“Does America Need the CIA?”

PRESIDENT CLINTON DID NOT attend George J. Tenet’s swearing-in ceremony at the White House on July 31, 1997. He sent Vice President Al Gore in his stead. In Deutch and now Tenet, Clinton had placed leaders at Langley whom he liked and trusted. Yet the president remained skeptical of the CIA as an institution. His exceptionally smart friend John Deutch had impressed upon him a belief that the Directorate of Operations just wasn’t very good at spying. A failed covert action program targeting Saddam Hussein in the summer of 1996 had embarrassed and frustrated the White House. Clinton was innately skeptical of covert action as a substitute for overt foreign policy, and the Iraq episode had only reinforced his instincts. Some of the agency’s career operatives had then revolted against Clinton’s nomination of Tony Lake as director. Tenet’s relationship with the new national security adviser, Sandy Berger, was excellent, and he could count on Clinton’s personal attention when he needed it. But he was being appointed that summer to run an agency whose most important client, the president, remained aloof and unimpressed.

Tenet, just forty-four years old, was in many ways an unlikely candidate to repair the breach. He had never run for political office, managed a large organization, served in the military, worked as an intelligence officer, shaped American foreign policy, or authored a book or significant journal article. He had risen to the position of America’s chief spy partly by political accident but also because he was exceptionally gifted with people and with the Washington bureaucratic art typically called “process.” He was gregarious, direct, funny, unpretentious, hardworking, a natural coalition builder, and “the ultimate staff guy,” as his colleague Nick Burns put it. He was an insider, a creature of permanent Washington. He had arrived in the capital two decades before to study international relations at Georgetown University. His first job in the city, as a lobbyist, was a tongue-twisting classic of the enduring Washington: director of photovoltaics and international programs at the Solar Energy Industries Association. On Capitol Hill he worked for a decade as a staff professional for Republicans and Democrats alike. Some of his closest friends did not know his political affiliation (he was a registered Democrat) because he rarely spoke about partisan issues.1

He had been appointed as Deutch’s deputy at the CIA in early 1995 for the same reason that Clinton appointed him as director in the summer of 1997: His personal connections on both sides of the Senate aisle made him very easy to confirm. Tenet was very loyal to Deutch, but he understood when he took charge in the summer of 1997 that the CIA was near rock bottom. Constant turnover in the director’s office had set the agency far adrift. Recruitment had stalled: Only 25 trainees became clandestine officers in 1995. Attrition and early retirement continued to drain off talent and spirit. This was true in every division. The Directorate of Operations was probably the worst, but the Directorate of Intelligence and even the Directorate of Science and Technology were suffering as well. The agency’s budget was overstretched, despite the new funds for counterterrorism. The morale problems caused by the Aldrich Ames case remained, exacerbated by minor arguments with Congress over agent recruitment in Central America, episodes which reinforced a sense at Langley that everything the agency touched was bound to turn to scandal, at least in the eyes of Congress and the press.

In his two years as Deutch’s deputy, as liaison to the Directorate of Operations, Tenet had absorbed these problems the way a Geiger counter absorbs radiation signals. He was a student of people and institutions. He had uncanny intuition about their moods and sufferings, and he often seemed to know just the right thing to say. By far his strongest instincts about the CIA involved its internal health. He did not move into the director’s suite on the seventh floor that summer with grand, compelling ideas about global politics. Virtually all of his views about national security threats and foreign policy reflected the capital’s centrist consensus. Bill Casey had come to the CIA to wage war against the Soviet Union. George Tenet measured his ambitions at first largely by the CIA’s institutional needs: a more clearly defined mission, higher morale, better execution of core espionage and analysis, more recruits, better training, and more resources. “This is all about focusing on basics,” he told CIA staff at a meeting called to announce his priorities. He was going to break the pattern of the last decade. “It is truly unfortunate” that the agency had endured three directors in just five years, he said. “This one is staying.” His approach, he told them, would put “a premium on hard work for commonsense goals.”2

