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Context of '1998 and After: CIA Instigates Co-operation with Uzbekistan against Taliban and Al-Qaeda'

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Beginning in 1998, if not before, Uzbekistan and the CIA secretly create a joint counterterrorist strike force, funded and trained by the CIA. This force conducts joint covert operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. [Times of India, 10/14/2001; Washington Post, 10/14/2001; Vanity Fair, 11/2004] In February 1999, radical Muslims fail in an attempt to assassinate Islam Karimov, the leader of Uzbekistan, leading to a crackdown on Uzbek militants. CIA counterterrorism head Cofer Black and bin Laden unit chief Richard Blee see this as an opportunity to increase co-operation with Uzbekistan, and fly to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent to seal an agreement with Karimov. One hope is that a strike force will be established to snatch Osama bin Laden or one of his lieutenants. Karimov also allows CIA transit and helicopter operations at Uzbek air bases, as well as the installation of CIA and NSA monitoring equipment to intercept Taliban and al-Qaeda communications. The CIA is pleased with the new allies, thinking them better than Pakistan’s ISI, but at the White House some National Security Council members are skeptical. One will comment, “Uzbek motivations were highly suspect to say the least.” There are also worries about Uzbek corruption, human rights abuses, and scandal. [Coll, 2004, pp. 456-460]

Entity Tags: Taliban, Richard Blee, Uzbekistan, United States, Cofer Black, Islam Karimov, Alec Station, Osama bin Laden, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The governor’s mansion in Kandahar, Afghanistan.The governor’s mansion in Kandahar, Afghanistan. [Source: CBC]On December 18, 2000, CIA receives a tip that bin Laden will be staying overnight on December 20 at the governor’s mansion in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Missile strikes are readied against him. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 130-131] Gary Schroen, head of the CIA’s Pakistan office, e-mails CIA headquarters with the message, “Hit him tonight—we may not get another chance.” However, principal advisers to President Clinton agree not to recommend a strike because of doubts about the intelligence and worries about collateral damage. The military estimates the attacks will kill about 200 people, presumably most of them innocent bystanders. Schroen will later recall, “It struck me as rather insane, frankly. They decided not to attack bin Laden because he was in a building in fairly close proximity to a mosque. And they were afraid that some of the shrapnel was going to hit the mosque and somehow offend the Muslim world, and so they decided not to shoot on that occasion. That’s the kind of reason for not shooting that the policy maker, anyway, came up with endlessly.” [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004; CBC, 9/12/2006] Later intelligence appears to show that bin Laden left before the strike could be readied, but some aware of the intelligence felt it was a chance that should have been taken anyway. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 130-131] In the wake of this incident, officials attempt to find alternatives to cruise missiles, such a precision strike aircraft. However, US Central Command Chief General Anthony Zinni is apparently opposed to deployment of these aircraft near Afghanistan, and they are not deployed. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004]

Entity Tags: Clinton administration, Anthony Zinni, Osama bin Laden, Gary C. Schroen

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

An AC-130.An AC-130. [Source: US Air Force]In the immediate aftermath of a decision not to attack bin Laden with cruise missiles for fear of collateral damage (see December 18-20, 1998), the US military looks for other options than the inaccurate cruise missiles. On this day, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Henry Shelton formally directs Generals Anthony Zinni and Peter J. Schoomaker to develop plans for an AC-130 gunship attack against al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan. The AC-130 is an aircraft designed specifically for special forces missions. It can fly in fast or from a high altitude, undetected by radar. It is capable of rapidly firing precision-guided projectiles that are much less likely to cause collateral damage. The two generals do submit such a plan on January 12, 1999, but the plan will never be developed beyond this initial document. One reason is that Zinni is against the idea. Another obstacle is that due to technical reasons the AC-130s would need to be based in a nearby country (most likely Uzbekistan, which is the most supportive of US efforts to get bin Laden at this time (see 1998 and After)). Political agreements allowing for basing and overflight rights would have to be arranged, but there is never any attempt to do so. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 135, 486]

