Soon after its creation the Station developed a new, deadlier vision of bin Laden's activities. In 1999 the CIA inaugurated a grand "Plan" against al-Qaeda, but struggled to find the resources to implement it. Nevertheless, by 9/11 the Agency achieved almost complete reporting on the militants in Afghanistan (excluding bin Laden's inner circle itself).
In 2000 a joint CIA-USAF project using "Predator" reconnaissance drones, and following a program drawn up by the Bin Laden Station, produced probable sightings of the Qaeda leader in Afghanistan. Resumption of flights in 2001 was delayed by arguments over a missile-armed version of the aircraft. Only on September 4, 2001 was the go-ahead given for weapons-capable drones. Also in 2001, CIA chief George Tenet set up a Strategic Assessments Branch, to remedy the deficiency of "big-picture" analysis on Islamist terrorism. The branch's head took up his job on September 10, 2001.
Cohen had trouble getting any Directorate of Operations officer to run the unit. He finally recruited Michael Scheuer, an analyst then running the CTC's Islamic Extremist Branch; Scheuer "was especially knowledgeable about Afghanistan". Scheuer, who "had noticed a recent stream of reports about Bin Ladin and something called al Qaeda", suggested that the new unit "focus on this one individual". Cohen agreed.
The Station opened in January 1996, as a unit under the CTC. Scheuer set it up and headed it from that time until spring 1999. The Station was an "interdisciplinary" group, drawing on personnel from the CIA, FBI, NSA and elsewhere in the intelligence community. Formally known as the Bin Ladin Issue Station, it was codenamed Alex, or Alec Station. (It is presumably the "Alex Base" referred to by Able Danger liaison Anthony Shaffer.) By 1999 the unit's staff had nicknamed themselves the Manson Family, "because they had acquired a reputation for crazed alarmism about the rising al Qaeda threat".
The Station originally had twelve professional staff members. This figure grew to 40-50 employees by Sept. 11, 2001. (The CTC as a whole had about 200 and 390 employees at the same dates.)
CIA chief George Tenet later described the Station's mission as "to track [bin Laden], collect intelligence on him, run operations against him, disrupt his finances, and warn policymakers about his activities and intentions". By early 1999 the unit had "succeeded in identifying assets and members of Bin Laden's organization ...".
Al-Fadl was persuaded to come to the United States by Jack Cloonan, an FBI special agent who had been "seconded" to the Bin Laden Issue Station. There, from late 1996, under the protection of Cloonan and his colleagues, al-Fadl "provided a major breakthrough on the creation, character, direction and intentions of al Qaeda". "Bin Laden, the CIA now learned, had planned multiple terrorist operations and aspired to more" — including the acquisition of weapons-grade uranium. Another "walk-in" source (since identified as L'Houssaine Kherchtou) "corroborated" al-Fadl's claims. "By the summer of 1998", Scheuer later summed up, "we had accumulated an extraordinary array of information on [al-Qaeda] and its intentions."
Unfortunately the "reams" of data that the Station had been "developing ... had not been pulled together and synthesized for the rest of the government". Policymakers knew there was a dangerous individual named Osama bin Laden whom they had been trying to capture and bring to trial. But they did not yet share the Bin Laden unit's consciousness of a structured worldwide organization called al-Qaeda, referring rather to bin Laden and his "associates" or "network". A 1997 CIA National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism only briefly mentioned bin Laden. The intelligence community did not in fact describe al-Qaeda until 1999.
Al Qaeda operated as an organization in more than sixty countries, the CIA's Counterterrorist Center calculated by late 1999 [a figure that was to help underpin the "War On Terror" two years later]. Its formal, sworn, hard-core membership might number in the hundreds. Thousands more joined allied militias such as the [Afghan] Taliban or the Chechen rebel groups or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines or the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan. ...
By autumn 1997 the Station had roughed out a plan for TRODPINT to capture bin Laden and hand him over for trial, either to the US or an Arab country. In early 1998 the Cabinet-level Principals Committee apparently gave their blessing, but the scheme was abandoned in the spring for fear of collateral fatalities during a capture attempt.
In August 1998 militants truck-bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. President Clinton ordered cruise-missile strikes on bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan. But there was no "follow-up" action to these strikes.
As an evident part of the new strategy, Tenet removed Mike Scheuer from the leadership of the Bin Laden Station. (Later that year Scheuer resigned from the CIA.) Tenet appointed "Richard" (Rich, Richie), a "fast-track executive assistant" who "came directly from Tenet's leadership group", to have authority over the Station. "Tenet quickly followed this appointment with another: He named Cofer Black as director of the entire CTC.
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] NSA [National Security Agency], the FBI, and other partners." The strategy "was called simply, 'the Plan'."
... [Cofer] Black and his new [sic] bin Laden unit 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.
[T]he CIA [also] considered the possibility of putting U.S. personnel on the ground in Afghanistan. The CIA had been discussing this possibility with Special Operations Command [SOCOM] and found enthusiasm on the working level but reluctance at higher levels. CIA saw a 95 percent chance of [SOCOM] forces capturing Bin Ladin if deployed — but less than a 5 percent chance of such a deployment. ...
