Writer: U.S. complacent before attack

Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post correspondent gives an inside look at how the war on terror was waged — and not waged.

By: Jeff Milgram
   In 1996, the Clinton administration spurned an offer by the Sudanese government to turn over Osama bin Laden because it believed there was not enough evidence to indict the terrorist mastermind, according to a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post correspondent and Princeton University journalism professor.
   The United States hoped that Saudi Arabia would take Mr. bin Laden and quickly execute him, he said.
   Addressing "The War on Terror Before Sept. 11," Barton Gellman gave an inside look at how the war on terror was waged — and not waged — by the Clinton and Bush administrations. He spoke Tuesday at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
   "There was an enormous amount going on under President Clinton that we did not know about at the time," said Mr. Gellman, one of a team of eight Washington Post journalists who won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent war on terrorism.
   "On Sept. 11, you could say that Osama bin Laden became my assignment editor," Mr. Gellman said.
   It was not until the beginning of 2001 that the Bush administration had begun to discuss a "fairly ambitious policy review on terrorism," said Mr. Gellman, a 1982 Princeton graduate. "But they had not yet decided much before 9-11" and President Bush did not attend his first meeting on terrorism until Sept. 11, Mr. Gellman said.
   Mr. Gellman said the CIA didn’t pay much attention to Mr. bin Laden until 1996. The CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center created a "virtual" CIA station of intelligence analysts who worked exclusively on the problem of "terrorism and Al Qaeda." At that time terrorists grew "from a tactical nuisance to strategic threat."
   That’s also when the United States "had a tantalizing chance" to capture Mr. bin Laden, according to Mr. Gellman.
   Anxious to have his nation removed from the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorists, Sudan’s president sent a confidante, Fatih Erwa, to initiate a secret channel in a meeting with two CIA case officers in the Hyatt Arlington Hotel, outside Washington, Mr. Gellman said. He said the Sudanese "might hand over bin Laden if asked nicely enough."
   "It’s not at all clear that (the offer) would have been carried out," said Mr. Gellman. "But what is clear is that the Clinton administration did not put that offer fully to the test."
   President Clinton’s foreign policy experts, he explained, "were not inclined to take the offer seriously" and were more in favor of isolating Sudan than of reforming that African nation.
   "So when you got to cabinet level and certainly head-of-government level contacts, bin Laden simply didn’t come up. The bottom line is, bin Laden left Sudan 10 weeks after the secret channel started and made a new home in Afghanistan," Mr. Gellman said.
   But in 1998, U.S. policy changed, virtually overnight, when two U.S. embassies were bombed, Mr. Gellman said.
   "By the following day, Clinton had decided to kill Osama bin Laden," he said. "And for the last two-and-a-half years of his term in office, he devoted quite a bit of his time and resources to try and do that." According to Mr. Gellman, one of Mr. Clinton’s attempts almost proved disastrous in 2000 when the U.S. military "came within an hour or so of killing a friendly sheik."
   The CIA was informed by a source that linked Mr. bin Laden to a desert encampment in southern Afghanistan. The sighting was confirmed by overhead surveillance and the president gave the go-ahead to prepare for a launch of a Tomahawk cruise missile from the northern Arabian Sea.
   "Literally, the engines were on and the gyroscopes were targeted," said Mr. Gellman. Suddenly, CIA Director George Tenet called to tell the president that what they originally thought was Mr. bin Laden’s camp was actually a "falconing expedition for a member of the royal family of the United Arab Emirates."
   About a month after George W. Bush took office, a sophisticated, 100-pound, hellfire missile was successfully developed that could be carried on a 950-pound Predator drone. It could spot and shoot Mr. bin Laden within a space of about six seconds.
   "Think of a hummingbird carrying a hand grenade," explained Mr. Gellman, who added that the new president made a decision in June — three months before Sept. 11 — not to deploy the new weapon in Afghanistan. "They did not resume the covert hunt for bin Laden at that time," he said.
   But the Bush policy grew increasingly tougher. First the Bush team wanted to "erode" the ability of terrorists to strike, they wanted to "roll back" terrorists and, finally, they wanted to "eliminate" the al-Qaeda threat, Mr. Gellman said.
   Calling the failure of the FBI to investigate the Muslim students who were taking flying lessons in the United States a "failure of imagination," Mr. Gellman said American intelligence officials are now "thinking outside the box" and consulting with science fiction writers about scenarios for possible future terrorist attacks.
   Mr. Gellman, who is now a special projects reporter in the New York bureau of the Post, previously served as that newspaper’s diplomatic correspondent, Jerusalem bureau chief, Pentagon correspondent and local courthouse reporter.