In two recent statements, Sen. Rand Paul made the unsubstantiated claim that the U.S. government once “armed” and “funded” Osama bin Laden. The CIA and several of its top officials deny that the U.S. ever recruited, trained, armed or funded bin Laden during the Afghan war over Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Bin Laden himself has denied it.
Although the specter of a CIA-bin Laden link has been raised often since 9/11, no evidence has emerged to back it up. The CIA did covertly finance and arm Islamic fundamentalist Afghan factions in the fight against the Soviets, but the CIA has long maintained that it did not support the Arab fighters — including bin Laden — who came to Afghanistan to fight in solidarity with a Muslim country.
- The CIA official in charge of the U.S. covert operation in support of the Afghan fighters during the late 1980s told us Paul is perpetuating an “urban myth.”
- The CIA website states unequivocally “that the CIA never employed, paid, or maintained any relationship whatsoever with bin Laden.”
- In a 1993 interview, bin Laden himself said, “Personally neither I nor my brothers saw evidence of American help.”
Several independent journalists and authors who have extensively researched and written about the CIA’s involvement in the Afghanistan conflict with the Soviets in the 1980s support the CIA’s contention. For example, Peter Bergen, a national security analyst for CNN who interviewed bin Laden in 1997, told us, “There is no evidence that the CIA funded or armed bin Laden or even knew who he was until 1993.”
Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a possible candidate for president in 2016, did not offer any evidence in his public comments that the CIA armed and funded bin Laden. We repeatedly reached out to his office seeking backup for his claims, but we did not hear back.
In a speech on foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation on Feb. 6, Paul argued that U.S. decisions to provide military aid in the Middle East have sometimes backfired.
Paul, Feb. 6: In the 1980s the war caucus in Congress armed bin Laden and the mujahedeen in their fight with the Soviet Union. In fact, it was the official position of the State Department to support radical jihad against the Soviets. We all know how well that worked out.
The Kentucky Republican also made the claim at John Kerry’s secretary of state confirmation hearing, when Paul asserted that the U.S. “funded” bin Laden (about the 5:48 mark).
Paul, Jan. 24: But this has been our problem with our foreign policy for decades, Republican and Democrat. We funded bin Laden. We funded the mujahedeen. We were in favor of radical jihad because they were the enemy of our enemy.
This is not a new position for Paul, who made similar comments in March 2011, when arguing on the Senate floor in favor of a “sense of the Senate” amendment that “[t]he President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” According to Paul, “Osama bin Laden — now our mortal enemy — was receiving money from the United States and support from the United States for over a decade.”
It is certainly true, as Paul said, that the U.S. government covertly funded the Afghan rebels in their war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
According to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report from John Rollins, a specialist in terrorism and national security, the U.S. “did covertly finance (about $3 billion during 1981-1991) and arm (via Pakistan) the Afghan mujahedin factions, particularly the Islamic fundamentalist Afghan factions, fighting Soviet forces.”
It’s also true that thousands of Arabs — including bin Laden — came to Afghanistan to aid the Afghan cause, and some fought alongside Afghan forces. But the CIA steadfastly denies that the U.S. ever directly supported the so-called “Afghan Arabs” in general, or bin Laden in particular. And independent journalists have found no evidence to contradict that.
In his book, “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll wrote on pages 86-87: “Bin Laden moved within Saudi intelligence’s compartmented operations, outside of CIA eyesight. CIA archives contain no record of any direct contact between a CIA officer and bin Laden during the 1980s. … If the CIA did have contact with bin Laden during the 1980s and subsequently covered it up, it has so far done an excellent job.”
Author and journalist Peter Bergen, a national security analyst for CNN who interviewed bin Laden in 1997, told us via email: “There is no evidence that the CIA funded or armed bin Laden or even knew who he was until 1993.”
In an interview on CNN in 2006, Bergen said this:
Bergen, Sept. 6, 2006: The story about bin Laden and the CIA — that the CIA funded bin Laden or trained bin Laden — is simply a folk myth. There’s no evidence of this. In fact, there are very few things that bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and the U.S. government agree on. They all agree that they didn’t have a relationship in the 1980s. And they wouldn’t have needed to. Bin Laden had his own money, he was anti-American and he was operating secretly and independently.
