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Gareth Porter: Bush admin “had no plan by design” to kill or capture bin Laden

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. With the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, many people have been looking at the history of all of this. One of those people is Gareth Porter. He’s an investigative journalist and a writer. And he’s come to the conclusion that the United States has not been very interested in capturing or killing Osama bin Laden, at least not up until now. And he now joins us from our other studio in Washington. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.


JAY: So talk a little bit about what you found.

PORTER: My story, published this week after the killing of bin Laden, is really about how the George W. Bush administration had no interest whatsoever in capturing bin Laden, had no plan in mind when they went into Afghanistan after 9/11. And at the same time, Bush turned down a proposal from the Taliban foreign minister at that time to basically turn bin Laden over to an international Islamic organization called the Organization of Islamic Conference. And that organization, which represents all of the Islamic countries in the world, is a moderate organization, obviously, and it was based in Saudi Arabia. And, arguably, if the Bush administration had taken them up on that offer and could make it work, that would have been the best of all possible ways of dealing with bin Laden, because he would then have been tried by Islamic jurists with a great deal of credibility behind it, whereas if the United States had been able–had they been able to get a hold of bin Laden, they would not have had the credibility in whatever they did to bin Laden on their own.

JAY: So–just to be clear, so in 2001 there’s a deal to be had for bin Laden to be arrested, handed over to an Islamic court, and the United States turned it down. So how do we know this story? How do we know this took place?

PORTER: This is what I had confirmed to me directly by then foreign minister of the Taliban Muttawakil, who was later incarcerated in Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan after the US went in militarily, and after 18 months was released, went back to Kabul, and is now living in Kabul as a private citizen, but is one of those former Taliban officials who has been an intermediary between President Karzai and the Taliban. So for the first time, he actually told the story of the new proposal–actually, two different proposals that he made in Islamabad at a meeting with Pakistani and American officials on October 15, 2001. Before that, Taliban had said, “We won’t give up bin Laden unless you provide proof of his guilt in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But after the Americans began the bombing of Afghanistan on October 7, the Taliban quickly changed their mind and they dropped the condition and offered for the first time to turn bin Laden over to the Islamic conference organization and have him be tried by that organization.

JAY: Yeah. This goes along with a piece of the story I know of through work, when I made the film Return to Kandahar. We interviewed a member of the Taliban central council who had been a member of the central council up to and just after 9/11 and the beginnings of the negotiations about bin Laden. And he told me that in the first vote, the Taliban central council actually voted in favor of exactly this proposal to hand bin Laden over to Islamic court, and then later reversed the vote after a Pakistani official came to their meeting and told them not to do it. The Pakistani–in fact, in the interview he called him the foreign minister. I’m not sure I rely on the translation. But a senior Pakistani official came and told him, don’t hand over bin Laden. And later we were told by a colleague who we think is a good source, who talked to Hamid Gul, who’s the former head of the Pakistani ISI, and he confirmed all of this and said it was the Americans who had asked Pakistan to intervene to stop any process of handing him over to an Islamic court. So the two stories do kind of jive.

PORTER: Well, yeah, and I think that’s a perfectly credible account. I think what happened, however, as I suggested, is that once the Americans began the bombing of Afghanistan, obviously, of Taliban targets in Afghanistan,–

JAY: They go back to this proposal again.

PORTER: –they then change their view. And I think at that point they were really no longer willing to rely on the Pakistani advice, which may well have been, as you suggest, to tell them not to turn bin Laden over to any foreign country or group of countries. But, you know, at that point I think the Taliban understood that they really–their own regime was on the line and they had to do something different.

JAY: The other point you made in your article is how little planning or effort went into killing or capturing bin Laden at that time.