This was the way he had been raised. His father was Greek by ancestry but Albanian by birth. John Tenet left Albania when he was thirteen and spent the next seven years working in French coal mines. With little money and few possessions, he came through Ellis Island on the eve of the Great Depression. George Tenet’s mother escaped communism by fleeing her native Epirus (a region on the border between Greece and Albania) in the hull of a British submarine at the end of World War II. She never saw her parents again. She met John Tenet in New York, married, and on January 5, 1953, gave birth to a son, William, and six minutes later to his fraternal twin, George.3

They lived in a two-story row house on Marathon Parkway in Little Neck, Queens. The house faced a quiet, tree-lined residential road where the boys played stickball. George Tenet was renowned for his hitting power, capable of knocking a spaldeen two sewers from home. He also played guard on the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church basketball team. His father opened the 20th Century Diner around the block from the family home. George and Bill worked as busboys throughout their teens. They were little alike. Bill was reserved, precise, and studious; he would become a cardiologist. George was loud, sloppy, and boisterous. At the diner he was called “The Mouthpiece.” Sol Winder, a family friend, recalled that he “was always talking, that kid. He was the type of guy who could never keep a secret.” He was also a news junkie. At age eight he wrote a series of letters to the host of a local current affairs show, who sent back an autograph: “To the future editorial page editor of The New York Times.” His parents drove home the immigrant creed: hard work, education, family, faith, ambition. His father worked sixteen-hour days so the twins could make it in America. Both apparently took internal vows to do so or die trying.4

In 1982, at twenty-nine, George Tenet landed his first job on Capitol Hill, as legislative assistant to Senator John Heinz, a Republican from Pennsylvania. Tenet was a “guy’s guy, a sports nut,” as a colleague recalled. He had season tickets to Georgetown University basketball. He was so devoted to the Hoyas that he wrote an outraged, sardonic letter to Sports Illustrated after the magazine published a critical article about the team’s recruitment practices. But Tenet had no fixed political ideology, his colleagues remembered, other than wanting to ensure that the United States maintained its advantage over the rest of the world. He stood out because he could connect at a personal level with senators and staff. Heinz was a demanding, detail-oriented boss who consumed data and pushed his staff hard. He tested new arrivals early on to see if they could meet his standards; if not, he froze them out until they left. Tenet failed the initial test; he was new to the Hill, did not know the role of staff members, and was not an especially strong writer. But he fought his way back into Heinz’s good graces. “He was the only person I ever saw there that slid downhill and then pulled himself back up,” recalled his colleague Bill Reinsch. Tenet did it by “force of personality and hard work.”5

Hill staffers often went out in the evening, but Tenet never finished his first beer,much less ordered a second round. He was already married, to Stephanie Glakas, the outgoing daughter of a career foreign service officer. She worked as a dorm mother at the all-female Marymount College on Foxhall Road, near Georgetown, and when they settled in Washington together, Tenet moved into the dorm—it was cheap housing. Later they bought the Maryland house Glakas had grown up in. Tenet organized his life around Capitol Hill, his suburban home, his newborn son, Georgetown basketball, and occasional rounds of golf on cheap public courses. He was profane and comical, not sanctimonious or naïve, but also a very straight arrow, his colleagues felt. At the office or passing on a street corner he was quick with “typical New York, in-your-face” banter, but it was “friendly, not hostile,” and he managed not to bruise people, a colleague remembered. He worked Senate hearing rooms the way he had worked the Queens diner counter, vamping for attention. He was a bulky man, overweight, and a chronic poacher of office junk food. His friends worried about his health, but he seemed to be completely comfortable in his own skin. “George has a powerful personality,” recalled his Senate staff colleague Gary Sojka. “He could have been a longshoreman.”6

