The Counterterrorist Center was established in February 1986, under the CIA's Directorate of Operations, with Clarridge as its first director. It was an "interdisciplinary" body. Many of its personnel and most its chiefs were drawn from the CIA's Directorate of Operations, but others came from the Directorates of Intelligence and Science and Technology. Observing that terrorism knew no geographical boundaries, the CTC was designed to cut across the traditional region-based bodies of the CIA.
Discredited by the Iran-Contra scandal of 1986, the aims gave way to a more analytical role.
This didn't prevent another contemplated project in 1986-7, the "Eagle" drone aircraft. It could have been used to spy out hostage-takers in Lebanon.
Another use of the drones might be sabotage operations in Libya. Clarridge wanted to load one drone with two hundred pounds of C-4 plastic explosives and one hundred pounds of ball-bearings. His plan was to fly it onto Tripoli's air field at night, blow it up, and destroy "a whole bunch" of commercial airliners sitting unoccupied on the ground. He also tried to load small rockets onto the drones that could be used to fire at predesignated targets....
This idea was unrealistic in terms of the technical abilities of the time. But it is interesting to compare it with the Predator drone inaugurated in 2000 (see below).
In January 1996 the CTC opened the Bin Laden Issue Station to track Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, with Michael Scheuer, formerly in charge of the CTC's Islamic Extremist Branch, as its first head. The reasons were similar to those for the establishment of the CTC itself. The new Station (unlike the traditional country-based ones) was not geographically limited. And it drew its personnel from across the U.S. intelligence community.
Jeff (Geoff) O'Connell was Director of the CTC 1997-1999.
Cofer Black became Director in June 1999, as part of a reshuffle by CIA chief George Tenet, who was embarking on a grand "Plan" to deal with al-Qaeda (see below). At the same time Tenet made "Richard" ("Rich B"), one of his own "top-flight executives", head of the (unnamed) section in charge of the Bin Laden Station. ("Richard" is otherwise described as the head of the Bin Laden unit.)
Paul Pillar became chief of analysis in 1993. By 1997 he was the Center's deputy director. But in summer 1999 he suffered a clash of styles with the new director, Black. Soon after, Pillar left the CTC. He was replaced as deputy director by Ben Bonk. Henry "Hank" Crumpton was head of operations in the late 1990s. (He came back after 9/11 as chief of a new Special Operations section — see below.)
In the late 1990s the CIA began to set up Counterterrorist Intelligence Centers, as collaboration with the intelligence services of individual countries, and based in those countries, to deal with Islamist militants. The CTICs spread widely after September 11, 2001 attacks, existing in more than two dozen countries by 2005. "Officers from the host nations serving in the CTICs are vetted by the CIA, and usually supervised by the CIA's chief of station [in a particular country] and augmented by officers sent from the Counterterrorist Center at Langley."
The CTC produced a "comprehensive plan of attack" against bin Laden and "previewed the new strategy to senior CIA management by the end of July 1999. By mid-September, it had been briefed to CIA operational level personnel, and to [the National Security Agency, the] NSA, the FBI, and other partners." The strategy "was called simply, 'the Plan'." ...
wanted to "project" into Afghanistan, to "penetrate" bin Laden's sanctuaries. They described their plan as military officers might. They sought to surround Afghanistan with secure covert bases for CIA operations — as many bases as they could arrange. Then they would mount operations from each of the platforms, trying to move inside Afghanistan and as close to bin Laden as they could to recruit agents and to attempt capture operations.... Black wanted recruitments, and he wanted to develop commando or paramilitary strike teams made up of officers and men who could "blend" into the region's Muslim populations.
Once Cofer Black had finalized his operational plan.... [Charles] Allen [the associate deputy director of central intelligence for collection] created a dedicated al-Qa'ida cell with officers from across the intelligence community. This cell met daily, brought focus to penetrating the Afghan sanctuary, and ensured that collection initiatives were synchronized with operational plans. Allen met with [Tenet] on a weekly basis to review initiatives under way. His efforts were enabling operations and pursuing longer-range, innovative initiatives around the world against al-Qa'ida.
It is not clear how this "Qaeda cell", which duplicated the functions of the Bin Laden unit, related to or overlapped the unit.
