The World: Passing the Laugh Test; Pentagon Planners Give New Meaning to 'Over the Top'

Published: September 20, 1998

IT was a military plan of staggering dimensions, designed by the Pentagon to be so over-the-top that it would never gain the approval of the President of the United States.

Inside the Reagan White House in 1985, mounting evidence of Libya's support for anti-American terrorism had created something akin to panic, and calls went out for dramatic action.

So planners in the Pentagon went into overdrive to offer the Middle Eastern equivalent of the Normandy invasion. The military told the National Security Council it would require a ground invasion by at least a couple of Army divisions, with support from several of the Navy's prized carrier battle groups -- and an alliance with the Egyptian military thrown in for good measure.

The 1985 invasion of Libya would now be in the lesson plans of every high school history teacher in America if it had actually taken place. Instead, the stillborn invasion is a classic example of Washington's propensity to gin up contingency plans for seemingly otherworldly operations that never get the green light.

Indeed, there is a permanent infrastructure in the United States national security apparatus that does nothing but plan for every conceivable crisis, often with little or no hope that the plans will be taken seriously by senior policy-makers or the President.

No Cowboys Here

So when the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon considered a high-risk raid into Afghanistan to capture Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile believed to be the mastermind behind the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug. 7, their planning efforts hardly represented a rogue operation by cowboys in the Pentagon's basement.

''Some of the problems you face are really hard, and sometimes people stretch to figure out how to solve them,'' observed a former Central Intelligence Agency Director, Robert M. Gates.

In the end, whether such radical plans ever get the green light depends on the grim calculus of risk versus reward -- the possible cost in American soldiers' lives versus the opportunity to take out a terrorist bent on killing American civilians. Above all, it depends on the will of the President.

In the case of the scheme to abduct Mr. bin Laden, the plan never even reached President Clinton. Instead, it was shelved by the Director of Central Intelligence, George J. Tenet, and other senior officials.

Few Presidents have been willing to accept the risks of giving the go-ahead to acts of derring-do by American commandos except in times of war or when other options have been exhausted. Indeed, the specter of past failures, from the botched 1980 mission to rescue the hostages in Iran to the bloody 1993 ambush of United States Army Rangers on a mission to capture a local warlord in Somalia, haunt the planners of new covert missions and the policy-makers who consider them.

Yet in almost every international crisis, a wide array of contingency plans -- including the kind of aggressive military actions that would startle the public if it were known they were under discussion -- are roughed out by military and intelligence planners. Sometimes, the planning is done simply to sketch out all options for the President and his senior advisers, and to highlight the possible consequences of aggressive action.

Often, the plans are so out of the range of possibility that they are not even presented to senior policy makers, let alone the President.

''Sometimes people will say this is a great plan, but we're not even going to run it up the flagpole,'' said one former senior intelligence official.