True Spies Episode 134, The Bin Laden Files Part 2: Take the Shot
NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia Di Martino and this is True Spies from SPYSCAPE Studios.
PETER BERGEN: There's no debate that the best moment that came to potentially kill bin Laden was when he was on a hunting trip. And so there was a great debate between the White House, led by Richard Clarke, who was the counterterrorism coordinator, and Michael Scheuer on the other side, saying, “Look, we should take the shot.”
NARRATOR: February 1999. Osama bin Laden is already responsible for attacks on US targets in Africa which killed over 200 people. American intelligence has been tracking him for nearly three years now. And this hunting trip is their best opportunity so far to take him out.
PETER BERGEN: They went out to a remote part of the Kandahari desert. And bin Laden visited the hunting camp and was there for a week.
NARRATOR: A furious debate rages in the White House. Is it worth the risk? Bin Laden isn’t there alone after all. Should they take the shot or outsource the assassination to the locals?
GINA BENNETT: There's the option of, “Well, what if we ask one of the local groups that are still fighting the Taliban from the north in particular, what if they should go in and try to render bin Laden to justice?”
NARRATOR: In this, the second part of our examination of how Osama bin Laden became the world’s most infamous terrorist, we’ll hear more about the opportunities America had to take him out - and prevent the biggest attack on US soil - and why they weren’t taken.
TRACEY WALDER: We have to remember, we weren't in a war on terror at that time. And that is, in a way, declaring war on another country.
NARRATOR: We’ll get inside the mind of the world’s most wanted man. What was he thinking? How did he operate? And how was he perceived?
PETER BERGEN: There were a bunch of polls and it showed that in countries around the Middle East bin Laden was regarded as sort of a heroic figure, a sort of Robin Hood figure, the pied piper of jihad. He had a certain romance about him.
NARRATOR: By 1996, Osama bin Laden had been kicked out of Sudan - the second time he had been exiled. But on this occasion not by an elitist regime like Saudi Arabia, but by a man who bin Laden loved dearly - Sudan’s de-facto leader Hassan Al-Turabi. Broken both emotionally and financially, bin Laden returns to Afghanistan, hell-bent on revenge against the Americans, the people he feels are ultimately responsible for both humiliations.
PETER BERGEN: When he arrived in Jalalabad, it was an area controlled by an old jihadist buddy of his by the name of Yunus Khalis. And so Khalis gave him a very substantial house on the outskirts of Jalalabad and then offered him a mountain that bin Laden used as a summer home. And bin Laden rejoiced in living the life of a medieval peasant in the Tora Bora mountains.
NARRATOR: This is Peter Begen, the former CNN journalist who arranged bin Laden’s first-ever television interview. The Afghanistan bin Laden returned to in 96’ was very different from the one he left as a hero following the Soviet-Afghan war. His mentor during that war, Abdullah Azzam, was gone - assassinated in Peshawar on his way to preach at a local mosque. And there was a new outfit that had taken over much of Afghanistan. They were called ‘the students’, or the Taliban.
GINA BENNETT: The Taliban was a new phenomenon for him to have to deal with. They didn't know who he was. I mean, I can imagine for someone who already is a narcissist and has already had their worldview challenged twice, this was probably an extreme moment that shaped his forward thinking.
NARRATOR: This is Gina Bennett, a CIA counterterrorism analyst for over 30 years. Bennett wrote the first intelligence memo warning of the potential dangers of Afghan Arab veterans like bin Laden back in ‘93. By ‘96 she had written another one.
GINA BENNETT: My concern with the 1996 move back to Afghanistan was number one, maybe I was doing a bit too much personality analysis at the time but recognize now that he's been rejected twice; that he was going back to a place where he had felt victorious, going back to the birthplace of modern jihad. And just the continued chaos and uncertainty and conflict in Afghanistan which is so easy for terrorist groups to take advantage of places like that.
