Missed opportunities: tapping the Taliban’s lines before 9/11

Posted by: Phineas on August 8, 2011 at 1:01 pm

**Posted by Phineas

Here’s a bombshell from late last week that was lost in all the brouhaha over the debt agreement and S&P’s downgrade of US debt. In the last years of the Clinton administration and the early months of Bush’s, we had a golden chance to tap Afghanistan’s cell-phone networks, probably including their communications with their al Qaeda guests, because we would have built it for them:

Vanity Fair contributing editor David Rose reveals for the first time that in 1999 the Taliban had granted license to an American company, Afghan Wireless Communications, to construct a cell-phone, and, Internet system in Afghanistan. Had the secret deal, named Operation Foxden, been completed, the U.S. would have had complete access to al-Qaeda and Taliban calls and e-mails in a matter of months. “The capability we would have had would have been very good,” a former N.S.A. official tells Rose. “Had this network been built with the technology that existed in 2000, it would have been a priceless intelligence asset.” But, as Rose reports, “at the critical moment, the Clinton administration put the project on hold, while rival U.S. agencies—the F.B.I., the N.S.A., and the C.I.A.—bickered over who should control it.” This “was one tool we could have put in Afghanistan that could have made a difference,” says a former C.I.A. official. “Why didn’t we put it in?

Click through for the rather “colorful” answer.

The upshot is that a businessman who both had excellent relations with the Taliban and was an FBI source had secured a contract to build a wireless network for Afghanistan, and with the components added by US intelligence, we would have had unparalleled access to their cellular and satellite calls, with the operations run out of Fort Meade. Sweet, right? With this kind of access, we might well have leaned about 9/11 in time to stop it.

So what went wrong?

As the article makes clear, the program fell victim to both inter- and intra-agency bureaucratic chest-thumping, including an effort to squeeze out the British (Some British investors were involved, and they presumably had MI-6 backing.) because everyone was fighting over who would control it.

On top of that, the Clinton administration had issued an executive order prohibiting Americans from doing business in Afghanistan, a development that affected the FBI “asset” who had signed the contract. I find it mind-boggling that, as far as I can tell, Clinton a) apparently had no idea of a major intelligence operation against our avowed enemies and that b) no one went to him to argue or could convince him that a quiet exception needed to be made in this case.

Seriously. Did no one tell the President of the United States? 

This reminds me of the various bureaucratic frictions so amply documented in the 9/11 commission’s report, including the infamous Gorelick wall against intelligence sharing. Hidebound bureaucracy was one of our weakest links leading up to 9/11, and this news is another big example.

via Eli Lake

(Crossposted at Public Secrets)

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One Response to “Missed opportunities: tapping the Taliban’s lines before 9/11”

Comments

  1. Carlos says:

    Bottom line is that it wasn’t important to Clinton because he had weathered the “stained blue dress” storm, so didn’t need a foreign military/intelligence fiasco to divert attention away from his sorry behind.

    Why is it that every jackass’ first consideration is ideology, and a close second is how much moral turpitude can they exhibit and still fool the voters?