Where’s Osama?

Sept. 11 could have been avoided if our intelligence agencies had done their job.

Topics: Osama Bin Laden, Bill Clinton,

Sometimes the truth can be so banal it hurts. Cut through the hogwash of a year’s worth of lofty Sept. 11 postmortems and dire warnings that the world is out to get us, and one is left with the reality that the day of infamy could easily have been avoided.

The uniquely clear and overt terrorist threat of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization to the United States, its bloody track record in attacking U.S. targets overseas, and even the exact location of its base of operations were all known by both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Tragically, however, for embarrassingly petty bureaucratic and political reasons, both presidents were unwilling or unable to take the monster out.

The lavish budgets of our intelligence agencies allowed us to read the license plates of vehicles in al-Qaida’s training camps from space and even caught snapshots of the bearded one from cameras mounted on CIA Predator drones. Our contacts on the ground knew all about bin Laden’s terror operation because his Afghanistan and Pakistan government sponsors were originally organized, financed and trained by the CIA to wage the first U.S.-sponsored Islamic “holy war” against the Soviets.

It was bad enough that through our Cold War actions in the Muslim world we helped create the “Islamic threat” — an epithet now commonly employed to slander one of the world’s great religions. But even worse, the CIA ignored the boomerang effect until that infamous day when it turned into our worst nightmare.

At home, FBI honchos dismissed field operatives’ warnings of an amateurish invasion of U.S. flight schools by bin Laden’s operatives. The FBI has claimed that it had insufficient manpower to track down these terrifying leads. Yet during that same period, the bureau squandered tens of thousands of agent hours obsessively shadowing and interrogating Wen Ho Lee, a Los Alamos scientist who was never charged with spying.

Speaking of obsessions, Saddam Hussein, dead or alive, had nothing to do with Sept. 11, much as we’d like to find an excuse for going to war with Iraq. No, bin Laden was the enemy, with links to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, not Baghdad. We knew where he lived and did nothing about it. After the murder of hundreds of civilians at U.S. embassies in Africa and the killings of U.S. service personnel in Saudi Arabia and on the USS Cole, the United States’ response was lethargic, distracted and ineffective.



Clinton did order a missile attack on bin Laden’s infamous training camp in 1998, but having barely missed the target, he shunned further direct action, partly deterred by outraged Republicans who accused him of “wagging the dog” to distract us all from the all-important Monica Lewinsky scandal.

In any case, Clinton failed to complete the job, his administration contenting itself to give the incoming Bush team some alarming briefings on the bin Laden operation.

However, Bush, who in debates with Al Gore had lambasted foreign intervention as “nation building,” was building his foreign policy around the drug war, diplomatic isolationism and the elimination of the landmark Antiballistic Missile Treaty, so we could pursue our quixotic attempt to build a missile shield over North America.

Further, neither administration seemed to grasp that bin Laden and the Taliban had become one and the same. Both administrations ignored such evidence as a comment that came out of the U.S.-supported talks between a Saudi prince and the Taliban leader Mohammed Omar in September 1998. Omar definitively rejected betraying the Taliban’s “hero” — bin Laden — and told the Saudi prince that bin Laden would never be expelled from Afghanistan.

Soon after these talks, 17 U.S. service personnel died on the Cole while it was docked in Yemen, an al-Qaida redoubt.

Stunningly, five weeks after the Bush administration expressed gratitude to the Taliban for eradicating Afghanistan’s poppy crop and simultaneously announced that it was funneling new aid to the country through the United Nations, the president’s reading-to-kids photo op was interrupted by the Sept. 11 devastation.

Some have suggested that the Bush administration was starting to wake up to the threat of al-Qaida, but we’ll never know now. What we do know is that in the last year the deaths of Sept. 11 have been used over and over again as a rationale for eroding the Constitution, reorganizing the federal government and launching a preemptive, unilateral strike against a nation not implicated in the attacks.

Far more effective in preventing terrorism, however, and engendering far fewer risks, would be for our leaders and intelligence agencies to simply do their jobs, and do them well.

Robert Scheer is a syndicated columnist.

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