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Context of 'Late October 2000: Clinton Considers Missile Attack on Bin Laden'

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President Bill Clinton signs a memorandum of notification authorizing the CIA to kill Osama bin Laden. The memo is sent to Clinton by National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, apparently at the request of CIA Director George Tenet, who has discussed the memo with Berger and seems to have given it his blessing. The highly classified memo concerns operations by a group of CIA tribal assets in Afghanistan who are monitoring bin Laden. Their task had previously been to capture bin Laden and they had been banned from assassinating him, but these rules are now changed and a kill operation is authorized. The memo makes it very clear that “the president [is] telling the tribal leaders they could kill bin Laden.” 9/11 Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow will later recall the memo tells the tribal leaders: “you may conduct an operation to kill him,” adding, “There were no euphemisms in the language.” Although the CIA is still legally prevented from assassinating people, Clinton administration lawyers now say that bin Laden is an imminent danger to the US, so he can be killed as a part of pre-emptive self-defense. Despite his role in drafting the memo, Tenet and his deputies will later claim to the 9/11 Commission that Clinton never issued such clear authorization (see Before January 14, 2004). However, the order to assassinate bin Laden is garbled within the CIA and the CIA’s bin Laden unit appears not to receive it (see December 26, 1998 and After). [Washington Post, 2/22/2004; Shenon, 2008, pp. 357-8]

Entity Tags: Philip Zelikow, Osama bin Laden, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Shortly after the USS Cole bombing (see October 12, 2000), the US supposedly obtains intelligence that prompts President Clinton to consider another missile strike on bin Laden. The US presidential election is in early November. Author Lawrence Wright will later write, “Clinton maintains that, despite the awkward political timing, his administration came close to launching another missile attack… but at the last minute the CIA recommended calling it off because [bin Laden’s] presence at the site was not completely certain.” [Wright, 2006, pp. 244] Additionally, the tie between the Cole bombing and al-Qaeda had not yet been confirmed. The first strong evidence of such a tie will come in late November 2000 when details of an al-Qaeda operative’s confession are given to the FBI (see Late October-Late November 2000). The 9/11 Commission will make no mention of any planned strikes around this time in their final report while discussing the missed opportunities to strike at bin Laden. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 237] However, the Washington Post will detail the opportunity, saying the target was a “stone compound, built around a central courtyard full of al-Qaeda operatives.” But the strike is canceled when CIA Director George Tenet calls National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and says about the quality of intelligence, “We just don’t have it.” [Washington Post, 12/19/2001] Ironically, it appears bin Laden was actually hoping to be attacked, anticipating that it would boost his reputation in the Muslim world. In the summer of 2001, the NSA will monitor two al-Qaeda operatives discussing how disappointed they are that the US did not retaliate after the Cole bombing (see June 30-July 1, 2001).

Entity Tags: Sandy Berger, Osama bin Laden, Clinton administration, George J. Tenet

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In interviews with the 9/11 Commission, unnamed deputies for CIA director George Tenet repeatedly claim that, before 9/11, they were never given a clear instruction to assassinate Osama bin Laden. This is false, as President Bill Clinton issued such an order following the 1998 embassy bombings (see December 24, 1998). According to author Philip Shenon, the deputies tell the commission “again and again” that they had not been given clear orders to assassinate bin Laden, but “that the CIA had instead been given a confusing set of presidential orders that allowed for bin Laden’s capture, but not his death.” Officers at the CIA apparently blamed this on “overly cautious” lawyers at the White House and Justice Department. The commission learns the deputies’ claims are false from Clinton’s former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger in January 2004 (see January 14, 2004). [Shenon, 2008, pp. 253-4]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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