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Zelikow: Lack of Actionable Intelligence on where bin Laden Would be, How Long There

Aired March 23, 2003 - 13:34   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to go back to the 9/11 hearings now. As you listen, so will we, as the independent commission probing the al Qaeda attack on 9/11 continues.

PHILIP ZELIKOW, COMMISSION EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: ... Richard Clarke, informed other senior officials that President Clinton was inclined to launch further strikes sooner rather than later.

On August 27th, Undersecretary of Defense Slocombe advised Secretary William Cohen that the available targets were not promising. There was, he said, also an issue of strategy, the need to think of the effort as a long-term campaign. The experience of last week he wrote, quote, "Has only confirmed the importance of defining a clearly articulated rationale for military action," close quote, that was effective as well as justified.

ZELIKOW: Active consideration of follow-on strikes continued into September. In this context, Clarke prepared a paper for a political-military plan he called Delenda (ph) from the Latin, "to destroy." Its military component envisioned an ongoing campaign of regular small strikes occurring from time to time whenever target information was right in order to underscore the message of a concerted, systematic and determined effort to dismantle the infrastructure of the bin Laden terrorist network.

Clarke recognized that individual targets might not have much value, but he wrote to Berger, "We will never again be able to target a leadership conference of terrorists, and that should not be the standard."

Principals repeatedly considered Clarke's proposed strategy. But none of them agreed with it.

Secretary Cohen told us that the camps were primitive, easily constructed facilities with rope ladders. The question was whether it was worth using very expensive missiles to take out what General Shelton called "jungle-gym" training camps. That would not have been seen as very effective.

National Security Adviser Berger and others told us that more strikes, if they failed to kill bin Laden could actually be counterproductive, increasing bin Laden's stature. These issues need to be viewed, they said, in a wider context. The United States launched air attacks against Iraq at the end of 1998 and against Serbia in 1999, all to widespread criticism around the world. About a later proposal for strikes on targets in Afghanistan, Deputy National Security Adviser James Steinberg noted that it offered, quote "little benefit, lots of blowback against bomb-happy United States," close quote.

In September of 1998, while the follow-on strikes were still being debated among a small group of top advisers, the counterterrorism officials in the office of the secretary of defense were also considering a strategy. Unaware of Clarke's plan, they developed an elaborate proposal for a quote, "more aggressive counterterrorism posture," close quote.

The paper urged defense to, quote, "champion a national effort to take up the gauntlet that international terrorists have thrown at our feet," close quote. Although the terrorist threat had grown, the authors warn that quote, "We have not fundamentally altered our philosophy or our approach," close quote. If there were new horrific attacks, they wrote, that then, quote, "We will have no choice, nor unfortunately will we have a plan," close quote.

They outlined an eight-part strategy to be more proactive and aggressive. The assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, Alan Holmes, brought the paper to Undersecretary Slocombe's chief deputy, Jan Lodel (ph). The paper did not go further. Its lead author recalls being told by Holmes that Lodel (ph) thought it was too aggressive. Holmes cannot recall what was said, and Lodel (ph) cannot remember the episode or the paper at all.

The president and his advisers remain ready to use military action against the terrorist threat. But the urgent interest in launching follow-on strikes had apparently passed by October.

ZELIKOW: The focus shifted to an effort to find strikes that would clearly be effective, to find and target bin Laden himself.

Military planning continues. Though plans were not executed, the military continued to assess and update target lists regularly in case the military was asked to strike. Plans largely centered on cruise missile and manned aircraft strike options and were updated and refined continuously through March 2001.

Several senior Clinton administration officials, including National Security Adviser Berger and the NSC staff's Clarke, told us the President Clinton was interested in additional military options, including the possible use of ground forces. As part of Operation Infinite Resolve, the military produced those options.

We'll skip the next paragraph that details them and go to the relationship of the White House and the Pentagon, which was complex.

As Lieutenant General Gregory Newbold, director of operations for the Joint Staff put it, "The military was often frustrated by civilian policy-makers whose requests for military options were too simplistic. For their part, White House officials were often frustrated by what they saw as military unwillingness to tackle the counterterrorism problem."

