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Context of 'January 10-25, 2001: National Security Adviser Rice Rejects Resuming Use of Surveillance Drone to Track Bin Laden'

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Following the cruise missile attack on al-Qaeda targets on August 20 (see August 20, 1998), immediate plans are made for follow up attacks to make sure bin Laden is killed. However, on this day, Defense Secretary William Cohen is advised that available targets are not promising. Some question the use of expensive missiles to hit very primitive training camps, and there is the concern that if bin Laden is not killed, his stature will only grow further. As discussions continue, counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke prepares a plan he calls “Delenda,” which means “to destroy” in Latin. His idea is to have regular, small strikes in Afghanistan whenever the intelligence warrants it. The plan is rejected. Counterterrorism officials in the Defense Secretary’s office independently create a similar plan, but it too is rejected. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004) The Delenda Plan also calls for diplomacy against the Taliban, covert action focused in Afghanistan, and financial measures to freeze bin Laden-related funds. These aspects are not formally adopted, but they guide future efforts. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)

The first Predator flight over Afghanistan on September 7, 2000 captures bin Laden circled by security in his Tarnak Farms complex.The first Predator flight over Afghanistan on September 7, 2000 captures bin Laden circled by security in his Tarnak Farms complex. [Source: CBC]An unmanned spy plane called the Predator begins flying over Afghanistan, showing incomparably detailed real-time video and photographs of the movements of what appears to be bin Laden and his aides. It flies successfully over Afghanistan 16 times. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004) President Clinton is impressed by a two-minute video of bin Laden crossing a street heading toward a mosque inside his Tarnak Farms complex. Bin Laden is surrounded by a team of a dozen armed men creating a professional forward security perimeter as he moves. The Predator has been used since 1996, in the Balkans and Iraq. One Predator crashes on takeoff and another is chased by a fighter, but it apparently identifies bin Laden on three occasions. Its use is stopped in Afghanistan after a few trials, mostly because seasonal winds are picking up. It is agreed to resume the flights in the spring, but the Predator fails to fly over Afghanistan again until after 9/11. (Gellman 12/19/2001; Clarke 2004, pp. 220-21) On September 15, 2001, CIA Director Tenet apparently inaccurately tells President Bush, “The unmanned Predator surveillance aircraft that was now armed with Hellfire missiles had been operating for more than a year out of Uzbekistan to provide real-time video of Afghanistan.” (Balz, Woodward, and Himmelman 1/29/2002)

Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke submits a plan to “roll back” al-Qaeda over a period of three to five years until it is ineffectual. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004) The main component is a dramatic increase in covert aid to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan to first tie down the terrorists and then “eliminate the sanctuary” for bin Laden. Financial support for terrorist activities will be systematically attacked, nations fighting al-Qaeda will be given aid to defeat them, and the US will plan for direct military and covert action in Afghanistan. The plan will cost several hundred million dollars. However, since there are only a few weeks left before the Bush administration takes over, it is decided to defer the decision until the new administration is in place. One senior Clinton official later says, “We would be handing [the Bush administration] a war when they took office on January 20. That wasn’t going to happen.” However, the plan is rejected by the Bush administration and no action is taken (see January 25, 2001). According to one senior Bush administration official, the proposal amounts to “everything we’ve done since 9/11.” (Elliott 8/12/2002)

The Predator drone.The Predator drone. [Source: US military] (click image to enlarge)Even before President Bush’s official inauguration, Clinton holdover counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke pushes National Security Adviser Rice and other incoming Bush officials to resume Predator drone flights over Afghanistan (originally carried out in September and October 2000) in an attempt to find and assassinate bin Laden. (Gellman 1/20/2002; CBS News 6/25/2003) On January 10, Rice is shown a video clip of bin Laden filmed by a Predator drone the year before. (Gellman 1/20/2002) Aware of an Air Force plan to arm the Predator, when Clarke outlines a series of steps to take against al-Qaeda on January 25 (see January 25, 2001), one suggestion is to go forward with new Predator drone reconnaissance missions in the spring and use an armed version when it is ready. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004) The original Air Force development plan calls for three years of Predator testing, but Clarke pushes so hard that a Hellfire missile is successfully test fired from a Predator on February 16, 2001. The armed Predator will be fully ready by early June 2001 (see Early June-September 10, 2001). (CBS News 6/25/2003; Mayer 7/28/2003) However, Rice apparently approves the use of the Predator but only as part of a broader strategy against al-Qaeda. Since that strategy will still not be ready before 9/11, the Predator will not be put into use before 9/11. (Bridis and Solomon 6/22/2003)