PORTER: Well, it’s absolutely clear from the historical record, and there are many sources supporting this, some of whom I’ve interviewed, that the Bush administration not only did not have a plan to capture or kill bin Laden after 9/11. In fact, they were simply not interested in that. That was simply not a priority interest of the George W. Bush administration. That’s because his main national security advisors, that is, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, were absolutely adamantly opposed to the United States trying to do anything about al-Qaeda and bin Laden, because they did not believe that that group represented any threat to the United States. They refused, even after the 9/11 attacks and after the CIA had concluded that bin Laden was behind it, those two and Paul Wolfowitz just simply refused to accept that al-Qaeda could have been behind it. But it’s well known that they did, the CIA did get information that bin Laden had left Kandahar and was on his way to Tora Bora. And so there was no real doubt about that. The question was what was the United States going to do about it. And they did have no military plan. They were eventually forced to ask the Pakistanis–and when I say they, I mean the US military. Tommy Franks, who was planning the Afghanistan and commanding the Afghanistan operation, was forced to ask the Pakistani army and Musharraf to intervene and to block the exits, so to speak, between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course, that was like asking, you know, the fox to guard the exit of the hens from the hen house.

JAY: No, I think it would have been–that’s asking the fox to guard the exit of the other fox from the hen house.

PORTER: Well, I mean, basically, the Pakistanis had no intention of helping the United States to intercept and to kill or capture bin Laden and al-Qaeda. I mean, they were obviously longtime allies and supporters of not just the Taliban but bin Laden and al-Qaeda as well. And this was well known within the Bush administration. It was not news to them that that was the case. So, basically, there was a charade going on here, certainly at the level of the cabinet, cabinet-level officials and their advisors.

JAY: And, of course, there’s been many, many stories in books and newspaper articles that even the attack on Tora Bora made no sense, that they were asking Afghans to do it and they were essentially Afghan-paid mercenaries. They weren’t–certainly weren’t very motivated. And the United States just wouldn’t commit any serious forces of its own to attack what they thought was bin Laden in Tora Bora. So, as you say, the whole thing seems to be either lack of planning or by design to let bin Laden make it to Pakistan.

PORTER: It was both. It was lack of planning by design. And I think, really, the point that people need to focus on here is that this was perhaps the most dramatic illustration of the way in which the national security state, if you will, of the United States has on one hand sort of presented themselves as being devoted to counterterrorism and to dealing with the threat from al-Qaeda, while at the same time really having a very different set of priorities, where al-Qaeda terrorism was never really the primary priority. I mean, and that’s perfectly explainable, because these were people, particularly in the George W. Bush administration, whose primary interest was to have big military budgets. To be able to justify those budgets, they needed to have state enemies like Iraq and Iran who they could focus on. And they were deathly afraid of having the US military be bogged down in Afghanistan trying to do something about bin Laden when they wanted them to be available to fight in Iraq, of course.

JAY: Yeah. Now, we are talking about the neocons here particularly, and there may have been quite different perceptions of all this from other parts of the American state. There’s something else that kind of confirms what you’re talking about, though. There’s a book by Richard Perle and David Frum called End of Evil. And when you pick it up, you assume it’s going to be a book about al-Qaeda. And al-Qaeda’s–in fact, I don’t think it’s actually mentioned once. If it is, it’s barely mentioned in the book. It’s all about other issues like the Iraqis and the Iranians, and even the Saudis. It’s all about how to re-divide up the world in American interest. And al-Qaeda barely mentions a footnote in all of it [sic].

PORTER: That’s absolutely true. But, of course, one has to also take into account the fact that the key officials here, the ones who really had the clout with the president, were Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who were not neoconservatives but, rather, Republican national security politicos who aligned themselves with the neocons for their own interests, which again I would suggest were primarily the interests of, you know, big ticket items for the military budget such as Star Wars and expensive systems having to do with the Air Force. They were very closely aligned with the Air Force, which is why we had an Air Force war in Iraq. So I think that there is a broader set of issues, a broader set of interests involved in this. And, by the way, I found that the US military leadership at that point were actually supporting the position of Cheney and Rumsfeld. What they were interested in was a big war in Iraq, which would then give them the military position with which to play a dominant role in the Middle East from that time on. You had Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, as well as Abizaid, who went on to become CENTCOM commander, who approved and in fact participated in the drafting of the plan that the Pentagon put before George Bush, which represented a plan to go into Iraq and really not to do anything about bin Laden.

