It’s now common knowledge that Osama bin Laden escaped from Afghanistan in December 2001 and is still at large, still at al-Qaeda’s helm calling the shots. Even Rush Limbaugh knows it, and has stopped trying to convince dittoheads that President Bush has the terror kingpin’s body on ice somewhere.
How we let bin Laden get away is still in dispute, however. And it’s no trivial matter.
The White House, loath to take the blame for an embarrassing failure, has deflected criticism by denying we ever had Enemy No. 1 cornered in Tora Bora, as virtually every foreign correspondent who was there at the time has reported.
Singing from the same hymnal, Bush, Vice President Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former CENTCOM Commander Gen. Tommy Franks have all insisted: "We didn’t know if bin Laden was at Tora Bora."
But two CIA officers who were on the ground then argue they did in fact know he was there and did next to nothing to snatch him. So does the CIA official who briefed the president about the Afghan operations.
Now the former CIA director is backing them up.
"Was Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora?" CBS correspondent Scott Pelley asked George Tenet in their recent "60 Minutes" interview.
"We believe that he was," Tenet replied.
Perhaps the CIA knew but failed to inform the White House or Pentagon?
Not according to Gary Berntsen, the key CIA field commander on the ground near Tora Bora at the time. He in vain requested 800 American army rangers to prevent bin Laden’s escape. The request was denied by Franks, who argued U.S. troops were not necessary because an Afghan militia had been hired to fight in their place. His priority was removing the Taliban from power, even though al-Qaeda financed, controlled and sponsored the Taliban, and not the other way around.
(Most Americans don’t know this, but Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan did not include any effort by U.S. forces to capture the al-Qaeda leadership, seal the border with Pakistan or cut off al-Qaeda escape routes. The U.S. attack on al-Qaeda consisted primarily of bombing deserted training camps, something former President Clinton had already tried before 9/11. The main focus of OEF was Taliban regime change, followed by nation building, something candidate George Bush vowed he’d never do.)
In his book, Jawbreaker, Berntsen refutes claims by Franks and the White House that bin Laden was able to escape from Tora Bora because they didn’t know he was holed up there.
"He was there," he says, "and could have been caught."
He says he escaped with the help of our paid Afghan proxy fighters, as well as Pakistani agents.
"They were happy to take our money and let al-Qaeda slip away," said Bernsten, who made it clear in his reports back to Washington that the locals weren’t interested in going after bin Laden in Tora Bora or blocking escape exits into Pakistan.
The U.S. National Intelligence director recently testified bin Laden is now operating from a "secure hideout" inside Pakistan, our purported ally. As Bush redeployed Special Forces, intelligence assets, translators, surveillance satellites, drones and other resources to Iraq, bin Laden set up several new terror-training camps in Pakistan and has exported terrorists in addition to the London bombers from there to hit targets in the West.
Bernsten’s account is corroborated by former CIA official Hank Crumpton, who personally briefed Bush and Cheney, as well as Franks, about the need to go after bin Laden in Tora Bora.
Crumpton, who headed up the CIA’s Afghan campaign, was in constant contact with Franks. Just weeks before bin Laden escaped, he strongly urged the general to move marines to the cave complex in Tora Bora, complaining "the back door was open." But Franks balked.
So Crumpton turned to the commander-in-chief and tried a more direct appeal. "We’re going to lose our prey if we’re not careful," he told Bush. Cheney also was in the meeting, according to Ron Suskind, author of the One Percent Doctrine.
But they did nothing. In spite of the CIA’s repeated advice to move against bin Laden in Tora Bora, the commander-in-chief and his top security advisers did not act. They ignored key intelligence.
Then there’s Gary C. Schroen, the CIA field officer in charge of the initial CIA incursion into Afghanistan after 9/11. The author of First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan also refutes the Pentagon and the White House. Witness this 2005 exchange on NBC’s Meet the Press:
TIM RUSSERT: In October 2004, General Tommy Franks offered this observation: "We don’t know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora in December 2001. Mr. bin Laden was never within our grasp." You just disagree with that?
SCHROEN: I absolutely do, yes.
RUSSERT: And President Bush and Vice President Cheney all quoted General Franks saying "We don’t know if bin Laden was at Tora Bora." You have no doubt?
SCHROEN: I have no doubt that he was there.
Franks, an old schoolmate of Laura Bush from Midland, Texas, is a diehard Bushie. He campaigned for Bush in 2004, and was rewarded with the Medal of Freedom for his loyalty. And he’s sticking to his story.
"We don’t know whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora," he told the New York Times. He was "never within our grasp." Franks lets it slip in his own memoir, however, that he briefed the president in December 2001 about "unconfirmed reports that Osama has been seen in the White Mountains … the Tora Bora area."