NARRATOR: By 1993, Islamist militants had set off a truck bomb at the World Trade Centre in New York City. The plan failed to topple the buildings, but killed six people and injured over 1,000 more. Despite events like this though, counterterrorism analysts like Gina were still not listened to as much as you might think.
GINA BENNETT: It's worth going back and noting that I think a lot of folks in Congress wanted to do away with the CIA. What was the point of all this intelligence-gathering now that the Cold War was over and peace was breaking out and democracy was booming all over the world? We don't really need us anymore. And a lot of things are being unfunded. So just sort of an uphill battle all over the place.
NARRATOR: In the face of this existential crisis, the CIA took action. It set up the ‘Bin Laden Issue Station’, the first intelligence desk in US history devised to focus on just one individual, a new type of approach for a new type of enemy.
GINA BENNETT: We are still not entirely clear as to what we're dealing with in terms of non-state sponsors. We're used to operating in a very nation-to-nation, state-to-state type of way.
NARRATOR: Before that, terrorism was largely handled out of each field office, wherever any intelligence or suspect appeared. But that was a problem when dealing with an organization like al-Qaeda where cells often operated independently of the leadership across a multitude of countries.
GINA BENNETT: We have to have a unified, dedicated capability to do that kind of tracking. And that more than anything else was the brilliance of ‘Alec Station’.
NARRATOR: Alec Station. The nickname of the Bin Laden Issue Station. It was coined by its head, Michael Scheuer, who had just had a son called Alec. A fellow counterterrorism expert, Scheuer shared Gina’s concern about the growing threat from Islamic fundamentalists, especially bin Laden.
PETER BERGEN: He was not somebody who would take no for an answer. He would routinely arrive at CIA headquarters at 3:30 am to start working.
NARRATOR: Scheuer mostly recruited women to his team, thinking them better analysts. But also, there just weren’t that many people interested in counterterrorism at that time.
PETER BERGEN: The CIA saw counterterrorism as a backwater and the big guys were on Russia and China. And so, counterterrorism was not a particularly popular field for people to go into, relatively speaking.
NARRATOR: Long before 9/11, Scheuer was convinced that al-Qaeda would eventually kill thousands of civilians if not stopped. But outside of the station’s office, Scheuer and his team had soon garnered a nickname - The Manson Family - for their supposedly crazy predictions about the threat of Islamist terror. Gina Bennett, however, had a gut feeling bin Laden wasn’t issuing empty threats.
GINA BENNETT: The number one commonality of terrorist leaders is narcissism. So they have a tendency to actually state what they're going to do because they want to be aggrandized. They want to be mythological legends.
NARRATOR: Immediately after landing back in Afghanistan in ‘96, an aggrieved bin Laden does just that - declaring war on the United States. al-Qaeda sent a copy of the declaration to their man in London, who in turn forwarded it to the editor of one of the few independent Arab news outlets at that time - Al-Quds Al-Arabi. The paper published the declaration in full. But still, Gina and her colleagues were largely alone in thinking it was a problem.
GINA BENNETT: For those of us who are tracking bin Laden, it was a legitimate declaration of war. And on the policy side, there are a lot of people who received that as a declaration of “What? Well, nobody would really do that, right? Like you're not going to declare war and then actually go attack somebody because now you've told everybody what you're going to do and then we're going to know it was you.” And so for them, it was ‘this is just talk’.
NARRATOR: But there are some who notice Gina’s memo, including CNN producer Peter Bergen.
PETER BERGEN: I went to my bosses at CNN, and said bin Laden might be the guy who's responsible for the Trade Center attack in ‘93. They, of course, had never heard of bin Laden, but they said, “Fine, go ahead and try and get an interview with him.”
NARRATOR: By this point, bin Laden had finally met with the Taliban.
PETER BERGEN: Bin Laden was a little worried about how they might receive him.
NARRATOR: Not because of any real ideological differences, but simply due to them being a new, unknown quantity to bin Laden.