He deferred to senators and did not attempt to usurp their power or prerogatives. “He was very, very careful in dealing with members, irrespective of party,” recalled Senator Warren Rudman. He was direct and won the trust of his superiors by delivering bad news in a way that did not upset them. Recalled his colleague Eric Newsom, “George sort of proved something I saw happen over and over in the Senate, which was that experience mattered less than the ability to interact effectively with people.” He had a “very unbureaucratic way of talking,” crisp and colorful. To some seasoned colleagues Tenet’s style of speech appeared to oversimplify complex issues, but it was effective and allowed him to stand out from the crowd.7

Tenet left Heinz to join the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as an aide to Senator Patrick Leahy, a liberal Democrat, in the summer of 1985. He was a junior staffer who worked on oversight of Cold War arms control negotiations. When Leahy left the committee because of regular rotations, Tenet almost lost his job, but the incoming chairman, David Boren, a conservative Democrat from Oklahoma, agreed to keep him on the payroll for a few months. Tenet ingratiated himself with Boren and within a year had been named staff director of the elite, secretive Senate committee charged with keeping track of the CIA’s budget, regulations, and covert action programs.

“The thing that I found most valuable is, he would march right in and say, ‘You don’t want to hear this, but you need to know such and such.’ Or ‘You’re out on a limb on this,’ ” Boren recalled. “He’s very blunt, straightforward. And then totally loyal.”8 Tenet had never worked in intelligence and had rarely traveled, and what he knew about the agency he had learned only from hearings, conversations, and briefing books. But aside from the elected members themselves, he was now the CIA’s most important overseer in the United States Senate.

He could be tough on the agency. Tenet helped draft and pass laws that tightened congressional oversight of CIA operations. He had a budget-cutting streak and felt taxpayer money was sometimes wasted by the intelligence community. “He was always giving the third degree to the agency,” Boren recalled. On one occasion, involving disputes over an internal audit, “it got so heated that they were accusing Tenet of witch-hunting.” William Webster, then CIA director, turned up at the next closed Senate oversight meeting in a bulletproof vest, trying to slough off Tenet with humor. Yet as Tenet began to make contact with the CIA’s career spies, he also gradually became loyal and helpful to them, just as he was to the senators. Veteran officers such as Thomas Twetten spent long hours cultivating Tenet and educating him about the details of espionage tradecraft. When longtime CIA analyst and manager Robert Gates was nominated as the agency’s director, Tenet carefully shepherded him through the confirmation hearings, protecting him from partisan attack. He began to build a network of relationships at Langley.9

Tenet rarely revealed his political and foreign policy views. A colleague remembers him denouncing Dan Quayle and speaking up for the Texas Democrat Lloyd Bentsen during the 1988 vice presidential debates, but this colleague also remembers Tenet as skeptical about a fellow Greek, the liberal Democrat Michael Dukakis. Tenet was conservative on arms control verification, progressive on women’s rights, and elusively neutral or centrist on much else. “He had an ambidextrous quality that was something Boren particularly valued,” recalled John Despres, a colleague on the intelligence committee. Tenet has “never been a great intellect. He’s an operator.” His role was to synthesize and organize the views of others so that elected officials could make decisions. There were hundreds and hundreds of people in Washington with strong opinions and ideologies. There were thousands of pointy-headed foreign policy experts and technical specialists. Much rarer was the staff man who knew how to traffic among them all, picking pockets and getting things done.10

On one occasion where he provided strong advice, it did not go very well. When a closely divided Congress faced an emotional vote over whether to authorize President Bush to launch war against Iraq to expel Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, Tenet recommended to Boren that he vote against the war. “I think Senator Boren relied on him to a large degree,” recalled a colleague. Classified briefings from the Defense Intelligence Agency had emphasized the potential for bloody disaster. “There was a concern there would be a lot of casualties. It was a cautious vote.” Boren, who had been seen as presidential material, was hurt politically by his decision, as were other congressional Democrats who opposed what turned out to be a swift and popular war that took thousands of Iraqi lives but produced few American casualties.11

This would become a Tenet pattern until 2001: He did not often offer direct, forceful policy advice, preferring to assemble options and analysis for others to act upon. But when he did make policy recommendations, he could at times be cautious, especially if there was a risk of casualties or unknowable consequences.