Skipping the next paragraph, go to General Shelton said that, quote, "Given sufficient actionable intelligence, the military can do the operation," close quote.

But he explained that a tactical operation, if it did not go well, could turn out to be an international embarrassment for the United States.

Shelton and many other military officers and civilian DOD officials we interviewed recalled their memories of episodes such as the failed hostage rescue in Iran in 1980 and the "Black Hawk Down" events in Somalia in 1993.

General Shelton made clear, however, that upon direction from policymakers, the military would proceed with an operation and carry out the order.

Skipping the next paragraph, let's go to the concerns expressed by the commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, CENTCOM, General Anthony Zinni.

Before 9/11, any military action in Afghanistan would be carried out by CENTCOM. The Special Operations Command did not have the lead. It provided forces that could be used in a CENTCOM-led operation.

The views of the key field commander, Cary Greg White (ph): General Zinni told us he did not believe that some of the options his command was ordered to develop would be effective, particularly missile strikes.

Zinni thought a better approach would have been a broad strategy to build up local counterterrorism capabilities in neighboring countries, using military assistance to help country like Uzbekistan. This strategy, he told us, was impeded by a lack of funds and limited interest in countries like Uzbekistan that had dictatorial governments.

Skipping the next paragraph, let's emphasize that military officers explained to us that sending Special Operations Forces into Afghanistan would have been complicated and risky.

ZELIKOW: Such efforts would have required bases in the region, however. The basing options in the region were unappealing. Pro- Taliban elements of Pakistan's military might warn bin Laden or his associates of pending operations.

The rest of the paragraph gives an example of that, but go to the next one: "With nearby basing options limited, an alternative was to fly from ships in the Arabian sea, or from land bases in the Persian Gulf, as was later done after 9/11. Such operations would then have to be supported from long distances, over-flying the airspace of nations that might not be supportive or aware of the U.S. efforts." Finally, "Military leaders again raise the problem of actionable intelligence, warning that they did not have information about where bin Laden would be by the time forces would be able to strike him. If they were in the region for a long period, perhaps clandestinely, the military might attempt to gather intelligence and wait for an opportunity."

One special operations commander said his view of actionable intelligence was that if you give us the action, we'll give you the intelligence. But this course would be risky, both in light of the difficulties already mentioned, and the danger that U.S. operations might fail disastrously, as in the 1980 Iran rescue failure.

Cruise missiles as the default option. Cruise missiles became the default option because it was the only option left on the table after the rejection of others.

The Tomahawk's long range, lethality and extreme accuracy made it the missile of choice. However, as a means to attack al Qaeda and OBL-linked targets pre-9/11, cruise missiles were problematic. Tomahawk cruise missiles had to be launched after the vessels carrying them moved into position. Once these vessels were in position, there was still an interval as decision makers authorized the strike, the missiles were prepared for firing, and they flew to their targets.

Officials worried that bin Laden might move during these hours, from the place of his last sighting, even if that information had been current. Moreover, General Zinni told commission staff that he had been deeply concerned that cruise missile strikes inside Afghanistan would kill numerous civilians.

The rest of the paragraph offers detail on that, but let's go to the next section -- no actionable intelligence.

The paramount limitations cited by senior officials on every proposed use of military force was the lack of actionable intelligence.

ZELIKOW: By this, they meant precise intelligence on where bin Laden would be and how long he would be there.

National Security Adviser Berger said that there was never a circumstance where the policy-makers thought they had good intelligence, but declined to launch a missile at OBL-linked targets for fear of possible collateral damage. He told us the deciding factor was whether there was actionable intelligence.

If the shot missed bin Laden, the United States would look weak and bin Laden would look strong.

There were frequent reports about bin Laden's whereabouts and activities. The daily reports regularly described where he was, what he was doing and where he might be going. But usually, by the time these descriptions were landing on the desks of DCI Tenet or National Security Adviser Berger, bin Laden had already moved. PHILLIPS: Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 commission, giving testimony now, speaking specifically about the lack of actionable intelligence on where Osama bin Laden would be and how long he would be there, sort of tracking Osama bin Laden through the years, presenting this to the commission as it continues to investigate the al Qaeda attacks on 9/11, intelligence with regard to that. How much did the U.S. know prior to 9/11?


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