updated 4/2/2004 3:37:41 AM ET 2004-04-02T08:37:41

Somewhere in Afghanistan, sometime before the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA came calling on Ahmed Shah Massood.

He was a fearsome Tajik warlord who had worked with the agency to end the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Now he was fighting the Taliban government and the CIA wanted to support his fight against another common enemy: Osama bin Laden.

But first came the ground rules: A CIA officer read Massood a document spelling out the precise, legal terms under which Massood’s Northern Alliance could — or could not — attack bin Laden.

Massood laughed. “You Americans are crazy. You guys never change,” he said.

The undated exchange was cited last month by the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as an example of CIA frustration over the obstacles it faced in pursuing bin Laden between 1998 and 2001.

Findings overshadowed
The findings by the commission, while overshadowed by the testimony of former Bush counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke, offer a rare and extraordinary public account of the United States’ most secret of operations.

They highlight what the commission identified as a key problem in the American efforts to get bin Laden: conflicting views over the circumstances in which Massood and other CIA-backed fighters were permitted to kill the al-Qaida leader in his Afghan refuge.

Those barriers were largely swept aside after the Sept. 11 attacks. Until then, though, U.S. officials were cautious in their dealings with Afghan warlords and reluctant to endanger innocents in their pursuit of bin Laden.

It is still not clear what exactly the limitations were. According to the commission, Clinton administration officials said a series of presidential findings gave the CIA broad authority to have bin Laden killed; the CIA thought it could kill bin Laden only as part of a legitimate operation to capture him.

The presidential findings, known as memorandums of notification, remain classified. In interviews, former government and intelligence officials have varying recollections of how many were issued, when they were issued and what precisely they said. Most officials spoke on condition of anonymity.

No 'pure kill' authorization
The memorandums were signed by former President Clinton after the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The commission report said the CIA was instructed “to use its proxies to capture or assault bin Laden and his lieutenants in operations in which they might be killed. The instructions, except in one defined contingency, were to capture bin Laden if possible.”

The authorities granted to the CIA gradually increased, but a former senior CIA official said Clinton never signed a “pure kill” authorization.

“You could plan a capture and if (bin Laden was killed), fine, but you couldn’t hide behind a tree and shoot them,” the official said.

The CIA saw the capture requirement as an impediment, the commission report said. A former head of the CIA station that targeted bin Laden was quoted as saying, “We always talked about how much easier it would have been to kill him.”

But former White House officials say the authorizations shouldn’t have been an obstacle.

The CIA should try to have bin Laden captured, “but if the circumstances prevented the capture, then they were to kill him,” one former White House counterterrorism official said.

Guidelines were needed
In an interview, Clarke said there were four or five memorandums and while the first one was ambiguous, the later ones were not.

“My understanding is the last one in particular said ‘we understand that capture is impossible” rather than saying bin Laden could be killed “if capture is impossible.”

Clinton administration legal advisers determined that killing bin Laden would not violate a 1976 ban on assassinations. It would have been considered self-defense against someone who posed an imminent threat to the United States, according to the commission report.

Clinton clearly wanted to kill bin Laden with cruise missile strikes in 1998, former officials said. Also, several officials cited an authorization which would have permitted the downing of a helicopter with bin Laden aboard.

The CIA-backed fighters did not have free rein. Guidelines were needed because of reservations about dealing with local Afghans, many of whom were known for crimes and brutality.

The memorandums “did not say here’s a pile of money, go to Afghanistan and let them anybody kill anybody they want to kill,” a former Clinton administration official said.

Capability vs. authority
CIA-backed fighters had about six opportunities to attack bin Laden, usually while he was traveling near his Afghan base, the report said. Each time the plan was abandoned because bin Laden took a different route or security was too tight, or because it was feared innocents would be killed.

Several former government officials noted that the CIA participated in the drafting of the authorizations and could have objected if they didn’t go far enough. The commission report also said that no one at the CIA ever complained that the authorities were too restrictive.

The former CIA official said the agency tried to broaden its authority at one point, but the expanded language did not survive into the final version of the memorandum.

The commission also referred to some reticence at the CIA. At least two senior officials were morally opposed to getting the CIA involved in what might have looked like an assassination, the report said. One former counterterrorism chief said he would have refused an order to directly kill bin Laden.

Appearing before the commission’s hearing, CIA Director George Tenet declined to discuss specifics of the authorizations but hinted that the CIA may not have been in a position to directly target bin Laden, making the question of authority less significant.

He said “the capability to do what you’re asked to do is actually a lot more important than the authorities that you’re granted.” He said if his capabilities had grown, he would have sought expanded authority.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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