Clinton had few experts in intelligence to draw upon after his election in 1992. The Democrats had been out of the executive branch for twelve years. The main place where the party had loyal members with deep, recent experience in foreign affairs was Congress. Tenet’s resume might have been thin by historical standards, but he was a natural to serve as a transition director for intelligence issues after Clinton’s election. The transition job “was where you showed whether you were capable of being a member of the administration,” recalled Newsom, Tenet’s colleague on the intelligence committee. “It was a cattle show to see if you were going to pass muster.”12 Tenet did, and he followed Lake and Berger to the National Security Council as senior director for intelligence. This was a sensitive staff job run out of the Old Executive Office Building, beside the West Wing of the White House. Tenet’s office was the bureaucratic junction between the CIA, the White House, and Congress on intelligence operations and policy. His daily work involved not only continuous negotiations over budgets and oversight issues but legal reviews of proposed covert actions. He worked so hard at the job in 1993 and 1994 that he suffered a heart attack, an event that caused him to give up cigar smoking but had little apparent impact on his schedule.

Memos about covert action plans, international criminal cases, and intelligence policy flowed continually between Tenet’s desk and the CIA’s Office of General Counsel, the NSC, the Justice Department, and the Pentagon. As the chief supervisor of this paper flow, helping to organize it for presidential decision-making, Tenet became steeped in the politics and regulation of espionage, the use and impact of intelligence analysis at the White House, and the legal and budgetary architecture of American spy agencies. By osmosis and participation he also began to learn the major foreign policy issues in even greater detail. He watched presidential decision-making about espionage and covert action from up close.

This insider’s track shaped Tenet’s agenda when he arrived at Langley. When he was promoted to the CIA director’s office in the summer of 1997, Tenet conceived his reform program by looking at the CIA’s original blueprint. He was attracted to the agency’s “streak of eccentric genius,” as Tenet put it. He also had a large sentimental streak, and he saw his own success against the backdrop of the American myth: “Nowhere in the world could the son of an immigrant stand before you as the Director of Central Intelligence,” he said as he was sworn in. “This is simply the greatest country on the face of the earth.”13

In his early weeks as director he was invited by former president Gerald Ford to appear on a panel titled “Does America Need the CIA?” The mere existence of such an event signaled how low the agency had fallen. As he prepared his speech, Tenet returned to the CIA’s founding by Harry Truman. The agency’s purpose was to prevent another Pearl Harbor. The CIA was “an insurance policy” against that sort of strategic surprise. “It is clear to me that the potential for dangerous surprise is as great as ever,” he told Ford’s panel. “That is true whether I look at terrorist groups whose sole purpose is to harm American interests, the biological weapons that Saddam Hussein is still trying to build and to hide in Iraq, or the programs Iran has for building intermediate range missiles and nuclear weapons.”14

Tenet vowed to improve the agency’s core ability to warn presidents about unexpected danger. This in turn meant refocusing on collecting intelligence, especially from human sources, against “hard targets,” the states and groups most likely to deliver a nasty surprise. Some of the CIA’s critics argued that in an age of global, digital media, where policy makers had instant access to multiple sources of news and information worldwide, the CIA was becoming just another news organization. Tenet thought that was a stupid assertion, even absurd, but to refute the critics the CIA had to deliver what no other information source in Washington could. To do this it had to steal secrets and recruit paid agents with exclusive access to hard targets.

Tenet also argued that the CIA had to improve analysis work so that it did not miss future threats by failing to track them as they percolated in the early stages. Such all-source analysis was the agency’s “core function,” Tenet said. The CIA’s first job was to “protect the lives of Americans.” To concentrate on the basics, the CIA needed to move away from “soft targets” like economic issues and human migration. Whatever their importance, those kinds of crises would not likely produce another Pearl Harbor. The agency had to focus on the most pointed lethal threats.15

The lessons of the two previous Langley regimes, and of failed CIA directors dating back to Stansfield Turner, seemed clear enough: Do not attempt to impose change by bringing in outsiders to clean house. Work from within. Find the career employees who have respect, win them to your cause, put them in charge, and let them do the work for you. Tenet reached out for help that first summer to former directors such as Richard Helms. He appointed the influential veteran spy Jack Downing as chief of the Directorate of Operations. He refused to criticize the agency or its employees in public even when there was cause. He walked around the building in his swaggering, bantering, tactile way, throwing arms around people, plopping down at cafeteria tables, and adopting the bluff macho style common at the agency.

