By Lisa Myers Senior investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/17/2004 9:40:24 PM ET 2004-03-18T02:40:24

On Tuesday, NBC Nightly News disclosed exclusive spy video, shot by the CIA high over Afghanistan, of al-Qaeda terrorists walking with a man believed to be Osama bin Laden. Critics questioned why the Clinton administration didn't do more to get bin Laden after he was in their sights. In 2001, senior Bush administration officials viewed the same videotape. Now, we examine what more President Bush might have done, before 9/11, to go after al-Qaida.

In the fall of 2000, a CIA Predator drone shot extraordinary pictures from miles above Afghanistan. The spy video, obtained by NBC News, secretly captures al-Qaida terrorists training — doing pushups and firing weapons, including a muzzle flash.

NBC showed the video to William Arkin, a former intelligence officer and now military analyst for NBC.

"They have some kind of a gun or an RPG grenade launcher on their shoulders," explained Arkin.

That fall the Predator also provided the first live images of the most wanted fugitive in the world — a tall man in white robes believed to be bin Laden.

Weeks later, bin Laden's attack on the USS Cole killed 17 sailors.

By January, there was a new administration. At the urging of the CIA, President Bush decided to arm the Predator with deadly Hellfire missiles, so the next time bin Laden was spotted, the United States could take a shot. But it didn't happen before 9/11.  Why?

Space Imaging
The Tarnak Farm site where the Predator video showed the man believed to be Osama bin Laden is shown in this satellite photo taken Oct. 10, 2001. There is bomb damage after U.S. air attacks.
Daniel Benjamin, a member of President Clinton's counter-terrorism team, charges the Bush administration moved too slowly getting armed Predators ready and did not send unarmed Predators back to look for bin Laden.

"We tied an arm behind our back,” said Benjamin. “We lost the most promising new tool we had."

Part of the problem, everyone agrees, is bureaucratic infighting between the CIA and the Pentagon over who would pay and who would be blamed if something went wrong.

Global dragnet

After testing in June, the administration's plan was to send the Predator to Afghanistan in September.

President Bush had said he was tired of “swatting flies.” Did his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, ever say, “September isn’t good enough — we have got to get this back up there"?

“We did push very hard on getting the Predator back up,” insisted Rice, “But you always have to be careful to make sure that you're going to have something that works."

Government documents, obtained by NBC News, show senior intelligence officials thought the armed Predator still was not ready, even in September, saying, "The warhead's effectiveness argues against flying armed missions this fall."

"The predator was not a silver bullet,” said Rice. “Let's be very clear about that.  As hard as we tried to get the Predator up, as much as we worked to get it up, that would not have prevented September 11th."

Soon after 9/11, the armed Predator was launched and proved a success — helping kill al-Qaida military chief Mohammed Atef and his associates — and is being used now to hunt bin Laden.

More on the missed opportunities:

  • Tuesday:   How close did the United States come to getting bin Laden?
  • Wednesday:  What more could the Bush administration have done to get bin Laden?
  • Thursday: Did Bush take terrorism seriously before 9/11, or was focus too much on Saddam?

Lisa Myers is NBC’s senior investigative correspondent.

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