as secretary of defense to Bush's father.
The vice president bluntly said: "It is different than the Gulf War was, in the sense that it may never end. At least, not in our lifetime."
Pushing the Envelope In issuing the finding that targets bin Laden, the president has said he wants the CIA to undertake high-risk operations. He has stated to his advisers that he is willing to risk failure in the pursuit of ultimate victory, even if the results are some embarrassing public setbacks in individual operations. The overall military and covert plan is intended to be massive and decisive, officials said.
"If you are going to push the envelope some things will go wrong, and [President Bush] sees that and understands risk-taking," one senior official said.
In the interview, Cheney said, "I think it's fair to say you can't predict a straight line to victory. You know, there'll be good days and bad days along the way."
The new determination among Bush officials to go after bin Laden and his network is informed by their pained knowledge that U.S. intelligence last spring obtained high quality video of bin Laden himself but were unable to act on it.
The video showed bin Laden with his distinctive beard and white robes surrounded by a large entourage at one of his known locations in Afghanistan. But neither the CIA nor the U.S. military had the means to shoot a missile or another weapon at him while he was being photographed.
Since then, the CIA-operated Predator unmanned drone with high-resolution cameras has been equipped with Hellfire antitank missiles that can be fired at targets of opportunity. The technology was not operational at the time bin Laden was caught on video. The weapons capability, which was revealed last week in the New Yorker magazine, was developed specifically to attack bin Laden, the officials said.
In addition, with the U.S. military heavily deployed in some nations around Afghanistan, commando and other units are now available to move quickly on bin Laden or his key associates as intelligence becomes available.
U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies recently received an important break in the effort to track down terrorist leaders overseas, according to officials.
The FBI and CIA have been given limited access in the last several weeks to a topbin Laden lieutenant who was arrested after Sept. 11 and is being held in a foreign country. The person, whose various aliases include "Abu Ahmed," is "a significant player," in the words of one senior Bush official. Ahmed was arrested with five other members of al Qaeda. He is believed by several senior officials to be the highest-ranking member of al Qaeda ever held for systematic interrogation.
Though Ahmed has not given information about future terrorist operations, he has provided some details about the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in a Yemeni port, when 17 sailors were killed. One source said he also has information about the planned terrorist attacks in the United States that were disrupted before the millennium celebrations in December 1999.
The New Normalcy When specific facilities or locations are threatened, as they have been repeatedly in the last month, the FBI informs local law enforcement authorities or foreign intelligence services that are supposed to increase security and take protective measures.
The Threat Matrix lists where the intelligence comes from -- intercepted communications, walk-in sources, e-mails, friendly foreign intelligence services, telephone threats, and FBI or CIA human sources.
The public is not informed except when the threat is considered highly credible or specific, as it was on Oct. 11 when the FBI issued its nationwide alert.
In the interview, Cheney said that deciding when to go public and when to withhold threat information is one of the most difficult tasks the administration faces.
"You have to avoid falling into the trap of letting it be a cover-your-ass exercise," Cheney said. "If you scare the hell out of people too often, and nothing happens, that can also create problems. Then when you do finally get a valid threat and warn people and they don't pay attention, that's equally damaging."
He also noted, "If you create panic, the terrorist wins without ever doing anything. So these are tough calls."
Making details from the Threat Matrix public could result in chaos, several officials said. Literally hundreds of places, institutions and cities from across the country have been on the list.
"It could destroy the livelihood of all those organizations and places without a bomb being thrown or a spore of anthrax being released," another senior Bush official said. The official was asked what would happen if there was a major terrorist incident and many were killed at one of the facilities or places on the Threat Matrix and no public warning had been issued.
"Then they would have our heads," the official said.
Intelligence and law enforcement agencies attempt to run every threat to ground to see if it is genuine, officials said. The results at times have been unexpected. In early October, a woman called authorities to say it was her patriotic duty to report that her husband, who is from the Middle East, was planning an attack with eight or nine friends on Chicago's Sears Tower.
The woman sounded credible and her allegations were reported in the Threat Matrix. The FBI then detained her husband and friends. On the next Threat Matrix the CIA reported that the FBI might have broken up an al Qaeda cell.
Upon further investigation, the FBI learned that the woman was furious with her husband, who had a second wife. Her allegations had no merit, but the bureau discovered that some of the people were involved in an arranged-marriage scheme.
"Instead of terrorism," one official said, "we found an angry wife."
Another senior official said, "There can be a problem in a marriage and it results in, you know, an allegation that shows up in the Threat Matrix."
During the interview in his West Wing office, Cheney, with a large map of Afghanistan on an easel near his desk, spoke of life post-Sept. 11.
"The way I think of it is, it's a new normalcy," he said. "We're going to have to take steps, and are taking steps, that'll become a permanent part of the way we live. In terms of security, in terms of the way we deal with travel and airlines, all of those measures that we end up having to adopt in order to sort of harden the target, make it tougher for the terrorists to get at us. And I think those will become permanent features in our kind of way of life."
New War, Old Problems Though the new intelligence war presents the CIA with an opportunity to excel, several officials noted that the campaign is also fraught with risk.
