Post 19. Response to 9/11. Afghanistan
September 11, 2001. 19 Islamic militants, 15 Saudis, one Lebanese, one Egyptian and two Emirati, hijacked four U.S. civilian airplanes and flew two into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. A third slammed into the outer wall of the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., killing 125, only continuous loops of spiral rebar, tightly spaced columns and reinforced concrete ceilings in the “overbuilt” Pentagon prevented structural collapse and hundreds more casualties. The fourth, with the U.S. Capitol as the target, crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania as passengers – “Let’s roll!” – fought the hijackers.
In all, 2,977 people died in the 9/11 attacks. None of the terrorists were Iraqi and Saddam Hussein and Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, but the Bush administration led the American people to believe that there was a connection. In fact, the ousting of Saddam Hussein and his regime had been on the agenda of many in the Bush administration and conservative circles, the so-called neo-cons, going back to the First Gulf War. 9/11 was just the expedient spark they needed to galvanize the American people into a second war on Iraq.
Their mindset was driven by belief, ideology and wishful thinking, not facts, much less strategic thinking worthy of the name, and sold to the American people with phony intelligence, i.e., lies, about weapons of mass destruction. And, not incidentally, it distracted, delayed, us from pursuing and bringing to ground the terrorists who had planned the attacks in Afghanistan, not Iraq. This is how it went down.
First Response: War in Afghanistan
9/11. We knew who did it. One could say we knew who did it before they did it. And we knew where they were.
Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Afghanistan. Protected by the Taliban, which in 1995 established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and imposed their harsh regime on 90% of the country.
Richard Clarke knew. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence in the Reagan administration, chair of the Counter-Terrorism Security Group for Bush Senior, and Clinton’s “counterterrorism czar” – media-speak for National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure, and Counter-terrorism – he had been tracking al-Qaeda for more than a decade.
On January 25, 2001, just four days after Bush took his oath of office, almost eight months before 9/11, Clarke delivered a memo to Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s National Security Adviser, “urgently” – twice underscored – requesting a National Security Council “principals-level review” of the al-Qaeda threat, adding bluntly, “This is not some little terrorist issue.”
Clarke attached his more detailed 13-page December 20, 2000 memo to Bill Clinton in the last month of his presidency, entitled “Strategy for Eliminating the Threat from the Jihadist Networks of al-Qaeda.” In it he warned, “The al-Qaeda terrorist organization led by Osama bin Ladin has stitched together a network of terrorist cells in the U.S. and 40 other countries, . . . and recruited and provided 50,000 jihadists with advanced training in espionage, sabotage, weapons and explosives in camps in Afghanistan, . . . and is actively seeking to develop and acquire weapons of mass destruction, . . . including building a chemical weapons testing facility at a camp near Jalalabad in Afghanistan.”
In 1996, bin Laden issued a 30-page fatwa, “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” published in the London-based newspaper, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, calling for global jihad against the U.S. In a second fatwa, February 1998, he declared, “[killing] Americans and their allies, civilian and military. . . is the duty of every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.” An unambiguous and chilling agenda.
Then, August 7, 1998, two al-Qaeda teams simultaneously truck-bombed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, killing 224, including 12 Americans, and wounding more than 4,000, mostly local civilians.
Later that day, CIA Director George Tenet told Clinton and a small circle of advisors, Clarke, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, Madeline Albright (State), William Cohen (Defense), Attorney General Janet Reno, and Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that based on telephone and electronic intercepts, interrogations and physical evidence, bin Laden and al-Qaeda were almost certainly responsible. Tenet called it “an intelligence slam dunk.”
Four days later, August 11, Clinton ordered cruise missile attacks on al-Qaeda training camps near Khost, Afghanistan to deter further attacks and, with luck, kill bin Laden. 66 Tomahawk missiles destroyed the camps. Message sent. But bin Laden had flown the coop – he later claimed that the ISI Pakistani intelligence agency had tipped him off, a recurring theme – and jihadi casualties were in the low dozens, not hundreds.
Republicans accused Clinton of a “wag the dog” ploy to divert public attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But on November 5, a U.S. federal grand jury in New York issued a sealed indictment against bin Laden for terrorist attacks even before the bombings of our embassies in East Africa. No dog, no wag.
In December 1998, the CIA tracked bin Laden to Haji Habash house, part of the governor’s residence in Kandahar, near the Pakistan border in southern Afghanistan. But Clinton refused to pull the trigger. He later – ironically, just one day before 9/11 – told a group of Australian businessmen, “I could have killed bin Laden, but I would have . . . killed 300 innocent women and children (collateral casualties), and then I would have been no better than him. So I didn’t do it.” Maybe he should have. The lesser evil.
