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Al-Qaida ‘On the Run,’ CIA Chief Panetta Says

March 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Improved relations with Pakistan have helped the CIA dismantle al-Qaida's core organization, leaving the terrorist group in disarray, according to CIA Director Leon Panetta. Jim Lehrer gets two views on the vulnerability of the terror group.
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JIM LEHRER: The CIA has Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders on the run. That’s according to CIA Director Leon Panetta. He told The Washington Post this morning: “It’s pretty clear, from all the intelligence we are getting that — all the intelligence we are getting they are having a very difficult time putting together any kind of command and control, that they are scrambling.”

And Panetta attributed the success, in part, to improved relations with Pakistan, saying, “We do a lot more operations together.”

We have two views of this now. Glenn Carle served as deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats, where he tracked terror networks like al-Qaida. He retired in 2007, after a 23-year career at the CIA. And Michael Scheuer headed the CIA team responsible for hunting Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s. He is the author of a forthcoming book called “Osama bin Laden: A Biography.”

Mr. Carle, does Panetta’s assessment about al-Qaida’s weakening add up to you?

GLENN CARLE, former CIA official: It does.

I think there are two ways to look at it or two elements involved. First, there’s the domestic political one. Democrats always are vulnerable — or perceived to be vulnerable — on national defense and soft on terror. And they have been beaten with this stick for many years. So, certainly, the administration is bringing out its heavy political players to counter that, from John Brennan to Leon Panetta.

That said, I think it’s a fair statement to — and assessment to make. The efforts in Afghanistan have increased. Cooperation with Pakistan has increased. Pressure is greater and has been sustained for a long time. So, I think it is fair to say that the command and control is weaker and al-Qaida is suffering seriously.

JIM LEHRER: Suffering seriously, Mr. Scheuer?

MICHAEL SCHEUER, former chief of CIA Bin Laden Unit: Well, it’s certainly being hit in the Waziristan area of the border, Mr. Lehrer. But the border is 2,600 kilometers long. And we’re not working…

JIM LEHRER: You mean the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Pakistan and Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: We’re certainly not working along that entire border.

I think we should all hope that Mr. Panetta is correct. But we have heard this story from this administration, past administrations about the noose tightening around the neck of al-Qaida, and it never seems quite to tighten.

The other point I would make is, simply the act of trying to kill these people is an important advance. If you’re — if you’re being chased and shot at, you make mistakes. It’s very callous to say, but violence creates intelligence. And the more we’re out there shooting, the more people are going to make communications mistakes, travel mistakes.

So, this is a good news story, but it’s a good tactical story. It really has very little impact strategically.

JIM LEHRER: Do you — do you agree that the shooting is what’s causing them to go on the run, so to speak, or to — their abilities to diminish?

GLENN CARLE: Well, I have long said when I was in the agency and since that one of the major realities that I think is — has for long been underappreciated is that it’s very difficult to be a member of al-Qaida or a jihadist.

The operational environment everywhere is really hard for them and has been before 9/11, thanks in part to Mike’s and others efforts, and certainly since. It’s not easy when every intelligence organization, every law enforcement official, and every government in the world is out to get you, and frequently succeeding.

JIM LEHRER: But, when shooting, we’re talking about drones that have been fired by the CIA? We’re talking about, what, special forces troops in the mountains?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: I think that’s probably what we are talking about, Mr. Lehrer, is special forces troops and the CIA’s drone. Certainly, General McChrystal in Afghanistan seems more intent on not killing very many people and apologizing every time someone does get killed.

JIM LEHRER: You’re talking about non-al-Qaida civilians?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Yes.

All of these things, Mr. Lehrer, the drone, rendition, special forces, all of these are complements to a major military action. As long as we’re depending on the complements, we’re never going to really turn the tide against these folks.

JIM LEHRER: What do you mean?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, the military ought to be very much involved in driving the Taliban as far out of Afghanistan as they can. But now they’re committed to a hearts-and-minds campaign.

