Did UAE Save Bin Laden?

Before President Bush gets anywhere near casting his first veto to ensure that the government of the United Arab Emirates can manage elements of six U.S. ports, someone ought to put before him pages 137-139 of “The 9/11 Commission Report.”

If Bush doesn’t then cancel the UAE port deal, Congress must demand testimony from every person named in those pages and the footnotes. That includes former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet; former CIA Deputy Director for Operations James Pavitt; former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger; Gen. Hugh Shelton, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Maj. Gen. John Maher, Shelton’s vice director of operations; Gary Schroen, the CIA field officer tracking Bin Laden; “Mike,” the pseudonym the 9/11 Commission gave the U.S.’s Osama bin Laden unit chief; and, most importantly, Richard Clarke, Berger’s assistant for counter-terrorism.

Tipped Off

The story the commission tells is that Clarke made a call to a high-ranking UAE official that may have inadvertently saved bin Laden from a U.S. missile strike. The commission’s reporting strongly suggests someone in the UAE government tipped off someone in Afghanistan, protecting bin Laden.

In early 1999, the Clinton Administration wanted to fire missiles at bin Laden without risking civilian casualties. Bin Laden played into our hands. Intelligence reports from Afghan “tribals” indicated he was frequenting a small hunting camp adjacent to a larger camp outside Kandahar, Afghanistan. Here U.S. missiles could score a clean kill.

But then officials from the UAE got in the way. The commission said:

“On February 8, the military began to ready itself for a possible strike. The next day, national technical intelligence confirmed the location and description of the larger camp and showed the nearby presence of an official aircraft of the United Arab Emirates. But the location of Bin Laden’s quarters could not be pinned down so precisely. … According to reporting from the tribals, bin Laden regularly went from his adjacent camp to the larger camp where he visited the Emiratis. The tribals expected him to be at the hunting camp for such a visit at least until midmorning on February 11. Clarke wrote to Berger’s deputy on February 10 that the military was then doing targeting work to hit the main camp with cruise missiles and should be in position to strike the following morning. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert appears to have been briefed on the situation.

“No strike was launched. By February 12 bin Laden had apparently moved on, and the immediate strike plans became moot. According to CIA and Defense officials, policymakers were concerned about the danger that a strike would kill an Emirati prince or other senior officials who might be with bin Laden or close by. Clarke told us the strike was called off after consultations with Director Tenet because the intelligence was dubious, and it seemed to Clarke as if the CIA was presenting an option to attack America’s best counterterrorism ally in the Gulf. The lead CIA official in the field, Gary Schroen, felt that the intelligence reporting in this case was very reliable. The bin Laden unit chief, ‘Mike,’ agreed. Schroen believes today that this was a lost opportunity to kill bin Laden before 9/11.

“Even after bin Laden’s departure from the area, CIA officers hoped he might return, seeing the camp as a magnet that could draw him for as long as it was still set up. The military maintained readiness for another strike opportunity. On March 7, 1999, Clarke called a UAE official to express his concerns about possible associations between Emirati officials and bin Laden. Clarke later wrote in a memorandum of this conversation that the call had been approved at an interagency meeting and cleared with the CIA. When the former bin Laden unit chief found out about Clarke’s call, he questioned CIA officials, who denied having given such a clearance. Imagery confirmed that less than a week after Clarke’s phone call the camp was hurriedly dismantled, and the site was deserted. CIA officers, including Deputy Director for Operations Pavitt, were irate. ‘Mike’ thought the dismantling of the camp erased a possible site for targeting bin Laden.”

Clarke Visited UAE

Footnotes spell out more details. One names the “UAE official” Clarke called: “NSC memo, Clarke, secure teleconference between UAE Chief of Staff Muhammad bin Zayid and Clarke, Mar. 7, 1999.”

Another notes that Joint Chiefs deputy operations director Maher was incredulous the CIA would approve this call: “Maher told us he thinks it ‘almost impossible’ that the CIA cleared Clarke’s call.”

Another indicates Clarke had been in the UAE just before the contemplated strike at bin Laden and had been assured by both bin Zayid and Dubai’s leader, Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashid, that the UAE would help the U.S. against bin Laden. Bin Zayid even insisted UAE officials were not in Afghanistan, even though it turned out that the UAE chief of staff himself had gone hunting in Afghanistan at about the same time as the contemplated U.S. attacks. The commission said:

“Days before overhead imagery confirmed the location of the hunting camp, Clarke had returned from a visit to the UAE … His visit included one-on-one meetings with Army Chief of Staff bin Zayid, as well as talks with Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashid, the ruler of Dubai. Both agreed to try to work with the United States in their efforts against Bin Laden. … On February 10, as the United States considered striking the camp, Clarke reported that during his visit bin Zayid had vehemently denied rumors that high-level UAE officials were in Afghanistan. … Subsequent reporting, however, suggested that high-level UAE officials had indeed been at the desert camp. CIA memo, ‘Recent High Level UAE Visits to Afghanistan,’ Feb. 19, 1999. Gen. Shelton also told us that his UAE counterpart said he had been hunting at a desert camp in Afghanistan at about this time.”

Another footnote says that talking points prepared for DCI Tenet that March mention “the UAE being ‘tipped off’ to the CIA’s knowledge of the camp.”

Richard Clarke believed the UAE was a counter-terrorism ally then. Bush believes it now. Clarke apparently was fooled. But that, at least, was before 9/11.