PETER BERGEN: But it turned out that they were just delighted. And they sent in these high-level delegations saying, ‘We worship the ground you walk on and you're wonderful and we welcome you.’ And bin Laden used that relationship pretty adeptly because now you had a cadre regime that was extremely enthusiastic about welcoming him.
NARRATOR: Having forged a bond with the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar, bin Laden was now well protected in Afghanistan and surrounded by a small Army. Peter knows that meeting with bin Laden is inherently dangerous, especially as an American. Once, upon meeting a BBC journalist during the Soviet-Afghan war, bin Laden had offered a local truck driver $500 to kill him simply for being a westerner. Undeterred, Peter travels to London to meet with one of bin Laden’s associates. There is competition from the BBC and other Western outlets for the interview but al-Qaeda wanted the widest reach possible - especially in America. After several months of negotiations, the interview was agreed. CNN had the exclusive.
PETER BERGEN: Myself and Peter Arnett, the correspondent, and Peter Juvenal, the cameraman, travel to Afghanistan with two of bin Laden's associates.
NARRATOR: First they land in Islamabad, Pakistan, before traveling via the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan itself, the same journey bin Laden himself had taken many times.
PETER BERGEN: We checked into the zero-star hotel in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. We waited around for days and then at some point, bin Laden's media advisor showed up.
NARRATOR: Almost immediately there are difficulties.
PETER BERGEN: They were very concerned about a tracking device in our equipment. Now, we had bought probably $50,000 worth of equipment in 1997 - $50,000, a lot of very sophisticated equipment. And they said, “Don't bring any of that with you.” And that was clearly not up for discussion.
NARRATOR: Peter and his team are also told to leave everything else except the clothes they’re wearing. Eventually, a van pulls up at their hotel full of several heavily armed men.
PETER BERGEN: They told us to get in. We were at a certain point blindfolded with two crude blindfolds. We were searched. At one point, they said, “Now's the time to tell us if you have a tracking device. Otherwise, it's going to be a problem later.” And clearly, the problem later would be a swift execution.
NARRATOR: Satisfied that they’re not wearing a tracking device, bin Laden’s men drive Peter and his colleagues up into the mountains.
PETER BERGEN: It wasn't really a road. It was like the bed of a stream that we had met higher and higher. And I think I estimate it was like 6,000 feet up. I estimated it was around midnight. And then we waited and we were given some kind of goat curry or something, some kind of local food. And suddenly out of the dark appeared bin Laden.
NARRATOR: Osama bin Laden sits down and leans his AK against the wall - a weapon he tells Peter he took from a Soviet soldier he had killed.
PETER BERGEN: I didn't even really know what he looked like. And it turned out he was 6’4”. He was rail thin, carried himself like a cleric. He was polite. He was sipping a lot of tea.
NARRATOR: Smiling at Peter and his colleagues, bin Laden tells them to ask their questions. Peter’s colleague hits record on the Sony Handycam Hi8 Camcorders bin Laden’s men have given them to film the interview.
PETER BERGEN: He spoke in a monotone. He spoke very low-key. He didn't come off as angry, even though his words were full of anger against the United States. He delivered an impassioned critique of the United States, a critique based on American foreign policy in the Middle East.
NARRATOR: Despite living in a cave, Peter realizes he’s speaking with a man still on the pulse of world events.
PETER BERGEN: At one point he said words to the effect of “Who are you calling a terrorist?” Gerry Adams had just visited Bill Clinton in the White House. And of course, he had been one of the leaders of the IRA. And so bin Laden, there are not a lot of Arabs who know who Gerry Adams is. And the fact that he knew that, he could mention it, I thought was interesting.
