Now we learn:
BUSH ADMINISTRATION’S LENGTHY REVIEW PROCESS DELAYED U.S. PLAN TO ATTACK AL QAEDA -- UNTIL IT WAS TOO LATE
Draft Presidential Directive to Eliminate al Qaeda Approved By National Security Principals Sept. 4, 2001 — One Week Before 9/11
Plan Developed in Last Days of Clinton Administration, Presented to Bush Administration in January 2001
Proposals Were "Everything We’ve Done Since 9/11"
New York – A bold plan for the U.S. to attack al Qaeda was delayed by a Bush administration "policy review process" and was approved just a week before September 11, a TIME special report reveals. The plan, developed in the last days of the Clinton administration, was passed along to the Bush administration in January 2001 by Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and Richard Clarke, a career bureaucrat who had served in the first Bush administration and risen during the Clinton years to become the White House’s point man on terrorism. In the words of a senior Bush administration official, the proposals amounted to "everything we’ve done since 9/11."
TIME’s special report offers the fullest account of how ambitious the plan was, and how the Bush administration delayed the plan.
On Dec. 20, 2000, Clarke presented a strategy paper to Berger and the other national security "principals." But Berger and the principals decided to shelve the plan and let the next administration take it up. With less than a month left in office, they did not think it appropriate to launch a major initiative against Osama bin Laden. "We would be handing [the Bush Administration] a war when they took office on Jan. 20," says a former senior Clinton aide. "That wasn’t going to happen." "If we hadn’t had a transition," says a senior Clinton Administration official, "probably in late October or early November 2000, we would have had [the plan to go on the offensive] as a presidential directive." Now it was up to Rice’s team to consider what Clarke had put together.
The plan became a victim of the transition process, turf wars and time spent on the pet policies of new top officials. The Bush administration chose to institute its own "policy review process" on the terrorist threat. Clarke told TIME that the review moved "as fast as could be expected." And Administration officials insist that by the time the review was endorsed by the Bush principals on Sept. 4, it was more aggressive than anything contemplated the previous winter. The final plan, they say, was designed not to "roll back" al-Qaeda but to "eliminate" it, TIME reports.
By last summer, many of those in the know—the spooks, the buttoned-down bureaucrats, the law-enforcement professionals in a dozen countries—were almost frantic with worry that a major terrorist attack against American interests was imminent. And in a bureaucratic squabble, nobody in Washington could decide whether a Predator drone—the best possible source of real intelligence on what was happening in the terror camps—should be sent to fly over Afghanistan. So the Predator sat idle from October 2000 until after Sept. 11, TIME reports.
TIME’s Special Report also reveals:
ˇ Berger wanted Ground Troops: On Nov. 7, 2000, Berger met with William Cohen, then Secretary of Defense, in the Pentagon. Berger wanted "boots on the ground"—U.S. special ops forces deployed inside Afghanistan on a search-and-destroy mission targeting bin Laden. Cohen said he would look at the idea, but he and General Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were dead set against it. They feared a repeat of Desert One, the 1980 fiasco when special ops commandos crashed in Iran during an abortive mission to rescue American hostages.
ˇ Bush official denies being handed a formal plan: A senior Bush Administration official denies being handed a formal plan to take the offensive against al-Qaeda, and says Clarke’s materials merely dealt with whether the new Administration should take "a more active approach" to the terrorist group. (Rice declined to comment, but through a spokeswoman said she recalled no briefing at which Berger was present.) Other senior officials from both the Clinton and Bush administrations dispute that account, saying that Clarke had a set of proposals to "roll back" al-Qaeda. In fact, the heading on Slide 14 of the Powerpoint presentation reads, "Response to al Qaeda: Roll back."
ˇ Clinton frustrated: By early 2000, Clinton was becoming infuriated by the lack of intelligence on bin Laden’s movements. "We’ve got to do better than this," he scribbled on one memo. "This is unsatisfactory."
ˇ Submarines were ready to attack bin Laden: For all of 2000, Clinton ordered two U.S. Navy submarines to stay on station in the northern Arabian sea, ready to attack bin Laden if his coordinates could be determined, sources tell TIME.
ˇ CIA attempted to recruit tribal leaders in Afghanistan: The CIA attempted to recruit tribal leaders in Afghanistan who might be persuaded to take on bin Laden; contingency plans had been made for the CIA to fly one of its planes to a desert landing strip in Afghanistan if he was ever captured. (Clinton had signed presidential "findings" that were ambiguous on the question of whether bin Laden could be killed in such an attack.)
ˇ Plans to capture bin Laden tied up in politics: After the U.S.S. Cole was bombed, the secretive Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., drew up plans to have Delta Force members swoop into Afghanistan and grab bin Laden. But the warriors were never given the go-ahead; the Clinton Administration did not order an American retaliation for the attack. In fact, despite strong suspicion that bin Laden was behind the attack in Yemen, the CIA and FBI had not officially concluded that he was, and would be unable to do so before Clinton left office. That made it politically impossible for Clinton to strike—especially given the upcoming election and his own lack of credibility on national security. "If we had done anything, say, two weeks before the election, we’d be accused of helping Al Gore," a former senior Clinton aide told TIME.