Recently there was a documentary on television about how the Clinton administration stopped the CIA from killing Usama bin Ladin in the 1990’s. This documentary elicited all manner of comments about how bad the Clinton administration was and how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could have been avoided if only…
The failure of such documentaries is apparent from the very beginning in that they presume we had some way of knowing what was going to happen and thus we should have taken measures to stop it. Only God is prescient and he seldom tells an intelligence officer what is about to happen. In more than three decades of recruiting spies and digging up intelligence not once did God tell me what was going to happen. Of course if I had known bin Ladin was going to sponsor the attacks on the World Trade Center I would have presented my intelligence to the authorities for action. Whether they would have sanctioned action remains debatable but the key is we didn’t know. Of course we all knew in our hearts and heads that bin Ladin was not a nice guy, after all he had been the host in Khartoum for the Blind Sheik, who was the mastermind behind the first attack on the WTC but bin Ladin himself had violated no US law and therefore extreme Presidential action, in fact Presidential action that had never been exercised, would have been required to assassinate him.
Would the British have assassinated Hitler in the 1930’s if they had the prescience to know what was coming? Would someone in the Communist Party apparatus have assassinated Stalin if they knew he was going to kill millions? We’d like to think the answers are yes, but we don’t know. Killing bin Ladin may have only precipitated revenge actions on the part of his followers. How can we know what changing one thing in history will cause to cascade down in terms of other events. What if Pilate had not ordered Jesus crucified? What if the SS Californian had not shut down its wireless on the night on April 15, 1912? We cannot know the answers to these questions? We can only speculate.
So, in the documentary we have former intelligence officers lamenting that President Clinton would not let them kill bin Ladin. They are lamenting based on facts that occurred well after the proscription re taking bin Ladin out. But consider this, if they had penetrated the part of the bin Ladin network responsible for the 9/11 attacks and had developed hard intelligence there were other ways to stop 9/11, but they didn’t. In fact we don’t know that killing bin Ladin would have stopped 9/11. This is just wishful thinking on the part of some people who like being on television. The documentary shouldn’t have been about Clinton not letting the CIA kill bin Ladin but why the FBI had Zacarias Moussaoui in custody for twenty-six days before 9/11 and were unable to ascertain that his training in the 747 simulator and other actions had something to do with terrorism.
So,you see, even when you have all that you need you sometimes can’t see even the near future. The FBI had Moussaoui, they had been alerted by a flight training instructor, and the Minnesota field office sent more than 70 e-mails to FBI Hqs requesting permission to follow up and search various of Moussaoui’s computers, rooms etc but were denied that permission. Just as there were no warrants under which bin Ladin could be charged there was no, in the opinion of the FBI, grounds to obtain a search warrant for Moussaoui’s computer or lodgings.
The CIA didn’t penetrate the bin Ladin network and the FBI didn’t investigate Moussaoui until after the 9/11 attacks and now we lament that the system failed us. The President couldn’t willy-nilly order the assassination of someone because he was a “bad-guy” and the FBI couldn’t violate US law to search a computer. These are lessons learned and, in the future, let’s hope that we can have history not repeat itself but, in the interim, let’s not go round making TV shows about ‘only if’s.’
Just for the record bin Ladin was my neighbor in Khartoum in 1994-95 and I know just how bad a guy he was. His boys used to follow me around town. I was forced to move across town after one incident. Let’s just say my adrenal glands worked overtime for a year and a half; then there was the Hezboallah boys, but that’s another story.