Verbatim December 2004

How Not to Catch a Terrorist

A ten-step program, from the files of the U.S. intelligence community

During the recent Senate confirmation hearings for Porter J. Goss, the new CIA director, Senator Dianne Feinstein read a provocative paragraph from a letter that had been sent to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. The gist of the letter was that key pre-9/11 intelligence failings were the result not primarily of budgetary, structural, or organizational problems (as suggested by the official 9/11 Commission Report) but, rather, of bad decisions by individuals—"unelected, unaccountable officials who made an art of outlasting their elected superiors." What made the letter particularly notable was its author: a twenty-two-year CIA veteran named Michael Scheuer—now better known as Anonymous, the author of the books Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror (2004) and Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America (2002)—who headed the Agency's bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999.

The full text of the letter, which for the first time lays out ten crucial and specific failures by the intelligence community in the run-up to 9/11, has never appeared in print. The Atlantic has acquired a copy, key sections of which are reproduced below.


TO: THE MEMBERS OF THE SENATE SELECT COMMITTEE ON INTELLIGENCE ...

I will briefly summarize ten instances since 1996, picked from dozens of others to protect classified data, in which the decisions of senior Intelligence Community bureaucrats—not legal "walls", organizational structure, or inadequate budgets—have been at the core of our failure against Bin Laden. All of the following information has been passed in testimony, in documents, or in both by myself and other CIA officers to one or more of the four panels investigating the 11 September attacks: two internal CIA investigations, the congress's Joint Commission, and the Kean Commission. None of these panels, to my knowledge, have yet focused on the reality that, while the 11 September attacks probably were unstoppable, it was decisions by human beings—featuring arrogance, bad judgment, disdain for expertise, and bureaucratic cowardice—that made sure the Intelligence Community did not operate optimally to defend America.

1. Mid-to-Late 1996: CIA's Bin Laden unit acquired detailed information about the careful, professional manner in which al-Qaeda was seeking to acquire nuclear weapons ... there could be no doubt after this date that al-Qaeda was in deadly earnest in seeking nuclear weapons. The report was initially suppressed within CIA, and then published in a drastically shortened form. Three officers of the Agency's Bin Laden cadre protested this decision in writing, and forced an internal review. It was only after this review that this report was provided in full to Community leaders, analysts, and policymakers ...

2. December 1996: From a CIA officer detailed to another Intelligence Community (IC) agency and serving overseas, the Bin Laden unit learned of the availability of a communications conduit used by Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. The other IC agency refused to exploit the conduit and threatened legal action against the Agency officer who advised of its existence. This officer bravely continued to supply the information; and I asked senior Agency officers to intervene with the other IC agency. There ensued a desultory interagency discussion without resolution. The CIA was forced to devise its own ability to exploit the communications conduit and secured about half of the available material. The other IC agency was able to secure the other half, but refused to share it. This capability was later lost because of an August 1998 leak to the media by the U.S. military.

3. December 1996-June 1999: The CIA's Bin Laden unit repeatedly and formally requested assistance from the U.S. military to help plan operations against Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. We needed and asked for special operations officers. After pressing for eighteen months, we were sent two non-special operations individuals who had experience only on Iran. The Bin Laden unit received no support from senior Agency officials vis-à-vis the U.S. military.

4. February 1996-May 1998: The Bin Laden unit and several other senior CIA officers requested transcripts rather than summaries of electronic collection against al-Qaeda ... [V]erbatim transcripts are operationally useful, summaries are much less so, and they are usually not timely. The answer to these requests in every case was no. At one point the senior operations officer for an Intelligence Community component said that the National Security Act of 1947 gave her agency control of "raw" signals intelligence, and that she would not pass such material to CIA.

5. August-September 1997: For most of a year the Bin Laden unit prepared for an operation in a foreign city that was set to come to fruition in late-summer 1997. The unit's lead U.S.-based officer on this operation was an extraordinarily able analyst from another IC component; she knew the issue cold. Days before the operation occurred the IC component ordered her back to its headquarters. She protested, but was told that she would not be promoted if she balked at returning. I protested to my superiors and to the three most senior officers of the IC component who were then in charge of terrorism. All refused to intervene. The operation was much less well exploited because of the loss of this officer. A year later, al-Qaeda destroyed U.S. facilities in the area near the foreign city of the under-exploited operation.

6. April-May 1998: The Agency's Bin Laden unit was ordered disbanded and reduced to a small branch. This was done, so far as I know, without the knowledge of the DCI [Director of Central Intelligence] ... When DCI found out about this plan, he intervened in mid-May 1998. By doing so, the DCI preserved the unit and dodged the bullet of having to explain to the American people why the Agency thought Bin Laden was so little of a threat that it had destroyed the Bin Laden unit weeks before two U.S. embassies were demolished. Needless to say, the on-again, off-again signals about the unit's future status made for confusion, distraction, and much job-hunting in the last few weeks before al-Qaeda's August 1998 attacks in East Africa.

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