CNN report ignored Bush administration's alleged responsibility for bin Laden escape from Tora Bora in 2001

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

Reporting on U.S. troops having returned to Afghanistan's Tora Bora region, CNN's Miles O'Brien and Barbara Starr noted that Osama bin Laden had reportedly escaped capture there in late 2001, but not that, according to a previous CNN report, the administration ignored requests for more troops, allowing bin Laden to escape.

On the August 15 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, reporting on U.S. troops having returned to Afghanistan's Tora Bora region, guest host Miles O'Brien and Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr noted that Osama bin Laden had reportedly escaped capture there in late 2001, but they did not mention CNN's previous reporting that "Washington" had apparently ignored a request from the local CIA commander, Gary Berntsen, to send more U.S. troops to help catch him. O'Brien introduced the segment by stating that "a major battle [is] under way right now ... in the rugged mountain regions where U.S. troops may have cornered Osama bin Laden in the early days of the Afghan war, only to see him slip away." In her subsequent report, Starr stated: "You do remember Tora Bora ... the mountain hideout where it was thought that Osama bin Laden was holed up, by all accounts. He and his top lieutenants escaped from there back across the border into Pakistan [in late 2001]." Neither mentioned CNN's own prior reporting that the administration ignored requests for more troops, allowing bin Laden to escape.

As Media Matters for America documented, in an August 23, 2006, CNN documentary, titled CNN Presents: In the Footsteps of bin Laden, CNN chief international correspondent Christiane 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 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.

CNN re-aired the first half of In the Footsteps of bin Laden on August 16 and the network is scheduled to re-air the second half, which includes the discussion of Tora Bora, on August 17.

On the July 22 edition of CNN Newsroom, anchor Rick Sanchez and CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen noted that the CIA requested, but was not given, the additional U.S. troops it said it needed to capture bin Laden at Tora Bora:

SANCHEZ: Now would be even talking about this tonight if Osama bin Laden was out of the picture? No. If he was in prison, on trial, or dead, we wouldn't. Who knows? But the fact is he got away. Why? Because CIA officials on the ground asked the White House for help, but they didn't get it.

Here's our terrorism analyst now, the best in the business, Peter Bergen.

BERGEN [video clip]: Mistake number one -- a big one -- letting Osama bin Laden go. U.S. special forces had bin Laden cornered in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan in late 2001. The CIA commander on the scene asked for more forces to catch Al Qaeda's leader, but was turned down -- and bin Laden escaped.

As Media Matters noted, in his book, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (Simon & Schuster, 2006), investigative reporter Ron Suskind wrote that the CIA warned President Bush directly that more U.S. troops would be needed in Tora Bora, reporting that then-CIA officer Henry "Hank" Crumpton, 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 5 p.m. ET hour of the August 15 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

O'BRIEN: A major battle under way right now: It's happening in the rugged mountain regions where U.S. troops may have cornered Osama bin Laden in the early days of the Afghan war, only to see him slip away. Now, Americans are back in Tora Bora, trading fire with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Here's our CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr -- Barbara, what's the goal of this operation?

STARR: Well, it's really the same goal that it was back in 2001, Miles: to go after the Al Qaeda.

You do remember Tora Bora. Everybody remembers seeing those pictures in late 2001 of the major aerial bomb attacks against the mountain hideout where it was thought that Osama bin Laden was holed up, by all accounts. He and his top lieutenants escaped from there back across the border into Pakistan at that time.

What's going on now? U.S. and Afghan troops are back in those mountains. A major air and ground assault under way, according to U.S. military officials. The intelligence, they say, has shown that, in the last several weeks, a number of Al Qaeda fighters, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, have very mysteriously returned to this area. They're back. They're dug in. They're in their bunkers. The U.S. has been watching this and has decided now to go after them.

Not really clear what this is all about, why these fighters have returned to this area, other than it's safe territory that they know. But, Miles, there's another wrinkle here, because there's a bit of a squeeze play going on. Of course, just across the border in Pakistan, the military there is also moving against Al Qaeda and Taliban. Everybody's trying to keep them cornered, get them where they are, and keep them from going on the run -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Barbara, of course, when we think of Tora Bora, we think of Osama bin Laden being holed up there. The current intelligence, the current thinking, is that he is not there, correct?

STARR: Well, how do you really answer that, Miles? 'Cause we've been asking that question all day. We don't want to get people too excited. There's no information at this point to suggest that he is there. The latest intelligence has always seemed to indicate that he is across the border, hiding out with his faithful somewhere in Pakistan.

But make no mistake. Intelligence officials are watching this current operation pretty carefully. They can't quite figure out why this number of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters decided to regroup in this particular area. They're trying to figure it all out. They don't think he's there, but everybody's got their eyes on the area, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you very much.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Terrorism, War in Afghanistan
Network/Outlet
CNN
Person
Miles O'Brien, Barbara Starr
Show/Publication
The Situation Room
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