Over 120 CIA documents concerning 9/11, Osama bin Laden and counterterrorism were published today for the first time, having been newly declassified and released to the National Security Archive. The documents were released after the NSA pored through the footnotes of the 9/11 Commission and sent Freedom of Information Act requests.
The material contains much new information about the hunt before and after 9/11 for bin Laden, the development of the drone campaign in AfPak, and al-Qaida’s relationship with America’s ally, Pakistan. Perhaps most damning are the documents showing that the CIA had bin Laden in its cross hairs a full year before 9/11 — but didn’t get the funding from the Bush administration White House to take him out or even continue monitoring him. The CIA materials directly contradict the many claims of Bush officials that it was aggressively pursuing al-Qaida prior to 9/11, and that nobody could have predicted the attacks. “I don’t think the Bush administration would want to see these released, because they paint a picture of the CIA knowing something would happen before 9/11, but they didn’t get the institutional support they needed,” says Barbara Elias-Sanborn, the NSA fellow who edited the materials.
Let’s start there. In 2000 and 2001, the CIA began using Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Afghanistan. “The idea of using UAVs originated in April 2000 as a result of a request from the NSC’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism to the CIA and the Department of Defense to come up with new ideas to go after the terrorists in Afghanistan,” a 2004 document summarizes. The Pentagon approved the plan for surveillance purposes.
And yet, simultaneously, the CIA declared that budget concerns were forcing it to move its Counterterrorism Center/Osama bin Laden Unit from an “offensive” to a “defensive” posture. For the CIA, that meant trying to get Afghan tribal leaders and the Northern Alliance to kill or capture bin Laden, Elias-Sanborn says. “It was forced to be less of a kinetic operation,” she says. “It had to be only for surveillance, which was not what they considered an offensive posture.”
“Budget concerns … CT [counterterrorism] supplemental still at NSC-OMB [National Security Council – Office of Management and Budget] level,” an April 2000 document reads. “Need forward movement on supplemental soonest due to expected early recess due to conventions, campaigning and elections.” In addition, the Air Force told the CIA that if it lost a drone, the CIA would have to pay for it, which made the agency more reluctant to use the technology.
Still, the drone program began in September 2000. One drone swiftly twice observed an individual “most likely to have been Bin Laden.” But since the CIA only had permission to use the drones for intelligence gathering, it had no way to act on its findings. The agency submitted a proposal to the National Security Council staff in December 2000 that would have significantly expanded the program. “It was too late for the departing Clinton Administration to take action on this strategic request,” however. It wasn’t too late for the Bush administration, though. It just never did.
Former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice has taken credit for the drone program that the Bush administration ignored. “Things like working to get an armed Predator that actually turned out to be extraordinarily important, working to get a strategy that would allow us to get better cooperation from Pakistan and from the Central Asians,” she said in 2006. “We were not left a comprehensive strategy to fight al-Qaida.” Rice claimed that the Bush administration continued the Clinton administration’s counterterrorism policies, a claim the documents disprove. “If the administration wanted to get it done, I’m sure they could have gotten it done,” says Elias-Sanborn.
Many of the documents publicize for the first time what was first made clear in the 9/11 Commission: The White House received a truly remarkable amount of warnings that al-Qaida was trying to attack the United States. From June to September 2001, a full seven CIA Senior Intelligence Briefs detailed that attacks were imminent, an incredible amount of information from one intelligence agency. One from June called “Bin-Ladin and Associates Making Near-Term Threats” writes that “[redacted] expects Usama Bin Laden to launch multiple attacks over the coming days.” The famous August brief called “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike the US” is included. “Al-Qai’da members, including some US citizens, have resided in or travelled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure here,” it says. During the entire month of August, President Bush was on vacation at his ranch in Texas — which tied with one of Richard Nixon’s as the longest vacation ever taken by a president. CIA Director George Tenet has said he didn’t speak to Bush once that month, describing the president as being “on leave.” Bush did not hold a Principals’ meeting on terrorism until September 4, 2001, having downgraded the meetings to a deputies’ meeting, which then-counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke has repeatedly said slowed down anti-Bin Laden efforts “enormously, by months.”
For all the information the documents reveal, one huge matter is conspicuously absent: torture. There are nearly 50 CIA documents relating to such matters as the interrogation of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the intelligence gleaned from him, and yet “none of them were declassified at all,” notes Elias-Sanborn. “Certainly, the CIA has a stake in revealing what they did,” and they clearly do not want to reveal their complicity in war crimes.
One last thing is worth mentioning from the documents published today: Anyone with any doubt that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dangerous to the United States is contradicting U.S. intelligence. “Violence between Israelis and the Palestinians, moreover is making Sunni extremists more willing to participate in attacks against US or Israeli interests,” the CIA wrote in February 2001. It is not the only piece of information revealed by the new documents that will be deeply uncomfortable for the Bush administration and hawks across the country.
Jordan Michael Smith writes about U.S. foreign policy for Salon. He has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post.