Entity Tags: Henry Hugh Shelton, Peter J. Schoomaker, Anthony Zinni

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Richard Blee. The only known public photo of Blee is this one taken from a school yearbook, when he was nine years old.Richard Blee. The only known public photo of Blee is this one taken from a school yearbook, when he was nine years old. [Source: Public domain]Following the firing of Michael Scheuer, the founding head of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit (see June 1999), a new chief of the station is appointed. The chief, Richard Blee, worked in Algeria as a case officer during the civil war there in the early 1990s (see January 11, 1992) and prior to his appointment as station chief was an executive assistant to CIA management. [Coll, 2004, pp. 456] He also served on an Iraqi task force attempting to destabilize Saddam Hussein’s regime in the mid-1990s. [Harper's, 1/28/2007] According to author Steve Coll: “Since he came directly from [CIA Director George] Tenet’s leadership group, his arrival was seen as a signal of renewed high-level interest in the bin Laden case. The new chief’s connections presumably would help attract resources to the cause and smooth decision-making.” In addition, “He [knows] the bin Laden issue, he [knows] the Third World and he [does] not mind high-risk travel.”
Criticism of Management Style - However, Blee’s management style will attract some criticism. Coll will say that he is “intense and sometimes emotional and combative” and that he is seen by some colleagues as “typical of the unyielding zealots” at Alec Station. [Coll, 2004, pp. 456, 540] Author James Bamford will comment, “But the most serious problem was [Blee]‘s lack of management, his myopic obsession with bin Laden, and his focus on the fun and adventure part of the job.” [Bamford, 2004, pp. 218-9] Journalist Ken Silverstein will say: “[S]ources have told me that [Blee] has frequently been divisive and ineffective in previous positions.… His reputation and relationship with the military, especially the special-ops community, is very bad, based on substantive issues that arose during his time [in Afghanistan and Pakistan] post-9/11.… Another former official called [Blee] a ‘smart guy‘…, but described him as a terrible manager.” [Harper's, 1/28/2007]

Entity Tags: Richard Blee, Steve Coll, James Bamford, Central Intelligence Agency, Alec Station, Ken Silverstein

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the Russian government realizes the US will attempt to push into the Central Asian “Stans”—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—as part of the US effort to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the region. But these countries had been part of the Soviet Union ten years before, and Russia does not want the US increasing its influence there. On September 13, 2001, Russian intelligence officials hold a meeting with Northern Alliance figures and the other governments that support the Northern Alliance—Iran, India, and Uzbekistan. They promise to increase support to the Northern Alliance in an attempt to outbid the US and keep the US military out of the region. Soon after, Tajikistan announces that it will not allow its airspace to be used by US aircraft. But Uzbekistan is the key country, since it has the most military bases inherited from the Soviet era, the largest population, and also a key strategic location. It also has been working with the CIA against al-Qaeda and the Taliban for several years (see 1998 and After). Uzbekistan indicates it is going to allow the US to base some of its military operations there. Realizing that the other countries are likely to follow Uzbekistan’s lead, Russia switches positions and attempts to make a collective offer to the US. On September 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting in Moscow with the leaders from all the “Stans” in an attempt to reach a joint agreement about allowing the US to use former Soviet military bases. A formal deal is reached between the US and Russia on September 22 after Putin speaks to President Bush on the telephone.
bullet The US agrees that its bases in the region will only be temporary.
bullet Bush will stop criticizing Russia for its war in Chechnya.
bullet The US will consult with Russia before taking further steps in Central Asia.
bullet The US will help accelerate Russian integration into Western economic institutions.
bullet Russian commanders who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s give extensive briefings to US Army generals.
By this time, CIA teams are already moving into the K2 air base in southern Uzbekistan. Tajikistan also reverses course and allows the US to use bases there as well. Deals between the US, Russia, and Central Asian countries are initially kept secret from the public. But within days of the agreement between Putin and Bush, newspapers begin to report that US forces are moving into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Other countries make similar deals later (see September 22, 2001-December 2001). [Rashid, 2008, pp. 69-71]