Richard Clarke.Richard Clarke. [Source: Robert Flores/ Defense Information Systems Agency]Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke submits a proposal to National Security Adviser Rice and “urgently” asks for a Cabinet-level meeting on the al-Qaeda threat. (Clarke 2004, pp. 230-31) He forwards his December 2000 strategy paper and a copy of his 1998 “Delenda Plan” (see August 27, 1998). He lays out a proposed agenda for urgent action:
bullet Approve covert assistance to Ahmed Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
bullet Significantly increase funding for CIA counterterrorism activity. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
bullet Respond to the USS Cole bombing with an attack on al-Qaeda. (The link between al-Qaeda and that bombing had been assumed for months and is confirmed in the media two days later.) According to the Washington Post, “Clarke argue[s] that the camps [are] can’t-miss targets, and they [matter]. The facilities [amount] to conveyor belts for al-Qaeda’s human capital, with raw recruits arriving and trained fighters departing either for front lines against the Northern Alliance, the Afghan rebel coalition, or against American interests somewhere else. The US government had whole libraries of images filmed over Tarnak Qila and its sister camp, Garmabat Ghar, 19 miles farther west. Why watch al-Qaeda train several thousand men a year and then chase them around the world when they left?” No retaliation is taken on these camps until after 9/11. (Gellman 1/20/2002)
bullet Go forward with new Predator drone reconnaissance missions in the spring and use an armed version when it is ready (see January 10-25, 2001). (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
bullet Step up the fight against terrorist fundraising. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
bullet Be aware that al-Qaeda sleeper cells in the US are not just a potential threat, but are a “major threat in being.” Additionally, more attacks have almost certainly been set in motion (see January 25, 2001). (Gellman 1/20/2002) Rice’s response to Clarke’s proposal is that the Cabinet will not address the issue until it has been “framed” at the deputy secretary level. However, this initial deputy meeting is not given high priority and it does not take place until April 2001. (Clarke 2004, pp. 230-31) Henry Shelton, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman until 9/11, says, “The squeaky wheel was Dick Clarke, but he wasn’t at the top of their priority list, so the lights went out for a few months. Dick did a pretty good job because he’s abrasive as hell, but given the [bureaucratic] level he was at” there was no progress. (Benjamin and Simon 2002, pp. 335-36; Benjamin 3/30/2004) Some counterterrorism officials think the new administration responds slowly simply because Clarke’s proposal originally came from the Clinton administration. (Elliott 8/12/2002) For instance, Thomas Maertenson, on the National Security Council in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, says, “They really believed their campaign rhetoric about the Clinton administration. So anything [that administration] did was bad, and the Bushies were not going to repeat it.” (Bumiller and Miller 3/24/2004; Black 3/25/2004) The Bush administration will finally address the gist of Clarke’s plan at a cabinet-level meeting on September 4, 2001, just one week before 9/11 (see September 4, 2001). Clarke will later comment that the plan adopted “on Sept. 4 is basically… what I proposed on Jan. 25. And so the time in between was wasted.”

A Predator drone firing a Hellfire missile.A Predator drone firing a Hellfire missile. [Source: US Air Force]An armed version of the Predator drone successfully passes a test showing it is ready for use in Afghanistan. The Predator had been used successfully in 2000 to spot bin Laden (see September 7-October 2000), but it was not used in early 2001 while an armed version was prepared (see January 10-25, 2001). A Hellfire missile was successfully test fired from a Predator on February 16, 2001. (CBS News 6/25/2003) In early June 2001, a duplicate of the brick house where bin Laden is believed to be living in Kandahar, Afghanistan, is built in Nevada, and destroyed by a Predator missile. The test shows that the missile fired from miles away would have killed anyone in the building, and one participant calls this the long sought after “holy grail” that could kill bin Laden within minutes of finding him. (Gellman 1/20/2002) But National Security Adviser Rice reportedly wants to use the Predator only after an overall strategy for confronting al-Qaeda is worked out, and no such plan is close to being ready. (Bridis and Solomon 6/22/2003) She and her deputy Steve Hadley decide to delay reconnaissance flights until all the arrangements for using the armed version can be worked out. In July 2001, Hadley directs the military to have armed Predators ready to deploy no later than September 1. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004) The main hold up seems to be bureaucratic. Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke repeatedly advocates using the Predator, armed or unarmed. However, infighting between the CIA and the Air Force over who would pay for it and take responsibility delays its use. Clarke later says, “Every time we were ready to use it, the CIA would change its mind.” (Mayer 7/28/2003) The issue comes to a head in early September 2001, but even then, a decision to use the Predator is delayed (see September 4, 2001). (Mayer 7/28/2003) The armed Predator will finally be used in Afghanistan just days after 9/11. (Bridis and Solomon 6/25/2003)