NARRATOR: At the end of the interview, Peter’s team asks one final question, “What are your future plans?” Bin Laden smiles again, then replies, “You’ll see them and hear about them in the media. God willing.” It is the first television interview bin Laden has ever given. One of bin Laden’s men turns to Peter and hands him the tape. Soon after they are escorted back down the mountain to Jalalabad. Within a few days, Peter is back in the US cutting the footage for broadcast. In May 1997 a 20-minute piece runs on CNN. But despite declaring war on America on American television, nobody notices. Peter suspects he knows why.
PETER BERGEN: This guy seems very serious. Yet sitting in Afghanistan, which at that time was probably the most backward country in the world in terms of its connection to the outside world, the Taliban had turned it back to the Middle Ages. There was no Internet. There was no TV. And here was bin Laden declaring war on the United States, which was 6,000 miles away. So how do you attack the United States from literally the other end of the world?
NARRATOR: Less than a year after the interview, in February 1998, bin Laden co-signed a Fatwa declaring it the individual duty of every Muslim to kill Americans everywhere and anywhere. And yet, there was still an incredulous atmosphere in much of Washington about the genuine threat from al-Qaeda. Up until this point, much of the analysis of terrorists centered on a famous phrase - that they wanted a lot of people watching but not a lot of people dying.
PETER BERGEN: And the reason they want a lot of people watching is they want to broadcast, obviously, their political grievances, but they don't want a lot of people dying because that might turn off any kind of residual sympathy somebody might have for this group.
NARRATOR: Having been exiled twice though, bin Laden’s hatred of the US now drove him to form a new terrorist philosophy.
PETER BERGEN: Bin Laden reversed that, he wanted a lot of people dying and a lot of people watching. And that was new for terrorist groups.
NARRATOR: Most US policymakers didn’t grasp this new philosophy except for Alec Station, the unit set up to focus specifically on bin Laden. It was drawing up plans to ‘render’ bin Laden - a CIA euphemism for kidnapping. One of these plans was codenamed TRODPINT. Under the plan, the CIA redeveloped relations with various Afghan tribal leaders it had supported against the Soviets. Thirty of these militia were employed by the Agency to track bin Laden and assess the viability of ‘rendering’ him.
PETER BERGEN: They certainly tracked him to his Tarnak Farm on occasion.
NARRATOR: Tarnak Farm. By mid-1997 bin Laden’s operations were based out of the farm, a 100-acre former Soviet agricultural compound in Kandahar, Afghanistan, gifted to him by Taliban leader Mullah Omar. TRODPINT had designs on infiltrating the site late at night and extracting bin Laden to a cave outside the area. There, US Special Forces would later rendezvous with the militia unit and render bin Laden back to the US. But raiding Tarnak Farm was a risky proposal.
PETER BERGEN: Three hundred people were living there at any given moment but bin Laden was a hard target in the sense that he had three wives that he was sort of circulating between every night. So it wasn't clear which wife he was sleeping with each night. He was somewhat careful about his security. He would move around the country. Bin Laden had long been really paranoid. Dogs are supposed to be unclean if you're a very observant Muslim. But he got some dogs to bump up his security.
NARRATOR: Nevertheless, on May 5, 1998, Alec Station head Scheuer received a cable stating that the rendition plan was going well, before caveating that, “Still, the odds are iffy, as with any special ops raid of this type.” Eventually, the plan was presented to Richard Clarke, President Clinton’s counterterrorism czar. The CIA also presented Clarke with its calculation that TRODPINT had a 30 percent chance of success. Clarke rejected the idea almost immediately. On May 28, 1998, Alec Station was ordered to stand down the operation. Scheuer was incensed. Unknown to the CIA at the time, it was one of two near misses for bin Laden during this period. Only a few weeks after TRODPINT was nixed, the head of the Saudi intelligence service, Prince Turki [bin Nasser Al Saud] met personally with the Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Turki was the man bin Laden had proposed his idea of fighting Saddam Hussein to back in ‘91. By 1998, the Saudis had had enough of bin Laden’s continued criticism of the regime.
