WASHINGTON, Oct. 17 (UPI) -- The Central Intelligence Agency had a network of agents throughout Afghanistan and other countries aimed at capturing Osama bin Laden and his deputies as early as 1999, the CIA director told lawmakers Thursday, cautioning that the al Qaida terror network was poised to strike American targets again.
"When you see the multiple attacks that you've seen occur around the world, from Bali to Kuwait, the number of failed attacks that have been attempted, the various messages that have been issued by senior al Qaida leaders, you must make the assumption that al Qaida is in an execution phase and intends to strike us both here and overseas," George Tenet told Congress's Joint Intelligence Committee.
Tenet is scheduled to meet with the director of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, Thursday evening, at which time he said he would discuss among other things preparations for combating future terror strikes. The current color-coded warning on the threat from terrorism is yellow, with orange the next level and red being the highest.
Tenet's warning came after he spoke for 40 minutes responding to a congressional report highly critical of his agency's handling of intelligence information on al Qaida hijackers prior to Sept. 11, 2001. In testimony Tenet said he had waited for a year to share with the committee, he revealed for the first time that the CIA had an extensive human and technical intelligence collection program inside Afghanistan prior to the attacks.
"This strategy, which we called 'The Plan,' built on what (the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center) was recognized as doing well: collection, quick reaction to operation opportunities, renditions, disruptions, and analysis. It's priority was plain, to capture and bring to justice bin Laden and his principal lieutenants," he told lawmakers in prepared testimony.
Rendition means sending suspects captured by Americans overseas to third countries, often ones where torture is used in interrogations.
As a result of CIA penetration into Afghanistan -- and not just those parts of it controlled by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance -- the agency had in place a system to identify al Qaida training camps prior to the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom last October, providing specific target information for the U.S. Army's Central Command during the military campaign to topple the Taliban.
Tenet said, "By 9-11, a map would show that these collection programs and human networks were in place in such numbers as to nearly cover Afghanistan. This array meant that, when the military campaign to topple the Taliban and destroy al Qaida began last October, we were able to support it with an enormous body of information and a large stable of assets."
While The Washington Post reported last year that, long before Sept. 11, the CIA had been ordered by President Clinton to find and apprehend bin Laden, Tenet's testimony marks the first time an administration official spoke about this strategy in public.
Other facets of the plan included a recruitment effort from the CIA aimed at hiring new officers trained in languages spoken in the Middle East and South Asia; utilizing technical intelligence such as listening devices to monitor known al Qaida operatives; and nearly daily coordination with the National Security Agency and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency to coordinate the intelligence take from human assets.
The result of the plan, according to Tenet was a marked increase in human intelligence reporting on al Qaida resulting in 900 separate human intelligence reports for the first nine months of 2001.
Tenet's revelations come as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have turned their sights on the CIA's failures to share information with the FBI and other federal agencies on the whereabouts of Sept. 11 hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdar.
The CIA knew as early as January 2001 that al-Midhar was in Malaysia at a meeting with one of the plotters of the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. The committee's report concludes that this should have prompted the agency to share this information with the FBI and place his name on a watch list for terrorists.
In a particularly pugnacious round of questions, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked Tenet several times if he knew the name of the employees responsible for failing to place these names on the list. In response, the director said each time he did not.
"I believe people who failed in their responsibilities have got to be held accountable," Levin said. "This is not a matter of scapegoating. This is a matter of accountability. There has been, I believe, too little effort made to pinpoint the responsibility. You don't even know the names of the people who were responsible for failures... We're not going to have real change unless we have that."