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Kandahar, May 1999
It was in Kandahar that perhaps the last, and most likely the best, opportunity
arose for targeting Bin Ladin with cruise missiles before 9/11. In May 1999,
CIA assets in Afghanistan reported on Bin Ladin's location in and around Kan-
dahar over the course of five days and nights.The reporting was very detailed
and came from several sources. If this intelligence was not "actionable,"
working-level officials said at the time and today, it was hard for them to imag-
ine how any intelligence on Bin Ladin in Afghanistan would meet the stan-
dard. Communications were good, and the cruise missiles were ready."This was
in our strike zone," a senior military officer said. "It was a fat pitch, a home
run." He expected the missiles to fly.When the decision came back that they
should stand down, not shoot, the officer said, "we all just slumped." He told
us he knew of no one at the Pentagon or the CIA who thought it was a bad
gamble. Bin Ladin "should have been a dead man" that night, he said.
Working-level CIA officials agreed. While there was a conflicting intelli-
gence report about Bin Ladin's whereabouts, the experts discounted it. At the
time, CIA working-level officials were told by their managers that the strikes
were not ordered because the military doubted the intelligence and worried
about collateral damage. Replying to a frustrated colleague in the field, the Bin
Ladin unit chief wrote:"having a chance to get [Bin Ladin] three times in 36
hours and foregoing the chance each time has made me a bit angry. . . . [T]he
DCI finds himself alone at the table, with the other princip[als] basically say-
ing `we'll go along with your decision Mr. Director,' and implicitly saying that
the Agency will hang alone if the attack doesn't get Bin Ladin."
But the mil-
itary officer quoted earlier recalled that the Pentagon had been willing to act.
He told us that Clarke informed him and others that Tenet assessed the chance
of the intelligence being accurate as 5050. This officer believed that Tenet's
assessment was the key to the decision.
Tenet told us he does not remember any details about this episode, except
that the intelligence came from a single uncorroborated source and that there
was a risk of collateral damage. The story is further complicated by Tenet's
absence from the critical principals meeting on this strike (he was apparently
out of town); his deputy, John Gordon, was representing the CIA. Gordon
recalled having presented the intelligence in a positive light, with appropriate
caveats, but stating that this intelligence was about as good as it could get.
Berger remembered only that in all such cases, the call had been Tenet's.
Berger felt sure that Tenet was eager to get Bin Ladin. In his view,Tenet did
his job responsibly."George would call and say,`We just don't have it,'" Berger
The decision not to strike in May 1999 may now seem hard to understand.
In fairness, we note two points: First, in December 1998, the principals' wari-
ness about ordering a strike appears to have been vindicated: Bin Ladin left his
room unexpectedly, and if a strike had been ordered he would not have been
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