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The Blame Game

NBC Nightly News’ Andrea Mitchell has a thing about the CIA and Director George J. Tenet. We have previously reported that her coverage of Tenet’s appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee in early March represented some of the most distorted, dishonest reporting we had seen in some time. She was at it again in her March 24th coverage of Tenet’s appearance before the National 9/11 commission.

Last time around, she portrayed Tenet as regretful for the Intelligence Community’s purported failures on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Such an admission would support the charge made by liberal Democrats and their friends in the media that the administration’s rationale for Operation Iraqi Freedom was false. But, in truth, Tenet has apologized for nothing and has repeatedly said the search for WMD is far from over.

This time, her goal seems to be to clear the Clinton administration of charges that it was too squeamish to use deadly force to stop al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. In her March 24th coverage, it is Tenet and the CIA who are to blame for not taking out bin Laden. She opens her segment by alleging that “the CIA may have passed up chances to get bin Laden before 9/11.” Why? She told viewers, “Because the agency did not think it had the right to assassinate him.”

She then runs a clip of Clinton National Security Advisor Sandy Berger telling the 9/11 panel, “We gave the CIA every inch of authorization that it had asked for.” Berger, Madeleine Albright and William Cohen all testified that the agency never produced sufficient “actionable intelligence” to support targeting bin Laden.

Mitchell:  “Berger said they’d often get all ramped up to go after bin Laden, but the CIA did not come up with the intelligence.”  

“One missed opportunity,” she then says, “in 1999, the CIA learned bin Laden was at a hunting camp in the Afghan desert along with princes from the United Arab Emirates.” “The CIA did not fire,” she says.

That raises the question, “fire what?” She didn’t report on the findings of the 9/11 commission’s staff on this incident, nor did she mention the account given in Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, the Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. During the two days of hearings, commissioners, including Chairman Tom Kean, repeatedly made favorable comments about Coll’s book.

The staff report and Coll’s account make clear that the weapons considered for use in this instance were cruise missiles to be launched from submarines or surface ships operating off the coast of Pakistan. Authorization for the use of these missiles could only come from the President himself. There is no trace in any of these accounts of any interest or intent to use agency assets to kill bin Laden.

Former counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke told the 9/11 staff that the missile strike was called off because the intelligence was “dubious.” To the contrary, however, Coll writes that he was told that an abundance of intelligence reporting “left some (CIA) officers involved with an unusually high feeling of certainty that bin Laden was really there.” He quotes one presumably CIA “participant” as saying, “We knew he (bin Laden) was there. We had assets in place. There was little risk to life and limb to anyone?not our Afghan colleagues, nobody on the American side. And it would have been, we thought, definitive. We could take him out.” 

But, according to Coll, the agency could not give Clinton or his advisors a “100 percent guarantee” that bin Laden was at the camp. And that was enough for Tenet and Clarke and the Clinton National Security Council to recommend against the strike. But the decision “not to fire” clearly was made not by the CIA, but by President Clinton. The right question may involve not so much the CIA’s “authority,” but whether White House officials set the intelligence threshold for decision-making so high that no reporting would ever suffice. But Mitchell didn’t pose those questions. 

Like no time in recent memory, the nation’s ability to produce reliable, credible intelligence has come under a microscope. Reform and management of that capability could even become an issue in this fall’s presidential election campaign. NBC advertises Mitchell as a “longtime analyst of the intelligence community.” But rather than give her audience in-depth, insightful pieces that could help the public understand the complexities and challenges confronting the U.S. Intelligence Community, Mitchell keeps serving up distorted, biased reporting intended primarily to discredit the Bush administration and excuse the failures of Bill Clinton.