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Air Force Lieutenant General John “Soup” Campbell, associate director of central intelligence for military support, holds two exercises at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to consider the issues around killing Osama bin Laden with an armed drone aircraft. With fears about an attack by al-Qaeda increasing, the CIA is now discussing the details of how a mission to kill the terrorist group’s leader with an armed drone might be carried out. Campbell holds the two exercises as part of this effort.
Officials from Several Agencies Attend the First Exercise - The first exercise, held in a windowless conference room at CIA headquarters, is attended by around 40 officials, action officers, and experts. About 20 of them sit around the conference table. These officials include Charlie Allen, assistant director of central intelligence for collection; Roger Cressey, deputy for counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff; and a number of lawyers from the CIA, Department of Defense, and National Security Council. The other 20 or so participants sit around the walls. They include officials from the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, Air Force officers, and various “subject matter experts.”
Participants Agree to Kill Bin Laden in One Scenario - For about the first hour, a former Army officer who now works for the Counterterrorist Center presents what the CIA has learned about bin Laden from other sources since September 27, 2000, when a man believed to be the al-Qaeda leader was recorded on video by a Predator drone. The former Army officer then puts forward a specific scenario. Exercise participants are to imagine that human intelligence sources have informed the CIA that bin Laden is going to be at Tarnak Farms, an al-Qaeda base near Kandahar, Afghanistan, and so the decision has been made to launch an armed Predator while he is there. Campbell then plays the video of bin Laden recorded on September 27, 2000, which many in the room have never seen before. He asks who would be prepared to have the Predator fire a Hellfire missile at the man in the video and who thinks doing so might be a mistake, and why. Everyone in the room says they would support a decision to fire a missile at the man. They all feel certain that the total intelligence picture indicates he is bin Laden, the men around him must also be extremists, and there are no women or children nearby who would be at risk of injury when the missile struck.
Scenario Involving Weaker Evidence Is Considered - The former Army officer then asks those in the room to imagine a second scenario. In this situation, they have no information from human intelligence sources or other supplementary intelligence to base their decision on. All they have is another video captured by the Predator’s camera while the drone flew over a suspected al-Qaeda training camp the previous year. A tall man in white robes appears on the video walking along the wall outside the training compound, with some men surrounding him as if they are his security cordon. The appearance of the tall man and the behavior of those around him suggest he is bin Laden, but there is room for doubt and there is no intelligence from CIA agents or tribal allies to confirm this is the case.
Participants Disagree over Whether to Fire a Missile - Campbell asks those in the room who among them would be prepared to have a missile fired at the man and who would be unprepared to do so. This time, people disagree over what should be done. Some think the video alone is adequate evidence for firing a missile at the man, since if he was indeed bin Laden his death might eliminate a major threat to America. At the very least, the strike would eradicate some al-Qaeda terrorists. Others feel there is too much room for error without further evidence that the man in the video is bin Laden. Campbell feels encouraged to find those in the room disagreeing, since if an armed drone ever goes into use, he wants those handling it to be discerning about when to take action.
Aftermath of Killing Bin Laden Is Discussed - The exercise ends with Campbell leading a discussion of other, related issues. Participants are asked to consider what rules should be adopted to avoid collateral damage, especially the killing or injuring of women and children. They are also asked how the CIA and the rest of the US government should deal with the aftermath of a drone strike that killed bin Laden.
Second Exercise Is Attended by Senior Officials - Campbell and the former Army officer then hold their second tabletop exercise. This exercise, which takes place in the director’s conference room on the seventh floor of CIA headquarters, is smaller and attended by more senior CIA officials, including Director George Tenet. During it, there is more disagreement among participants than there was in the first exercise. Tenet is sure the CIA lacks the legal authority to kill someone by firing a missile from a drone at them, despite the existence of secret presidential orders, findings, and other directives relating to bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Other participants share his unease. Some of the officials express concern about what might happen if the CIA’s role in a drone strike became known. (Whittle 2014, pp. 206-208)
At the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, three senior CIA officers—John Russack, Don Kerr, and Charlie Allen—are having breakfast with Navy Commander Kirk Lippold. Lippold was the commanding officer of the USS Cole when it was attacked in Yemen the previous year (see October 12, 2000). The men’s discussion is focused on terrorism. Lippold is upset that the American public still does not recognize the threat it poses, and says that it will take a “seminal event” to awaken them to the problem. Following the breakfast, Lippold heads to the Counterterrorist Center at CIA headquarters for some briefings. Just minutes later, after the WTC is hit, Charlie Allen will contact Lippold and tell him, “The seminal event just happened.” (Tenet 2007, pp. 162-163)
The CIA sets up a secure line to the White House, but because the line is kept constantly connected to the White House, the CIA will be unable to receive the latest information about the terrorist attacks from the National Security Agency (NSA) over it. (Coll 2018, pp. 32) At around 10:00 a.m., personnel at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, were ordered to evacuate. Consequently, the agency’s senior leaders left the headquarters building and headed across the campus to the CIA printing plant, where they could continue their operations (see (9:50 a.m.-10:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Tenet 2007, pp. 164; Whittle 2014, pp. 236) When CIA Director George Tenet and other senior officials reach the printing plant, a technician sets up a secure terminal equipment (STE) line to the White House for them to use. Tenet then talks to Stephen Hadley, the deputy national security adviser, who is at the White House. During their conversation, Hadley insists that Tenet keep the STE line open to the White House continuously. However, this hinders the ability of the NSA to communicate with the CIA. NSA Director Michael Hayden wants to send the CIA preliminary evidence that al-Qaeda is responsible for the attacks on the US. (Coll 2018, pp. 32) Presumably this includes details of a phone conversation between one of Osama bin Laden’s operatives in Afghanistan and someone in the Republic of Georgia that was intercepted at 9:53 a.m., in which the operative said he had “heard good news” and another target was still to come (see 9:53 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Roberts 9/4/2002) But because the STE line is occupied, Charles Allen, assistant director of central intelligence for collection, who is with Tenet at the printing plant, is unable to securely receive the latest intercept reports from the NSA about who might be responsible for the attacks. He consequently has to send an NSA liaison officer to the headquarters building to collect these reports from a secure fax machine there. (Coll 2018, pp. 32)
The CIA’s Joint Task Force on Iraq, headed by career officer Valerie Plame Wilson, sends approximately 30 Iraqi-American civilians back to Iraq to interrogate family members who are weapons scientists. The agency hopes that the operation will help close some gaps in the agency’s Iraq intelligence. The plan was devised by Charlie Allen, the CIA’s assistant director for collection. The operation produces a very accurate picture of Iraq’s weapons programs, though the CIA does not realize this at the time. Every single one of family members (see, e.g., May 2002-September 2002) participating in the program return from Iraq with the same information—that Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs have long since been abandoned. The program is short-lived. It is shut down by officials in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations who are reportedly jealous of Charlie Allen’s incursions onto its operational turf. The program’s results are buried and never distributed to other bodies within the intelligence community. (Risen 2006, pp. 183-184; Isikoff and Corn 2006, pp. 12-14)
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