Washington Though Predator drones spotted Osama bin Laden as many as three times in late 2000, the Bush administration did not fly the unmanned planes over Afghanistan during its first eight months and was still refining a plan to use one armed with missiles to kill the al-Qaida leader when Sept. 11 unfolded, current and former U.S. officials say.
The military successfully tested an armed Predator throughout the first half of 2001, and top administration officials discussed such a mission at a White House meeting just one week before the suicide attacks. But they failed to resolve a debate over whether the CIA or Pentagon should operate the armed Predators and whether the missiles would be sufficiently lethal, officials told The Associated Press.
The months-long disappearance in 2001 of U.S. Predators from the skies over Afghanistan is discussed in classified sections of Congress' report into pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures and is expected to be examined by an independent commission appointed by the president and Congress, officials said.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA put the armed drones into the sky within days and they soon played an important role in one of the early successes of the war on terror.
In November 2001, an armed drone helped confirm a high-level al-Qaida meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan, and joined in an attack that killed bin Laden military chief Mohammed Atef, according to officials familiar with the attack.
Nearly a dozen current and former senior U.S. officials described to AP the extensive discussions in 2000 and 2001 inside the Clinton and Bush administrations about using an armed Predator to kill bin Laden. Most spoke only on condition of anonymity, citing the classified nature of the information.
These officials said that within days of President Bush taking office in January 2001, his top terrorism expert on the National Security Council, Richard Clarke, urged National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to resume the drone flights to track down bin Laden, citing the successes of late 2000.
The drones were one component of a broader plan that Clarke, a career government employee, had devised in the final days of the Clinton administration to go after al-Qaida after the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Clinton officials decided just before Christmas 2000 to forward the plan to the incoming Bush administration rather than implement it during Clinton's final days, the officials said.