The Bin Laden Capture That Never Was

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The plan sounded simple. The CIA would help Pakistan organize a secret unit that would carry out a plot to slip into neighboring Afghanistan to snatch alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden. CIA officers would be assigned to the unit, and the U.S. would provide training and equipment. President Clinton approved the plan, and the team should have been off and running last year. In fact, it never left the gate: Despite CIA enthusiasm, the Pakistanis dragged their feet and never got beyond basic training. "They didn't do squat," says an administration official close to the operation. Now the U.S. suspects that the Pakistanis never intended to go after Bin Laden.

Officials familiar with the plan say they were fully aware it could fail. Pakistan is both ally and adversary when it comes to fighting terrorism. The government has extradited three key terrorists in the past, most recently a leader of the plot to kill U.S. tourists overseas during millennium celebrations. Yet U.S. officials believe — and Pakistan denies — that Pakistan funds, trains and supports a terrorist group deemed close to Bin Laden, Harakat ul-Mujahedin, whose leader signed the Saudi millionaire's fatwa against the U.S. Counterterrorism experts hope Clinton's visit to Pakistan on March 25 will help tip the balance back toward its being an ally.