US planned to hit bin Laden ahead of September 11
By David Rennie in Washington
America had detailed plans to "roll back" al-Qa'eda and capture Osama bin Laden a year before the September 11 attacks, it was reported yesterday.
But no action was taken, first by Bill Clinton as president, then by the incoming administration, amid political and bureaucratic squabbles.
The plans were finally approved a week before September 11, after a lengthy policy review ordered by President George W Bush, Time magazine reported yesterday. One senior official acknowledged that the proposals inherited from the Clinton administration amounted to "everything we've done since" September 11.
The plans included sending US special forces to Afghanistan on a "search and destroy" mission for bin Laden, and attempts by the CIA to recruit tribal leaders to attack the al-Qa'eda chief.
Under the Clinton era plan, military assistance was to be offered to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and terrorist camps would be struck from the air.
Globally, al-Qa'eda members would be targeted for arrest, while assets linked to fake Islamic charities would be seized.
Throughout 2000, two US submarines hid in the northern Arabian sea, ready to attack bin Laden with cruise missiles, if he could be found.
However, the Pentagon and CIA argued over who controlled the unmanned Predator spy plane needed to survey Afghanistan and squabbled about whether it should or should not fly with missiles. As a result, the Predator was grounded until after September 11.
If it had not been for the 2000 election, and the drawn-out White House transition process unique to the United States, the plan would have been given the green light as a "presidential directive" as early as late October 2000, one Clinton official said.
There is considerable dispute among senior officials over the nature of the plans bequeathed to the incoming team. Some Bush officials insist that they were handed only vague urgings to take action on al-Qa'eda.
There appears to be a consensus that domestic political considerations stalled and side-tracked the campaign against bin Laden.
A final strategy paper was handed to Sandy Berger, Mr Clinton's national security adviser, on Dec 20, 2000, a month before Mr Bush was due to take office, but the plan was shelved for the new president to consider.
"We would be handing [the Bush administration] a war when they took office. That wasn't going to happen," a senior Clinton official said.
Messier political considerations also intruded. Mr Clinton was already considered notorious for linking national security to domestic politics, notably after he launched a failed cruise missile attack against al-Qa'eda targets in Afghanistan and the Yemen at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
After the bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemen in October 2000, Mr Clinton rejected plans for members of the SAS-style Delta Force to swoop on bin Laden, for fear of being charged with political opportunism. "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.
The Clinton administration also feared a disaster like the failure of the 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages from Teheran.