Lawrence O’Donnell last night on MSNBC’s “The Last Word” ran through the history of George W. Bush and his increasingly lax effort to get Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a raid early Sunday at the order of Bush’s successor, President Barack Obama. The timeline of the Bush administration’s fecklessness on what arguably was America’s top military priority after 9/11 is sobering to read.
Fans of former president George W. Bush, including former members of his administration and conservatives online and in the media, have been straining to allow the 43rd president share credit with President Barack Obama for the killing of bin Laden, who took credit for orchestrating the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., as well as deadly terror attacks in Africa and elsewhere. But Bush’s record on tracking bin Laden is uneven at best.
In fact, it appears that while the U.S. military and the CIA were fully prepared to hunt bin Laden down during the Bush years, they were often hampered, by then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and in some cases, by the president, whose caution and deference to Pakistan may have delayed bringing bin Laden to account.
August 6, 2001 – A president’s daily briefing memo delivered by then-CIA Director George Tenet to President George W. Bush while on vacation in Crawford, Texas, is headlined “(Osama) bin Laden determined to attack inside the United States.” The leader of al-Qaida had declared war on the U.S. in 1999. Then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice would be grilled about the memo more than a year later. She would be made Secretary of State during Bush’s second term.
September 11, 2001 – Terrorists attack the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and down a plane in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. U.S. and British intelligence agencies quickly identify Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida as being behind the attacks.
September 17, 2001 – President George W. Bush tells a news conference that his goal is to get bin Laden “dead or alive.”
October 7, 2001 – The U.S. and Great Britain initiate Operation Enduring Freedom, invading Afghanistan after Bush warns the Taliban leadership of that country that they must give up bin Laden or face military reprisal.
February 2002 – In response to questions from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office as well as the State and Defense departments, the CIA authorizes a former diplomat, Joe Wilson, to travel to Niger to investigate whether Iraq was attempting to purchase “yellowcake” uranium. The Bush administration was already laying the groundwork to shift the war theater from Afghanistan to Iraq, though the White House Iraq Group would not begin marketing the war to the American public until July of that year.
March 13, 2002 – Responding to a question at a news conference regarding bin Laden’s whereabouts, and why he rarely mentions him anymore, Bush says of the terror leader: “I truly am not that concerned about him. … ‘Deep in my heart I know the man is on the run, if he’s alive at all.” Bush dismisses bin Laden as “a person who has now been marginalized.”
March 21, 2002 – Continuing the contradictory messaging from the Bush administration, U.S. commanders call bin Laden a continuing threat to the new Afghanistan. “Major-general Frank Hagenbeck warns that ‘there are al-Qaeda operatives in Paktia right now, who are going to great lengths to regroup’ – while CIA director George Tenet claimed that bin Laden remains an ‘immediate and serious threat.’”
March 28, 2002 – Bin Laden escapes a joint raid by FBI and Pakistani commandos in Faisalabad, Pakistan. During the raid, the U.S. nabs al-Qaida lieutenant Abu Zubaydah.
April 6, 2002 – General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, says “the goal has never been to get bin Laden,” telling CNN “a far more important aim than bin Laden’s head on a platter was the ‘capture, killing and scattering’ of ‘mid-level al-Qaeda operatives.’” Myers added that “the goal [in Afghanistan] was never after specific individuals.” Two days later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says bin Laden’s threat had been ‘neutralized’ and that the U.S. goal in the “war on terror” was “to stop terrorism to the extent that we could.” Rumsfeld claims that sufficient pressure “had been applied to al-Qaeda leaders to make them ‘so busy surviving’ and ‘moving from place to place’ that they no longer have time to plot terrorist attacks.”
April 10, 2002 – Amy secretary Thomas White reverses the administration’s position yet again, telling reporters “one of America’s ‘strategic objectives’ in Afghanistan is ‘to get bin Laden…and we are pursuing that.’ Asked if the war on terror could only be hailed a success once bin Laden was found, White said yes – claiming that ‘no one said it was going to be easy.’”
August 2002 – Abu Zubaydah, the first prisoner to be transported to a CIA black site prison, is waterboarded 83 times. U.S. intelligence officials later claim he had already given all the information he had before he was tortured. It is later learned that Abu Zubaydah, along with a second tortured detainee, Ibn Shaikh al-Libi, are questioned about possible links (which did not exist) between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Al Libi reportedly gives false evidence against Iraq under torture, and later commits suicide in a Libyan jail after he is transferred out of the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay.
October 7, 2002 – Bush gives a speech claiming that “Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and gases.” The claim appears to be based in part on the al-Libi “confession.”