At the same time Tenet sought to build bridges with the White House and Congress. His career had been shaped by the oversight process; Tenet’s CIA was not going to elude regulations or the law even when that constrained operations. “We are more transparent than we used to be to policymakers within the executive branch, and more integrated into their decision-making,” Tenet said approvingly in an early speech. “I dare say the CIA receives more oversight from the Congress than any other agency in the federal government. This is not a complaint. In fact, this oversight is our most vital and direct link to the American people—a source of strength that separates us from all other countries of the world.”16

There was an all-things-to-all-people quality about Tenet’s reform program. The CIA’s sharpest critics in Congress feared that he would be too forgiving of the agency’s incompetents. Some of his former mid-level colleagues in the bureaucracy, stunned at his rocket-speed ascension to the CIA directorship, grumbled that Tenet was more salesman than substantive leader. Tenet did have the accomplished Washington staffer’s ability to create a clear list of priorities without offending any important constituents. He said early on that he wanted to create “a program based on common sense which accelerates and deepens what we have already begun to do in all-source analysis and clandestine collection.” The agency was not broken, in other words, but he would fix it.17

Tenet deemphasized lethal covert action and paramilitary programs, which placed the CIA at the greatest political risk. He pointed out that of the CIA’s major functions, “covert action is by far the smallest,” yet it was “also the most controversial.” At the same time Tenet assured the agency’s paramilitary operatives that he was determined to “sustain the infrastructure we need when the President directs us to act.” He defended the CIA’s small paramilitary department, modeled on some of the Pentagon’s Special Forces units, on the grounds that every president since Truman had found a need at times for this capability. Covert action was “a critical instrument of U.S. foreign policy,” but it “should never be the last resort of failed policy,” Tenet said, carefully arguing both sides.18Tenet could get away with all this because he was so forceful and convincing personally. His eclectic, inclusive outlook did not seem to be a dodge; it seemed to reflect authentically who he was.19

His views about the global threats America faced in the summer of 1997 stood squarely in the center of CIA and Clinton administration analysis. He saw five “critical challenges” to the United States. These were the “transformation of Russia and China”; the threat of rogue states such as North Korea, Iran, and Iraq; the “transnational issues” such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, drugs, and organized crime; regional crises; and failing states in places such as Africa and the former Yugoslavia. There was nothing remotely controversial about Tenet’s list; it covered such a wide range of potential foreign policy problems as to be almost immune from criticism. To the extent it made choices, it was a list of hard targets, and it focused on the potential for strategic surprise. It was also the list of a synthesizer, a collator of other people’s analyses, including, crucially, the president’s. Clinton had provided the intelligence community with a list of priorities in a classified 1995 presidential decision directive. First on the list was intelligence support to the Pentagon during military operations. Second was “political, economic and military intelligence about countries hostile to the United States.” Third was “intelligence about specific trans-national threats to our security, such as weapons proliferation, terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime, illicit trade practices and environmental issues of great gravity.” It was a long, sprawling mandate.20

Tenet was sharpest when he reflected on the CIA’s core mission of strategic warning against surprise attack. “It’s easy to become complacent,” he said. With the Soviet Union gone and American economic and military strength unchallenged, “the world is different, but it is not safe.”21 The CIA’s job was to tell presidents about dangerous surprises, it was that simple. This led Tenet quickly to the threat of terrorism, missiles, and weapons of mass destruction. Through discussions at the White House he absorbed and then recapitulated Clinton’s own emerging obsessions with terrorism and especially biological weapons.

