August 20, 2004

CIA Expert: We could have stopped him

From America's best newspaper...

Julian Borger, Guardian: But the two reports, by the
September 11 Commission and the Senate Intelligence
Committee respectively, were also testaments to
political expedience. Both panels were made up of
Republican and Democratic loyalists who reached a
political compromise by going relatively easy on both
Clinton and Bush administrations, and focused on
institutional culprits. The CIA, without a defender
after the resignation in July of its long-serving
director, George Tenet, presented the easiest target.
Yet most of the agency's rank and file believe they
have done little wrong. They were the first to raise
the alarm over the danger posed by Osama bin Laden,
long before the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa.
In 1996 they set up a unit called the Bin Laden Issue
Station, codenamed "Alex", dedicated to tracking him
down, only to have one operation after another aborted
as too politically dangerous.
There are a lot of angry spies at Langley, and one of
the angriest is Mike Scheuer, a senior intelligence
officer who led the Bin Laden station for four years.
While some of his colleagues have vented their
frustrations through leaks, Scheuer has done what no
serving American intelligence official has ever done -
published a book-length attack on the establishment.

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http://www.guardian.co.uk/alqaida/story/0,12469,1287015,00.html

We could have stopped him

The CIA has taken much of the blame for the security
lapses that led to 9/11 and the false intelligence on
Iraq's WMDs. But now one spy has broken ranks to point
the finger at the politicians - and warn that the war
on terror could plunge the US into even greater
danger. By Julian Borger

Friday August 20, 2004
The Guardian

These are not happy times at the CIA. In the space of
a few short months, two official reports have found
the agency principally to blame for failing to prevent
the September 11 al-Qaida attack and for claiming that
Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. There is no
doubt there is a lot of blame to go round. The twin
fiascos rank as the worst intelligence failures since
the second world war. But the two reports, by the
September 11 Commission and the Senate Intelligence
Committee respectively, were also testaments to
political expedience. Both panels were made up of
Republican and Democratic loyalists who reached a
political compromise by going relatively easy on both
Clinton and Bush administrations, and focused on
institutional culprits. The CIA, without a defender
after the resignation in July of its long-serving
director, George Tenet, presented the easiest target.
Yet most of the agency's rank and file believe they
have done little wrong. They were the first to raise
the alarm over the danger posed by Osama bin Laden,
long before the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa.
In 1996 they set up a unit called the Bin Laden Issue
Station, codenamed "Alex", dedicated to tracking him
down, only to have one operation after another aborted
as too politically dangerous.

There are a lot of angry spies at Langley, and one of
the angriest is Mike Scheuer, a senior intelligence
officer who led the Bin Laden station for four years.
While some of his colleagues have vented their
frustrations through leaks, Scheuer has done what no
serving American intelligence official has ever done -
published a book-length attack on the establishment.

His book, Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the
War on Terror, is a fire-breathing denunciation of US
counter-terrorism policy. In it, Scheuer addresses the
missed opportunities of the Clinton era, but he
reserves his most withering attack for the Bush
administration's war in Iraq.

He describes the invasion as "an avaricious,
premeditated, unprovoked war against a foe who posed
no immediate threat but whose defeat did offer
economic advantage". He even goes so far as to call on
America's generals to resign rather than execute
orders that "they know [...] will produce more, not
less, danger to their nation". Bin Laden, he believes,
is not a lonely maverick, but draws support from much
of the Islamic world, which resents the US not for
what it is, but for what it does - supporting Israel
almost uncritically, propping up corrupt regimes in
the Arab world, garrisoning troops on the Saudi
peninsula near Islam's most holy sites to safeguard
access to cheap oil.

"America ought to do what's in America's interests,
and those interests are not served by being dependent
on oil in the Middle East and by giving an open hand
to the Israelis," Scheuer argues. "If we're less
open-handed to Israel over time we can cut down Bin
Laden's ability to grow. Right now he has unlimited
potential for growing." What makes these comments the
more challenging to the Bush administration is that
they come from a self-described conservative and
instinctive Republican voter.

It seems extraordinary that Scheuer's bosses allowed
him to publish his book at all. They had already
permitted him one book, Through Our Enemies' Eyes,
written anonymously, but that was a more analytical
work on Bin Laden and al-Qaida. Imperial Hubris is
altogether different: a bitter polemic against
orthodoxy and the powers that be.

Scheuer was given the green light only on condition
that he stuck to a set of ground rules: he would
continue to write as Anonymous, he would not reveal
his job or employer, and he would refer only to
information that is already "open source" - ie in the
public domain. Inevitably, however, given the
controversy surrounding the book, his identity has
been leaked (first by a liberal weekly, the Boston
Phoenix, then this week by the New York Times). Even
now, he sticks closely to his employers' guidelines,
refusing formally to confirm his identity, while
describing his employers vaguely as "the intelligence
community". (It is for this reason that he is not
permitted by the CIA to be photographed except in
silhouette.) Having initially been allowed to give
media interviews to promote his book, Scheuer was told
earlier this month that he has to ask permission for
every interview and to submit an outline of what he is
going to say. So far, no interviews have been granted
under the new guidelines.

