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updated 3/18/2005 11:02:05 AM ET 2005-03-18T16:02:05

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.

"They have some kind of a gun or an RPG grenade launcher on their shoulders," says NBC New military analyst Bill 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 Osama bin Laden. Weeks later, bin Laden attacked the U.S.S. Cole, killing 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 U.S. could take a shot. But it didn't happen before 9/11 — why?

"We tied an arm behind our back. We lost the most promising new tool we had," says Daniel Benjamin, a counter-terrorism official with the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

Benjamin charges the Bush Administration moved too slowly getting armed Predators ready — and did not send unarmed Predators back to look for bin Laden.

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

After testing in June, the administration's plan was to send the Predator to Afghanistan in September 2001. Why the two month wait?

"We did push very hard on getting the Predator back up," says National Security Advisor Condoleezza 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. "The warhead's effectiveness argues against flying armed missions this fall," reads one document.

"The Predator was not a silver bullet," says 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 it's being used, even today, to hunt Osama bin Laden.

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