PETER BERGEN: He played on the fact that there were plenty of people who thought that the Saudi Royal Family was corrupt and authoritarian, inept.
NARRATOR: The Saudis wanted to put him on trial for treason - a sentence which carried the death penalty. Turki met with Omar to discuss the idea of handing over bin Laden. Omar was open to it. He too was getting fed up with the heat bin Laden was attracting to the country. Omar even sent a senior Taliban official to Saudi Arabia to finalize the details of the handover so bin Laden went on the charm offensive.
PETER BERGEN: Bin Laden speaks a very classical Arabic. He was a well-educated guy. He fancied himself a poet. And he would speak in poetic language. He even declaimed poetry. He appealed. He would talk. He would cite religious authorities.
NARRATOR: The tall, well-educated war veteran from the Holy Land ran rings around Mullah Omar, a one-eyed cleric who had never left Afghanistan.
PETER BERGEN: He himself was not a religious authority, but he would cite famous Muslim jurists. He talked about Khorasan, which is the word that the people used for the area that incorporates Afghanistan and Iran at the time of the Prophet Mohammed. So use all these terms that were very evocative and romantic. And he seemed to have an answer to the problems of the Muslim world.
NARRATOR: Eventually he convinced Omar to let him stay in Afghanistan. It was God’s will, he said. Just over two months later it was clear what bin Laden’s will really was. On the morning of August 7, 1998, two truck bombs went off at the entrance to the US Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Over 200 people died, 12 of them Americans.
PETER BERGEN: That demonstrated that al-Qaeda was a group of global reach, considerable ambitions, considerable abilities, and also no compunction about killing civilians. So this was really kind of a new development in terrorism.
NARRATOR: The date of the bombings was no coincidence. It was the eighth anniversary of US troops being deployed in Saudi Arabia, a seminal date in bin Laden’s story. Gina Bennett, the woman who first warned of the potential threat from bin Laden back in ‘93, was on maternity leave. After seeing the news she rushed to CIA headquarters - with her one-month-old daughter.
GINA BENNETT: The immediate aftermath is chaotic, right? The first thing that we are always trying to do is see if there are more attacks coming. When an attack occurs, we never think that's the end. We're not afforded that luxury. You have to imagine or anticipate additional attacks.
NARRATOR: Meanwhile, President Clinton was holed up at Martha’s Vineyard in the midst of the Lewinksy affair. Officials brief him on intelligence that bin Laden is expected to be at an al-Qaeda training camp in Khost, eastern Afghanistan, the next day. Clinton personally orders the strike, codenamed Operation Infinite Reach. Over 30 people were killed, but not bin Laden. The intel on his whereabouts was incorrect. His actual location? Unknown. The White House responds by strengthening counterterrorism operations. There’s an influx of money, personnel, and resources. But for Gina, there’s already a feeling that she and her colleagues’ jobs have just become near impossible to do.
GINA BENNETT: Because by this point, bin Laden also knows that he's a marked man. He has had his opening salvo, so to speak, and he now knows that he's an enemy of the United States. So in terms of his own safety and security, his family and his organization, they're all taking that much more seriously. And that's because they're a small group that's able to be much more honest and fluid and flexible and moving and things like this to make it even harder to track somebody in real-time.
NARRATOR: By now bin Laden had avoided being kidnapped by CIA-sponsored Afghan warriors, extradited by the Saudis, and killed by US missile strikes. But he wasn’t out of the woods yet. In December 1998, George Tenet, the director of the CIA, declared ‘war’ on bin Laden, ordering Alec Station to redouble its efforts to find and kill him. And then, in February 1999, the CIA got its best chance yet.
PETER BERGEN: There's no debate that the best moment that came to potentially kill bin Laden was when he was on a hunting trip.