The agency is being assigned a monumental task for which it is not fully equipped or trained, said one CIA veteran who knows the agency from many perspectives. Human, on-the-ground sources are scarce in the region and in the Muslim world in general. Since the end of the Cold War more than a decade ago, the Directorate of Operations (DO), which runs covert activity, has been out of the business of funding and managing major lethal covert action.
The CIA has a history of bungling such operations going back to the 1950s and 1960s, most notably when the agency unsuccessfully plotted to assassinate Fidel Castro.
In one of the celebrated anti-Castro plots, a CIA agent code-named AM/LASH planned to use Blackleaf-40, a high-grade poison, with a ballpoint-hypodermic needle on the Cuban leader. The device was delivered on Nov. 22, 1963, and a later CIA inspector general's report noted it was likely "at the very moment President Kennedy was shot."
Though no connections were ever established between the Castro plots and the Kennedy assassination, the CIA's reputation was severely tarnished.
The covert war in Nicaragua in the 1980s was another source of negative publicity, as the CIA mined harbors without adequate notification to Congress and published a 90-page guerrilla-warfare manual on the "selective use of violence" against targets such as judges, police and state security officials. It became known as the "assassination manual."
William J. Casey, President Ronald Reagan's CIA director from 1981 to early 1987, was mired in the disastrous outcome of the "off-the-books" operations of the Iran-contra scandal. That scandal involved secret arms sales to Iran and the illegal diversion of profits from those sales to the contra rebels supported by the CIA in Nicaragua.
Reagan and Casey had trouble when they sought to punish covertly the terrorists responsible for the 1983 truck bombing of the U.S. Marine compound in Lebanon, which killed 241 American servicemen in the deadliest terrorist attack on Americans before Sept. 11. Casey worked personally and secretly with Saudi Arabia to plan the assassination of Muslim leader Sheikh Fadlallah, the head of the Party of God or Hezbollah, who was connected to the Marine bombing. The method of retaliation was a massive car bomb that was exploded 50 yards from Fadlallah's residence in Beirut, killing 80 people and wounding 200 in 1985. But Fadlallah escaped without injury.
Since the Ford administration, all presidents have signed an executive order banning the CIA or any other U.S. government agency from involvement in political assassination. Generally speaking, lawyers for the White House and the CIA have said that the ban does not apply to wartime when the military is striking the enemy's command and control or leadership targets.
The United States can also legally invoke the right of self-defense as justification for striking terrorists or their leaders planning attacks on the United States.
Bush's new presidential finding differs from past findings against the terrorists in a number of significant ways. First, it puts more military muscle behind the clandestine effort to crush al Qaeda. Second, it is far better funded. Third, senior officials said, it has the highest possible priority and will involve better coordination within the entire national security structure: the White House, the president's national security adviser, the CIA, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the departments of State, Defense and Justice.
On Friday, Cheney said the country had a sense of confidence in Bush's team, which includes an experienced trio of advisers -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Cheney himself. CIA Director George J. Tenet has developed an unusually close relationship with the new president, becoming a regular during Camp David weekends and briefing the chief executive most days.
"There's a lot of tough decisions that are involved here, and some of them very close calls," Cheney said. "But if I had to go out and design a team of people . . . this is it."
The vice president added that the war on bin Laden and terrorists in general is going to be particularly difficult.
"They have nothing to defend," he said. "You know, for 50 years we deterred the Soviets by threatening the utter destruction of the Soviet Union. What does bin Laden value?
"There's no piece of real estate. It's not like a state or a country. The notion of deterrence doesn't really apply here. There's no treaty to be negotiated, there's no arms control agreement that's going to guarantee our safety and security. The only way you can deal with them is to destroy them."
'Smoke Them Out' Six days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush publicly declared the intentions of his administration with the statement that bin Laden was "Wanted: Dead or Alive."
In those remarks at the Pentagon, he said that the new enemy, bin Laden and other terrorists, liked "to hide and burrow in" and conceal themselves in caves. He first mentioned "a different type of war" that would "require a new thought process."
Two days later, Sept. 19, Bush made his first public mention of "covert activities," noting that some foreign governments would be "comfortable" supporting such action.
He added a broad outline of the goal: "Clearly, one of our focuses is to get people out of their caves, smoke them out and get them moving and get them. That's about as plainly as I can put it."
Bush sounded this theme again during his nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20, when he spoke of "covert activities, secret even in success." In public remarks to CIA employees at the agency's headquarters in Langley a week later, the president dropped more hints: "You see, the enemy is sometimes hard to find; they like to hide. They think they can hide, but we know better."
Officials said that the covert activities approved by the president include a wide range of traditional CIA operations, such as close cooperation with friendly foreign intelligence services and covert and overt assistance to the Afghan rebels fighting to overthrow the Taliban leadership that harbors bin Laden.
The CIA has studied bin Laden and his al Qaeda network for years. A special unit or "Bin Laden station," created in 1996, works round the clock at headquarters.
When Cheney gave a speech Thursday night in New York City, he noticed a sea change. As his motorcade went through Manhattan, people stopped their cars, got out and applauded.
During his short speech before the 56th Annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, he was interrupted by applause 15 times.
On Friday morning, while sitting in his comfortable, well-lit West Wing office, he said with a smile, "There wasn't a dove in the room."
Researcher Jeff Himmelman contributed to this report.