Lethal operations are under way to crush bin Laden
By BOB WOODWARD
WASHINGTON — President Bush last month signed an intelligence order directing the CIA to undertake its most sweeping and lethal covert action since the founding of the agency in 1947, explicitly calling for the destruction of Osama bin Laden and his worldwide al-Qaida network, according to senior government officials.
The president also added more than $1 billion to the agency’s war on terrorism, most of it for the new covert action. The operation will include what officials said is unprecedented coordination between the CIA and commando and other military units. Officials said that the president, operating through his "war cabinet," has pledged to dispatch military units to take advantage of the CIA’s latest and best intelligence.
Bush’s order, called an intelligence finding, instructs the agency to attack bin Laden’s communications, security apparatus and infrastructure, senior government officials said. U.S. intelligence has identified new and important specific weaknesses in the bin Laden organization that are not publicly known, and these vulnerabilities will be the focus of the lethal covert action, sources said.
"The gloves are off," one senior official said. "The president has given the agency the green light to do whatever is necessary. Lethal operations that were unthinkable pre-September 11 are now under way."
The CIA’s covert action is a key part of the president’s offensive against terrorism, but the agency also is playing a critical role in the defense against future terrorist attacks.
For example, each day a CIA document called the "Threat Matrix," which has the highest security classification, lands on the desks of the top national security and intelligence officials in the Bush administration. It presents the freshest and most sensitive raw intelligence on dozens of threatened bombings, hijackings or poisonings. Only threats deemed to have some credibility are included in the document.
One day last week, the Threat Matrix contained 100 threats to U.S. facilities in the United States and throughout the world — shopping complexes, specific cities, places where thousands gather, embassies. Though nearly all the listed threats have passed without incident and 99 percent turned out to be groundless, dozens more take their place in the matrix each day.
It was the matrix that generated the national alert of impending terrorist action issued by the FBI on Oct. 11. The goal of the matrix is simple: Look for patterns and specific details that might prevent another Sept. 11.
"I don’t think there has been such risk to the country since the Cuban missile crisis," a senior official said.
During an interview in his West Wing office Friday morning, Vice President Dick Cheney spoke of the new war on terrorism as much more problematic and protracted than the Persian Gulf War of 1991, when Cheney served as secretary of defense to Bush’s father.
The vice president bluntly said: "It is different than the Gulf War was, in the sense that it may never end. At least, not in our lifetime."
In issuing the finding that targets bin Laden, the president has said he wants the CIA to undertake high-risk operations. He has stated to his advisers that he is willing to risk failure in the pursuit of ultimate victory, even if the result are some embarrassing public setbacks in individual operations. The overall military and covert plan is intended to be massive and decisive, officials said.
"If you are going to push the envelope some things will go wrong, and (President Bush) sees that and understands risk-taking," one senior official said.
In the interview, Cheney said, "I think it’s fair to say you can’t predict a straight line to victory. You know, there’ll be good days and bad days along the way."
U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies recently received an important break in the effort to track down terrorist leaders overseas, according to officials.
The FBI and CIA have been given limited access in the past several weeks to a top bin Laden lieutenant who was arrested after Sept. 11 and is being held in a foreign country. The person, whose various aliases include "Abu Ahmed," is "a significant player," in the words of one senior Bush official. Ahmed was arrested with five other members of al-Qaida. He is believed by several senior officials to be the highest-ranking member of al-Qaida ever held for systematic interrogation.
Though Ahmed has not given information about future terrorist operations, he has provided some details about the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in a Yemeni port, when 17 sailors were killed.
One source said he also has information about the planned terrorist attacks in the United States that were disrupted before the millennium celebrations in December 1999.
When specific facilities or locations are threatened, as they have been repeatedly in the past month, the FBI informs local law enforcement authorities or foreign intelligence services that are supposed to increase security and take protective measures.
The Threat Matrix lists where the intelligence comes from: intercepted communications, walk-in sources, e-mails, friendly foreign intelligence services, telephone threats, and FBI or CIA human sources.
The public is not informed except when the threat is considered highly credible or specific, as it was on Oct. 11 when the FBI issued its nationwide alert.
