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CIA Veteran: We Were Stopped From Eliminating bin Laden

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Why I Resigned From the CIA
The agency did its job, but higher-ups endangered the nation.

By Michael Scheuer

Michael Scheuer, a 22-year veteran of the CIA, wrote "Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror" (Brassey's Inc., 2004) under the pseudonym Anonymous.

The Central Intelligence Agency is the best place to work in the United States. No federal agency has a smarter, more dedicated or harder-working set of individuals than the CIA's women and men. I had intended to work at the CIA for the duration of my career, and I left it with deep regret and a great sense of personal loss. I was neither forced out nor pressed to resign. Resigning was my decision alone.

I cannot state these facts more clearly, and I fiercely deny the accusations that I am a disgruntled former employee. I am, however, a disgruntled American – one who decided that being a good citizen was no longer compatible with being a good member of the CIA's Senior Intelligence Service.

I do not profess a broad expertise in international affairs, but between January 1996 and June 1999 I was in charge of running operations against Al Qaeda from Washington. When it comes to this small slice of the large U.S. national security pie, I speak with firsthand experience (and for several score of CIA officers) when I state categorically that during this time senior White House officials repeatedly refused to act on sound intelligence that provided multiple chances to eliminate Osama bin Laden – either by capture or by U.S. military attack. I witnessed and documented, along with dozens of other CIA officers, instances where life-risking intelligence-gathering work of the agency's men and women in the field was wasted.

Because of classification issues, I argued this point only obliquely in my book "Imperial Hubris," but it is a fact – and fortunately, no American has to depend on my word alone. The 9/11 commission report documents most of the occasions on which senior U.S. bureaucrats and policymakers had the chance to attack Bin Laden in 1998-1999. It is mystifying that the American public has not been outraged over these missed opportunities.

In the most memorable and cloying moment of the 9/11 commission's public hearings, former White House terrorism advisor Richard Clarke apologized to the American people for the failure of the U.S. intelligence community to protect them. This statement has become, like the 9/11 report, American scripture – carved in stone, literally true and unquestionable.

Clearly, Clarke had the duty to apologize for the government's ineffectiveness as regards terrorism, but I reject his intimation that the clandestine service failed the nation.

Now, I must add that I was never charged with deciding whether to act against Bin Laden. That decision properly belongs solely to senior White House officials. However, as a now-private American citizen, it is my right to question their judgment; I am entitled to know why the protection of Americans – most selfishly, my own children and grandchildren – was not the top priority of the senior officials who refused to act on the opportunities to attack Bin Laden provided by the clandestine service.

Each of these officials have publicly argued that the intelligence was not "good enough" to act, but they almost always neglect to say that they were repeatedly advised that the intelligence was not going to get better and that Bin Laden was going to kill thousands of Americans if he was not stopped.

At each opportunity provided by the clandestine service, senior bureaucrats and policymakers decided not to act. The 9/11 report documents the fact that the chances to capture or attack Bin Laden were passed by because there were worries that shrapnel might hit a mosque and offend Muslim opinion; that a United Arab Emirates prince meeting Bin Laden clandestinely in the Afghan desert might be killed; and that the CIA might be accused of assassination if Bin Laden was killed in an effort to capture him.

Of course, it is not my opinion but that of the American people that counts. Perhaps a starting point is for Americans to ask why no member of Congress' Graham-Goss investigation or the Kean-Hamilton commissioners ever directly asked Clarke, former national security advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, CIA Director George J. Tenet, former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, former Secretary of State William S. Cohen or any of the rest of the witnesses why they never erred on the side of protecting Americans; why international opinion was ultimately more important than the Americans who leaped from the World Trade Center; and why the intelligence was "good enough" to save the life of an Arab prince dining with bin Laden, but not "good enough" to cause the government to act on behalf of Americans.

At day's end, it may be worth pausing the intelligence reform process long enough to determine what role personal failure, bureaucratic warfare – which the Department of Defense continues waging today – and a lack of moral courage played in getting the United States to 9/11. Lacking this accounting, the debate over intelligence reform will, I believe, simply lock into place a bureaucratic mind-set that believes intelligence is never "good enough" to take a risk to protect the lives of Americans.

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