Clarke went on in his memo to chronicle al-Qaeda’s role in the February 25, 1993 car bombing of the north tower of the World Trade Center, the infamous “Blackhawk Down” attack on U.S. Ranger and Delta Force units in Mogadishu in October 1993, the 1998 embassy bombings, and the October 12, 2000 bombing in Yemen of the destroyer U.S.S. Cole, killing 17 sailors and wounding 34, an attack overseen personally by bin Laden who, per the 9/11 Commission Report, “chose the target . . . selected the suicide bombers . . . and [paid for] the explosives.” Perhaps most ominous of all was a 1993 plot, fortuitously aborted, by an al-Qaeda cell in Manilla to smuggle bombs on board six U.S.–flagged 747s.
Sandy Berger, Clinton’s National Security Advisor, told Rice during the transition that terrorism, specifically al-Qaeda, would be “the No. 1 issue” facing the incoming President Bush. Clarke’s January 25 memo to Rice recounted the steps the Clinton administration had taken in the last three years to hollow out al-Qaeda, including creating a “virtual station,” code-named Alex, modeled on CIA overseas stations and dedicated specifically to tracking bin Laden and al-Qaeda, pressuring Sudan to evict bin Laden from his safe haven in Khartoum to Afghanistan, now his redoubt of last resort, and using U.N. sanctions to seize $250 million of Taliban funds and Predator drone flights to get real time video coverage of al-Qaeda camps and senior leadership meetings in Afghanistan.
Clarke proposed a 3 to 5-year strategy for “rendering the al-Qaeda network a non-serious threat to the U.S.,” starting with coordinating the anti-terrorism efforts of U.S. agencies, e.g., Treasury’s Terrorist Asset Tracking Center, FBI programs translating and analyzing domestic surveillance intelligence, State and DEA counter narcotics operations. He also urged “massive support” for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir,” and funding armed Predator operations – successfully tested for the first time in January 2001 – to kill bin Laden and his lieutenants.
In a 2006 Frontline interview, Clark said: Clarke: “Had we destroyed the terrorist camps in Afghanistan earlier, then the conveyor belt producing terrorists and sending them out around the world would have been destroyed. So many trained and indoctrinated al-Qaeda terrorists, who we now have to hunt down one by one, country by country, many of them wouldn’t have been trained or indoctrinated because there wouldn’t have been a safe place to do it.”
But what did the Bush administration do in response to Clarke’s warnings? For eight months until 9/11? Nothing. Actually, worse than nothing. It was, apparently, too busy abrogating the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with the Soviets, abandoning the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change and cutting the EPA budget by 6.4%, withdrawing U.S. support for the International Criminal Court, strictly limiting research on stem cells from human embryos, and having come into office with a $237 billion surplus, pushing through Congress, albeit with bipartisan majorities, a $1.35 trillion dollar package of tax cuts benefiting mostly corporations and high earners, creating a $400 billion budget deficit. Only to be outdone by Donald Trump with his 2019 tax cuts, which ran the deficit up to more than a trillion dollars.
Bush kept Clarke on as chief White House counterterrorism advisor, but downgraded his role, no longer regularly including him in meetings of the National Security Council “principals,” Bush, Cheney, Rice, Tenet, Shelton, Donald Rumsfeld (Defense), Colin Powell (State) and Paul O’Neill (Treasury). And no longer would his memos go directly to Bush, instead they had to go up the chain of command through Rice and her deputy Stephen Hadley, who invariably bounced them back. The clear message to the U.S. intelligence community: al-Qaeda and terrorism are not high priorities.
And when Bush did meet with Clarke, he didn’t take him seriously. In Clarke’s own words: “We had a couple of meetings with the president . . . on cyber-security and terrorism, . . . he seemed to be trying to impress us, the people briefing him. . . as though these White House staff guys who had been around for a long time before he got there, he didn’t want them buying the rumor that he wasn’t too bright. He was trying, overly trying, to show that he could ask good questions, and kind of yukking it up with Cheney. . . . The contrast with . . . his father and Clinton and Gore was so marked. And to be told, frankly, early in the administration, by Rice and Hadley, you know, don’t give the president a lot of long memos, he’s not a big reader, well, shit, I mean, the President of the United States is not a big reader?” A leadership flaw Bush shares, sadly, with No. 45.
