Washington — For four years prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the CIA paid a team of about 15 recruited Afghan agents to regularly track Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, according to well-placed sources.
The team had mixed results, ranging from excellent to total failure. Once every month or so, the team pinpointed bin Laden's presence in a specific building, compound or training camp, and that location was then confirmed by the CIA through communications intelligence or satellite overhead photography. On two occasions, the team reported firing on bin Laden's caravan, though the agency could not independently validate this.
On some rare days, the team provided a specific location, and the CIA was able to obtain three or four verifications from other intelligence sources confirming bin Laden's whereabouts. For other periods, the team would lose track of him. "There would be a week or two when he (bin Laden) would be out of pocket," said one person with firsthand knowledge of the team's work.
The existence of the tracking team was one of the most tightly kept secrets in the CIA over the past several years and suggests that the U.S. search for bin Laden in Afghanistan was more concentrated and aggressive than previously disclosed.
However, the United States never launched an attack on bin Laden based on information provided by the tracking team. Bin Laden remains at large despite the collapse of the Taliban regime that harbored him and the presence of hundreds of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. U.S. officials say they do not know where he is.
Effort begun under Clinton
The creation of the tracking team was part of a covert CIA operation to capture or kill bin Laden launched first by the Clinton administration and continued under President Bush. In fact, Bush was considering an even more ambitious plan to destroy bin Laden and his al-Qaida network in the summer before the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, well-placed sources said.
The National Security Council drafted a proposal for a new CIA covert action program that would have cost as much as $200 million a year. It would have had two main components. First, the CIA would have been authorized to destabilize the Taliban leadership of Afghanistan. Second, the CIA would have launched a program to destroy bin Laden's organization worldwide.
The plan was almost ready to be presented to Bush when the terrorists struck on Sept. 11, officials said.
Since the attacks, Bush has authorized a much more sweeping and lethal CIA program against bin Laden. The cost will be more than $1 billion, most of it for covert action in Afghanistan and around the world.
Bin Laden is one of the most elusive figures in modern history, and the frustration felt by hundreds of U.S. soldiers and intelligence operatives scouring Afghanistan is familiar to top U.S. policy-makers. In the past four years, bin Laden moved about Afghanistan at irregular times, suddenly departing at night and not keeping to a travel pattern or schedule. There was evidence of decoy caravans, and bin Laden may have used disguises and even traveled at times in an ambulance. He stayed mostly in the Kandahar and Jalalabad areas.
The terrorist leader was tracked during much of that time by the special CIA-organized team, which still has a classified code word name. Sources declined to offer many details about the identity of the Afghan operatives, though they indicated some were part of the same family.
One key source said that the team had information about bin Laden's location a majority of the time: "Bottom line: We had eyes on him most of the time."
Some officials in the CIA, White House and Pentagon were skeptical of the team reports because much of the time there was no independent verification and at times other intelligence contradicted the team's reports.
"Though they provided 'eyes on' the target," a senior Bush administration official said, "the weakness was that they were not American 'eyes on' the target, so there was never the necessary high level of confidence" about their information without confirmation from other intelligence.
Lead time troubles
A key problem was translating information provided by the trackers into action. Before Sept. 11, U.S. policy in the Clinton administration and the first eight months of the Bush administration required confirmation that bin Laden would be in a specific location six to 10 hours in the future the minimum time required to fire a Tomahawk cruise missile from a Navy ship or submarine nearly 1,000 miles away in the Arabian Sea.
"We never could say where he would be in the future so an attack could be launched," an intelligence operative said. "It was a maddening chase."