The US denounces Israel’s use of targeted killing against Palestinian terrorists. Martin Indyk, the US ambassador to Israel, says: “The United States government is very clearly on record as against targeted assassinations.… They are extrajudicial killings and we do not support that.” (Mayer 10/26/2009) Around the same time, the US military is working on arming the Predator drone to enable remote, targeted assassinations of terrorists like Osama bin Laden (see Early June-September 10, 2001). The US will begin frequently using targeted assassinations shortly after the 9/11 attacks two months later (see September 18-October 7, 2001). In 2009, Gary Solis, former head of the law program at the US Military Academy, will comment, “The things we were complaining about from Israel a few years ago we now embrace.” (Mayer 10/26/2009)

President Bush’s cabinet-rank advisers discuss terrorism for the second of only two times before 9/11. (Gellman 5/17/2002) National Security Adviser Rice chairs the meeting; neither President Bush nor Vice President Cheney attends. Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke later says that in this meeting, he and CIA Director Tenet speak passionately about the al-Qaeda threat. No one disagrees that the threat is serious. Secretary of State Powell outlines a plan to put pressure on Pakistan to stop supporting al-Qaeda. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld appears to be more interested in Iraq. The only debate is over whether to fly the armed Predator drone over Afghanistan to attack al-Qaeda (see September 4, 2001). (Clarke 2004, pp. 237-38) Clarke’s earlier plans to “roll back” al-Qaeda first submitted on January 25, 2001 (see January 25, 2001) have been discussed and honed in many meetings and are now presented as a formal National Security Presidential Directive. The directive is “apparently” approved, though the process of turning it into official policy is still not done. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004) There is later disagreement over just how different the directive presented is from Clarke’s earlier plans. For instance, some claim the directive aims not just to “roll back” al-Qaeda, but also to “eliminate” it altogether. (Elliott 8/12/2002) However, Clarke notes that even though he wanted to use the word “eliminate,” the approved directive merely aims to “significantly erode” al-Qaeda. The word “eliminate” is only added after 9/11. (Eggen and Pincus 3/25/2004) Clarke will later say that the plan adopted “on Sept. 4 is basically… what I proposed on Jan. 25. And so the time in between was wasted.” (Clarke 4/8/2004) The Washington Post will similarly note that the directive approved on this day “did not differ substantially from Clinton’s policy.” (Milbank and Eggen 3/27/2004) Time magazine later comments, “The fight against terrorism was one of the casualties of the transition, as Washington spent eight months going over and over a document whose outline had long been clear.” (Elliott 8/12/2002) The primary change from Clarke’s original draft is that the approved plan calls for more direct financial and logistical support to the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban groups. The plan also calls for drafting plans for possible US military involvement, “but those differences were largely theoretical; administration officials told the [9/11 Commission’s] investigators that the plan’s overall timeline was at least three years, and it did not include firm deadlines, military plans, or significant funding at the time of the September 11, 2001, attacks.” (Milbank and Eggen 3/27/2004; Holland 4/2/2004)

