The documentary CNN Presents: In the Footsteps of Bin Laden reported that the insufficient deployment of U.S. troops to Tora Bora in 2001 allowed the Al Qaeda leader to escape, but it failed to note investigative reporter Ron Suskind's recent disclosure that President Bush ignored specific warnings from the CIA that more troops were needed.
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A two-hour CNN documentary on the life of Osama bin Laden reported that the insufficient deployment of U.S. troops to the mountains of Afghanistan in 2001 allowed the Al Qaeda leader to escape, but it failed to note investigative reporter Ron Suskind's recent disclosure that President Bush ignored specific warnings from the CIA that more troops were needed. Further, CNN reported on Bush's receipt of the now-famous August 6, 2001, memo titled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US." But the program omitted any mention of Suskind's report that, after Bush was briefed by a CIA officer on the memo, Bush replied, "All right. You've covered your ass, now." Both revelations are included in Suskind's new book, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (Simon & Schuster, June 2006). Yet despite the relevance of his disclosures, it appears CNN did not interview Suskind for the documentary.
The documentary -- titled CNN Presents: In the Footsteps of Bin Laden -- was reported by CNN senior international correspondent Christiane Amanpour and first aired on August 23. The special largely focused on bin Laden's life prior to orchestrating the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but it also depicted the U.S. efforts to capture the Al Qaeda leader following the attack.
In the segment of the documentary focusing on the events in the months before 9-11, Amanpour reported: "On August 6 , unbeknownst to the American public, President George Bush received this highly classified memo, 'Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US.' In it, this paragraph: 'FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.' "
But the documentary made no mention of Bush's response after being briefed on the memo, which Suskind reported in The One Percent Doctrine:
The alarming August 6, 2001, memo from the CIA to the President -- "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US" -- has been widely noted in the past few years.
But, also in August, CIA analysts flew to Crawford to personally brief the President -- to intrude on his vacation with face-to-face alerts.
The analytical arm of CIA was in a kind of panic mode at this point. Other intelligence services, including those from the Arab world, were sounding an alarm. The arrows were all in the red. They didn't know the place or time of an attack, but something was coming. The President needed to know.
He's not much of a reader, this President, and never has been, despite White House efforts to trumpet which serious books he is reading at various times. ... But he's a very good listener and an extremely visual listener. He sizes people up swiftly and aptly, watches them carefully, and trusts his eyes.
The trap, of course, is that while these tactile, visceral markers can be crucial -- especially in terms of handling the posturing of top officials -- they sometimes are not. The thing to focus on, at certain moments, is what someone says, not who is saying it, or how they're saying it.
And, at an eyeball-to-eyeball intelligence briefing during this urgent summer, George W. Bush seems to have made the wrong choice.
He looked hard at the panicked CIA briefer.
"All right," he said. "You've covered your ass, now."
The portion of the documentary devoted to the battle of Tora Bora in late 2001 also ignored Suskind's reporting. Media Matters for America noted the omission in response to a two-minute excerpt of the special that previewed on CNN on August 21.
Amanpour reported that the mission to capture bin Laden in the mountainous region of Afghanistan - led by a CIA paramilitary unit and supported by Afghan militias and Pakistani soldiers -- ultimately failed because, "[b]y most accounts," there were "not enough American soldiers on the ground." The documentary included a clip of Gary Berntsen, the now-retired CIA officer who headed the unit, explaining how he had sent "a message back to Washington" in early December 2001 requesting more U.S. troops, but never received them. But the special failed to note that the CIA warned Bush directly that more U.S. troops were needed in Tora Bora. Indeed, Suskind writes in The One Percent Doctrine that then-CIA officer Henry "Hank" Crumpton (now the coordinator for Counterterrorism at the State Department), the head of the agency's Afghanistan campaign at the time, told Bush in late November 2001 that Pakistani and Afghan fighters were "definitely not" equipped to handle the mission and that "we're going to lose our prey if we're not careful." From Suskind's book:
As Crumpton briefed the President -- and it became clear that the Pentagon had not voiced the CIA's concerns to Bush -- he pushed beyond his pay grade. He told Bush that "we're going to lose our prey if we're not careful," and strongly recommended the marines, or other troops in the region, get to Tora Bora immediately. Cheney said nothing.
Bush, seeming surprised, pressed him for more information. "How bad off are these Afghani forces, really? Are they up to the job?"
"Definitely not, Mr. President," Crumpton said. "Definitely not."
From the August 23 edition of CNN Presents: In the Footsteps of Bin Laden:
AMANPOUR: Once again, bin Laden had telegraphed his intentions to the world. The warning was broadcast a little more than two months before the attacks of 9-11.
And the warnings continued to mount. On August 6th, unbeknownst to the American public, President George Bush received this highly classified memo, "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US." In it, this paragraph: "FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York."
Then on September 9th in Afghanistan, a final hint that bin Laden was about to strike America. The assassination of Ahmad Shah Masoud, a friend of the U.S. and legendary leader of the Northern Alliance, a formidable Afghan militia.
AMANPOUR: December 2001, a relentless bombing campaign. Air strikes thundered through the treacherous mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The battle of Tora Bora had begun. Osama bin Laden, the jackal of 9-11, and hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters had finally been cornered, or so it seemed.
BERNTSEN: We brought in Spectre gunships which can put a bullet on every inch of a football field.
AMANPOUR: Gary Berntsen was the leader of a secret CIA paramilitary unit that had pursued bin Laden since he had fled Kabul. And now, the CIA was sure it knew where he was, thanks in large part to a radio taken off a dead Al Qaeda fighter.
BERNTSEN: We listened to bin Laden for several days using that radio, listened to his communications among him and his men. We listened to him apologize to them for having led them into this trap and having led them into a location where they would be having airstrikes called on them just relentlessly.
AMANPOUR: More than two weeks of bombing, solid intelligence, the U.S. had thrown its biggest bombs, its most sophisticated missiles, bunker busters, daisy cutters, at bin Laden, but somehow, some way, it wasn't enough.
PETER BERGEN (terrorism analyst): The policy of using very limited number of U.S. Special Forces on the ground calling in airstrikes and a large number of Afghan ground troops worked brilliantly overthrowing the Taliban. But at the battle of Tora Bora, it was a total disaster.
AMANPOUR: The plan was for Afghan and Pakistani soldiers to block any escape routes, but Osama bin Laden managed to slip away through the mountains. And the mission to capture or kill the Al Qaeda leader failed. By most accounts, the main problem was not enough American soldiers on the ground.
BERGEN: By my calculation, there were more American journalists than American soldiers at the battle of Tora Bora, and that fact kind of speaks for itself.
BERNTSEN: In the first two or three days of December, I would write a message back to Washington, recommending the insertion of U.S. forces on the ground. I was looking for 600 to 800 Rangers, roughly a battalion. They never came.
AMANPOUR: Also hunting bin Laden in Tora Bora, then Afghan militia leader, General Mohamed Zahir. Do you have any idea how many American soldiers were at the battle of Tora Bora?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was not more than 50, 60, I think. Yeah, there was not more in that time.