In the interview, Cheney said that deciding when to go public and when to withhold threat information is one of the most difficult tasks the administration faces.
"You have to avoid falling into the trap of letting it be a cover-your-ass exercise," Cheney said. "If you scare the hell out of people too often, and nothing happens, that can also create problems. Then when you do finally get a valid threat and warn people and they don’t pay attention, that’s equally damaging."
He also noted, "If you create panic, the terrorist wins without ever doing anything. So these are tough calls."
Making details from the Threat Matrix public could result in chaos, several officials said. Literally hundreds of places, institutions and cities from throughout the country have been on the list.
"It could destroy the livelihood of all those organizations and places without a bomb being thrown or a spore of anthrax being released," another senior Bush official said.
The official was asked what would happen if there was a major terrorist incident and many were killed at one of the facilities or places on the Threat Matrix and no public warning had been issued.
"Then they would have our heads," the official said.
Intelligence and law enforcement agencies attempt to check every threat to see if it is genuine, officials said. The results at times have been unexpected. In early October, a woman called authorities to say it was her patriotic duty to report that her husband, who is from the Middle East, was planning an attack with eight or nine friends on Chicago’s Sears Tower.
The woman sounded credible, and her allegations were reported in the Threat Matrix. The FBI then detained her husband and friends. On the next Threat Matrix, the CIA reported that the FBI might have broken up an al-Qaida cell.
Upon further investigation, the FBI learned that the woman was furious with her husband, who had a second wife. Her allegations had no merit, but the bureau discovered that some of the people were involved in an arranged-marriage scheme.
"Instead of terrorism," one official said, "we found an angry wife."
Another senior official said, "There can be a problem in a marriage and it results in, you know, an allegation that shows up in the Threat Matrix."
During the interview in his West Wing office, Cheney, with a large map of Afghanistan on an easel near his desk, spoke of life post-Sept. 11.
"The way I think of it is, it’s a new normalcy," he said. "We’re going to have to take steps, and are taking steps, that’ll become a permanent part of the way we live. In terms of security, in terms of the way we deal with travel and airlines, all of those measures that we end up having to adopt in order to sort of harden the target, make it tougher for the terrorists to get at us. And I think those will become permanent features in our kind of way of life."
Though the new intelligence war presents the CIA with an opportunity to excel, several officials noted that the campaign also is fraught with risk.
The agency is being assigned a monumental task for which it is not fully equipped or trained, said one CIA veteran who knows the agency from many perspectives. Human, on-the-ground sources are scarce in the region and in the Muslim world in general. Since the end of the Cold War more than a decade ago, the Directorate of Operations, which runs covert activity, has been out of the business of funding and managing major lethal covert action.
The CIA has a history of bungling such operations going back to the 1950s and 1960s, most notably when the agency unsuccessfully plotted to assassinate Fidel Castro.
Since the Ford administration, all presidents have signed an executive order banning the CIA or any other U.S. government agency from involvement in political assassination. Generally speaking, lawyers for the White House and the CIA have said that the ban does not apply to wartime when the military is striking the enemy’s command and control or leadership targets.
The United States also can legally invoke the right of self-defense as justification for striking terrorists or their leaders planning attacks on the United States.
Bush’s new presidential finding differs from past findings against the terrorists in a number of significant ways. First, it puts more military muscle behind the clandestine effort to crush al-Qaida. Second, it is far better funded. Third, senior officials said, it has the highest possible priority and will involve better coordination within the entire national security structure: the White House, the president’s national security adviser, the CIA, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the departments of State, Defense and Justice.
"There’s a lot of tough decisions that are involved here, and some of them very close calls," Cheney said. "But if I had to go out and design a team of people … this is it."
The vice president added that the war on bin Laden and terrorists in general is going to be particularly difficult.
"They have nothing to defend," he said. "You know, for 50 years we deterred the Soviets by threatening the utter destruction of the Soviet Union. What does bin Laden value?
"There’s no piece of real estate. It’s not like a state or a country. The notion of deterrence doesn’t really apply here. There’s no treaty to be negotiated, there’s no arms control agreement that’s going to guarantee our safety and security. The only way you can deal with them is to destroy them."