The CIA increasingly concentrated its diminished resources on counterterrorism, so that resources for this activity increased sharply, in contrast to the general trend. At least some of the Plan's more modest aspirations were translated into action. Intelligence collection efforts on bin Laden and al-Qaeda increased significantly from 1999. "By 9/11", said Tenet, "a map would show that these collection programs and human [reporting] networks were in place in such numbers as to nearly cover Afghanistan.
Amid this activity, in November-December 1999 Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Ziad Jarrah and Nawaf al-Hazmi visited Afghanistan, where they were selected by al-Qaeda for the "planes operation" that was to become known as 9/11. The intelligence community began to pick up signs in late 1999. The National Security Agency (NSA) picked up traces of an "operational cadre" consisting of al-Hazmi, his younger brother Salem, and Khalid al-Mihdhar, who were planning to go to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000. A CTC officer sought permission to surveil the men. At about this time the SOCOM-DIA data mining operation Able Danger also identified a potential Qaeda unit, consisting of the future leading 9/11 hijackers Atta, al-Shehhi, al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. It termed them the "Brooklyn cell".
By the late spring of 2000, Richard Clarke and his White House counter-terrorism group had grown frustrated by the quality of intelligence reporting on Osama bin Laden's whereabouts.... Clarke and his aides brainstormed for new ideas.... Several years later, a number of people involved in these highly classified discussions claimed the credit for the idea of sending Predator reconnaissance drones into Afghanistan.... [I]t seems clear, in a general sense, that Clarke, [Vice Admiral Scott] Fry [head of operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff], [CIA intelligence chief Charles] Allen, [Cofer] Black, and officers in the CIA's bin Laden unit jointly conspired... to launch the Predator experiment.
In autumn 2000, a series of flights over Afghanistan by Predator drones, under the joint control of the USAF and the CTC, produced probable sightings of bin Laden. CTC Director Black became a "vocal advocate" of arming Predators with missiles to try to assassinate bin Laden. But there were legal and technical issues: under the new Bush administration in 2001, Black and the CTC's bin Laden unit continued to lobby for Predators armed with adapted Hellfire anti-tank missiles. Black urged CIA chief Tenet to promote the matter at the long-awaited Cabinet-level Principals Committee meeting on terrorism of September 4, 2001. The CIA chief did so. The CIA was authorized to "deploy the system with weapons-capable aircraft".
The CTC set up the "new Strategic Assessments Branch during July 2001".
The decision to add about ten analysts to this effort was seen as a major bureaucratic victory, but the CTC labored to find them. The new chief of this branch reported for duty on September 10, 2001.
The CTC obtained passenger lists from "the planes that had been turned into weapons that morning". "[A] CTC analyst raced over to the printing plant" (where most staff had been evacuated) and pointed out the names Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who they had "been looking for the last few weeks". This was the first "absolute proof" that the attacks were a Qaeda plot. (The CTC had first come across the names in connection with potential terrorist activity in the winter of 1999-2000.[see above].)
The CIA's planning efforts had put them in a better position to respond after the attacks. As Tenet put it,
How could [an intelligence] community without a strategic plan tell the president of the United States just four days after 9/11 how to attack the Afghan sanctuary and operate against al-Qa'ida in ninety-two countries around the world?
This was at a "war council" (a restricted group of the National Security Council) chaired by President Bush at Camp David on the weekend of September 15-16. CTC chief Black was also present.
Tenet described a plan for collecting intelligence and mounting covert operations. He proposed inserting CIA teams into Afghanistan to work with Afghan warlords who would join the fight against al-Qaeda. These CIA teams would act jointly with the military's Special Operations units. President Bush later praised this proposal, saying it had been a turning point in his thinking.
The CIA geared up to take the lead in the attack on al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The NALT team, led by Gary Schroen, entered the country once more on September 26. A new branch was added to the CTC — CTC Special Operations, or CTC/SO. Hank Crumpton was recalled to head it. Black told him, "Your mission is to find al-Qa'ida, engage it, and destroy it".
Execution of this mission was nowhere more evident than at Qala-i-Jangi, a 19th-century fortress on the outskirts of the northern Afghan town of Mazar-i-Sharif. On November 9 Crumpton correctly predicted the imminent fall of Mazar to America's Northern Alliance allies....
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