The material contains much new information about the hunt before and after 9/11 for bin Laden, the development of the drone campaign in AfPak, and al-Qaida’s relationship with America’s ally, Pakistan. Perhaps most damning are the documents showing that the CIA had bin Laden in its cross hairs a full year before 9/11 — but didn’t get the funding from the Bush administration White House to take him out or even continue monitoring him. The CIA materials directly contradict the many claims of Bush officials that it was aggressively pursuing al-Qaida prior to 9/11, and that nobody could have predicted the attacks. “I don’t think the Bush administration would want to see these released, because they paint a picture of the CIA knowing something would happen before 9/11, but they didn’t get the institutional support they needed,” says Barbara Elias-Sanborn, the NSA fellow who edited the materials.
Let’s start there. In 2000 and 2001, the CIA began using Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Afghanistan. “The idea of using UAVs originated in April 2000 as a result of a request from the NSC’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism to the CIA and the Department of Defense to come up with new ideas to go after the terrorists in Afghanistan,” a 2004 document summarizes. The Pentagon approved the plan for surveillance purposes.
And yet, simultaneously, the CIA declared that budget concerns were forcing it to move its Counterterrorism Center/Osama bin Laden Unit from an “offensive” to a “defensive” posture. For the CIA, that meant trying to get Afghan tribal leaders and the Northern Alliance to kill or capture bin Laden, Elias-Sanborn says. “It was forced to be less of a kinetic operation,” she says. “It had to be only for surveillance, which was not what they considered an offensive posture.”