At Tenet’s confirmation hearing, Senator Bob Kerrey asked the nominee if he thought the threat of terrorism “may be overstated.” The question reflected a broader skepticism on Capitol Hill and in the press that summer. The CIA and the FBI, according to an oft-repeated argument, were hyping terrorism to win budget increases. But Tenet told Kerrey that the terrorist threat was real and that it was growing. “The sophistication of the groups capable of launching terrorism against U.S. interests now is worldwide. They have a capability to move money and people and explosives, and the level of activity continues to be enormously worrisome to U.S. intelligence. They’re fanatical. They have every reason to continue doing what they’re doing. . . . The activity worldwide at this moment in time is unprecedented and the threat to U.S. interests is enormously high.”22

It was the terrorists, far more than the governments of Russia or China, or even Iraq or Iran, who would most likely deliver a devastating shock to the United States. “What are the forces at play that we must contend with?” Tenet asked the CIA staff early on. He answered his own question: “First, the threat environment is growing more diverse, complex, and dangerous—biological agents, terrorism, information warfare. It’s easier and easier for smaller and smaller groups to do serious damage, with less visibility and warning. The potential for surprise has increased enormously.”23

BY THE AUTUMN OF 1997 persistent lobbying against the Taliban by the Feminist Majority had influenced the two most important women in the Clinton administration, Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton. When Albright visited a refugee camp in Peshawar that November, she departed from her prepared script and denounced the Taliban’s policies toward women as “despicable.” It was the first time a Clinton Cabinet member had made such a forceful statement about Taliban human rights violations. A few weeks later Hillary Clinton used a major speech about human rights at the United Nations to single out the Taliban. “Even now the Taliban in Afghanistan are blocking girls from attending schools,” Clinton said. The Taliban were harassing those “who would speak out against this injustice.” It was the first time that either of the Clintons had seriously criticized the Taliban in public.24

The impetus had come from old friends of Albright and Hillary Clinton in the feminist policy networks of the Democratic Party. These were accomplished, professional women of the baby boomer generation now stepping into powerful positions that women had not held in Washington before, at least not in these numbers. They kept in touch with one another and worked each other’s issues. The Taliban had now slipped onto the agenda of this fax machine network. Sitting cross-legged in their barren ministries thousands of miles away in Kandahar, the Taliban’s leaders had no idea where this turn in American attitudes had come from. They made little effort to find out.When pressed on the issue of education for girls by the occasional visiting American delegation, they said, “This is God’s law,” recalled the State Department’s Leonard Scensny. “This is the way it’s supposed to be. Leave us alone.”25

Despite the loss of their embassy in Washington, Massoud’s closest aides pressed their worldwide lobbying campaign to rally support for their war against the Taliban. In Washington that fall, Abdullah, now officially deputy foreign minister in Massoud’s rump government, told State Department officials that bin Laden was financing the Taliban. He tried to persuade the handful of Afghan experts he met at Foggy Bottom that the Taliban should be seen as part of a regional network of Islamist radicalism funded by bin Laden and other wealthy Persian Gulf sheikhs.

In comments such as Albright’s, Abdullah could see “signs of some change” in American attitudes, but at the working level of the State Department, all he heard about was the need for Massoud to negotiate with the Taliban. There seemed little belief that the Taliban posed a serious threat. Most of all, “what was lacking there was a policy,” Abdullah recalled. The path of least resistance at the State Department was “to accept the presence of the Taliban as a reality” in Afghanistan and try to negotiate solutions “through Pakistan,” as Abdullah recalled it. On the American side, “We wanted to see if there was a way to bring about a peaceful settlement of the continuing civil war,” remembered Karl F. “Rick” Inderfurth, then assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. The State Department’s analysts believed late in 1997 that “the Taliban had to be dealt with, it couldn’t be wished away.”26

UNOCAL CONTINUED TO FLOOD Foggy Bottom and the National Security Council with the same advice: The Taliban were a reality, and they could also be part of a new Afghan solution. Marty Miller searched energetically during 1997 for a way to convert the Taliban’s triumph in Kabul into a final pipeline deal. He met regularly with Sheila Heslin at the White House. He announced that the Taliban might earn as much as $100 million annually from transit fees if they would only allow the pipeline to be built.

