Washington President Bush last month signed an intelligence order directing the CIA to undertake its most sweeping and lethal covert action since the founding of the agency in 1947, explicitly calling for the destruction of Osama bin Laden and his worldwide al-Qaida network, according to senior government officials.
The president also added more than $1 billion to the agency's war on terrorism, most of it for the new covert action. The operation will include what officials said is "unprecedented" coordination between the CIA and commando and other military units. Officials said that the president, operating through his "war cabinet," has pledged to dispatch military units to take advantage of the CIA's latest and best intelligence.
Bush's order, called an intelligence "finding," instructs the agency to attack bin Laden's communications, security apparatus and infrastructure, senior government officials said. U.S. intelligence has identified new and important specific weaknesses in the bin Laden organization that are not publicly known, and these vulnerabilities will be the focus of the lethal covert action, sources said.
"The gloves are off," one senior official said. "The president has given the agency the green light to do whatever is necessary. Lethal operations that were unthinkable pre-September 11 are now under way."
The CIA's covert action is a key part of the president's offensive against terrorism, but the agency is also playing a critical role in the defense against future terrorist attacks.
For example, each day a CIA document called the "Threat Matrix," which has the highest security classification ("Top Secret/Codeword"), lands on the desks of the top national security and intelligence officials in the Bush administration. It presents the freshest and most sensitive raw intelligence on dozens of threatened bombings, hijackings or poisonings. Only threats deemed to have some credibility are included in the document.
One day last week, the Threat Matrix contained 100 threats to U.S. facilities in the United States and around the world shopping complexes, specific cities, places where thousands gather, embassies. Though nearly all the listed threats have passed without incident and 99 percent turned out to be groundless, dozens more take their place in the matrix each day.
It was the matrix that generated the national alert of impending terrorist action issued by the FBI on Oct. 11. The goal of the matrix is simple: Look for patterns and specific details that might prevent another Sept. 11.
"I don't think there has been such risk to the country since the Cuban missile crisis," a senior official said.
During an interview in his West Wing office Friday morning, Vice President Dick Cheney spoke of the new war on terrorism as much more problematic and protracted than the Persian Gulf War of 1991, when Cheney served as secretary of defense to Bush's father.
The vice president bluntly said: "It is different than the Gulf War was, in the sense that it may never end. At least, not in our lifetime."