Clarke: “I didn’t have to brief Tenet about al-Qaeda, he absolutely understood the nature of the threat, and we frequently talked about how he could use his morning meetings with the president to convince him. And Tenet briefed Bush 40 – 50 times in those morning meetings about al-Qaeda.” Bush can’t claim he wasn’t warned. Time and time again.
In the spring of 2001, Tenet and his counterterrorism chief, Cofer Black, pitched a “blue sky plan” to Bush’s new national security team, a joint CIA and military covert operation to go after al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. “And the word back,” says Tenet, “We’re not quite ready to consider this. We don’t want the clock to start ticking” [on the warning]. Black’s take: “They were mentally stuck back eight years [during the Bush Senior administration]. They were used to Euro-lefties, drinking champagne by night, blowing things up during the day, how bad can this be? So it [the urgency of dealing with the al Qaeda threat] was a very tough sell.”
But the clock was already ticking, the evidence was piling up. Clarke: “We went into a period in June where the tempo of intelligence about an impending large-scale attack went up a lot, to the kind of cycle that we’d only seen once or twice before.” Tenet: “Terrorists were disappearing, going in hiding, camps were closing. . . .” In short, al-Qaeda was going to ground. Cofer Black: “It was very clear that we were going to be struck and struck hard, lots of Americans were going to die.”
On July 10, Richard Blee, head of the CIA’s al-Qaeda section, burst into Black’s office, “Chief, this is it, roof’s fallen in, the information we have compiled is absolutely compelling, multiple-sourced . . . .” Tenet picked up the white phone to Rice, “Condi, I have to see you, we [Tenet, Black and Blee] are coming over right now.”
Black recalled, “Rich started by telling Rice, ‘There will be significant terrorist attacks against the United States in the coming weeks or months. The attacks will be spectacular. They may be multiple. Al-Qaeda’s intention is the destruction of the United States.’ Rice replied, ‘What do you think we need to do?’ Black slammed his fist on the table, ‘We need to go on a wartime footing now!’”
What happened? According to Bob Woodward in State of Denial, “They got the brushoff.” Bush and company were not about to go after al-Qaeda in Afghanistan when invading Iraq was at the top of their agenda. Black again: “Yeah. What did happen? Nothing. To me it remains incomprehensible still. I mean, how is it you warn senior people so many times and nothing actually happens. Like the Twilight Zone.”
By August, Clarke is telling Rice, “The intelligence isn’t coming in at such a rapid rate as in the June – July time frame, but that doesn’t mean the attack isn’t going to happen, it just means they may already be in place.” The proverbial calm before the storm.
On August 6, five weeks before 9/11, a CIA analyst gave Bush, on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, a Presidential Daily Briefing with the headline, “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.”
“Bin Laden stated in 1997 and 1998 that he and his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and ‘bring the fighting to America.’
“Convicted [al-Qaeda] plotter Ahmed Ressam told the FBI that he conceived the idea to attack Los Angeles International Airport himself, but bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaydah encouraged him helped facilitate the operation. [Rassam was foiled by Diana Dean, an alert U.S. Customs Agent on the Victoria to Port Angeles ferry who decided Rassam was acting “hinky.” When his car was searched, agents found enough explosives and time delay fuses for 40 car bombs. Ressam is now serving 22 years in a Colorado maximum security prison.]
“Bin Laden’s attacks against the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania demonstrate that he prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks. . . .
“Al-Qaeda members – including some who are U.S. citizens – have resided in or traveled to the U.S. for years, and the group maintains a support structure that could aid attacks. Two al-Qaeda members found guilty in the conspiracy to bomb our embassies in East Africa were U.S. citizens, and a senior member lived in California in the mid-1990s.
“We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from [redacted] service in 1998 saying that Bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft to gain the release of “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman. Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.” [Emphasis mine.]
Bush took it all in, then responded, “All right, you’ve covered your ass now.” Willful disregard.
On September 4, Clarke was invited to a National Security Council principals meeting. On the agenda, resumption of Predator operations in Afghanistan, but now [as of January 2001] with technology to arm and use it as a hunter- killer. Clarke: “We had seen bin Laden [with Predator] . . . [during] the Clinton administration, but just with a hunter, . . . with a hunter-killer, we could see him again and kill him.”
“So finally we have a principals meeting and the C.I.A. says it’s not our job to fly the Predator armed and D.O.D. says it’s not our job to fly an unarmed aircraft. . . . I just couldn’t believe it. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the director of C.I.A. are sitting there passing the football back and forth because neither one wanted to go kill bin Laden.” But the principals did approve a 6-page plan, titled NSPD 9, to go after al-Qaeda, essentially the same plan Clarke proposed on January 25, more than seven months earlier. Better late than never? No, just late.