NARRATOR: Deep in the Kandahari desert, bin Laden broke from his usual pattern of never remaining in the same place for more than 24 hours. He did so to continually visit the same hunting camp for a rare game bird called a ‘bustard’. The CIA had even managed to plant an asset at the camp itself, who notified his handlers whenever bin Laden arrived and left. This was crucial live intel. Back in 1999, there were no drones. Any missile strike would take several hours to reach its target, and usually a few days to be greenlit before that. Knowing where bin Laden was going to be throughout that timeframe was therefore essential.
PETER BERGEN: And so there was a great debate between the White House, led by Richard Clarke, and Michael Scheuer on the other side, saying, “Look, we should take the shot,” because, at the end of the day, that kind of operation has to be authorized by the White House.
NARRATOR: Richard Clarke then takes a closer look at the satellite pictures of the camp. In the corner of the shot, he spots a C-130, a military transport aircraft. Clearly, someone at the camp was a big player. Someone important. Examining the imagery further, the aircraft’s livery - its markings - showed this was an Emirati plane. Immediately, Clarke recoiled.
PETER BERGEN: Dick Clark's point of view was, “What If bin Laden wasn't there and you incinerated a number of Princes in the Royal Family of the United Arab Emirates?”
NARRATOR: And so, again, a mission to eliminate Osama bin Laden is called off. Clarke deems the potential collateral damage as simply too high.
PETER BERGEN: And Mike Scheuer was very angry and disappointed that these operations were called off because he always felt like thousands of Americans could die if this guy wasn't taken off the battlefield with some kind of military operation.
NARRATOR: Meanwhile, bin Laden’s message was both growing ever more aggressive, and gaining ever more traction.
PETER BERGEN: His calls for war against the Saudi regime and against the United States were couched in religious language saying that it was religiously okay to kill as many American civilians as possible because they themselves were complicit in this American foreign policy because they were funding it through American taxes.
NARRATOR: This was a very different man from the one back in 1991. Remember how bin Laden had authorized a hit on the Afghan King? Then he stipulated that no children were to be killed, saying, we are “good Muslims.” That man had hardened.
PETER BERGEN: But bin Laden didn't need to appeal to everybody in the Muslim world or more than 1.5 billion Muslims. If like, less than 0.1% thought that he was talking some truth, that's a large number of people.
NARRATOR: But there was another reason for the White House’s caution in launching strikes. In May 1999 the US was bombing enemy targets in Kosovo, Eastern Europe. Incredibly, American planes mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade as part of the campaign. The notion of dishing up more strikes was becoming simply unpalatable to many US politicians and policymakers.
GINA BENNETT: There's a lot of debate around this. It's not clear what is the best choice and I can appreciate how difficult a precedent it would be to actually be the person who decides to preemptively assassinate someone. It's easy enough now with hindsight and 9/11 for us to think that way. But we've lost embassies before the African embassy bombings occurred and we didn't go around and decide to assassinate people. It was a very difficult period of trying to figure out what to do. There was just no good option.
NARRATOR: While the CIA and the White House grappled with the issue, and each other, bin Laden was forging ahead with plans for further attacks. And these plans were growing ever more ambitious. In the spring of 1999, bin Laden summoned one of his followers, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to Kandahar. There Mohammed pledges loyalty to bin Laden, but he also has an idea. He proposes that al-Qaeda members should fly small planes packed with explosives into the World Trade Center. Bin Laden is not impressed, suggesting a bolder plan using large jet engine passenger planes instead. “Why use an ax when you can use a bulldozer?” He says. The plan is agreed and bin Laden tells his followers that there will soon be an event that will turn the world upside down. And with the millennium approaching, Gina Bennett and her colleagues start to piece together intelligence around plots to attack the new year celebrations in America.
GINA BENNETT: There are just these indicators that there is something going on. What we think we're looking at is something on the scale of the 1998 embassy bombings. We just don't know what or where. But it does seem to be very Millennium-focused. And now we are pressing even more so, saying, “Hey, this is real.”
