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04.30.2002

TOP-SECRET MISSION TO CAPTURE A MOST-WANTED TERRORIST IS REVEALED ON "60 MINUTES II" --WEDNESDAY, MAY 1

Former military commanders give correspondent Dan Rather details of a covert operation that involved nearly 4,000 U.S. troops working to capture the suspected mastermind behind terrorist acts that killed hundreds of Americans long before Sept. 11. Rather's report on the 1996 secret mission in the Persian Gulf will be broadcast on 60 MINUTES II Wednesday, May 1 (8:00-9:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.

Bob Baer spent much of his CIA career tracking the elusive terrorist Imad Mugniyah, who is believed to have been behind the Beirut marine barracks bombing and is the prime suspect in two bombings of the American Embassy in Beirut. "I think you could go a long way toward unraveling or even preventing a Sept. 11 by getting a person like this," says Baer. "[Mugniyah] is the most dangerous terrorist we've ever faced. He's a pathological murderer....[He] is probably the most intelligent, most capable operative we've ever run across, including the KGB or anybody else," says Baer. "...He is the master terrorist -- the grail that we have been after since 1983."

And in 1996, the U.S. military in the Persian Gulf thought they had a chance to capture Mugniyah. American intelligence indicated the terrorist was aboard a ship and, within hours, a complex operation utilizing thousands of men was developed. Tom Short was the commander of one of the Navy SEAL platoons involved in the mission. "...In less than 48 hours, we had blueprints to the ship, the layout of the ship, pictures of the ship...who was the crew, what they were carrying, what was their schedule," remembers Short. "I mean, it was just amazing to me the amount of intelligence that we had."

But Mugniyah eluded the Americans again - the intelligence fell apart and the mission was called off, leaving Short to wonder whether Mugniyah played a role in last year's World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. "You know, 9/11 happens and I remember walking into the kitchen that morning, turning on the TV and staring at that plane flying into the World Trade Center and at that instant, I thought 'Is this guy involved?' 'Did he have a hand in the planning?' 'What would have happened if we had gotten him?'"

And President Clinton wanted him. In fact, Nancy Soderberg, the former deputy assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, says capturing Mugniyah was a high priority. "This is a man who President Clinton authorized numerous operations to get," says Soderberg. "This is not the only one we tried to do....It was just simply that when the final 'go' [or] 'no-go' decision comes, you need to make sure that the information is there to justify moving and, in this case, unfortunately, it was not."

Jeff Fager is the executive producer of 60 MINUTES II and Mary Mapes