Here’s the CIA’s official position, from its FAQ page:
Q: Has the CIA ever provided funding, training, or other support to Usama Bin Laden?
A: No. Numerous comments in the media recently have reiterated a widely circulated but incorrect notion that the CIA once had a relationship with Usama Bin Laden. For the record, you should know that the CIA never employed, paid, or maintained any relationship whatsoever with Bin Laden.
Numerous CIA officials have gone on record to deny U.S. financing or arming of bin Laden.
“It never happened,” said Milton Bearden, the CIA station chief in Pakistan from 1986 to 1989, where he was responsible for the agency’s covert program in support of the Afghan resistance.
“The whole thing about us recruiting and training and paying and arming Arabs is one of those hardy perennials people love to make,” Bearden told us in a phone interview. “It’s a story too delicious to actually check. … It’s an urban myth.”
Bearden said he has often challenged those who make claims like Paul’s to produce “one single Arab that you believe was recruited, trained or otherwise supported by the U.S. government.”
“No one’s coughed up a single guy in 20 years,” Bearden said.
Early in the Afghan war against the Soviets, before he took over the post, Bearden said some officials in the CIA floated the notion of recruiting Arab legions who had come to Afghanistan. But the CIA quickly concluded it was a “really bad idea,” he said.
Bearden: The idea that the Afghans somehow needed fighters from outside their culture was deeply flawed and ignored basic historical and cultural facts. The Arabs who did travel to Afghanistan from Peshawar were generally considered nuisances by mujahideen commanders, some of whom viewed them as only slightly less bothersome than the Soviets.
The so-called Afghan Arabs included some well-intentioned people, Bearden told us, but also a lot of “whack jobs,” including “an awful lot of derelicts emptied out of Saudi Arabian prisons. … It became sort of a Club Med Jihad.”
“For the most part, they were a joke, these guys,” Bearden said.
The CIA decided supporting the Arab fighters “would get out of hand,” he said. “There was no serious discussion of arming these Arab legions.”
There were “very few” Arabs who actually saw any combat in Afghanistan, Bearden said, although bin Laden got into a couple “dustups.” But that doesn’t mean their influence was not felt. Arab fundraisers were bringing in nearly $25 million a month at one point in the war, largely used for humanitarian and construction projects, Bearden said. And one of the most prominent fundraisers was bin Laden, although Bearden said that at the time bin Laden was largely unknown to U.S. intelligence.
The U.S. covertly funded the Afghan fighters through Pakistan. So how does Bearden know the Pakistanis didn’t simply give some of the money to the Arabs, including bin Laden?
“They didn’t,” Bearden said. “We had ways to check where the money was going.”
Besides, he said, the Arabs were “awash with money from the Gulf.” In other words, they didn’t need it. Bearden said the CIA made efforts to keep its support for Afghan forces “very discreet from everything else.”
“There was a policy not to do that [support the Arab fighters],” Bearden said. “The question is, ‘Did the CIA secretly support the radical Islamic Arabs in Afghanistan?’ The answer is absolutely not.”
Bearden isn’t the only CIA official on the record denying U.S. support for bin Laden.
Richard Miniter, author of the book “Losing Bin Laden: How Bill Clinton’s Failures Unleashed Global Terror,” wrote in a Fox News op-ed, “Dispelling the CIA-Bin Laden Myth,” that he had interviewed Bill Peikney, Bearden’s predecessor as CIA station chief in Pakistan from 1984 to 1986. Peikney also flatly denied that any funds went to bin Laden, Miniter said. Miniter wrote that Peikney added in an email: “I don’t even recall UBL [bin Laden] coming across my screen when I was there.”
Here’s a snippet from the testimony of Cofer Black, director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center from 1999 through May 2002, to Congress’ inquiry into the 9/11 attacks:
Black, Sept. 26, 2002: We knew of Bin Ladin since his early days in Afghanistan. We had no relationship with him but we watched a 22 year old rich kid from a prominent Saudi family, change from frontline mujahedin fighter to a financier for road construction and hospitals. Then we watched him found something we learned was called al Qa’ida.
