In the months before the terrorist attacks of September 2001, the CIA unit dedicated to hunting for Osama bin Laden complained that it was running out of money, and analysts considered the likelihood of catching the terrorist leader to be extremely low, according to government records published this week.
The declassified documents, dated from 1992 to 2004, are heavily blacked out and offer little new information about what the United States knew about the al Qaeda plot before 2001. Many of the files are cited in the 9/11 Commission report, published in 2004.
The commission determined the failure that led to 9/11 was a lack of imagination, and U.S. intelligence agencies failed to connect the dots that could have prevented the attacks.
Though few new details are revealed in the documents, the files offer more historical context for the years surrounding the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil.
The National Security Archive obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request and published them on its website Tuesday. The archive is a private group seeking transparency in government.
An April 2000 document from the CIA's bin Laden unit alluded to a budgetary cash crunch that was cutting into the agency's efforts to track the al Qaeda leader.
At that time, al Qaeda was a major concern of U.S. intelligence agencies because of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed many, including two CIA employees.
Bin Laden had declared a holy war against the U.S., and the CIA had received multiple warnings that al Qaeda intended to strike the U.S.
"Need forward movement on supplemental soonest," said a heavily blacked-out document titled "Islamic Extremist Update."
The supplemental budget was still being reviewed by the National Security Council and White House Office of Management and Budget. Because of budgetary constraints, the bin Laden unit would move from an "offensive to defensive posture," the document said.
This meant that officials feared they would have to shelve some of their more-elaborate proposals to track al Qaeda and instead rely on existing resources.
The "Uzbek Initiative," referenced in the same document, was one of the more- expensive programs the CIA ran at the time, according to a source familiar with the initiative. The program involved paying off CIA tipsters who monitored bin Laden followers traveling through Uzbekistan.
The documents do not make clear whether the portion of the budget in question was passed. But they hint at complaints detailed publicly after the 9/11 attacks by previous directors of the bin Laden unit that the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations did not fully appreciate the severity of the threat.
The documents also show that U.S. officials were concerned that bin Laden was using Afghanistan's national airline to smuggle vast cash reserves when he was sheltered by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban mullahs in the late 1990s. The CIA's "National Intelligence Daily" in June 1999 urged the imposition of sanctions on Ariana Airlines, then controlled by the Taliban, in order to put pressure on bin Laden's cash flow. His funds reportedly depended heavily on flights from the United Arab Emirates into Afghanistan.
"Closing of Ariana's UAE offices would force them to find alternative - and most likely less secure - carriers, routes and methods for moving bin Laden's cash," the document said.
Later that year, the United States and United Nations imposed harsh sanctions on Afghanistan and its airline, shutting down all flights and closing Ariana's offices abroad.