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CIA 'Plan' Helped Foil Terror Plots

Tenet discloses for first time an effort before 9/11 to capture Bin Laden. He says 3 attacks targeting Americans were thwarted.

October 18, 2002|Bob Drogin and Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — In a world of cloak and dagger, one of the CIA's most secret campaigns was called simply "the Plan."

For two years before the Sept. 11 attacks, it was the official operational strategy that the CIA, the FBI and other U.S. agencies jointly adopted for their clandestine -- and still largely unsuccessful -- campaign to capture terrorist Osama bin Laden and his chief aides.

CIA Director George J. Tenet described "the Plan" publicly for the first time Thursday during hearings in which he battled with lawmakers over his agen- cy's effectiveness leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.

He insisted that the covert war had successfully foiled a series of previously undivulged terrorist plots against Americans at home and abroad.

Tenet said U.S. intelligence and law enforcement had helped thwart three separate waves of attacks by Bin Laden's followers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia between the fall of 1999 and Sept. 11, 2001.

One foiled plot included the use of chemical weapons, Tenet revealed, while others involved hijackings, kidnappings and bombings of hotels, airports, buses and other targets.

The CIA also helped secretly deliver 70 suspects to foreign governments, a process known as "renditions" that human rights groups say tacitly permits the use of torture. Among the weapons seized: antiaircraft missiles.

"It saved lives -- perhaps in the thousands," Tenet said of the hitherto hidden effort. "And it prepared the field for the rapid successes in Afghanistan last winter."

Tenet provided the rare look at the CIA's covert counter-terrorism war as part of his testimony before the joint congressional panel that is investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some committee members, staffers and witnesses have sharply criticized the CIA in previous hearings for failing to aggressively pursue Bin Laden and his terrorist network.

Tenet also provided new details of Bin Laden's direct role in the Sept. 11 plot. Noting that planning for the attack began three years earlier, he added, "we understand that when one of his associates proposed to Bin Laden that the World Trade Center be targeted by small aircraft packed with explosives, Bin Laden reportedly suggested using even larger planes."

Although the CIA initially regarded Bin Laden as a financier of terrorism, he came into focus as a more direct threat after his support was confirmed in attacks on U.S. military forces in 1992 in Aden, Yemen, and again the next year in Mogadishu, Somalia, Tenet said.

Concern intensified when the CIA learned that Al Qaeda, the terror network started by Bin Laden, "had attempted to acquire material used in pursuing" weapons of mass destruction and had hired a Middle Eastern physicist to work on nuclear and chemical projects in Sudan.

The CIA set up its "Bin Laden Issue Station," known internally as "Alex Station," at its Virginia headquarters in 1996 after Bin Laden moved to Afghanistan, and stepped up its effort after Bin Laden's followers bombed two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998.

In 1999, Tenet said, he asked for a "new comprehensive operational plan of attack" against Bin Laden and his network. "Its priority was plain," he said, "to capture and bring to justice Bin Laden and his principal lieutenants."

As part of "the Plan," the CIA made greater use of informants and spies than in the past. Reports from such sources, known as human intelligence, or "humint," rose from about 600 in 1998 to 900 in the first nine months of 2001, Tenet said.

The first fruits of the plan came in late 1999 when the CIA warned U.S. policymakers that Bin Laden operatives planned from five to 15 attacks against U.S. and allied targets during the millennium celebrations. Luck played a role: A plan to bomb Los Angeles International Airport and other targets was detected when Ahmed Ressam panicked and was arrested at the Canadian border.

"We mounted disruption and arrest operations against terrorists in eight countries on four continents, which also netted information that allowed us to track down even more suspected terrorists," Tenet said.

Among the plots disrupted was a major terrorist cell in Jordan that had planned to blow up a Radisson Hotel, Christian holy sites and Israeli tour buses "and that had plans to use chemical weapons," Tenet said.

The CIA has not previously claimed that Bin Laden operatives had specific plans for chemical weapons. A former senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said several cells were known to have considered using industrial-strength chemicals and other means to poison water supplies in tourist areas.

The senior official confirmed that the CIA warnings at the time made officials all the way up to the senior White House level "screwed to the ceiling with fear."

"For people working counter-terrorism prior to 9/11, the millennium alert was a seminal event," the official said. Tenet "was driving the train on the millennium response. He put his whole operation on battle stations and he cashed in every chit that he had."

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