And here’s part of what former CIA Director George Tenet provided in a written statement to Congress’ Joint Inquiry Committee:
Tenet, Oct. 17, 2002: Bin Ladin gained prominence during the Afghan war for his role in financing the recruitment, transportation, and training of Arab nationals who fought alongside the Afghan mujahedin against the Soviets during the 1980s. While we knew of him, we have no record of any direct US Government contact with Bin Ladin at that time.
Here’s what bin Laden himself told British journalist Robert Fisk for The Independent in December 1993:
Bin Laden, Dec. 6, 1993: Personally neither I nor my brothers saw evidence of American help.
In a second interview with Fisk for the The Independent in July 1996, bin Laden repeated that position.
Bin Laden, July 10, 1996: We were never at any time friends of the Americans. We knew that the Americans support the Jews in Palestine and that they are our enemies. Most of the weapons that came to Afghanistan were paid for by the Saudis on the orders of the Americans because Turki al-Faisal, the head of Saudi external intelligence, and the CIA were working together.
And last, an article from the U.S. embassy website states that “the United States never had ‘any relationship whatsoever’ with Osama bin Laden.”
U.S. embassy article, May 1, 2009: While the charges that the CIA was responsible for the rise of the Afghan Arabs might make good copy, they don’t make good history. The truth is more complicated, tinged with varying shades of gray. The United States wanted to be able to deny that the CIA was funding the Afghan war, so its support was funneled through Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI). ISI in turn made the decisions about which Afghan factions to arm and train, tending to favor the most Islamist and pro-Pakistan. The Afghan Arabs generally fought alongside those factions, which is how the charge arose that they were creatures of the CIA. …
There was simply no point in the CIA and the Afghan Arabs being in contact with each other. … [T]he Afghan Arabs functioned independently and had their own sources of funding. The CIA did not need the Afghan Arabs, and the Afghan Arabs did not need the CIA. So the notion that the Agency funded and trained the Afghan Arabs is, at best, misleading.
It is almost impossible to prove a negative and dispel Paul’s claim that the U.S. government once “funded” and “armed” bin Laden. But for a senator to make this claim — particularly one who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and who has expressed an interest in running for president in 2016– it is incumbent upon him to provide some evidence to back it up. Should we hear back from his office, we will publish an update.
— by Robert Farley
Transcript of Rand Paul’s Heritage Foundation Speech. Heritage Foundation’s The Foundry. 6 Feb 2013.
John Kerry Confirmation Hearing. YouTube.com. 24 Jan 2013.
Congressional Record, Senate. Rand Paul Speaks from Senate Floor on Reauthorization Act of 2011. Government Printing Office. 30 Mar 2011.
Rollins, John. “Al Qaeda and Affiliates: Historical Perspective, Global Presence, and Implications for U.S. Policy.” Congressional Research Service. 25 Jan 2011.
Central Intelligence Agency Website. Terrorism FAQs.
Bearden, Milton. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 7 Feb 2013.
Bearden, Milton. “Afghanistan Graveyard of Empires.” Foreign Affairs. 2001.
Miniter, Richard. “Dispelling the CIA-Bin Laden Myth.” Fox News. 24 Sep 2003.
Testimony of Cofer Black before Congress’ Joint Inquiry Committee. 26 Sep 2002.
Central Intelligence Agency Website. Written Statement for the Record of the Director of Central Intelligence (George Tenet) Before the Joint Inquiry Committee. 27 Oct 2002.
Coll, Steve. “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.” Penguin USA. 2004.
Bergen, Peter. Email interview with FactCheck.org. 7 Feb 2013.
CNN.com. “Bergen: Bin Laden, CIA links hogwash.” 6 Sep 2006.
Fisk, Robert. “Anti-Soviet warrior puts his army on the road to peace.” The Independent. 06 Dec 2003.
Fisk, Robert. “Why we reject the West – By the Saudis’ fiercest Arab critic.” The Independent. 10 Jul 1996.
U.S. Embassy Website. “The United States did not ‘create’ Osama bin Laden.” 1 May 2009.
Cervantes, Bobby. “Rand Paul says he’s eyeing 2016 run.” Politico. 20 Nov 2012.