WARSAW, Poland — In late 1999, two years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people, a group of Afghan agents loyal to an anti-Taliban guerrilla leader proposed assassinating Osama bin Laden. All they wanted was the $5 million reward the Clinton administration had offered for bin Laden’s capture, says a former Polish spy who was the Afghans’ go-between on the plot.
The CIA rejected the plan, however, saying, "We do not have a license to kill."
The story, the centerpiece of “Ferreting out bin Laden,” a book by former spy Alexander Makowski that was published in Poland in June but isn’t yet available in English, offers previously unknown details about how the United States missed warning signs of the deadliest foreign attack ever on U.S. soil. It’s told from the perspective of an allied intelligence service whose specialty is human intelligence – recruiting and running agents – not the technological monitoring that’s considered the U.S.’s strength.
“They gave us the exact location of the houses where bin Laden would be staying in Kandahar, the route he would be taking between his living quarters, his meeting place, and what kind of transportation he would be using,” Makowski told McClatchy in a recent interview, referring to the city in southern Afghanistan that was the Taliban’s seat of power. The Afghans planned to use car bombs to kill the Saudi-born leader of al Qaida.
But on Oct. 14, 1999, a CIA officer whom Makowski identified as "Jim" flew to Warsaw with a response. “I would like everyone here to be absolutely clear on one thing: We do not have a license to kill,” “Jim” told top officials at the headquarters of Polish intelligence. Makowski, at the time a businessman, said he was at the meeting.
“We have to capture bin Laden safe and sound so that he can stand trial and be sentenced legally,” Makowski quotes the officer as saying. “Any other solution is out of the question. CIA operates within the American legal order.”
According to Makowski, the intelligence proved accurate: Bin Laden arrived in Kandahar as planned and stayed in the house as had been predicted. Could the Afghans have killed him? “I have no doubt,” he said.
Bin Laden’s death in 1999 could have changed the American role in the world today, particularly if his death had demoralized al Qaida enough that it abandoned its 9/11 plans. Both the war in Afghanistan, which continues to this day, and the war in Iraq, which claimed nearly 4,500 American troops, were outgrowths of the 9/11 attacks, as was the increase in anti-Americanism in much of the Muslim world.
But Makowski’s book isn’t about the world that might have been. Instead, he uses the aborted bin Laden assassination plot as the basis for a much broader criticism: that the U.S. government, including the CIA, faced with a choice between a fundamentalist Taliban regime that had taken power in 1996 and the Taliban’s main rival, guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, sided with the Taliban.
The bin Laden mission was not the only missed opportunity that Makowski highlights. He also blames the CIA for the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000, which claimed the lives of 17 American sailors.
“Beginning in 1999, for almost a year, we started giving information that bin Laden had made a decision to prepare an operation to attack U.S. warships in the Gulf,” Makowski told McClatchy.
“We started supplying details. There was a 27-person team, the command was divided and it was based in Dubai. We told them who its leader was, his passport number, his Dubai identity card and that they were preparing to attack a U.S. warship,” he said.
At first the CIA asked for more information. But after seven or eight months of reporting, the agency wrote back that the information is interesting “but they think such an attack is impossible,” Makowski said. Three months later, the Cole was attacked as it was in port in Yemen.
“To me, the most appalling thing is that after we supplied all this information about an attack on a warship in the Gulf, the Cole wasn’t protected in any way,” Makowski said.
The CIA had no comment on the book or on Makowski’s assertions. A former senior U.S. intelligence official said he’d never heard of Makowski, but he declined to speak on the record. Michael Scheuer, who from 1996 to 1999 headed the CIA’s special “Alec station,” which monitored bin Laden, said he was unaware of Polish intelligence on the terrorist leader.
Makowski’s former colleague, Gromoslaw Czempinski, who’s a legend at the CIA for having led the rescue of six U.S. intelligence officers from Iraq in 1990, vouches for his story, however.
“The Americans didn’t believe us. They said, ‘We have better sources than you do,’ ” Czempinski told McClatchy. “We offered them bin Laden, but they refused.”
