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.
7. May 1998-May 1999: The CIA officers working Bin Laden at Headquarters and in the field gave the U.S. government about ten chances to capture Bin Laden or kill him with military means. In all instances, the decision was made that the "intelligence was not good enough." This assertion cannot be debated publicly without compromising sources and methods. What can be said, however, is that in all these cases there was more concern expressed by senior bureaucrats and policymakers about how international opinion would react to a U.S. action than there was concern about what might happen to Americans if they failed to act. Indeed, on one occasion these senior leaders decided it was more important to avoid hitting a structure near Bin Laden's location with shrapnel, than it was to protect Americans. Two other points: the truth has not been fully told about the chance to militarily attack Bin Laden at a desert hunting camp being used by wealthy Gulf royals; and our best chance to capture Bin Laden—an operation which showed no U.S. hand, risked no U.S. lives, and was endorsed by senior commanders of the Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg—was cancelled because senior officials from the Agency, the Executive Branch, and other Intelligence Community components decided to accept assurances from an Islamic country that it could acquire Bin Laden from the Taleban. U.S. officials accepted these assurances despite the well-documented record of that country withholding help—indeed, it was a record of deceit and obstruction—regarding all issues pertaining to Bin Laden between December 1996 and May 1998. The makers of this decision ignored the extensive documentary record that showed nothing but uncooperativeness from this Islamic country.
8. August 1998: After the bombing of two U.S.-based embassies in East Africa, the senior CIA managers asked what the Bin Laden unit needed most to enhance the attack against al-Qaeda. I again raised our dire need for verbatim reports derived from electronic collection. These senior managers ordered this to be arranged. After receiving less than a dozen such transcripts the process stopped. Despite repeated requests, I failed to get the flow of data restored. Also, tragically, no member of the Bin Laden unit was asked to testify before the State Department's accountability boards for the 1998 embassy bombings. This exclusion ensured that the systemic problems embedded in the Intelligence Community—which had become overwhelmingly clear before the 1998 al-Qaeda attacks—were not raised before the only pre-9/11 panel that might have been able to initiate remedial action.
9. June 1999: On moving to a new position, I forwarded a long memorandum to the Agency's senior-most officers—some are still serving—describing an array of fixable problems that were plaguing America's attack on Bin Laden, ones that the Bin Laden unit had encountered but failed to remedy between and among Intelligence Community components ... The problems outlined in the memorandum stood in the way of attacking Bin Laden to the most effective extent possible; many remain today. Insufficient or no support from other Intelligence Community components were highlighted in the memo, as were the issues of the grossly insufficient number of experienced officers assigned to the Bin Laden unit and the at best mediocre performance of our intelligence allies—especially in Western Europe—in supporting U.S. efforts against Bin Laden. I never received a response to this memorandum.
10. September 2004: In the CIA's core, U.S.-based Bin Laden operational unit today there are fewer Directorate of Operations officers with substantive expertise on al-Qaeda than there were on 11 September 2001. There has been no systematic effort to groom al-Qaeda expertise among Directorate of Operations officers since 11 September ... The excellent management team now running operations against al-Qaeda has made repeated, detailed, and on-paper pleas for more officers to work against the al-Qaeda—and have done so for years, not weeks or months—but have been ignored ...
The deaths of three thousand Americans—and the many more destined to die at Bin Laden's hands—may well be attributable to the type of decisions noted above, the refusal of senior bureaucrats to listen to their subordinates, and, most of all, the unwillingness of senior leaders across the Intelligence Community to remedy fixable problems if it meant making decisions that disturbed the bureaucratic status quo, telling the truth about organizational and operational problems to the congressional oversight committees, or alarming political leaders who might ask the Community to take risks in defense of America ...
The pattern of decision-making I have witnessed ... seems to indicate a want of moral courage, an overwhelming concern for career advancement, or an abject inability to distinguish right from wrong. Before the Kean Commission's recommendations are implemented, and a vastly expensive and disruptive scheme is undertaken to overhaul an Intelligence Community weaker today than on 11 September 2001, it is worth reviewing the testimonies and documents the commissioners and the other 11 September panels have in hand, and reassessing where primary responsibility lies. Is it really small budgets, poor organization, and legal hurdles that stopped the Community from dealing with Bin Laden to the best of its ability? Or is it the results of decisions by human beings who refuse to do either what is in their power and patently necessary, or that which is asked for by their elected chiefs in Congress and the Executive ...