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Context of 'September 4, 2001: Debate Heats Up Over Using Armed Predator Drone Against Bin Laden; Decision Again Delayed'

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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)

CIA Director Tenet and other top CIA officials brief President-elect Bush, Vice President-elect Cheney, future National Security Adviser Rice, and other incoming national security officials on al-Qaeda and covert action programs in Afghanistan. Deputy Director for Operations James Pavitt recalls conveying that bin Laden is one of the gravest threats to the country. Bush asks whether killing bin Laden would end the problem. Pavitt says he answers that killing bin Laden would have an impact but not stop the threat. The CIA recommends the most important action to combat al-Qaeda is to arm the Predator drone and use it over Afghanistan. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004; Zakaria 3/24/2004) However, while the drone is soon armed, Bush never gives the order to use it in Afghanistan until after 9/11 (see September 4, 2001).

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)

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)

Attendees to an important cabinet-level meeting on terrorism have a heated debate over what to do with the armed Predator drone, which has been ready for use over Afghanistan since June 2001 (see Early June-September 10, 2001). Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke has been repeatedly pushing for the use of the Predator over Afghanistan (in either armed or unarmed versions), and he again argues for its immediate use. Everyone agrees that the armed Predator capability is needed, but there are disputes over who will manage and/or pay for it. CIA Director Tenet says his agency will operate the armed Predator “over my dead body.” (Washington Post 10/2/2002) Clarke recalls, “The Air Force said it wasn’t their job to fly planes to collect intelligence. No one around the table seemed to have a can-do attitude. Everyone seemed to have an excuse.” (Mayer 7/28/2003) National Security Adviser Rice concludes that the armed Predator is not ready (even though it had been proven in tests during the summer), but she also presses Tenet to reconsider his opposition to immediately resume reconnaissance flights, suspended since September the year before. After the meeting, Tenet agrees to proceed with such flights. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004; 9/11 Commission 3/24/2004) The armed Predator is activated just days after 9/11, showing that it was ready to be used after all. (Bridis and Solomon 6/25/2003)

In the days just after the 9/11 attacks, top US officials give approval to use the Predator drone in Afghanistan. The first Predator drones and missiles reached the Afghanistan theater on September 16. Two days later, the Predator is first used, flying over Kabul and Kandahar, but without carrying weapons. On October 7, the unnamed nearby country hosting the drones grants approval for armed Predators to be used. The first armed mission is flown later the same day. The CIA is in charge of most Predator flights in the region. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004 pdf file) The speed in which the Predator is deployed in Afghanistan is noticeable, considering that just one week before 9/11, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice concluded that the armed Predator was not ready to be used there (see September 4, 2001).


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