March 31, 2004

The 9/11 Commission on Intelligence Policy
Posted by McQ

The CIA plays a dual role in counterterrorism. Like other members of the Intelligence Community, the CIA is an intelligence producer: it collects and analyzes foreign intelligence and provides this information to policymakers. When directed by the president, the CIA is also responsible for executing policy through the conduct of covert action.
This is a part of the Commission staff’s portion which they call ‘Framing the Issue’. Above you see them defining the role of the CIA in counter terrorism. It’s a two-fold role, one, produce intelligence and two, execute policy through covert action. Nowhere does its counter terrorism role provide for “rendition”.

In case you’re wondering, “rendition” is thus defined for us by the Commission.

We will first discuss the CIA’s support with renditions. In other words, if a terrorist suspect is outside of the United States, the CIA helps to catch and send him to the United States or a third country.

In ordinary criminal cases, the foreign government makes an arrest. The Justice Department and the FBI seeks to extradite the suspect. The State Department facilitates the process.

The world of counter terrorism rarely follows these usual procedures. Overseas officials of CIA, the FBI, and the State Department may locate the person, perhaps using their own sources. If possible, they seek help from a foreign government. Though the FBI is often part of the process, the CIA is usually the major player, building and defining the relationships with the foreign government intelligence agencies and internal security services.

The CIA often plays an active role, sometimes calling upon the support of other agencies for logistical or transportation assistance.

Proper role for the CIA? Again, review its counter-terrorism functions. Rendition is a “law enforcement” function. It is not a counter-terrorism function.

So how did the CIA become a “law enforcement” agency?

Under the presidential directives in the Clinton administration, PDD-39 and PDD-62, the CIA had two main operational responsibilities for combating terrorism—rendition and disruption.

Disruption is consistent with a counter-terrorism role for the CIA. But rendition is clearly outside its charter and capabilities. It is a function for which the CIA is not designed or trained. Yet that, per the two PDDs was its job under the Clinton administration.

Treating this as a law enforcement issue had terrible drawbacks, as the CIA experienced.

In countries where the CIA did not have cooperative relationships with local security services, the rendition strategy often failed. In at least two such cases when the CIA decided to seek the assistance of the host country, the target may have been tipped off and escaped. In the case of Bin Ladin, the United States had no diplomatic or intelligence officers living and working in Afghanistan. Nor was the Taliban regime inclined to cooperate. The CIA would have to look for other ways to bring Bin Ladin to justice.

As for disruptions, the following was the charge in that regard:

Under the relevant directive of the Clinton administration, foreign terrorists who posed a credible threat to the United States were subject to “preemption and disruption” abroad, consistent with U.S. laws. The CIA had the lead. Where terrorists could not be brought to justice in the United States or a third country, the CIA could try to disrupt their operations, attacking the cells of al Qaeda operatives or affiliated groups.

It would appear all bases are covered, or at least that was the plan. And limited though it was by the focus on the law enforcement aspect of it all, there were some significant successes in the area of disruption during the Clinton years. But again ... that's a proper function of the CIA.

The prime target, however, remained Bin Laden. And getting to Bin Laden would require a different approach ... a covert approach in a hostile nation. So a plan was put together to go after Bin Laden.

In 1997 CIA headquarters authorized U.S. officials to begin developing a network of agents to gather intelligence inside Afghanistan about Bin Ladin and his organization and prepare a plan to capture him. By 1998 DCI Tenet was giving considerable personal attention to the UBL threat.

Since its inception, the UBL Station had been working on a covert action plan to capture Bin Ladin and bring him to justice. The plan had been elaborately developed by the spring of 1998.

Its final variant in this period used Afghan tribal fighters recruited by the CIA to assault a terrorist compound where Bin Ladin might be found, capture him if possible, and take him to a location where he could be picked up and transported to the United States. Though the plan had dedicated proponents in the UBL unit and was discussed for months among top policymakers, all
of CIA’s leadership, and a key official in the field, agreed that the odds of failure were too high.

They did not recommend it for approval by the White House.

Once again, those with feet of clay talked it to death, but actually did NOTHING. Another plan but no more. Because of the risk of failure, it was abandoned.

After the embassy bombings in Africa, Clinton signed a series of authorizations which gave the CIA the power to undertake offensive operations in Afghanistan against Bin Laden. To be perfectly clear, these authorizations were for COVERT operations to get Bin Laden. Well within the counter terrorism function of the CIA. Per the commission report, it was understood that people on both sides would be or could be killed in these actions.