Entity Tags: Vladimir Putin, Russia, George W. Bush, Taliban, United States

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, US International Relations, War in Afghanistan

A Mirage 2000-D fighter in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in February 2002.A Mirage 2000-D fighter in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in February 2002. [Source: Shamil Zhumatov/ Reuters]Witnesses begin to report US military planes secretly landing at night in the Central Asian nations of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The US, Tajik, and Uzbek governments initially deny that any US troops have been sent there. [Daily Telegraph, 9/23/2001; Associated Press, 9/25/2001] By October 5, witnesses say a “huge military buildup” has already occurred. [Daily Telegraph, 10/4/2001] In fact, on September 22, the US and Russia signed a secret agreement allowing the US to use bases in the Central Asian countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, but only on a temporary basis (see September 13-22, 2001). The US then makes deals with individual countries:
Uzbekistan - On October 7, the US and Uzbekistan sign a secret agreement that reportedly is “a long term commitment to advance security and regional stability.” [Financial Times, 10/13/2001] The US is allowed to use the massive K2 (Karshi-Khanabad) air base in southern Uzbekistan. CIA teams begin arriving at the base just days after 9/11, while an agreement to use the base is still being worked out, and by mid-October there are 2,000 US troops there. Germany is also allowed to set up a resupply base in Termez, close to the border with Afghanistan. [Rashid, 2008, pp. 70-71]
Kyrgyzstan - The US begins using the Manas air base in the nearby country of Kyrgyzstan in December 2001. “There are no restrictions” in the agreement on what the US can do with this base, and it will be a “transportation hub” for the whole region. [New York Times, 1/9/2002] The base is only 200 miles from China. [Christian Science Monitor, 1/17/2002]
Tajikistan - The French are allowed to base their Mirage fighters at Dushanbe, Tajikistan. They will withdraw in November 2005. [Rashid, 2008, pp. 70-71]
Turkmenistan - Turkmenistan only allows US overflight rights and support for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.
Kazakhstan - Kazakhstan initially only allows US overflight rights as well. But in March 2002 it will be reported that US special forces are training troops in Kazakhstan in a secret location (see March 30, 2002). [Rashid, 2008, pp. 70-71]
In early 2002, it will be reported that the US military bases in the region, “originally agreed as temporary and emergency expedients, are now permanent.” [Guardian, 1/16/2002]

Entity Tags: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, United States, Kyrgyzstan

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Gary Berntsen on an airplane, date and location unknown.Gary Berntsen on an airplane, date and location unknown. [Source: National Geographic]Richard Blee, head of the Sunni Extremist Group at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and a former head of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, is made chief of the CIA’s new station in Kabul. Blee replaces Gary Berntsen, who had effectively led the CIA’s war effort against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Berntsen is unhappy with being replaced, saying: “It felt as though someone had just thrown a bucket of cold water in my face. I couldn’t believe they were doing this in the middle of the most important battle of the war.” The battle of Tora Bora begins around this time and, although the US thinks it has Osama bin Laden cornered there, he somehow manages to escape (see November 16, 2001, November 26, 2001 and Early December 2001).
Replacement Decision Is Not Well Received - Berntsen’s staff members are also unhappy with the decision, and slap their hands over their heads and groan when they find out about it. They tell Berntsen, “No disrespect to Rich, but when you leave, we leave.” Berntsen will attribute Blee’s selection to his closeness to CIA Director George Tenet and Deputy Director of Operations James Pavitt, and will also hint that Blee strongly desired the job. [Berntsen and Pezzullo, 2005, pp. 296-7, 306] Berntsen pushed hard for US troops to be deployed to catch bin Laden (see Late October-Early December 2001), but it is not known whether Blee is in favor of using US troops or not. Blee will also instigate the transfer of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi from the FBI to Egypt shortly after arriving; this is the first such transfer of a major figure after 9/11 (see Shortly After December 19, 2001).
Blee's Replacement - Blee is apparently replaced as chief of the Sunni Extremist Group by someone known only as Hendrik V. (see (Between Summer and Winter 2001)). Hendrik V. will later be replaced by an official known as “Marty M.” before March 2003. [Tenet, 2007, pp. 232, 251] That is almost certainly Marty Martin, someone said to lead the search for bin Laden from 2002 to 2004 (see (Shortly After October 29, 2004)).