One week later, 9/11, our world changed.
Personal side note: Late August, two weeks before 9/11, our family was on the Big Island in Hawaii. Our last night in Hilo after an afternoon of scuba, we decided to stay in, order pizza and watch a movie, Executive Decision, a 1996 action flick about terrorists hijacking a 747 to crash it with vials of nerve gas into the White House, disaster averted only because of heroics by Kurt Russell and Halle Berry. Life imitates art. Or at least the movies. And, true story, after 9/11 FBI agents went to Hollywood and asked screen writers to brain storm with them about what terrorists might do next. Someone has to think outside the box.
Saturday, September 15, four days after 9/11, Bush and his closest advisors gathered at Camp David to begin to plan the U.S. response: Cheney, Tenet, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Rice, Powell, Rumsfeld, O’Neill, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Shelton and his immediate successor, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, Cheney’s Chief of Staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and, sitting at the far end of the long table, Rumsfeld’s undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz, who would have undue influence on the decision to invade Iraq.
Three days later, September 18, Bush signed a joint resolution of Congress authorizing him to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations of persons.”
All the evidence pointed to bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and, Clarke says, “We knew from day one . . . bin Laden would flee to . . . Tora Bora [Pashtun for ‘black cave,’ in the White Mountains near the Khyber Pass].”
But by the end of the first morning at Camp David, Wolfowitz was pushing for invading Iraq even before Afghanistan. He asserted that there was “at least a 10%, maybe 50%, chance” that Iraq was involved in 9/11, plus the U.S. would be able to overrun Saddam’s “brittle, oppressive regime” more easily than the Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan. In short, even if it had nothing at all to do with 9/11, we should go after Iraq first because it has more and softer targets?
Wolfowitz had been beating that drum for a long time. Clarke: “We had a meeting on terrorism [the previous] February, early March, . . . Wolfowitz was representing Defense and he said, ‘Well, if you want to talk about terrorism, fine, but let’s talk about Iraq, not al-Qaeda.’ He believed that al-Qaeda must be state-sponsored because no terrorist organization could do that without a nation helping them. And that must be Iraq. And we know this, he said, from the writings of Laurie Mylroie.”
Mylroie, a conspiracy theorist, author of Study of Revenge: The First World Trade Center Attack and Saddam Hussein’s War Against America (2000), had repeatedly argued that Saddam was behind the 1993 attempt to blow up the World Trade Center – and would later claim that Iraq aided al-Qaeda on 9/11. Wolfowitz bought it hook, line and sinker. Clarke was flabbergasted. “Here was the number two person in the Pentagon saying he agreed with her and disagreed with CIA, with FBI, disagreed with all the massive evidence that al-Qaeda, not Iraq, attacked the World Trade Center in ’93. Why anybody as sophisticated as Wolfowitz . . . would attach himself to that sort of nutty stuff, I don’t know.”
Clarke was not at Camp David, but was at several White House meetings immediately after 9/11 when the question, “Are we going after Afghanistan first or Iraq,” was thrashed out. The bottom line, “We are going after Afghanistan, because that’s where the attack came from, . . . no one will understand if we don’t go after al-Qaeda, [we’ll decide later] what to do with Iraq.”
And so on September 19, Cofer Black told CIA officer Gary Bengsten, “You have one mission. Go find the al-Qaeda and kill them . . . get bin Laden, find him, I want his head in a box, I want to take it down and show it to the president.”
But what was the plan? Clarke: “Most of it had already been authorized . . . and written prior to 9/11 [the joint CIA/military operation Tenet pitched to Bush’s national security team back in the spring], . . . no one really had to come up with a lot of new ideas. . . . I thought it would be relatively easy, [but] . . . it took us so long to get troops on the ground.”
For its part, the CIA moved very quickly. September 26, just 15 days after 9/11, Gary Schroen had his 7-man NALT [Northern Afghanistan Liaison Team] – codename “Jawbreaker” – in the Panjshir Valley 100 miles from Kabul to link up with the Northern Alliance and get its buy-in to go after bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Schroen spoke Farsi, had been the CIA station chief in Afghanistan and formed a personal relationship with Massoud. A second NALT team was inserted further north near Mazar-e-Sharif.
The U.S. military’s Central Command, on the other hand, didn’t have a plan. As Clark put it, “They had a plan to go into Iran, a plan to go into Iraq, a plan, probably, to go into Canada and Mexico. But no plan for Afghanistan,” because “Franks [Gen. Tommy Franks] (and Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al.) never wanted to go into Afghanistan.”