In accordance with these authorities, the CIA developed successive covert action programs using particular indigenous groups, or proxies, who might be able to operate in different parts of Afghanistan. These proxies would also try to provide intelligence on Bin Ladin and his organization, with an eye to finding Bin Ladin and then ambushing him if the opportunity arose.

The CIA’s Afghan assets reported on about half a dozen occasions before 9/11 that they had considered attacking Bin Ladin, usually as he traveled in his convoy along the rough Afghan roads. Each time, the operation was reportedly aborted. Several times the Afghans said that Bin Ladin had taken a different route than expected. On one occasion security was said to be too tight to capture him. Another time they heard women and children’s voices from inside the convoy and abandoned the assault for fear of killing innocents, in accordance with CIA guidelines.

Once again, the same result ... a whole lot of talk, a whole lot of planning, zero action.

The next step. Change people and change strategy. Oh ... and more plans.

In the summer of 1999 new leaders arrived at the CTC [the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center] and the UBL unit. The new director of CTC was Cofer Black. He and his aides worked on a new operational strategy for going after al Qaeda. The focus was on getting better intelligence. They proposed a shift from reliance on the Afghan proxies alone to an effort to create the CIA’s own sources. They called the new strategy simply, “The Plan.”

CTC devised a program for hiring and training better officers with counterterrorism skills, recruiting more assets, and trying to penetrate al Qaeda directly. The Plan also aimed to close up gaps in intelligence collection within Afghanistan, by enhancing technical collection and recruiting forces capable of tracking and capturing Bin Ladin wherever he might travel. The Plan also proposed increasing contacts between the CIA and the Northern Alliance rebels fighting the Taliban.

The result? According to the Commission report, “the Plan resulted in increased reporting on al Qaeda.”. Regardless, there wasn’t much change.

Still, going into the year 2000, the CIA had never laid American eyes on Bin Ladin in Afghanistan.

But Mr. Clarke is now sure, had we not been distracted by Iraq, the man he hadn’t yet seen in Afghanistan (OBL) was probably there and we probably could have killed him.

Back to the history as recorded by the Commission. Clinton wanted some action, which led to the “Predator” strategy.

President Clinton prodded his advisers to do better. NSC Counterterrorism Coordinator Richard Clarke helped Assistant DCI for Collection Charles Allen and Vice Admiral Scott Fry of the Joint Staff work together on the military’s ongoing efforts to develop new collection capabilities inside Afghanistan.

With the NSC staff’s backing, the CTC and the military came up with a proposal to fly an unmanned drone called the Predator over Afghanistan to survey the territory below and relay video footage. That information, the White House hoped, could either boost U.S. knowledge of al Qaeda or be used to kill Bin Ladin with a cruise missile. The Predator had performed well in the recent Kosovo conflict, where it spotted Serb troop concentrations. The aircraft is slow and small, but it is hard to see and intercept.

Surely NOW they’d spot their elusive prey.

Well, yes and no.

Drones were flown successfully over Afghanistan 16 times in fall 2000. At least twice the Predator saw a security detail around a tall man in a white robe whom some analysts determined was probably Bin Ladin. The Predator was spotted by Taliban forces. They were unable to intercept it, but the Afghan press service publicized the discovery of a strange aircraft that it speculated might be looking for Bin Ladin. When winter weather prevented the Predator from flying during the remainder of 2000, the CTC looked forward to resuming flights in 2001.

The result? The usual zero. To this point, Richard Clarke and the Clinton administration are 0 for 8 years. In fact, Clarke is 0 for 10 years.

The USS Cole was then bombed which shifted the focus away from Afghanistan, although not al Qaeda, for a period of time. CTC then engaged in its usual “action”. It began writing ANOTHER plan.

The CTC developed an offensive initiative for Afghanistan, regardless of policy or financial constraints—it was called the “Blue Sky memo.” In December 2000, the CIA sent this to the NSC staff. The memo recommended increased support to anti-Taliban groups and to proxies who might ambush Bin Ladin.

The CTC also proposed a major effort to back Northern Alliance forces in order to stave off the Taliban army and tie down al Qaeda fighters, thereby hindering terrorist activities elsewhere. No action was taken on these ideas in the few remaining weeks of the Clinton administration. The “Blue Sky” memo itself was not apparently discussed with the incoming top Bush administration officials during the transition. The CTC began pressing these proposals after the new team took office.