Entity Tags: Marty Martin, Gary Berntsen, Central Intelligence Agency, Hendrik V., Richard Blee

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

CIA officer Richard Blee, who is now chief of the CIA’s station in Kabul, Afghanistan, objects to the FBI interviewing high-ranking al-Qaeda detainee Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. The FBI obtained access to al-Libi after he was handed over to the US, and is obtaining some information from him about Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid, who will be prosecuted in the US (see December 19, 2001). However, according to FBI agent Jack Cloonan, “for some reason, the CIA chief of station in Kabul is taking issue with our approach.” [American Prospect, 6/19/2005] CIA Director George Tenet learns of Blee’s complaints and insists that al-Libi be turned over to the CIA (see January-April 2002), which promptly puts him on a plane to Egypt (see January 2002 and After), where he is tortured and makes false statements (see February 2002). Blee was in charge of the CIA’s bin Laden unit on 9/11 and has only recently become chief of its Kabul station. [Berntsen and Pezzullo, 2005, pp. 59-60, 297] The FBI, which has long experience interviewing suspects, will continue in its attempts to use rapport-building techniques (see Late March through Early June, 2002), whereas the CIA will employ harsher techniques, despite not having much experience with interviews (see Mid-April 2002).

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Richard Blee, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

Donald Rumsfeld selects retired Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker as the Army’s chief of staff, bypassing several highly qualified active generals. Schoomaker is the general who failed to locate bin Laden during the Clinton administration (see December 23, 1998-January 12, 1999). Senior defense officials tell the Associated Press that Rumsfeld’s decision to bypass senior active-duty generals in favor of a retired officer is highly unusual and likely to raise eyebrows. [Associated Press, 6/10/2003]

Entity Tags: Peter J. Schoomaker, Donald Rumsfeld

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

CIA officer Richard Blee, who headed Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, at the time of the 9/11 attacks (see August 22-September 10, 2001), is considered for the position of chief of station in Baghdad, one of the CIA’s largest stations. [Harper's, 1/28/2007] However, he does not get the position. [Harper's, 2/9/2007] The reasons for him not getting the job are apparently that he is seen as a “bad fit,” and is closely associated with detainee abuse and renditions, in particular that of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (see Shortly After December 19, 2001). In addition, he is said to have a poor relationship with the military, in particular the Special Operations community. An unnamed former official calls Blee a “smart guy,” but says, “He’s the last guy you want running a tense place like the station in Baghdad, because he creates a lot of tension himself.” [Harper's, 1/28/2007] Shortly before mid-May 2003, Blee had been loaned to the FBI, where he had a senior position, but his career history after that is unknown. [New York Times, 5/15/2003]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Richard Blee

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Journalist Ken Silverstein writes a piece about a CIA officer who is being considered for the position of station chief in Baghdad (see January-February 2007). According to Silverstein, who uses the pseudonym “James,” the officer is “the son of a well-known and controversial figure who served at the agency during its early years.” Silverstein also mentions the officer’s time managing Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, problems with his management style (see June 1999), his closeness to former CIA Counterterrorist Center chief Cofer Black (see 1998 and After), his work as station chief in Kabul after 9/11 (see December 9, 2001), and his involvement in the rendition of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (see Shortly After December 19, 2001). [Harper's, 1/28/2007] The officer, Richard Blee, will finally “out” himself in a joint statement issued with former CIA Director George Tenet and Black in August 2011 (see August 3, 2011).

Entity Tags: Richard Blee, Ken Silverstein

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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