We’re involved in a war in Afghanistan where the enemy doesn’t wear a uniform, lives among civilians who support them. And if you have rules of engagement that you don’t attack at night, and you can’t attack if you might kill civilians, you end up giving the enemy a tremendous opportunity to stay alive.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way?

GLENN CARLE: I don’t, really. As close as al-Qaida and the Taliban have become prior to 9/11 and certainly since, I think it’s an error to conflate the two.

I also think it’s an error to imagine that any sort of — or any combination of kinetic military lethal steps, whether they’re done by intelligence officers or uniformed military, will suffice to achieve our ends.

I think what’s happening is increased pressure in all ways, pressure on the Taliban, a change in policy — our policies in Afghanistan, better cooperation with Pakistan across the board, and, as we talked about several months ago, conscious increased pressure in Yemen, too, the most likely other safe haven, if there is one.

JIM LEHRER: Well, specifically, when you say — and Panetta said this — that command and control is diminished among al-Qaida, what does that mean? What can they not do now that they used to be able to do because of all this stuff that’s happening?

GLENN CARLE: Well, one, the environment everywhere is significantly more hostile than it was a dozen years ago, 10 years ago.

Two, we have to keep in mind what al-Qaida really has always been. It has never been a tremendous organization. We’re talking about hundreds of people, even at its heyday, thousands, by broad definition of people who have been trained to some extent with AK-47s. And the command structure of al-Qaida has always been very, very small.

It’s an error to think that, by killing an operational leader, the quality necessary of his replacement will be diminished, but, over time — and there have been a lot of actions taken in the past nine years — that does have an effect.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read that? I mean, you were there during its — quote — “heyday,” and now you’re looking at it now.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: I think we greatly exaggerate the damage we have done to al-Qaida.

JIM LEHRER: Greatly exaggerate it?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Yes. From both administrations, Republicans and Democrats, we have kind of a Hollywood story: They’re running from rock to rock and cave to cave.

JIM LEHRER: They’re not doing that?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, they are now, because we’re shooting at them.

And I would point out, you know, if kinetics aren’t the answer, Mr. Panetta is talking about the first success we have had in a year, and it’s because of kinetics. But the other point I would make is that the president’s…

JIM LEHRER: When you say kinetics, explain what you mean.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: You know, arms…

JIM LEHRER: Arms, guns.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: … dropping bombs on people or shooting…

JIM LEHRER: OK. Gotcha. That’s a kinetic.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: That’s a kinetic.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Got it.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: At least, that’s what I understand it to mean, Mr. Lehrer.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: And the other thing they always say is, well, they’re isolated and they can’t communicate.

And I wish that some reporter at one time would ask the president if he had been in RadioShack in the last 20 years to see the off-the-shelf equipment you can get. Our people who do signals intelligence, who intercept things out of the air, are the best in the world. But the world is so full of electronic communications that, unless they know what they’re talking — looking for, they’re probably not going to find it.

JIM LEHRER: Simply, at the end, should al-Qaida still be seen as a threat to the homeland of the United States of America, Mr. Carle?

GLENN CARLE: Well, prior to — the one-word answer is yes. But, prior to 9/11, it was a threat. After 9/11, it has been a threat. It will be a threat so long as there’s one individual who’s coherent enough to plan and try to execute an operation.

But, as an institution, as an entity, it is substantially weaker than it was, and it was never as dramatically strong as our fears would have imagined.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: My own opinion on that is that al-Qaida would have not survived 9/11 if it wasn’t a very strong organization.

JIM LEHRER: To begin with?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: To begin with.

They took one devil of a pounding after 9/11, and, within two years, the National Intelligence Council was saying they were back on their feet and a threat to the continental United States. You don’t remain an organization, a viable organization, after the United States of America pounds the heck out of you unless you were a strong organization to start with.

JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

GLENN CARLE: Thank you very much.