2002-2003 – According to the New York Times: “When American military officials proposed in 2002 that Special Operations forces be allowed to establish bases in the tribal areas, Pakistan flatly refused. Instead, a small number of “black” Special Operations forces — Army Delta Force and Navy Seal units — were allowed to accompany Pakistani forces on raids in the tribal areas in 2002 and early 2003.”
January 28, 2003 – The Bush administration has fully shifted its focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, with the president saying in his State of the Union: “And this Congress and the American people must recognize another threat. Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda.”
February 3, 2003 – Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf denies bin Laden is in Pakistan, saying he is “probably alive” and could be in Afghanistan. Musharraf would make the same denial four years later, after U.S. intelligence chief Mike McConnell tells a Senate Arms Services Committee hearing al-Qaida may have set up bases in Pakistan.
February 5, 2003 – Then Secretary of State Collin Powell gives his infamous Iraq presentation to the U.N. The next day, President Bush says “senior members of Iraqi intelligence and al-Qaeda have met at least eight times since the early 1990s. Iraq has sent bomb-making and document forgery experts to work with al-Qaeda” and “Iraq has also provided al-Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training.”
March 1, 2003 – Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, thought to be the operational mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks, is captured in a CIA-led raid in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. KSM is waterboarded 183 times that month.
March 19, 2003 – The U.S. invasion of Iraq begins.
March 2003 – That month, Under pressure from the Musharraf government, the Bush administration removes the U.S. military presence on the ground in Pakistan. Relations between the two countries in the wake of the Iraq invasion are said to be at the “breaking point.”
November 2004 – The deputy commanding general of CENTCOM claims bin Laden is trying to communicate with the chief al-Qaida figure in Iraq, Abu Muqab al-Zarkawi. At this point, intelligence experts believe bin Laden “to be in tribal regions of Pakistan after fleeing Afghanistan when the Taliban government was toppled in December 2001.”
2004 – It is some time during this year that the CIA first develops information on a possible bin Laden courier, according to a White House background briefing May 1st, 2011. Intelligence analysts have his “nom de guerre” or nickname was “al Kuwaiti,” but not his real name or location.
January, 2004 – an al-Qaida operative named Hassan Ghul is captured in norther Iraq. He is taken to a CIA black site and questioned about al-Kuwaiti, but gives a false name for the courier. Ghul’s whereabouts remain unknown. He reportedly became a key source of information on the courier, and “told interrogators that Mr. Kuwaiti was a trusted courier close to bin Laden as well as to Mr. Mohammed and to Abu Faraj al-Libi, who had become al-Qaida’s operational chief after Mr Mohammed’s capture. Mr. Kuwaiti, Mr. Ghul added, had not been seen in some time. Analysts thought was a possible indication that the courier was hiding out with bin Laden.” The CIA says Ghul was not waterboarded, and was “quite cooperative,” and that any rough treatment of him “would have been brief.” When Khalid Sheikh Muhammad was questioned about Ghul’s evidence, he denied knowing the courier.
January – March 2005 – George W. Bush has been re-elected, but he loses key members of his national security team, as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Powell’s deputy Richard Armitage resign, along with CIA director George Tenet. According to the New York Times, “their departures left the administration with no senior officials with close personal relationships with Pakistan’s Musharraf.” The Times reported in 2008:
In order to keep pressure on the Pakistanis about the tribal areas, officials decided to have Bush raise the issue in personal phone calls with Musharraf.
The conversations backfired. Two former United States government officials say they were surprised and frustrated when instead of demanding action from Musharraf, Bush instead repeatedly thanked him for his contributions to the war on terror. “He never pounded his fist on the table and said, ‘Pervez you have to do this,’ ” said a former senior intelligence official who saw transcripts of the phone conversations. But another senior administration official defended the president, saying that Bush had not gone easy on the Pakistani leader.
“I would say the president pushes quite hard,” said the official, who would speak about the confidential conversations only on condition of anonymity. At the same time, the official said that Bush was keenly aware of the “unique burden” that rested on any head of state, and had the ability to determine “what the traffic will bear” when applying pressure to foreign leaders.
2005 – Early that year, a CIA-crafted plan to parachute Navy Seals and Army Rangers into a Pakistani tribal area called Banjour in an attempt to capture Ayman al-Zawahri, Bin Laden’s top deputy, was aborted as the troops were boarding C-130 helicopters, after Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld refused to approve it. The New York Times reported then CIA Director Porter Goss considered authorizing the operation without Defense Department permission, even though some CIA officials feared the operation could turn into “another Bay or Pigs.” The Bush administration would be criticized for over-caution regarding Pakistan for years.
It is also at some time during this year that the massive, $1 million compound in Abbttabad where bin Laden and his two couriers were found and killed on May 1st, 2011, was believed to have been built, and bin Laden and his family moves in.