Based on its past "success", "Blue Sky" seems ironic and appropriate. Of course the CTC’s recommendations were implemented by the Bush administration, but only after 9/11. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We now have the Bush administration coming into office, and per the CIA, the “Blue Sky memo”, the plan for an offensive initiative for Afganistan, had not yet been briefed to the new administration.

As a note here ... whatever role Mr. Clarke has played in all of this to this point in time has neither been impressive or successful. But moving on.

The CIA briefed President-elect George W. Bush and incoming national security officials on covert action programs in Afghanistan. Deputy DCI McLaughlin said that he walked through the elements of the al Qaeda problem with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, including an explanation of the special authorities signed by President Clinton. DCI Tenet and Deputy Director for Operations Pavitt gave an intelligence briefing to President-elect Bush, Vice President-elect Cheney, and Dr. Rice, which included the topic of al Qaeda. Pavitt recalled conveying that Bin Ladin was one of the gravest threats to the country.

President-elect Bush asked whether killing Bin Ladin would end the problem. Pavitt said he and the DCI answered that killing Bin Ladin would have an impact but not stop the threat. CIA later provided more formal assessments to the White House reiterating that conclusion. It added that the only long term way to deal with the threat was to end al Qaeda’s ability to use Afghanistan as a sanctuary for its operations.

So up to speed, the new administration takes its place. Enter the “armed Predator”.

During fall 2000, Clarke and other counterterrorism officials learned of a promising and energetic Air Force effort that was already trying to arm the Predator with missiles. Clarke and Assistant DCI Allen urged flying the reconnaissance version of the Predator in the spring, as soon as the weather improved, and using the armed Predator against Bin Ladin as soon as possible.

DCI Tenet, supported by military officers in the Joint Staff, balked at this plan. They did not want to go ahead with reconnaissance flights alone and argued for waiting until the armed version was ready before flying Predator again at all. Given the experience in the fall of 2000, they worried that flying the reconnaissance version would forfeit the element of surprise for the
armed Predator. They also feared one of these scarce aircraft might be shot down, since Taliban radar had previously tracked it, forcing it into a more vulnerable flight path. They also contended that there were not enough Predators to be able to conduct reconnaissance flights over Afghanistan and still have aircraft left over for the testing then underway in the United States to
develop the armed version.

Clarke believed that these arguments were stalling tactics by CIA’s risk-averse Directorate of Operations. He wanted the reconnaissance flights to begin on their own both for collection and to allow for possible strikes with other military forces. He thought the reconnaissance flights could be conducted with fewer aircraft than had been used in 2000, so that testing on the armed version might continue.

DCI Tenet’s position prevailed. The reconnaissance flights were deferred while work continued on the armed version.

Here we see a first indication of Clarke’s impatience.

Frankly, based on their previous experience with the Predator in Taliban controlled Afghanistan, I would agree with those who wanted to shelve the recon flights and only go with the armed flight, thereby preserving the element of surprise and increasing the chances of success. Clarke saw that strategy as a manifestation of “risk-aversion”. While there were many decisions in this litany of failure that seem to be based in ‘risk-aversion’, this doesn’t appear to be one of them.

What follows is important because it demonstrates something which Clarke contends wasn’t present in the Bush administration when it came to dealing with Bin Ladin and al Queda.


The armed Predator was being readied at an accelerated pace during 2001. The Air Force officials who managed the program told us that the policy arguments, including quarrels about who would pay for the aircraft, had no effect on their timetable for operations. The timetable was instead driven by a variety of technical issues. A program that would ordinarily have taken years was, they said, finished in months; they were “throwing out the books on the normal acquisition process just to press on and get it done.”

In July, Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley ordered that the armed Predator be ready by September 1. CIA officials supported these accelerated efforts. The Air Force program manager told us that they were still
resolving technical issues as of 9/11, and “we just took what we had and deployed it.”

Years of program time were compressed into months ... an all out effort to get an armed Predator up and after Bin Laden. However, for some reason, Clarke insists the sense of urgency necessary to chase him down was missing. If this program is any indication, Clark’s just flat wrong.

Meanwhile, the new Bush administration was engaged in its own round of policy planning.

And properly so.

