- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

A Pentagon planner drafted a top secret battle plan for pre-emptively attacking Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, but his recommendations never reached then-Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, say defense and former Clinton administration officials.

The highly classified plan, drafted in August 1998 after al Qaeda’s deadly bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, recently was turned over to the U.S. commission investigating the September 11 attacks.

Commission staffers have begun interviewing current and former Pentagon officials to determine why the battle plan never was forwarded to Mr. Cohen.

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States has scheduled two days of hearings next week. They will focus on what options the Clinton and Bush administrations considered against al Qaeda from the time of the embassy bombings to September 11, 2001.

It has been reported that the Clinton White House wanted the Pentagon top brass to conceive special operations missions to capture or kill bin Laden in Afghanistan. Gen. Hugh Shelton, then-Joint Chiefs chairman, and other officers objected on the grounds that they lacked sufficient intelligence.

But the 1998 top secret plan is the first indication that a planner actually had drafted a wide-ranging plan for submission to the defense secretary.

“It was unique,” said a defense official. “It lays out a strategy for attacking terrorists before they attack us. If Cohen got the memo, what would he have done?”

The plan was drafted by Thomas Kuster, a retired Army Green Beret who in 1998 worked for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.

The assistant secretary at the time was H. Allen Holmes, a longtime State Department and Pentagon official.

Mr. Holmes said in a interview with The Washington Times that Bonnie Jenkins, a commission counsel, telephoned him last week to discuss the Kuster memo. He said he had submitted previously to two interviews with commission staffers, who did not bring up the Kuster memo.

Al Felzenberg, the commission’s spokesman, said it is the panel’s policy not to confirm or deny it has interviewed any witness or obtained certain documents.

The commission apparently obtained the Kuster document a few weeks ago.

“I do remember he [Mr. Kuster] did write a memo outlining some measures to basically up the ante, to get more proactive in the aftermath of the twin bombings in East Africa,” Mr. Holmes told The Times.

Mr. Holmes confirmed that the memo was passed up the chain of command to the office of the undersecretary of policy with a recommendation it be briefed to Mr. Cohen. But it was not.

“I don’t remember anything happening as a result of the memo and the ideas being brought forward,” Mr. Holmes said. “Obviously, the memo was intended to go further up the chain.”

A spokesman for Mr. Cohen did not return a phone call yesterday seeking comment.

Mr. Holmes said he cannot remember the memo’s details.

The memo recommended pre-emptive attacks against al Qaeda and other terrorist leadership with CIA and special operations forces. The military’s counterterrorist forces are led by the Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C. The command includes the Delta Force and the Navy’s Seal Team Six.

In announcing that Mr. Cohen and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, among others, will testify next week, commission chairman Thomas H. Kean said, “A central aspect of our commission’s mission is counterterrorism policy. What options senior officials considered before September 11, 2001, and what choices they made. This is clearly one of the most important hearings the commission will hold.”

Mr. Holmes said the White House and Pentagon constantly searched for ways to “hurt” al Qaeda. He said he recalls briefing Mr. Cohen after the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, but before the embassy strikes in 1998.

He recalls the defense secretary as saying, “Good defense. I don’t see a lot on the offense.” Mr. Holmes added, “We didn’t disagree with him, and we took that as a charge we would try to find ways to be much more proactive in combating terrorism.”

A joint House-Senate intelligence committee investigation completed in 2002 concluded that, “The U.S. military did not support putting U.S. ‘boots on the ground’ in Afghanistan.”

Gen. Shelton told the committee that absent a declaration of war against the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan, he did not think he could send troops into the country.

He also said the CIA lacked “actionable” intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts. The committee concluded that cruise-missile strikes on terrorist training camps after the embassy bombings “were the only use of U.S. military force against bin Laden or his terrorist network in Afghanistan prior to September 11, 2001.”

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