NARRATOR: As the New Year approached, several plots were foiled and in the US and elsewhere, the millennium is ushered in without so much as a glitch. But for Gina, that was almost the entire problem.
GINA BENNETT: That period of time when nothing happened around the millennium probably was the single biggest detrimental mental context, concept, thing that happened to go into the run-up to 9/11 because now you're in all of 2000 and into 2001 and we have a reputation of ‘over-warning’.
NARRATOR: In many people’s eyes, Gina and her colleagues have now fully lived up to their reputation as the Manson Family - crazed individuals obsessed with one man - even after al-Qaeda attacked the USS Cole, a 500-ft missile-guided US destroyer in Yemen. Seventeen American sailors died in a blast that left a hole the size of a house in the reinforced steel hull of the Cole. But again, no response.
GINA BENNETT: As distorted as this might seem, it, I think, made some people more comfortable because the Cole's a warship. Right? Is not an embassy. It's not millennium celebrations or parties or things like that.
NARRATOR: After another inconclusive meeting at the White House, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator leaned toward Richard Clarke and said: “Who the s*** do they think attacked the Cole? F***ing Martians?” Before adding a line that would prove prescient: “Does al-Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon to get their attention?” After seemingly crying wolf over the millennium celebrations, Gina says that she and her colleagues' continued warnings of further civilian attacks now appeared hysterical.
GINA BENNETT: There's a lot of pushback, right? Because there's well, “You warned about this in 1999. Nothing happened. He just conducted the attack on the Cole, a US warship. Now, why are we making this leap to something spectacular or back to just civilian casualties?” For a lot of people, it didn't make sense and for us, it was an uphill battle. It really was an uphill battle.
NARRATOR: And by January 2001, there’s a new administration in the White House.
PETER BERGEN: Don't forget, the George W Bush administration came into office with a bunch of Cold War veterans, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz. These were a group of people who just didn't understand the threat from al-Qaeda, didn't really believe it. Paul Wolfowitz at one point said, “Let's stop talking about this guy bin Laden.”
NARRATOR: As 2001 progressed, the system was starting to blink red.
GINA BENNETT: And blinking red in the form of an attack in the United States itself.
NARRATOR: By the summer of that year a blizzard of memos was landing on President Bush’s desk, warning of the threat of al-Qaeda.
GINA BENNETT: The CIA, the warning community made it very clear what our stance was and what our concerns were.
NARRATOR: A now infamous memo was presented to Bush at his Texas ranch in the August of 2001. Its title? Bin Laden determined to strike in the US. By this point, even some of Osama bin Laden’s followers had asked him to tone down his public announcements for fear they would alert the Americans. But still, Bush did not break off his vacation, the longest by a President in over 30 years. And ultimately the CIA could do very little if its warnings went unheeded, as Peter notes.
PETER BERGEN: People have this impression that the CIA is a paramilitary organization that's involved in drone strikes and planning operations on the ground to kill people. Well, that is what happened after 9/11. But before 9/11, the real purpose of the CIA was to provide strategic warnings to policymakers so they can make policy decisions in an informed way. A more current example, the CIA said very clearly that Putin is going to invade Ukraine and they said it multiple different ways. That's what the CIA is supposed to do. And in the run-up to 9/11, they actually did provide the strategic warning very clearly. And the policymakers just didn't listen.
NARRATOR: Soon after the change in administration even Richard Clarke, the man who nixed several previous strikes on bin Laden, is getting concerned.
PETER BERGEN: Dick Clarke has a famous scene where he's briefing Condoleezza Rice, the new national security advisor. He uses the term ‘al-Qaida’ and you could tell from her face and body language she had no idea what the hell he was talking about.
NARRATOR: But the CIA did, in hindsight, make one fatal mistake. It failed to notify the FBI that in 2000 a certain two individuals had entered the United States. Two individuals that the FBI had been concerned about for several years. They were living freely in America.
PETER BERGEN: And they were living there under their true names.