Black also arranged for a CIA team, headed by Station chief Richard, to visit Northern-Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, to discuss operations against bin Laden. The mission was codenamed "JAWBREAKER-5", the fifth in a series of such missions since autumn 1997. The team went in late October 1999, "a hazardous journey in rickety helicopters that would be repeated several times in the future". They stayed for seven days. "The Bin Laden unit was satisfied that its reporting on Bin Ladin would now have a second source." Contemplated operations would be coordinated with the CIA's other prospective efforts against al-Qaeda.
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 Station.
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 for the "planes operation" that was to become known as 9/11. Al-Hazmi undertook guerrilla training at Qaeda's Mes Aynak camp (along with two Yemenis who were unable to get US entry visas). The camp was located in an abandoned Russian copper mine near Kabul, and was for a time in 1999 the only such training camp in operation. Atta, al-Shehhi and Jarrah met Muhammad Atef and bin Laden in Kandahar, and were instructed to go back to Germany to undertake pilot training.
In late 1999 the National Security Agency (NSA), following up information from the FBI's investigation of the 1998 US embassy attacks, picked up traces of "an operational cadre", consisting of Nawaf al-Hazmi, his companion Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf's younger brother Salem, who were planning to go to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000. Seeing a connection with the attacks, a CTC officer sought permission to surveil the men.
At about this time the SOCOM-DIA 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", because of some associations with the New York district. Evidently at least some of the men were physically and legally present in the United States, since there was an ensuing legal tussle over the "right" of "quasi-citizens" not to be spied on.
As for the CIA. The Agency erratically tracked al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar as they traveled to and attended the al-Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur in early January 2000. "The Counterterrorist Center had briefed the CIA leadership on the gathering in Kuala Lumpur ... The head of the Bin Ladin unit [Richard] kept providing updates", unaware at first that the information was out-of-date. By March 2000 it was learned that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar had departed for (or returned to) Los Angeles. But no-one outside the CTC was informed. The men were not registered with the State Department's TIPOFF list, nor was the FBI told.
There are also allegations that the CIA surveiled Mohamed Atta in Germany from the time he returned there in January/February 2000, until he left for the US in June 2000.
Resumption of flights in 2001 was delayed by arguments over an armed Predator. A drone equipped with adapted "Hellfire" anti-tank missiles could be used to try to kill bin Laden and other Qaeda leaders. Cofer Black and the bin Laden unit were among the advocates. But there were both legal and technical issues. In the summer the CIA "conducted classified war games at Langley ... to see how its chain of command might responsibly oversee a flying robot that could shoot missiles at suspected terrorists". And a series of live-fire tests in the Nevada desert (involving a mockup of bin Laden's Tarnak residence) produced mixed results.
Tenet advised cautiously on the matter at a meeting of the Cabinet-level Principals Committee on September 4, 2001. If the Cabinet wanted to empower the CIA to field a lethal drone, Tenet said, "they should do so with their eyes wide open, fully aware of the potential fallout if there were a controversial or mistaken strike". National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice concluded that the armed Predator was required, but evidently not ready. It was agreed to recommend to the CIA to resume reconnaissance flights. The "previously reluctant" Tenet then ordered the Agency to do so. The CIA was now "authorized to deploy the system with weapons-capable aircraft, but for reconnaissance missions only", since the host nation (presumably Uzbekistan) "had not agreed to allow flights by weapons-carrying aircraft".
Subsequent to 9/11, approval was quickly granted to ship the missiles, and the Predator aircraft and missiles reached their overseas location on September 16, 2001. The first mission was flown over Kabul and [Kandahar] on September 18 without carrying weapons. Subsequent host nation approval was granted on October 7 and the first armed mission was flown on the same day.
The briefing was apparently in response to an initiative from Tenet, who in late 2000 had "recognized the deficiency of strategic analysis against al Qaeda. To tackle this problem within the CTC he [had] appointed a senior manager, who briefed him in March 2001 on 'creating a strategic assessment capability.'"The Strategic Assessments Branch was "created" in 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.
After the September 11 attacks, staff numbers at the Station were expanded into the hundreds. Scheuer claimed the expansion was a "shell game" played with temporary (and inexperienced) staff, and that the core personnel "remained at under 30, the size it was when Scheuer left office in 1999". (As we have seen, professional staff numbers grew to 40 to 50 by the eve of 9/11.)
After 9/11, "Hendrik V.", and later "Marty M.", were chiefs of "Alec Station's Bin Ladin Unit" (says George Tenet).
Former CIA Chief of Anti Al-Qaeda Unit in Attack on Allies; OBAMA IS 'MAIN RECRUITING SERGEANT' FOR TERRORISTS
May 30, 2011; Byline: STEVE DUB[ETH] THE former head of the CIA's Bin Laden unit attacked the US and UK governments yesterday, claiming their...