JAY: But there was a real effort to counter al-Qaeda level terrorism. It’s just that it’s one small factor in a much bigger game. Does that–would you agree with that?

PORTER: Well, what I would say is that there were some interests within the national security state of the United States, specifically the counterterrorism office of the CIA and some of their superiors at higher levels of the CIA, plus the counterterrorism people left over from the Clinton administration in the National Security Council staff of the George W. Bush administration. But the people who were pushing for military action against bin Laden were not the ones who had the power in the national security team of George W. Bush. That was, of course, again, vice president and secretary of defense. And so, in fact, the people who wanted to do something about bin Laden really were not the ones who had any power to make it happen.

JAY: Now, we should say that bin Laden was on the FBI Most Wanted list, I think, at least for five years prior to 9/11. I mean, it wasn’t like he came out of the blue, and it wasn’t like he wasn’t on the radar already, although after being on the Most Wanted list for five years, they hadn’t caught him for five years, so one asks again how hard were they trying to. And, again, there are so many unanswered questions about the Saudi Role in 9/11. It goes on and on. I mentioned this in a previous interview with Eric Margolis. But there’s another point that should–people should be reminded about and we shouldn’t let disappear into the amnesia, which is The LA Times reported not long after 9/11 that–I think within a year or two of 9/11, one of the congressional committees looking into 9/11 had a document that actually named names of members of the Saudi royal family that had been directly financing members of the 9/11 conspiracy, and that all the names and most of the pertinent information was redacted from the document when it went public. But a LA Times reporter, who I later phoned and asked if he would confirm this–this is two or three years after he wrote the piece, and he confirmed that not only does he confirm it, but the whole LA Times editorial board stands by the fact that he talked to someone who saw the document before it was blacked out, redacted, and there were many names of prominent members of the Saudi royal family. So I don’t think we should try to reach all kinds of conclusions in this interview, but there are so many unanswered questions about this. I think I would agree with those who say there needs to be some kind of independent commission to look into all of this stuff. What do you think of that?

PORTER: I absolutely agree. And I would go one step further and say that there’s no question that there was a massive coverup, both by the Bush administration itself, to cover its own, really, guilt in not having done anything about bin Laden, but also by the 9/11 Commission, which essentially did cover up the complicity of the Pakistani government, as well as of the Saudi government, in what happened in 9/11. I mean, for example, I think it was well known–certainly I’ve been told that people within the State Department under the Bush administration were convinced that the ISI had a role in the killing of the Northern Alliance leader, and on the eve of 9/11, that that was a job that the ISI almost certainly was involved in directly.

JAY: And this is because it’s–a lot of people predicted that in the chaos after 9/11–. His name was Massoud. Am I–do I have the name correct?

PORTER: Ahmed Shah Massoud. Right.

JAY: Yeah, that Massoud was probably the person that could have emerged as the new leader of Afghanistan after that. They killed him before any of that could happen.

PORTER: Exactly. And so my point is that it was well known, certainly within parts of the Bush administration, that ISI was very closely involved with bin Laden and al-Qaeda. And this was one of the things that, of course, was expunged from the record by the Bush administration. They did their best to make sure that that did not come out at all.

JAY: And we should–just to close the loop on this piece of it, we should not forget how close Pakistani intelligence and military is to Saudi intelligence and military. And, in fact, when the Saudis were in trouble recently with some demonstrators in Saudi Arabia, they asked for support from the Pakistani military. There’s a very close relationship there. So, again, many, many unanswered questions here. Anything else you want to add quickly to this story?

PORTER: The general point here behind the coverup, I think, is a more important point, which is to understand that the national security state of this country is devoted to its own interests, its own interests in continuing to have very high military budgets, you know, way beyond the level, for example, of the Eisenhower era, despite the fact that they can only justify that if they can continue to have wars–or the threat of war, as they would like to pose it–with major state enemies such as Iraq and Iran. And that means that there’s a constant lie being told to the American people that we’re really here to protect you from terrorism, whereas in fact what they really want is to continue to have a military budget that would justify or to have wars that would justify the kind of military budgets that keep them in business.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Gareth.

PORTER: Thank you very much.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.