(It may have been more CYA than slip-up. In mid-December 2001, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, told reporters there had been "indicators" of bin Laden’s presence at Tora Bora in early December. There’s no doubt a paper trail within high command detailing these "unconfirmed reports" and "indicators." The Associated Press through a FOIA request has already uncovered a U.S. government document that describes how one of bin Laden’s commanders now held at Gitmo "assisted in the escape of Osama bin Laden from Tora Bora.")
Rumsfeld, who refused to put enough troops on the ground in Afghanistan (as well as Iraq), maintains that he didn’t "know of any evidence" that bin Laden "was in Tora Bora at the time, or that he left Tora Bora at the time." (He admitted in testimony before the 9/11 Commission that he did not deploy Special Forces to hunt down al-Qaeda in the White Mountains, explaining that the war was "not about al-Qaeda.")
Cheney, for his part, has insisted "it was not at all certain that bin Laden was in Tora Bora." For all anyone knows, "he might have been in Kashmir."
Bush also isn’t budging from that official line.
During the presidential debates, he essentially claimed Sen. John Kerry was lying when he said Bush lost bin Laden at Tora Bora because he outsourced the hunt to Afghan tribal leaders. He also challenged Kerry’s patriotism for daring to even question the war.
Bin Laden had released a pre-election speech that proved he was still alive and well contrary to White House spin. He might as well have jabbed a thumb in the president’s eye just days before polls opened, and the last thing Bush wanted to do was concede on national TV the possibility he dropped the ball in Afghanistan.
"My opponent tonight continued to say things he knows are not true … it is especially shameful in the light of a new tape from America’s enemy," Bush said following the debate.
Clearly, someone is lying about Tora Bora. Hmm … wonder who it could be.
Roughly three months after he left Washington and New York in flames and inspired Bush to vow to capture him "dead or alive," a desperate bin Laden was finally cornered trapped like a rat, according to Suskind. The CIA had a bead on him in about a 15-square-mile area in the White Mountains of Afghanistan. It was the one moment in the five years since 9/11 that his location could be pinpointed.
By Dec. 15, 2001, bin Laden got on his shortwave radio and praised his "most loyal fighters" about 800 strong at that point, dug in throughout the complex caves and trenches of Tora Bora and told them the battle against the "crusaders" would continue "on new fronts," Suskind says. Then he led them in prayer, and slipped away on horseback into Pakistan.
By all accounts, we knew where bin Laden was at the time, and blew a golden opportunity to take him and his inner circle out. He and an estimated 90% of his forces including almost all of al-Qaeda’s senior management survived the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, according to Michael Scheuer, the CIA officer who ran the bin Laden tracking unit at Langley.
And most of them escaped across the border to Pakistan after we neglected to "dog the escape hatches" with our own troops, Scheuer says. No effective cordon was thrown up around al-Qaeda’s leaders even though the national mandate after 9/11 was to once and for all decapitate al-Qaeda’s leadership so the organization could no longer plot and execute major attacks. (Six days after the 9/11 attacks, Bush himself announced to reporters: "The focus right now is on Osama bin Laden, no question about it. He’s the prime suspect and his organization.")
"Sadly," says al-Qaeda expert Peter Bergen, "there were probably more American journalists at the battle of Tora Bora than there were U.S. troops."
Just weeks after bin Laden escaped, Bush assured the press at his Crawford, Texas, ranch that "he is not escaping us." Then, as it became obvious that he had indeed escaped, the president acted as if the über-terrorist were never the prime target in the war on terror. "I truly am not that concerned about him," he shrugged.
With the help of spinmeisters Karl Rove and Mike Gerson, the president then proceeded to morph bin Laden into Saddam Hussein. If you can’t defeat your enemy, create a new one that you can defeat.
Would capturing bin Laden make a difference? "Absolutely," said Bruce Riedel, a 29-year CIA veteran. Allowing him to run loose has "created a mystique" around him in the Muslim world that he’s "beyond the reach" of Western infidels.
"We need to smash that mystique," he said. Until that happens, bin Laden will be lionized as the "Robin Hood" of the Islamic jihad.
Riedel agrees that Bush had him cornered more than five years ago and took his eye off the prize. He argues he should have kept his focus on bin Laden in South Asia instead of diverting resources to Iraq.
"It’s inexusable not to go after" bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders still today, he said. They are operating with relative impunity more than 1,000 miles away from Iraq, where Bush insists on pretending the "central front" in the war on terror is located.
Today Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Franks exalt the initial Afghan operation as an unqualified success ("remarkable," in fact, Rummy boasts). But Osama bin Laden is on the loose again because they allowed him to escape from Tora Bora, and then blew him off apparently for good to start a wag-the-dog war in Iraq that’s back-firing, big-time. It’s that simple.
If bin Laden directs another attack on America from his new redoubt inside Pakistan, the flawed Afghan operation will go down alongside the non-sequitur war in Iraq as the worst chain of military blunders in U.S. history.