“One, they didn’t want to get bogged down there like Russia, two, they were saving forces for the war on Iraq, and three, Rumsfeld wanted a laboratory [Iraq] to prove his theory about the ability of small numbers of ground troops, coupled with airpower, to win decisive battles. . . . they viewed Afghanistan as a military and political backwater, a detour along the road to Iraq.” So they went after bin Laden with too little, too late, in the wrong direction.
U.S warplanes pulverized Tora Bora, but Rumsfeld and Franks ignored Clarke’s warning, “You can’t win the war in Afghanistan with such a small [force], . . . and there are more cops in New York City than soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan.”
Recalls Clarke, “We inserted small numbers of special forces very early on, but regular U.S. military infantry, Marines, took about seven or eight weeks [until mid-November] and then didn’t go after bin Laden. . . . It was as if they got the order ‘Take Afghanistan’ and thought, well, you take Afghanistan by going after the government and the capital, and the capital is Kabul and the government is there. But that wasn’t what we were supposed to be doing. We were supposed to be going after the terrorists first, but somehow that got lost in translation from the White House to the Pentagon to Central Command.”
Schroen and his team were beyond frustrated. They wanted to pursue bin Laden and al-Qaeda up into Tora Bora and cut off their escape route into Pakistan, but didn’t have the manpower to do it on their own. They needed the military, but couldn’t get Frank’s attention, and this disconnect went all the way up to the White House.
Clarke: “They ignored the advice of the experts in CIA, both at headquarters and on the ground. They didn’t allow anyone into their decision-making chamber except the president and vice president, secretary of defense and Gen. Franks. . . Cheney just didn’t like other people telling him what to do and Rumsfeld . . . wanted a moat around the Pentagon, . . . We could all feel it slipping away as week after week after week went by.”
“And yes, we know [bin Laden] absolutely was there, . . . he may even have been wounded by a fragment of an American bomb that was dropped up there. And yes, he did escape. Gen. Franks and the president can deny it until the cows come home, but . . . they let him get away . . . they botched it,” including Franks’ decision not to deploy 800 U.S. Army Rangers to Tora Bora, allowing bin Laden to escape into Pakistan. Peter Bergen, CNN journalist and national security analyst, who interviewed bin Laden in 1997, called Franks’ decision as “one of the greatest military blunders in recent U.S. history.” It would take almost 10 more years, until May 2, 2011, for U.S. Navy Seals to track down and kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
By December 2001, the Northern Alliance and U.S. Special Forces had taken Kabul and routed the Taliban. One year later, December 2002, Rumsfeld told Larry King: “The Afghans have elected a government. . . the Taliban are gone, Al Qaeda is gone. . . . Not a perfectly stable place. . . . There are still people throwing hand grenades and shooting off rockets . . . , but there are people who are trying to kill people in New York and San Francisco too. So it’s not going to be a perfectly tidy place. . . . Nonetheless, I’m hopeful, I’m encouraged . . . and I wish them well.” In Rumsfeld’s reptilian black and white brain, our job there was done and dusted, have a nice life, Afghanistan.
If only. Almost twenty years later, the U.S. is still there, out of pocket $2 trillion, and more than 2,400 American soldiers and 110,000 Afghans are dead, but the Taliban still control huge swaths of the country and terrorize the parts they don’t, the President of Afghanistan is not much more than the mayor of Kabul. Now, Donald Trump is trumpeting – the verb his very namesake – a “peace treaty” with the Taliban so he can boast that he kept his campaign promise to bring the boys home.
But this deal follows talks from which the Afghan government, whose very survival is at stake, was excluded, in which the U.S. will reduce its forces by 50%, the Taliban agreed only not to shoot American troops as they leave, but not to stop attacks on Afghan soldiers or civilians, and in the bargain the Afghan government must release 5,000 Taliban terrorists from prison. An honorable way out? Sham is more like it. Warm up the helicopters.
What really sticks in Clarke’s craw, and should stick in ours, is not just that bin Laden got away, but that Bush and the neocons quickly began to shift resources from Afghanistan to pursue a calamitous war on Iraq, giving the Taliban and al-Qaeda new life, snatching failure from the jaws of success. To cap it all off, says Clarke, “We played right into Osama bin Laden’s hands . . . . he told the moderate Muslim world that we’d go in and attack a neutral, oil-rich country and take it over, and what did we do? Exactly that.”
Next. It gets worse. War on Iraq.
Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies 
Gary Schroen, First In 
The Longest War [documentary] – Greg Barker, director [April 2020]