Bin Laden Issue Station
Soon after its creation the Station developed a new, deadlier vision of bin Laden's activities. In 1999 the CIA inaugurated a grand plan against al-Qaeda, but struggled to find the resources to implement it. Nevertheless, by 9/11 the Agency achieved almost complete reporting on the militants in Afghanistan (excluding bin Laden's inner circle itself).
In 2000 a joint CIA-USAF project using Predator reconnaissance drones, and following a program drawn up by the Bin Laden Station, produced probable sightings of the Qaeda leader in Afghanistan. Resumption of flights in 2001 was delayed by arguments over a missile-armed version of the aircraft. Only on September 4, 2001 was the go-ahead given for weapons-capable drones. Also in 2001, CIA chief George Tenet set up a Strategic Assessments Branch, to remedy the deficiency of big-picture analysis on Islamist terrorism. The branch's head took up his job on September 10, 2001.
Conception, birth and growth 
The idea was born from discussions within the CIA's senior management, and that of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center (CTC). David Cohen, head of the CIA's Directorate of Operations, and others, wanted to try out a virtual station, modeled on the Agency's overseas stations, but based near Washington DC and dedicated to a particular issue. The unit "would fuse intelligence disciplines into one office—operations, analysis, signals intercepts, overhead photography and so on".
Cohen had trouble getting any Directorate of Operations officer to run the unit. He finally recruited Michael Scheuer, an analyst then running the CTC's Islamic Extremist Branch; Scheuer "was especially knowledgeable about Afghanistan". Scheuer, who "had noticed a recent stream of reports about Bin Ladin and something called al Qaeda", suggested that the new unit "focus on this one individual". Cohen agreed.
The Station opened in January 1996, as a unit under the CTC. Scheuer set it up and headed it from that time until spring 1999. The Station was an interdisciplinary group, drawing on personnel from the CIA, FBI, NSA and elsewhere in the intelligence community. Formally known as the Bin Ladin Issue Station, it was codenamed Alec Station, after Michael Scheuer's son's name, as referred to by Able Danger liaison Anthony Shaffer. By 1999 the unit's staff had nicknamed themselves the "Manson Family", "because they had acquired a reputation for crazed alarmism about the rising al Qaeda threat".
The Station originally had twelve professional staff members, including former FBI agent Daniel Coleman. This figure grew to 40–50 employees by September 11, 2001. (The CTC as a whole had about 200 and 390 employees at the same dates.)
CIA chief George Tenet later described the Station's mission as "to track [bin Laden], collect intelligence on him, run operations against him, disrupt his finances, and warn policymakers about his activities and intentions". By early 1999 the unit had "succeeded in identifying assets and members of Bin Laden's organization ...".
New view of al-Qaeda, 1996–1998 
Soon after its inception, the Station began to develop a new, deadlier vision of al-Qaeda. In spring 1996, in what Scheuer called "a stroke of luck", Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl walked into the US's Eritrean embassy and established his credentials "as a former senior employee" of Bin Laden. Al-Fadl had lived in the US in the mid-1980s, and had been recruited to the Afghan mujaheddin through the al-Khifa center at the Farouq mosque in Brooklyn. Al-Khifa was the interface of "Operation Cyclone, the American effort to support the mujaheddin", and the Pakistan-based Services Office of Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden, whose purpose was to raise recruits for the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Al-Fadl had joined al-Qaeda in 1989, apparently in Afghanistan. Peter Bergen called him the third member of the organization (presumably after Azzam and bin Laden). But al-Fadl had since embezzled $110,000 from al-Qaeda, and now wanted to defect.
Al-Fadl was persuaded to come to the United States by Jack Cloonan, an FBI special agent who had been seconded to the Bin Laden Issue Station. There, from late 1996, under the protection of Cloonan and his colleagues, al-Fadl "provided a major breakthrough on the creation, character, direction and intentions of al Qaeda". "Bin Laden, the CIA now learned, had planned multiple terrorist operations and aspired to more"—including the acquisition of weapons-grade uranium. Another "walk-in" source (since identified as L'Houssaine Kherchtou) "corroborated" al-Fadl's claims. "By the summer of 1998", Scheuer later summed up, "we had accumulated an extraordinary array of information on [al-Qaeda] and its intentions."
Unfortunately the "reams" of data that the Station had been "developing ... had not been pulled together and synthesized for the rest of the government". Policymakers knew there was a dangerous individual named Osama bin Laden whom they had been trying to capture and bring to trial. But they did not yet share the Bin Laden unit's consciousness of a structured worldwide organization called al-Qaeda, referring rather to bin Laden and his "associates" or "network". A 1997 CIA National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism only briefly mentioned bin Laden. The intelligence community did not in fact describe al-Qaeda until 1999.
