Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, both Clinton-era staffers on the National Security Council, have a short, sharp, sensible op-ed in the New York Times today. They make a good point—that the CIA should be more involved in the special-operations business—but they also self-servingly distort history along the way.
Benjamin and Simon point to the chronic difficulties the U.S. military has created for itself in mounting commando raids against terrorist targets. The occasion for their piece is the revelations now coming out about an aborted 2005 operation against a terrorist haven in Pakistan’s lawless tribal region to capture or kill Ayman al-Zawahri, al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader.
The Pentagon, they note, through its bureaucratic processes, “added large numbers of troops to conduct additional intelligence, force protection, communications and extraction work. At that point, as one senior intelligence official told [the Times], ‘The whole thing turned into the invasion of Pakistan,’ and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pulled the plug.”
This episode, Benjamin and Simon tell us, is reminiscent of trouble faced by the Clinton administration. “The Clinton White House repeatedly requested options involving ground forces that could hunt and destroy terrorists in Afghanistan.” But repeatedly, they write, “senior military officials declared such a mission ‘would be Desert One,’ referring to the disastrous 1980 effort to free American hostages in Iran. When the Pentagon finally delivered a plan, the deployment envisioned would have been sufficient to take and hold Kabul but not to surprise and pin down a handful of terrorists.”
This is true. But it is also false. It provides only half the picture. For, even as the Clinton administration was contemplating military action against al-Qaeda safe havens, it was also planning much narrower commando operations, conceived and planned by the CIA, to seize Osama bin Laden—precisely the kind of raid Benjamin and Simon are recommending now.
But what happened? It was not the military which screwed up the operation by beefing up the forces until it turned into a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan. It was the Clinton administration itself which called off the CIA action, out of fear that bin Laden would be killed—in violation of an executive order banning assassinations.
The 9/11 Commission Report contains a wealth of detail on this episode, including a remarkable kabuki dance of finger-pointing, with CIA Director George Tenet accepting most of the blame while implicitly suggesting that Sandy Berger, the National Security Council (NSC) chairman, should have been more vigorous in pressing ahead:
Impressions vary as to who actually decided not to proceed with the operation. [Richard] Clarke [NSC Counterterrorism] told us that the CSG [an interagency Counterterrorism Security Group] saw the plan as flawed. He was said to have described it to a colleague on the NSC staff as “half-assed” and predicted that the principals would not approve it. “Jeff ” [the CIA Counterterrorist Center Chief] thought the decision had been made at the cabinet level. [James] Pavitt [assistant head of the CIA Directorate of Operations] thought that it was [Sandy] Berger’s doing, though perhaps on Tenet’s advice. Tenet told us that given the recommendation of his chief operations officers, he alone had decided to “turn off” the operation. He had simply informed Berger, who had not pushed back. Berger’s recollection was similar. He said the plan was never presented to the White House for a decision.
Yes, it would be a good idea to make greater use of the CIA in the realm of special operations. But those advancing this recommendation would have done well to note that when they and the administration they served tried to fire this silver bullet themselves, they had a lot of trouble loading it and in the end could not bring themselves to squeeze the trigger.