Miller had decided early in 1997 that Unocal needed better contacts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He began to rely more on Robert Oakley, the former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and a member of the Unocal advisory board. Oakley’s wife, Phyllis, was at this time the chief of the State Department’s intelligence wing, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. She had access to virtually all of the U.S. government’s most sensitive intelligence reporting.27

Robert Oakley advised Miller to reach the Taliban by working through Pakistan’s government. He also suggested that Unocal hire Thomas Gouttierre, an Afghan specialist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, to develop a job training program in Kandahar that would teach Pashtuns the technical skills needed to build a pipeline. Gouttierre had worked on U.S.-funded humanitarian aid inside Afghanistan during the late years of the anti-Soviet jihad when Oakley was ambassador in Islamabad. Now Unocal agreed to pay $900,000 via the University of Nebraska to set up a Unocal training facility on a fifty-six-acre site in Kandahar, not far from bin Laden’s compounds. Gouttierre traveled in and out of Afghanistan and met with Taliban leaders. Oakley lobbied Nawaz Sharif’s government in Islamabad on the oil company’s behalf. In December 1997, Gouttierre worked with Miller to arrange for another Taliban delegation to visit the United States, this time led by Mullah Wakil Ahmed, Omar’s chief aide.28

By now it was reasonable for the Taliban to believe that Unocal was effectively an arm of the United States government. The Taliban had more intimate, more focused, and more attentive contact with Unocal executives and their paid consultants than with any American officials. The Unocal executives did not just talk about oil pipelines, they talked about a path to negotiated peace in Afghanistan.

Miller’s team provided escorts and transportation for the Taliban that December and helped arrange a meeting for three Taliban ministers at the State Department. Assistant Secretary of State Inderfurth expressed his strongest concerns to the visitors about the condition of Afghan women. He also admonished the Taliban about their tolerance of drug trafficking. He talked about demining, the peace process, and other subjects, never even raising the topics of terrorism or bin Laden. Only after Inderfurth left for another meeting did the subject come up. One of the Taliban ministers explained that his movement had inherited the bin Laden problem, as he was already in Afghanistan “as a guest of the previous regime.” The Taliban, this minister said, had stopped allowing bin Laden “to give public interviews and had frustrated Iranian and Iraqi attempts to get in contact with him,” according to a Confidential State Department account of the meeting prepared at the time. As for the Unocal pipeline, one of Inderfurth’s deputies told the delegation that it was “unlikely to be financed unless there was peace in Afghanistan.”29

Miller also rented a meeting room for the Taliban delegation at the Watergate Hotel. The itinerary included a visit to NASA headquarters and Mount Rushmore. The idea was to stir the Taliban with images of American ambition and tradition, to build a connection with Mullah Omar’s closest aides that went beyond money and jobs. Marty Miller had been aggravated by Albright’s public denunciations of Taliban human rights violations. He needed to convince the Taliban that they could do business with the United States.

Pakistan’s government, nervous about where these independent contacts between the Taliban and the United States might lead, sent an ISI officer with the Taliban delegation to keep watch on them.30

Marty Miller arranged for Zalmay Khalilzad, the leading Republican expert on Afghanistan, to meet with the Taliban at the luxury Four Seasons Hotel in Houston. Over dinner Khalilzad opened a debate with the Taliban’s information minister, Amir Khan Mutaqqi, over the Taliban’s treatment of women. They argued over exactly what the Koran said about this issue.

Marty Miller invited the Taliban for dinner at his suburban home overlooking a golf course. He was nervous that some of the decorations in his house might offend the Taliban. Before they arrived for dinner, he invited one of Unocal’s consultants, an Afghan named Dr. Izimi, to walk through the house looking for potential causes of offense. He had pictures on the walls and all sorts of knickknacks, and he worried that “what is innocuous to us might be offensive to them.” Izimi found some statues near Miller’s swimming pool that had been bought in Indonesia. The statues were originally grave markers made for indigenous tribes, and they depicted nude people. The statues made it very obvious “who the guy and who the gal are,” as Miller put it.