Al Qaeda operated as an organization in more than sixty countries, the CIA's Counterterrorist Center calculated by late 1999 [a figure that was to help underpin the "War On Terror" two years later]. Its formal, sworn, hard-core membership might number in the hundreds. Thousands more joined allied militias such as the [Afghan] Taliban or the Chechen rebel groups or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines or the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan. ...
First capture plan and US embassy attacks, 1997–98 
In May 1996 bin Laden moved from Sudan to Afghanistan. Scheuer saw the move as a (further) "stroke of luck". Though the CIA had virtually abandoned Afghanistan after the fall of the Soviet puppet regime in 1991, case officers had re-established some contacts while tracking down Kasi, the Pakistani gunman who had murdered two CIA employees in 1993. "One of the contacts was a group associated with particular tribes among Afghanistan's ethnic Pashtun community." The team, dubbed "TRODPINT" by the CIA, was provisioned with arms, equipment and cash by the CTC, and set up residence around Kandahar. Kasi was captured in June 1997. CTC chief Jeff O'Connell then "approved a plan to transfer the Afghans agent teams from the [CIA's] Kasi cell to the bin Laden unit".
By autumn 1997 the Station had roughed out a plan for TRODPINT to capture bin Laden and hand him over for trial, either to the US or an Arab country. In early 1998 the Cabinet-level Principals Committee apparently gave their blessing, but the scheme was abandoned in the spring for fear of collateral fatalities during a capture attempt.
In August 1998 militants truck-bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. President Clinton ordered cruise-missile strikes on bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan. But there was no "follow-up" action to these strikes.
New leadership and the new Plan, 1999 
In December 1998 CIA chief Tenet "declared war" on Osama bin Laden. Early in 1999 Tenet "Ordered the CTC to begin a 'baseline' review of the CIA's operational strategy against bin Laden". In the spring he "demanded 'a new, comprehensive plan of attack' against bin Laden and his allies".
As an evident part of the new strategy, Tenet removed Mike Scheuer from the leadership of the Bin Laden Station. (Later that year Scheuer resigned from the CIA.) Tenet appointed "Richard" (Rich, Richie), a "fast-track executive assistant" who "came directly from Tenet's leadership group", to have authority over the Station. "Tenet quickly followed this appointment with another: He named Cofer Black as director of the entire CTC."
The CTC produced a "comprehensive plan of attack" against bin Laden and "previewed the new strategy to senior CIA management by the end of July 1999. By mid-September, it had been briefed to CIA operational level personnel, and to [the] NSA [National Security Agency], the FBI, and other partners." The strategy "was called simply, 'the Plan'."
... [Cofer] Black and his new [sic] bin Laden unit wanted to "project" into Afghanistan, to "penetrate" bin Laden's sanctuaries. They described their plan as military officers might. They sought to surround Afghanistan with secure covert bases for CIA operations – as many bases as they could arrange. Then they would mount operations from each of the platforms, trying to move inside Afghanistan and as close to bin Laden as they could to recruit agents and to attempt capture operations. ... Black wanted recruitments, and he wanted to develop commando or paramilitary strike teams made up of officers and men who could "blend" into the region's Muslim populations.
[T]he CIA [also] considered the possibility of putting U.S. personnel on the ground in Afghanistan. The CIA had been discussing this possibility with Special Operations Command [SOCOM] and found enthusiasm on the working level but reluctance at higher levels. CIA saw a 95 percent chance of [SOCOM] forces capturing Bin Ladin if deployed – but less than a 5 percent chance of such a deployment. ...
Black also arranged for a CIA team, headed by Station chief Richard, to visit Northern-Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, to discuss operations against bin Laden. The mission was codenamed "JAWBREAKER-5", the fifth in a series of such missions since autumn 1997. The team went in late October 1999, "a hazardous journey in rickety helicopters that would be repeated several times in the future". They stayed for seven days. "The Bin Laden unit was satisfied that its reporting on Bin Ladin would now have a second source." Contemplated operations would be coordinated with the CIA's other prospective efforts against al-Qaeda.
Once Cofer Black had finalized his operational plan .... [Charles] Allen [the associate deputy director of central intelligence for collection] created a dedicated al-Qa'ida cell with officers from across the intelligence community. This cell met daily, brought focus to penetrating the Afghan sanctuary, and ensured that collection initiatives were synchronized with operational plans. Allen met with [Tenet] on a weekly basis to review initiatives under way. His efforts were enabling operations and pursuing longer-range, innovative initiatives around the world against al-Qa'ida. ...
