What We Learned From the Report of the 9/11 Commission VII.

What was more important in 1998, fending off a nuclear war on the Indian sub-continent or working out on Pakistan to get it to pressure the religious fanatics running Afghanistan to evict a co-religionist who hated Americans? After Pakistan had tested a nuclear weapon in May 1998, the Congress had slapped heavy sanctions on the impoverished, unstable country. This left American diplomacy with little leverage in the effort to apply pressure on the Taliban. Now Pakistan’s relations with India were at an apparent breaking point because of the struggle over Kashmir. Most American diplomats involved in South Asia policy-making preferred to downplay the terrorism issue until the possibility of nuclear war had been contained. Diplomacy got nowhere by the end of 1999. (pp. 177-185.)


Covert Action.

After the August 1998 embassy bombings, President Clinton signed a Memorandum of Notification that instructed the CIA to attempt to capture Osama Bin Laden, but authorized the use of deadly force only for self-defense. (pp. 185, 192.) By Christmas 1998 Berger, Tenet, and Clinton purportedly had all come around to favor killing Bin Laden if he could not be captured; Clinton approved a new Memorandum of Notification to this effect. (p. 193.) However, this memo referred only to the tribal fighters in touch with the CIA, it was circulated only to a handful of people at the highest level of government, Clinton greatly diluted a similar proposed agreement with the Northern Alliance, and no CIA officials ever got the idea that Clinton seriously desired to kill—rather than capture for trial—Osama Bin Laden.

While the “sissies in striped pants” at State were doing their thing to no visible effect, the CIA and the FBI were busy busting up Al Qaeda operations overseas. During August and September 1998 al Qaeda people were arrested in Britain, Italy, Germany, and Azerbaijan.

The Afghan tribal fighters seemed to provide valuable intelligence on the location of Bin Laden, although no one in Langley thought that their purported efforts to kill Bin Laden were very credible. [NB: Reading between the lines, it appears that the tribals were milking the CIA for money and were not going to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs by killing or capturing OBL.]

In October, November, and December 1998 concern that al Qaeda meant to launch a terrorist attack within the United States led to various alerts and to discussion of an attempt to hit Bin Laden in Kandahar, but the decision-makers choked on the latter option—much to the annoyance of lower level officials.[1] Lieutenant General William Boykin, a snake-eater from way back and subsequently the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, later said of this time that “opportunities were missed because of an unwillingness to take risks and a lack of vision and understanding.” (quoted, p. 199.)

[1] This lower-ranks frustration with the caution of the upper-ranks is similar to the later improvisation of a response to the 9/11 hijackings. This emerges as one of the key factors in understanding American vulnerability to attack. The Federal government appears to recruit and promote cautious, consensus-oriented CYA people.

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