Makowski’s credentials are many. The son of a spy, he speaks fluent English, attended primary school in Great Britain and high school in the United States, and received a postgraduate law degree from Harvard. He graduated from the Polish military intelligence academy at Stare Kiejkuty, also the location of one of the so-called "black sites" where the CIA interrogated – and some say tortured – suspected terrorists, including the alleged mastermind of the Cole attack, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, who now faces trial before a military commission at Guantanamo.
Makowski spent 20 years in the Polish espionage service under the communist regime, rising to the rank of colonel, in charge of spying on the democratic opposition and tracking its finances. When the communist government collapsed, he was mustered out in 1990 and went into private business, though he never left the world of espionage behind.
He gave McClatchy this account of his conversations with Massoud:
Massoud was desperate for arms, financial support and a relationship with the United States when he reached out to Makowski in 1997. At the time, Makowski was selling arms manufactured by the Polish state arms industry.
Arriving at Massoud’s Panjshir valley redoubt in northern Afghanistan, Makowski introduced himself as a former spy. Massoud wanted to purchase three things: $150 million in Polish arms, equipment to mine emeralds and an arrangement to print Afghan currency in Poland. A high Polish intelligence official checked first with the CIA.
“The CIA isn’t interested in Massoud. He’s not on their agenda. They don’t want us to sell him any arms,” the Polish official reported after a visit to Langley, Va., where the CIA’s headquarters are. The CIA did say it had no objection to selling the mining equipment or printing money in Poland.
Massoud and Makowski’s relationship deepened, and eventually Massoud offered Makowski access to the extensive intelligence network he’d built while fighting Soviet occupation in the 1980s and carried on after the Taliban ousted the regime of Burhanuddin Rabbani, in which Massoud was the defense minister.
Soon Makowski was focused on bin Laden.
“There was a period of 12 months when we were tracking bin Laden basically day to day,” he told McClatchy. He said he’d supplied the Polish intelligence services with “everything Massoud’s service had on al Qaida, on bin Laden and on the Taliban structures.” The Polish service passed the information to the CIA, which sent “tons” of follow-up questions, Makowski said.
Makowski thinks that was why Massoud granted him the access to his network in the first place.
But the CIA didn’t warm to Massoud, Makowski said, and it’s unclear whether the information reached all the CIA analysts who were monitoring bin Laden. Scheuer, for one, said he couldn’t recall “hearing of any information from a Polish government source on al Qaida." He added, "I know that period pretty well."
Makowski now thinks that Massoud held back intelligence about bin Laden and the 9/11 plot because of the CIA’s lack of interest. “I am aware of the fact that the development of modern Afghanistan doesn’t matter to the Americans,” Makowski recalls Massoud telling him in August 1999.
He knew, however, that the United States was interested in bin Laden, and he feared that if bin Laden were killed, the U.S. would reach an accommodation with the Taliban. He decided to play it coy, Makowski says. “I will stall for time until I make sure they had stopped supporting the Taliban and are ready to support me instead," Makowski said Massoud had concluded.
In mid-June 2000, Massoud practically ordered his commanders not to cooperate with the CIA in hunting down bin Laden. Makowski thinks Massoud also avoided telling the Americans of bin Laden’s plan for the 9/11 strikes.
“I think there is a very good case that he allowed this to happen,” Makowski told McClatchy, speaking of 9/11.
Unfortunately, Massoud missed a key part of bin Laden’s 9/11 planning: Massoud’s own assassination, which took place on the eve of the Sept. 11 attack.
“If it were not for his death days before, all the pieces would have fallen into place, and Massoud would have been returned to power," Makowski says, referring to the U.S.-led post-9/11 campaign that swept the Taliban from power.
How did Massoud, the master of intelligence in Afghanistan, fail to spot the assassination plot against him?
“Intelligence failure,” Makowski said. “You have those things even in the best intelligence service."
Jonathan S. Landay in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Barbara Dziedzic in Warsaw contributed to this report.