It is not clear how this "Qaeda cell", which duplicated the functions of the Bin Laden unit, related to or overlapped the Station.
The CIA increasingly concentrated its diminished resources on counterterrorism, so that resources for this activity increased sharply, in contrast to the general trend. At least some of the Plan's more modest aspirations were translated into action. Intelligence collection efforts on bin Laden and al-Qaeda increased significantly from 1999. "By 9/11", said Tenet, "a map would show that these collection programs and human [reporting] networks were in place in such numbers as to nearly cover Afghanistan."
The core 9/11 hijackers emerge 
Beginning in September 1999 the CTC picked up multiple signs that bin Laden had set in motion major terrorist attacks for the turn of the year. The CIA set in motion the "largest collection and disruption activity in the history of mankind" (as Cofer Black later put it). The CTC focused in particular on three groups of Qaeda personnel: those known to have been involved in terrorist attacks; and senior personnel both outside and inside Afghanistan—e.g. "operational planner Abu Zubaydah" and "Bin Ladin deputy Muhammad Atef".
Amid this activity, in November–December 1999 Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Ziad Jarrah and Nawaf al-Hazmi visited Afghanistan, where they were selected for the "planes operation" that was to become known as 9/11. Al-Hazmi undertook guerrilla training at Qaeda's Mes Aynak camp (along with two Yemenis who were unable to get US entry visas). The camp was located in an abandoned Russian copper mine near Kabul, and was for a time in 1999 the only such training camp in operation. Atta, al-Shehhi and Jarrah met Muhammad Atef and bin Laden in Kandahar, and were instructed to go back to Germany to undertake pilot training.
In late 1999 the National Security Agency (NSA), following up information from the FBI's investigation of the 1998 US embassy attacks, picked up traces of "an operational cadre", consisting of Nawaf al-Hazmi, his companion Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf's younger brother Salem, who were planning to go to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000. Seeing a connection with the attacks, a CTC officer sought permission to surveil the men.
At about this time the SOCOM-DIA operation Able Danger also identified a potential Qaeda unit, consisting of the future leading 9/11 hijackers Atta, al-Shehhi, al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. It termed them the "Brooklyn cell", because of some associations with the New York district. Evidently at least some of the men were physically and legally present in the United States, since there was an ensuing legal tussle over the "right" of "quasi-citizens" not to be spied on.
|"we've got to tell the Bureau about this. These guys clearly are bad. One of them, at least, has a multiple-entry visa to the U.S. We've got to tell the FBI." . . . And then [the CIA official] said to me, "No, it's not the FBI's case, not the FBI's jurisdiction." – Mark Rossini, PBS Frontline interview|
As for the CIA. The Agency erratically tracked al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar as they traveled to and attended the al-Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur in early January 2000. "The Counterterrorist Center had briefed the CIA leadership on the gathering in Kuala Lumpur ... The head of the Bin Ladin unit [Richard] kept providing updates", unaware at first that the information was out-of-date.
Inside the station, there were two FBI agents named Mark Rossini and Doug Miller. When the station learned that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar had a multiple-entry Visa to the United States, the agents attempted to alert FBI headquarters. CIA officials in management positions over the FBI agents denied their request to pass along this information to FBI headquarters. Michael Scheuer would later deny this, instead blaming the FBI for not having a "useable computer system".
By March 2000 it was learned that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar had departed for (or returned to) Los Angeles. The men were not registered with the State Department's TIPOFF list, nor was the FBI told.
There are also allegations that the CIA surveiled Mohamed Atta in Germany from the time he returned there in January/February 2000, until he left for the US in June 2000.
Predator drone, 2000–2001 
In spring 2000, officers from the Bin Laden Station joined others in pressing for "Afghan Eyes", the Predator reconnaissance drone program for locating bin Laden in Afghanistan. In the summer, "The bin Laden unit drew up maps and plans for fifteen Predator flights, each lasting just under twenty-four hours." The flights were scheduled to begin in September. In autumn 2000, officers from the Station were present at Predator flight control in the CIA's Langley headquarters, alongside other officers from the CTC, and US Air Force drone pilots. Several possible sightings of bin Laden were obtained as drones flew over his Tarnak-Farms residence near Kandahar. Late in the year, the program was suspended because of bad weather.
Resumption of flights in 2001 was delayed by arguments over an armed Predator. A drone equipped with adapted "Hellfire" anti-tank missiles could be used to try to kill bin Laden and other Qaeda leaders. Cofer Black and the bin Laden unit were among the advocates. But there were both legal and technical issues. In the summer the CIA "conducted classified war games at Langley ... to see how its chain of command might responsibly oversee a flying robot that could shoot missiles at suspected terrorists"; a series of live-fire tests in the Nevada desert (involving a mockup of bin Laden's Tarnak residence) produced mixed results.