In March 2001, National Security Adviser Rice tasked DCI Tenet to draw up a new document on covert action authorities for Afghanistan that would consolidate existing authorities and add new, broader ones. DCI Tenet presented these draft documents to Deputy National Security Adviser Hadley later that month, but observed that ordinarily policy should be developed first and then the authorities should be devised to implement the policy, rather than doing it the other way around. Hadley agreed and, with Rice’s evident approval, the draft authorities were put aside until the new administration had finished determining what its new policies would be for al Qaeda, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

This policy review apparently began in March and continued throughout the spring and summer of 2001. At the end of May, National Security Adviser Rice met with DCI Tenet and their counterterrorism experts. She asked about “taking the offensive” against al Qaeda, and asked Clark and the CTC chief Cofer Black to develop a full range of options. A plan for a larger covert action effort was a major component of the new al Qaeda strategy, codified in a draft presidential directive that was first circulated in early June. The emerging covert action plan built upon ideas the CIA and Clarke had been working on since December 2000. A notable change was that Rice and Hadley wanted to place less emphasis on the Northern Alliance, and more on anti-Taliban Pashtuns. Clarke was impatient to get at least some money to the Northern Alliance right away in order to keep them in the fight.

A couple of things to note here. One ... in March of 2001, 2 months after taking office, you have the NSA asking for new policies to be devised for addressing al Qaeda, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since these things don’t happen overnight one can’t complain that the new administration didn’t get immediately down to work ... well Clarke can, but take it with a grain of salt.

Two ... Clarke is pushing the Northern Alliance option. Why? Because he wants to bring pressure on the Taliban. One problem. As their name suggest, they’re in the NORTH. The Pushtuns, however, are in the south. Who else is in the south? Bin Laden. Rice’s interest in the Pushtuns is logical. Pressure the Taliban AND al Qaeda with a southern threat vs. a northern threat which only threatens the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the Intelligence Community began to receive its greatest volume of threat reporting since the Millennium plot. By late July, there were indications of multiple, possibly catastrophic, terrorist attacks being planned against American interests overseas. The CTC identified 30 possible overseas targets and launched disruption operations around the world.

Note this one carefully. The CTC, in late July of 2001 has identified 30 possible targets, ALL of them overseas. There is nothing noted in the report of any targets identified by the CIA in the US. This corroborates Rice’s claim that no threat was apparent against the US proper.

Meanwhile, the team that had taken 8 years to plan, plan and replan, but never take a single action was growing impatient with the “pace” of the new administration as concerns counter terrorism.

Some CIA officials expressed frustration about the pace of policymaking during the stressful summer of 2001. Although Tenet said he thought the policy machinery was working in what he called a rather orderly fashion, Deputy DCI McLaughlin told us he felt a great tension— especially in June and July 2001—between the new administration’s need to understand these issues and his sense that this was a matter of great urgency.

Officials, including McLaughlin, were also frustrated when some policymakers, who had not lived through such threat surges before, questioned the validity of the intelligence or wondered if it was disinformation, though they were persuaded once they probed it. Two veteran CTC officers who were deeply involved in UBL issues were so worried about an impending disaster that one of them told us that they considered resigning and going public with their concerns. DCI Tenet, who was briefing the President and his top advisers daily, told us that his sense was that officials at the White House had grasped the sense of urgency he was communicating to them.

This portion is extremely interesting to me. In March, a request for new plans and strategies is out there from the NSA. In July, 4 MONTHS later, these “veterans” who’ve been chasing their tails for 8 to 10 YEARS are suddenly “frustrated”?

This just doesn’t add up, folks.

Also this is a group, that has 30 possible overseas targets that we now know were COMPLETELY WRONG, are upset when the “validity of the intelligence’ available is questioned?

Truly amazing.

The remainder of this portion of the report consists of discussions of whether OBL should be killed or captured, the problem with using proxies.

In its conclusion, one line stood out. The CIA recognized it couldn’t do it alone. But it was a point of which they were never able to convince the Clinton administration and hadn't yet gotten the Bush administration on board with the idea.

If the U.S. government was serious about eliminating the al Qaeda threat, it required robust, offensive engagement across the entire U.S. government.

In other words, the full might of the US had to be focused on terrorism and it had to focus in areas it wasn’t presently looking.

That would obviously mean broadening the scope of counter terrorism from the law enforcement policy of the Clinton administration to the present war footing we have under the Bush administration. We don't know if that shift would have been made under the Bush administration without 9/11. But its a safe guess that had counter terrorism been pursued in that way under Clinton one would have to suggest that the possibility of averting 9/ll existed.

But of course we’ll never know that, will we?