His interview with the Guardian is one of Scheuer's
last before being gagged. Burly, bearded and in jeans
and a loose shirt, his forceful vocabulary is a far
cry from the cautious obfuscation that is the native
tongue in Washington. Not that he minds rocking the
boat a little. "If getting in somebody's face [helps]
prevent the death of 3,000 Americans in New York or
the sinking of the Cole in Yemen, or two embassies in
East Africa, then I'm in your face," he says.

His bosses at the CIA have not confronted him over the
book, other than to tell him what he can or cannot do
with the press. "I don't think they get it yet. I
still think there's a large group in the American
intelligence community who talk about the next big
attack but really believe 9/11 was a one-off," he
says. "I think they believe their own rhetoric that
they've killed two-thirds of the al-Qaida leadership,
when they killed two-thirds of what they knew of."

Scheuer says that nearly three years after the
September 11 attacks the US intelligence team
dedicated to tracking down Bin Laden is still less
than 30 strong - the size it was when he left in 1999.
The CIA claims that the Bin Laden team is hundreds
strong, but Scheuer is insistent that the apparent
expansion is skin-deep. "The numbers are big, but it's
a shell game. It's people they move in for four or
five months at a time and then bring in a new bunch.
But the hard core of expertise, of experience, of
savvy really hasn't expanded at all since 9/11."

The morass in Iraq, meanwhile, is a "big factor in not
allowing us to develop much expertise" on Bin Laden.
"I think [director of central intelligence George
Tenet] said we had enough people to do two wars at
once, and clearly that was a fantasy."

The conclusion of the September 11 Commission - that
the al-Qaida plot might have been broken up if the
intelligence agencies had cooperated better and shared
more information - was accompanied by recommendations
for the creation of a national counter-terrorist
centre and a national director of intelligence to
coordinate the CIA, FBI and other agencies. Scheuer
believes this is a classic bureaucratic fix. "I've
never known a dysfunctional bureaucracy made better by
being made bigger." His answer to the al-Qaida threat,
unsurprisingly, is to give his old unit at the CIA,
the Bin Laden station, more resources and more
firepower.

It is a solution forged by the accumulated bitterness
of missed opportunities. In one year under his watch,
from May 1998 to May 1999, Scheuer reckons the US had
up to a dozen serious chances to kill or capture Bin
Laden. Only one was taken - a missile attack on an
Afghan training camp in August 1998 - but either the
al-Qaida leader was not there, or he had left before
the missiles landed.

Months earlier, however, Scheuer believes there was a
far better opportunity to grab Bin Laden. The CIA had
made a deal with a group of Afghan tribesmen to raid
Bin Laden's headquarters near Kandahar and then take
him to a desert landing strip, where a US plane would
take him either to America or another country for
trial. The plan, rehearsed several times over many
months, was in Scheuer's view "almost a perfect
operation in the sense that there was no US hand
visible". But on May 29 1998, according to the
narrative in the September 11 Commission's report,
Scheuer was informed that the operation had been
cancelled because of the risk of civilian casualties.

The pattern was repeated on December 20 the same year,
when Scheuer's agents were virtually certain that Bin
Laden would be staying the night at a guest house in
the Kandahar governor's compound. President Clinton's
principal national security advisers once more decided
that the danger of collateral damage was too high.
Afterwards Scheuer wrote to the top CIA agent in the
region, Gary Schroen, saying that he had been unable
to sleep after this decision. "I'm sure we'll regret
not acting last night," he predicted. Yet another
opportunity, in Afghanistan, was missed in 1999.

Other intelligence veterans are more sympathetic to
the policymakers' dilemma, pointing out that if the US
had shot and missed Bin Laden, while killing others,
the country would have been condemned around the
world, potentially winning more recruits for al-Qaida.
"Mike's is the viewpoint of the soldier versus the
viewpoint of a general," argues Vincent Cannistraro, a
former chief of operations at the CIA's
Counter-Terrorist Centre. "There are political
judgments made at a higher pay grade. I've been at
both sides of that equation and they are difficult
judgments to make."

Scheuer counters that the policymakers are just not
asking the right questions. "The question is always
what happens if we do this and we fail. The question
is never what happens to Americans if we don't try
this," he says. "When I took my oath of office, it was
to preserve and protect and defend the constitution of
the US. It wasn't 'to preserve and protect and defend
as long as you don't kill an Arab prince, as long as
you don't offend the Europeans, as long as you don't
hit a mosque with shrapnel'." Scheuer's constant
complaints eventually got him removed from his
position at the head of the Bin Laden unit and shifted
to a more nebulous training role.

To his detractors in the administration, Scheuer is no
more than a rogue spy whose career did not turn out
the way he had hoped. Certainly he is bitter at being
"sidetracked for the past five years without any sort
of explanation from my employers", but he insists that
the issues he raises are far more important than his
career. He says his recent adoption of a child
deepened his anxiety about the future of the next
American generation if the country sticks to its
present course.

But even if the US scores some significant victories
against al-Qaida, Scheuer believes the conflict with
Islamic extremism will continue to spiral without a
fundamental rethink of US priorities in Iraq and a
relationship with Israel that "drains resources, earns
Muslim hatred and serves no vital US national
interest". It is a depressingly pessimistic
assessment. Ultimately, "we only have the choice
between war and endless war".

Imperial Hubris is published today by Brassey's,
price 12.95.


Posted by richard at August 20, 2004 12:32 PM