Tenet advised cautiously on the matter at a meeting of the Cabinet-level Principals Committee on September 4, 2001. If the Cabinet wanted to empower the CIA to field a lethal drone, Tenet said, "they should do so with their eyes wide open, fully aware of the potential fallout if there were a controversial or mistaken strike". National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice concluded that the armed Predator was required, but evidently not ready. It was agreed to recommend to the CIA to resume reconnaissance flights. The "previously reluctant" Tenet then ordered the Agency to do so. The CIA was now "authorized to deploy the system with weapons-capable aircraft, but for reconnaissance missions only", since the host nation (presumably Uzbekistan) "had not agreed to allow flights by weapons-carrying aircraft".
Subsequent to 9/11, approval was quickly granted to ship the missiles, and the Predator aircraft and missiles reached their overseas location on September 16, 2001. The first mission was flown over Kabul and [Kandahar] on September 18 without carrying weapons. Subsequent host nation approval was granted on October 7 and the first armed mission was flown on the same day.
Strategic branch, 2001 
Despite increases in staff, "even into 2001 the Bin Ladin unit knew it needed more people—particularly experienced Headquarters desk officers and targeters—to meet the HUMINT [human-intelligence] challenge. In [an] early Spring 2001 briefing to the DCI (George Tenet), CTC requested hiring a small group of contractors not involved in day-to-day crises to digest vast quantities of information and develop targeting strategies. The briefing emphasized that the unit needed people, not money."
The briefing was apparently in response to an initiative from Tenet, who in late 2000 had "recognized the deficiency of strategic analysis against al Qaeda. To tackle this problem within the CTC he appointed a senior manager, who briefed him in March 2001 on 'creating a strategic assessment capability.'"
A strategic analyst on 9/11 
"On the morning of September 11, 2001, [John] Fulton and his team at the CIA were running a pre-planned simulation to explore the emergency response issues that would be created if a plane were to strike a building." So said an advance-publicity pamphlet for a security conference held in 2002.
The Strategic Assessments Branch was "created" in July 2001. "The decision to add about ten analysts to this effort was seen as a major bureaucratic victory, but the CTC labored to find them. The new chief of this branch reported for duty on September 10, 2001."
After 9/11 
After the September 11 attacks, staff numbers at the Station were expanded into the hundreds. Scheuer claimed the expansion was a "shell game" played with temporary (and inexperienced) staff, and that the core personnel "remained at under 30, the size it was when Scheuer left office in 1999". (As we have seen, professional staff numbers grew to 40 to 50 by the eve of 9/11.)
The Bin Laden Station was disbanded in late 2005.
In 2011, Ray Nowosielski and John Duffy (who had previously made the documentary film "9/11: Press for Truth"), published the documentary "Who is Rich Blee". They focused on the CIA preventing information from reaching the FBI before 9/11, and the filmmakers deduced the identities of several CIA agents inside the Bin Laden Issue Station using open source research they found in public publications. Before they released their documentary, the CIA threatened them under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Their documentary was posted with the names redacted. But they claim their webmaster accidentally posted some emails that contained the identities, which were later spread to the wider internet.
See also 
- Inside Able Danger (Shaffer interview), Government Security News, August 2005 (Link is to a mirror of the original GSN article which is no longer available).
- Mayer, Jane, "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals", 2008. p. 116
- Coll, Ghost Wars, pp. 319, 456; 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 4, p. 109 (HTML version); ibid, Notes, p. 479, note 2 (to chapter 4, p. 109) (HTML version)
- Tenet statement to the 9/11 Commission, March 24, 2004, pp. 4, 18
- Andrew Marshall, "Terror 'blowback' burns CIA", Independent on Sunday, November 1, 1998; 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 2, pp. 58–9, 62 (HTML version); ibid, chapter 4, pp. 109, 118 (HTML version); ibid, chapter 11, pp. 341–2 (HTML version); Coll, Ghost Wars, pp. 155, 336, 367, 474; Jack Cloonan interview, PBS, July 13, 2005; Michael Scheuer interview, PBS, July 21, 2005; Jane Mayer, "Junior: The clandestine life of America's top Al Qaeda source", The New Yorker, September 4, 2006 (issue of September 11, 2006).
- 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 4, pp. 109–115 (HTML version); Coll, Ghost Wars, pp. 371–6.
- Coll, Ghost Wars, pp. 436–7, and p. 646 note 42; 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 11, p. 357 (HTML version).