May 2, 2005 – Ibn Sheikh al-Libi is arrested by the ISI in Pakistan. He is interrogatedat a CIA black site, and allegedly misleads his interrogators on the identity of the courier. Per the New York Times, al Libi “denied knowing Mr. Kuwaiti and gave a different name for bin Laden’s courier. CIA analysts would never find such a person, and eventually concluded that the name was Mr. Libi’s invention, the official recalled.”
May 13, 2005 – Pakistian’s foreign minister claims in a television interview that constant pressure from military operations by Pakistan along the Afghan border is keeping bin Laden and al-Qaida from being able to make “international mischief.” The Pakistanis claim bin Laden is somewhere in the unruly border region, and not in Pakistan.
January 19, 2006 – A tape surfaces reportedly with bin Laden’s confirmed voice, calling for a “truce” with the west. The U.S. rejects it.
July 3, 2006 – The CIA quietly closes it’s Bin Laden unit, known as Alec Station, which had been the major focus of the intelligence hunt for bin Laden. The agency reassigns the Alec Station analysts to the C.I.A. Counterterrorist Center.
September 6, 2006 – Pakistani army officials announce they are pulling their troops out of the North Waziristan region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, as part of a “peace deal” with the Taliban that says bin Laden would not face arrest in Pakistan if he “agrees to live a peaceful life.” The Pakistani army had gone into Waziristan under heavy pressure from the Bush administration. “‘What this means is that the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership have effectively carved out a sanctuary inside Pakistan,‘ said ABC News consultant Richard Clarke, the former White House counter-terrorism director.”
September 15, 2006 – President Bush dismisses the idea that his administration had become distracted from the effort to track down bin Laden, telling a news conference, “You know, there is a kind of an urban myth here in Washington about how this administration hasn’t stayed focused on Osama bin Laden. Forget it. It’s convenient throw-away lines, you know, when people say that.” When he was pressed by an ABC News reporter about why he opposed the idea of sending a large contingent of special forces to Pakistan to hunt bin Laden, Bush said the administration has to work with Pakistan’s government. “First of all, Pakistan is a sovereign nation,” Bush said. “In order for us to send thousands of troops into a sovereign nation, we’ve got to be invited by the government of Pakistan.”
December 23, 2006 – A U.S. airstrike in Kabul, Afghanistan, kills Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, said to be a top associate of bin Laden and al-Qaida number two Mullah Omar.
January, 2007 – An Afghan insurgent leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, told a television interviewer that he and his fighters helped bin Laden escape from Tora Bora in 2001, and got him to a “safe place.”
July 2007 – Bush continues to stand behind Musharraf, as his hold on power becomes increasingly shaky, calling the Pakistani leader, who took power in a 1999 coup, a key ally in the “war on terror.”
2007 – Sometime that year, the CIA discovers the real name of the bin Laden courier whose nickname they had learned from Guantanamo detainees in 2003 or 2004.
March 2008 – Presidential candidate Barack Obama stirs controversy (and reignites questions over Bush administration caution) by stating that under an Obama administration, “if we have actionable intelligence about high-level al Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s border region, we must act if Pakistan will not or cannot.” Obama continues to press that point during his debates with fellow Senator and Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
2009 – According to a former CIA official in an interview with NPR on May 2nd, 2011, Army Delta Force and Rangers who had been focused on the hunt for bin Laden and his top lieutenants are redeployed to Iraq and other theaters, handing the bin Laden portfolio to members and command of US Navy Seals, Seal Team 6.
November 29, 2009 – As President Barack Obama prepares to announce an escalation of troops in Afghanistan in an effort to degrade the capabilities of the Taliban and al-Qaida remnants, a report prepared by the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee says U.S. forces had bin Laden in their grasp in December 2001, but let him slip away, in part because then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was concerned that “a large U.S. troop presence in the area could provoke a backlash” and that the evidence about Bin Laden’s location was not conclusive.
December 2009 – Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, said he “does not know for a fact where bin Laden is,” and would get him if they did. Gates tells ABC News there has been no new, reliable information on bin Laden’s possible whereabouts in years. That month, then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called on Pakistan to do more to help find bin Laden, even as the Pakistani government continued to deny that bin Laden was hiding in their country.
August- September, 2010 – Under the direction of President Obama, the CIA begins a series of special assessments to try and determine bin Laden’s location. They discover the lavish compound in Abbottobad in August, and tie the courier and his brother to the property. Meetings on the plan to get bin Laden escalate in the early months of 2011.
May 1, 2010 – Navy Seal Team 6 successfully executes the operation to kill Osama bin Laden.
Related reading: Amid policy disputes, Qaeda grows in Pakistan
The Big Lie: torture got bin Laden.