Condoleezza Rice sworn in before the 9/11 Commission.Condoleezza Rice sworn in before the 9/11 Commission. [Source: Larry Downing/ Reuters]National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testifies before the 9/11 Commission under oath and with the threat of perjury. The Bush administration originally opposed her appearance, but relented after great public demand (see March 30, 2004). (Buncombe 4/3/2004) The testimony is a huge media event and major television networks interrupt their programming to carry it live. First, the Commission’s Democratic Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton reads a statement trying to establish a tone of non-confrontation and saying that the Commission’s purpose is “not to put any witness on the spot,” but “to understand and to inform.”
Rice Reads Lengthy Statement - Knowing that she has a deal to appear only once and for a limited time, Rice begins by reading a statement much longer than those read by other witnesses testifying before the Commission, a move specifically approved by Hamilton and the Commission’s chairman Tom Kean. (Shenon 2008, pp. 293, 295) In the statement she repeats her claim that “almost all of the reports [before 9/11] focused on al-Qaeda activities outside the United States.… The information that was specific enough to be actionable referred to terrorists operation overseas.” Moreover, she stresses that the “kind of analysis about the use of airplanes as weapons actually was never briefed to us.” But she concedes: “In fact there were some reports done in ‘98 and ‘99. I think I was—I was certainly not aware of them.” (Washington Post 4/8/2004)
Heated Questioning from Democrats - The exchanges with the Republican commissioners are polite, but Rice’s interactions with the Democrats on the Commission become heated. According to author Philip Shenon, her strategy is to “try to run out the clock—talk and talk and talk, giving them no chance to ask follow-up questions before the 10 minutes that each of the commissioners had been allotted had run out.” (Shenon 2008, pp. 295) During questioning several subjects are discussed:
bullet Why didn’t counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke brief President Bush on al-Qaeda before September 11? Clarke says he had wished to do so, but Rice states, “Clarke never asked me to brief the president on counterterrorism.”
bullet What was the content of the briefing President Bush received on August 6, 2001 (see August 6, 2001)? While Rice repeatedly underlines that it was “a historical memo… not threat reporting,” commissioners Richard Ben-Veniste and Tim Roemer ask her why it cannot therefore be declassified. (Washington Post 4/8/2004) Asked what the PDB item’s still-secret title is, Rice gives it as “Bin Laden Determined to Attack inside the United States,” leading to an audible gasp from the audience. (Shenon 2008, pp. 298) Two days later, the White House will finally publish it, and it will be shown to contain more than just historical information.
bullet Did Rice tell Bush of the existence of al-Qaeda cells in the US before August 6, 2001? Rice says that she does not remember whether she “discussed it with the president.”
bullet Were warnings properly passed on? Rice points out: “The FBI issued at least three nationwide warnings to federal, state, and law enforcement agencies, and specifically stated that although the vast majority of the information indicated overseas targets, attacks against the homeland could not be ruled out. The FBI tasked all 56 of its US field offices to increase surveillance of known suspected terrorists and to reach out to known informants who might have information on terrorist activities.” But commissioner Jamie Gorelick remarks: “We have no record of that. The Washington field office international terrorism people say they never heard about the threat, they never heard about the warnings.” (Washington Post 4/8/2004)
bullet Under questioning from Democratic commissioner Bob Kerrey, she admits that she worked with Philip Zelikow, the Commission’s executive director, during the Bush administration transition, and that they discussed terrorism issues.
bullet She claims that a plan Clarke presented to her to roll back al-Qaeda in January 2001 (see January 25, 2001) was not actually a plan, but merely “a set of ideas and a paper” that had not been implemented. (Shenon 2008, pp. 299-300)
Central Issues Unresolved - Rice does not apologize to the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, as Clarke did weeks earlier. The Associated Press comments, “The blizzard of words in Condoleezza Rice’s testimony Thursday did not resolve central points about what the government knew, should have known, did, and should have done before the September 11 terrorist attacks.” (Woodward 4/8/2004)
Testimony an 'Ambitious Feat of Jujitsu' - The Washington Post calls her testimony “an ambitious feat of jujitsu: On one hand, she made a case that ‘for more than 20 years, the terrorist threat gathered, and America’s response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient.’ At the same time, she argued that there was nothing in particular the Bush administration itself could have done differently that would have prevented the attacks of September 11, 2001—that there was no absence of vigor in the White House’s response to al-Qaeda during its first 233 days in office. The first thesis is undeniably true; the second both contradictory and implausible.” (unknown 4/9/2004)
'Cherry-Picking' Rice's Testimony - In 2009, Lawrence Wilkerson, who is chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2004, will recall: “John [Bellinger, the legal adviser to the National Security Council] and I had to work on the 9/11 Commission testimony of Condi. Condi was not gonna do it, not gonna do it, not gonna do it, and then all of a sudden she realized she better do it. That was an appalling enterprise. We would cherry-pick things to make it look like the president had been actually concerned about al-Qaeda. We cherry-picked things to make it look as if the vice president and others, Secretary Rumsfeld and all, had been. They didn’t give a sh_t about al-Qaeda. They had priorities. The priorities were lower taxes, ballistic missiles, and the defense thereof.” (Murphy and Purdum 2/2009)


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