NARRATOR: They were even listed in the phone book.
PETER BERGEN: And they only communicated that information to the FBI at the end of August 2001. And that was a really big tactical mistake. It wasn't a strategic mistake. They should have informed the FBI. They didn't. That was a big screw-up.
NARRATOR: On September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden woke up early to say his morning prayers. He tuned into BBC Arabic and waited. By late afternoon Afghanistan time he’s heard that two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center. But not only that. The towers have collapsed. Bin Laden could barely believe it.
PETER BERGEN: He thought it would only collapse the towers above the point of impact of the jets. He didn't know that the entire buildings were going to collapse. So even bin Laden was surprised by how many people perished in that building.
NARRATOR: And not only the Twin Towers but the Pentagon too. And those two individuals that the CIA didn’t communicate to the FBI? They were two of the hijackers on American Airlines Flight 77 that flew into the Pentagon on 9/11. Never again would Gina Bennett and her colleagues be viewed with suspicion for their unheeded warnings. The Manson Family nickname resigned to history’s rubbish dump. But sometimes when the stakes are this high being right is the last thing anyone wants.
GINA BENNETT: I think we judge ourselves extremely harshly. And what I've always found ironic is, on the one hand here we are saying 'systems blinking red'. And the 9/11 Commission report condemns analysts for not being compelling enough. And yet at the same time, on the other side, we're always being accused of imagining this. “This is all in your head. You've made a boogeyman, is a mountain out of a molehill.” So it's a non-winning endeavor. Everybody is going to argue with you. Everyone. And the additional irony is that you actually want to be proven wrong. There would be nothing better than to be proven wrong.
NARRATOR: Osama bin Laden is celebrated as something like a God among his followers for his great victory on 9/11.
PETER BERGEN: Which was arguably one of the [biggest] events of American history. This is one of the few people who really changed history, Napoleon changed history. Hitler changed history. Now, bin Laden is not Hitler or Napoleon. But he certainly is one of the few people we can say in the post-World War II era who actually changed history by his decisions and his actions.
NARRATOR: But he’s also made himself a target. After 9/11 he is the World’s Most Wanted man. And he is shocked by America’s response.
PETER BERGEN: The worst thing in life is to believe your own propaganda. And he really believed that the United States was a paper tiger. But, of course, it was a terrible miscalculation.
NARRATOR: Next time on True Spies: The bin Laden Files, the hunt is on.
TRACEY WALDER: After September 11, the focus became toward the elimination of the threat.
NARRATOR: Bin Laden is now trying to outmaneuver the greatest superpower the world has ever known.
PETER BERGEN: The American bombing begins on October 7, the largest, longest aerial assault in American history.
NARRATOR: And manage morale in his troops when everyone knows they’ve got a gun pointing at their heads.
PETER BERGEN: These guys were getting literally bombed to bits. And bin Laden, it certainly seemed to affect him psychologically. He wrote a will. He told his kids not to join al-Qaeda in the will. He knew that his organization had sort of at best dispersed while many of them had been killed.
NARRATOR: That’s next time on True Spies. I’m Sophia Di Martino. Join us next week for the final episode of True Spies: The bin Laden Files. Or subscribe to SPYSCAPE Plus to listen to part three, right now. Sign up for early access and bonus content on Apple Podcasts now.
Peter Bergen is a journalist, author, documentary producer and Vice President for Global Studies and Fellows at New America; a professor of practice at Arizona State University; a fellow at Fordham University’s Center on National Security and CNN’s national security analyst.
Gina Bennett, a former member of CIA’s Senior Analytic Service, is a counterterrorism specialist who authored the earliest warnings of some of today's terrorism trends, including the 1993 report that warned of the growing danger ofbin Laden
Tracy Walder worked as Staff Operations Officer (SOO) at the Central Intelligence Agency's Counterterrorism Center Weapons of Mass Destruction Group and as an FBI Special Agent.