- Coll, Ghost Wars, pp. 451–2, 455, 456; Tenet statement to the 9/11 Commission, March 24, 2004, p. 14. Richard was appointed head of the "section" or "group" that included / had authority over the Station: 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 4, p. 142 (HTML version); cf. ibid, chapter 6, p. 204 (HTML version)
- Coll, Ghost Wars, pp. 457, 466–72, 485, and p. 654 note 7; Tenet statement to the Joint Inquiry on 9/11, October 17, 2002; 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 4, pp. 142–3 (HTML version); George Tenet, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA (Harper Press, 2007), pp. 119, 120.
- Coll, Ghost Wars, pp. 495–6; 911 Commission Report, chapter 6, pp. 174–80 (HTML version).
- 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 5, pp. 155–8, 168 (HTML version). Data derived from subsequent intelligence interrogations of captives.
- 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 6, p. 181 (HTML version); Coll, Ghost Wars, pp. 487–88.
- Altogether, said Able Danger liaison Anthony Shaffer, the operation found "five cells, [including] one ... in the United States", including (as subsequently judged) "two of the three cells which conducted 9/11, to include Atta". Congressman Curt Weldon confirmed that one of these was the "Brooklyn cell". "Inside Able Danger" (Shaffer interview), Government Security News, August 2005; Bill Gertz et al., "Inside the Ring", Washington Times, September 30, 2005. "Press Conference of Rep Curt Weldon: 9/11 Commission and Operation "Able Danger"" (September 17, 2005; transcript on Global Research website) is another important source for Able Danger. (Weldon was vice chairman of the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees.)
- The Spy Factory, PBS Frontline episode based on James Bamford's book Shadow Factory
- Bill and Dick, Osama and Sandy, Michael Scheuer, Washington Times, 2006, July 4
- According to some press accounts, in November 1999 al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were present in Los Angeles, when they were driven from LAX airport to the Parkwood apartments, where they obtained the lease of an apartment. Amy Goldstein, "Hijackers Led Core Group", Washington Post, September 30, 2001, p. A01; Goldstein et al., "Hijackers Found Welcome Mat on West Coast", Washington Post, December 29, 2001, p. A01
- 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 6, pp. 181–2 (HTML version); ibid, chapter 11, pp. 383–4 (HTML version).
- "January–May 2000: CIA Has Atta Under Surveillance", Able Danger, from Complete 9/11 Timeline, Center for Cooperative Research
- Coll, Ghost Wars, pp. 527, 532; 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 6, pp. 189–90 (HTML version)
- Coll, Ghost Wars, pp. 580–1; Tenet statement to the 9/11 Commission, March 24, 2004, pp.15, 16; Barton Gellman, "A Strategy's Cautious Evolution", Washington Post, January 20, 2002, p. A01; 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 6, pp. 210–14 (HTML version); ibid, Notes, p. 513, note 258 (see note 255) (HTML version)
- Joint Inquiry Final Report, Part Three, p. 387
- 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 11, p. 342 (HTML version)
- Dana Priest, "Former Chief of CIA's Bin Laden Unit Leaves", Washington Post, November 12, 2004, p. A04
- Julian Borger, "We could have stopped him", The Guardian (UK), August 20, 2004.
- Tenet, At The Center Of The Storm, p. 232.
- Mazzetti, Mark (July 4, 2006). "C.I.A. Closes Unit Focused on Capture of bin Laden.". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-08-21. "The Central Intelligence Agency has closed a unit that for a decade had the mission of hunting Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, intelligence officials confirmed Monday. The unit, known as Alec Station, was disbanded late last year and its analysts reassigned within the C.I.A. Counterterrorist Center, the officials said."
- Boiling Frogs podcast, Sibel Edmonds, 2011
- Insiders voice doubts about CIA’s 9/11 story, Rory O'Connor and Ray Nowosielski, Oct 2011, salon.com
Further reading 
- Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, Penguin, 2005. (This is an updated version of the original, Penguin, 2004.)
- 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, July 2004
- A Review of the FBI's Handling of Intelligence Information Related to the September 11 Attacks: Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General, Special Report, November 2004, Released Publicly June 2006
- Jack Cloonan interview, PBS, July 13, 2005
- Michael Scheuer interview, PBS, July 21, 2005
- Bin Laden Trail 'Stone Cold' Washington Post September 10, 2006
- After a Decade at War With West, Al-Qaeda Still Impervious to Spies Washington Post March 20, 2008
- How Osama bin Laden Slipped from our Grasp: The Definitive Account by Peter Bergen, The New Republic, December 22, 2009