Izimi gave them a good look and said, “Hmm, I don’t think these are going to cut it.”

“Do you want me to take them down?” Miller asked.

“No, I’ll tell you what we’ll do,” Izimi said. “Why don’t we just put a burqa on them?”

They went into Miller’s kitchen and found some trash bags, returned to the pool, and tied the bags over the statues.

Miller’s wife was involved in a group that raised funds for court-appointed advocates for children. This year the Miller house was part of a fundraising tour of seven or eight suburban houses fixed up with Christmas decorations. As a result, Miller had seven Christmas trees in his house, each elaborately decorated with tinsel, gleaming balls, and blinking lights, plus many other Christmas decorations in every room.

The Taliban “were just stunned to see all these Christmas trees,” Miller recalled. They kept asking Miller what the Christmas tree meant in the larger story of Jesus and the Christmas holiday. Miller actually had no idea how the Christmas tree had become a symbol of Jesus’s birthday, but he talked about it as best he could.31

The Taliban leaders asked Miller if they could have their photographs taken standing in front of a Christmas tree. One or two members of the visiting delegation declined to participate, adhering even in Houston to the Taliban’s ban on representative images of the human form. But Mullah Wakil and the rest of the long-bearded Taliban leaders stood before one of the blinking Christmas trees, scrunched shoulder to shoulder and grinning.

GEORGE TENET WAS AWARE of Osama bin Laden. He supported the small bin Laden tracking unit in the Counterterrorist Center. But by the end of 1997, neither the new CIA director nor the agency placed bin Laden very high on their priority lists. The agency’s view of bin Laden remained similar to Prince Turki’s: He was a blowhard, a dangerous and wealthy egomaniac, and a financier of other radicals, but he was also isolated in Afghanistan.

Tenet was “most concerned,” he told a Senate panel, about the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons around the world, “because of the direct threat this poses to the lives of Americans.” Statistically, the threat of terrorism remained steady, although the number of attacks against American targets was rising slightly. But in comparison to the potential devastation of a nuclear-armed missile launched against an American city, the threat posed by independent terrorists such as bin Laden appeared modest. As Tenet scanned the horizon in search of potential Pearl Harbors, he saw unstable countries such as Russia and China that already had the capacity to launch such a surprise attack, and he saw governments such as Iran, North Korea, and Iraq that might have the motivation to do so if they could acquire the means. Stacked up against these challenges, bin Laden looked to many officers and analysts at the CIA like a dangerous criminal but not an existential threat.32

The CIA did periodically obtain evidence that terrorist groups were interested in weapons of mass destruction. Tenet did not talk about it in public, but bin Laden now figured in this alarming, if fragmentary, CIA reporting. Late in 1996 a former bin Laden aide and courier, Jamal al-Fadl, entered an American witness protection program and provided detailed accounts of bin Laden’s earlier operations in Sudan. The CIA was involved in al-Fadl’s secret debriefings. Al-Fadl said that bin Laden had authorized attempts to buy uranium that might be used to fashion a nuclear bomb. This effort had failed as far as al-Fadl knew, but if he was telling the truth—and al-Fadl passed the polygraph tests he was given—his testimony suggested the scale of bin Laden’s ambitions. The CIA also had reports of contacts between bin Laden and Iraqi intelligence agents dating back to bin Laden’s years in Sudan, and there were some fragmentary indications that these Iraqi contacts had involved training in the development and use of chemical weapons.33 Still, neither the White House nor the CIA as yet had any covert action program targeting bin Laden that went beyond intelligence collection and analysis. The CIA’s Counterterrorist Center was trying to watch bin Laden. Its leaders had not yet seriously attempted to arrest or kill him.

That planning was about to begin.

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