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Context of 'December 24, 1998: President Clinton Signs Order Authorizing the Assassination of 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

The CIA seems not to understand permission given by President Bill Clinton to assassinate Osama bin Laden (see December 24, 1998). The instruction was contained in a memorandum of notification signed by Clinton authorizing the agency to use a group of tribal fighters to kill bin Laden. Previously, the tribal leaders had only been authorized to capture bin Laden, and this new memo marks an important shift in policy. According to author Philip Shenon, the memo is “written in stark language” and it makes it very clear “that the president was telling the tribal leaders they could kill bin Laden.” However, the actual memo is closely held within the CIA, and the 9/11 Commission will comment, “This intent [to have bin Laden killed] was never well communicated or understood within the agency.” Apparently, it is never even communicated to Michael Scheuer, head of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit. Scheuer will later express his frustration at not being allowed to try to kill bin Laden, “We always talked about how much easier it would have been to kill him.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 133; Shenon, 2008, pp. 358]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Alec Station, Michael Scheuer, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

President Bill Clinton rewrites a memo authorizing the CIA to use the Northern Alliance in an operation to assassinate Osama bin Laden. This memo follows another one signed by Clinton the previous year that allowed the agency to use a group of tribal fighters to kill bin Laden (see December 24, 1998). The draft February memo contains similar language to the earlier one, but applies to the Northern Alliance, not just the tribal assets. However, Clinton himself deletes the wording authorizing an operation to simply kill bin Laden. Clinton will later tell the 9/11 Commission that he does not recall why he gives the CIA permission to kill bin Laden through the tribal assets, but not through the Northern Alliance. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 360]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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