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gary berntsen

photo of Gary Berntsen

Gary Berntsen, a 20-year veteran in the CIA's clandestine service who was awarded the Distinguished Intelligence Medal and the Intelligence Star, commanded a team of CIA and special forces during the war in Afghanistan in 2001, and is the author, with Ralph Pezzullo, of Jawbreaker: The Attack on bin Laden and Al-Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA's Key Field Commander. Here he discusses the fight in Afghanistan, including bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora; his earlier career with the Counterterrorist Center (CTC); and his thoughts on the organization of the CIA today. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 20, 2006.

When you joined the Central Intelligence Agency, ... what caused you to do it?

I had been in the Air Force as a crash firefighter as a young man, and the day I got out, I signed onto the Marine Corps officers commissioning program. Did two summers of training while I was in the university. A professor on campus brought an agency officer to speak to a graduate class that I was in. I met that man, was interviewed by him because I'd been in the military. I was studying Russian. I had done well in the military at that point. Once I interviewed with him, he scheduled me for tests. I took the test, and then he said: "Please consider us. Consider the clandestine service instead of taking your commission in the Marine Corps." It was a difficult decision. Marine Corps is a great organization to be in, but ... I thought that I could do more if I was in the agency, that I'd have more latitude to do things. So I made the decision to leave my dream of going into the Marines as an officer and to instead embark over to Central Intelligence Agency. I would have showed up at the basic school on the 4th of October, 1982, but instead, on that very day, I entered into employment in the CIA.

Always on the operations side?

Always on the ops side. I entered as a career trainee, did my first interim in East Asia Division sitting at a desk, and then wound up in NE Division. The first day that I arrived in NE Division was a day or so after the bombing of the embassy in Beirut, which killed many of the people that were in the station there. ...

Let's back up. NE means?

Near East and South Asia Division. When I entered the agency, NE Division was the pre-eminent division, and I think still, of course, it is today. It was where those who wanted to be cowboys would go. It's where all the wars were; it was where all the action was. ...

When you say "cowboys," what do you mean?

I was like the sixth or seventh man on the basketball team: Any time they needed a tough foul delivered or something done, I get sent in.

Those seeking real adventure, you know, not looking to serve in places that were safe, not looking to work the diplomatic circuit; ... those that wanted to, as they said in NE Division, "ride to the sound of the guns." ...

It's during this time in the '80s when the Reagan administration is trying to decide its response to terrorist attacks, ... and Dewey Claridge starts the CTC [Counterterrorist Center], gets it rolling inside the agency. Tell me about the CTC.

CTC is created, of course, not until after 1986. ... When it began initially, it wasn't accepted widely within the Directorate of Operations [DO]. ... People would look at CTC and throw their hands up and say: "These people don't know what they're doing. They're analysts, ... or people without much experience." They would get a couple of good ops officers, but the bench wasn't real deep. It would take a decade before that would occur. ...

All those guys were a kind of pantheon of a certain kind of agent or what, [in terms of their reputations]?

They had reputations of having been people that served in tough places, and had taken on hard assignments and had excelled in human operations. ...

[What about the relationship between the analysis and the operations sides of the CIA?]

With the creation of CTC, you have the introduction of analysts into the DO or into CTC, and it becomes a hybrid organization. They bring a lot of skills; they bring a lot of knowledge. My experience with them was fabulous. There were several groups in CTC: [Michael] Scheuer ran one of those; I ran one; another analyst ran one. ... We did a fabulous job against a lot of the other smaller terrorist groups around the world.

What kinds of things would you do, Gary?

Just normal intelligence collection. It's the acquisition of sources; that is the lifeblood of the business. And in the 1980s there was much more emphasis on that: Are you a recruiter or not? If you are not a recruiter, you're nothing; you're really not important. You have to establish yourself as somebody who can go out, spot, assess development, get sources. ...

Were you good at getting people?

Yes.

How? Why?

I just had the ability to function across a wide spectrum of society. I had grown up in the middle class, but I didn't have a lot of money. I could meet with janitors just as well as I could meet with someone who was a foreign minister. I understood the common people, but I also had a passion for politics. I could deal with any class of people, and I enjoyed the business.

When you met somebody, how did you know that you could turn them?

Not everybody can be recruited. It's just an investment in human efforts. ... It's not always a difficult thing, because I personally believe that America is a force for good in the world, and that's what you're selling. You're selling America, and we've done a lot of great things. ...

When the [Berlin] Wall falls, the way the story goes, at least the way a lot of people ... talk to us about it, they say the agency goes through a real crisis of who and what the mission is. Talk to me a little bit about that.

Maybe it's the leadership [that] went through that crisis, but not those of us that were doing the work in the field. There were individuals who were writing articles -- I think it was Francis Fukuyama who wrote "The End of History?" -- I think maybe some people were buying into that. They didn't recognize that in a world with a growing population and a shortage of resources, conflict would be inevitable, so there was this drive toward reduction and the size of the clandestine service.

... You have to understand that ... it's about human capital, and it's about the skills of the officers that are there. ... How well do you use them? And it's uneven. There are some parts of it that work very, very well, that do fabulous things. There are other parts that lack leadership, that lack vision, that screw things up. It's very uneven.

In the 1990s CIA, the clandestine service is reduced by 25 percent. ... There are things that are done inside that personnel system which don't encourage operational initiative, creativity. ... It becomes about programs and resources, and not about the acquisition of sources. When we need sources, we don't have them, because everybody who wants to get ahead is now managing programs. That is the price that CIA management paid for not understanding the importance of source acquisition and about [keeping] their case officer corps taken care of. ...

For me, the enemy had not gone away. A focused, angry, violent enemy in the Middle East -- Iran and its intelligence service -- were my primary targets. ... It didn't have any effect on me in the least that the Wall went down. I could see that the focus was shifting over to the Middle East at that point, and I was positioned to be involved.

...Gulf War I has come and gone. You're focused on Iran, and there are probably the very first feelings of what will become known as the war on terror, Islamic Jihad. ... Are you seeing it and picking it up out there?

Oh, yes. But I don't think that we recognized exactly what was occurring. During that period of time, ... I would serve out [in] Katmandu, Nepal, and we would see there an influx of Islamic extremism in the effort to conduct terrorist operations inside of India that was unprecedented.

For example?

... Islamic extremists would come out of Pakistan. They'd fly to Katmandu. They would then arm themselves, prepare bombs, move them across the border into India and conduct attacks, many attacks. We captured one group after another during that period. It was quite alarming, the volume of players involved. ... The sophistication led me to believe that it might be state-sponsored, but it wasn't. ... It was probably Al Qaeda as I look back on it now, but at that point we didn't understand that. I didn't understand it. Even though I stopped many bombings, we didn't put it together. ...

Do you remember the first time you heard the words "Al Qaeda"?

I think that it was in the early '90s, and it was because Mike Scheuer had formed that group within CIA, the bin Laden Group [UbL] and was talking about the Sunni terrorism and this individual, [Osama] bin Laden, this financier. It was Scheuer who first brought that up, ... and he convinced me early on that this was a growing problem. Later, when the bombs in East Africa go off [in the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998], I'm sent to lead the team because we think this is possibly Hezbollah. Hezbollah had done the attacks on the embassy in Beirut, had done the Marine barracks [there]; they had done the Israeli Embassy in ... Argentina in '92 and '94. They had been involved in [the bombing of] Khobar Towers [in Saudi Arabia] in '96. So it looked like yet another attack done by Hezbollah. Of course, I get out there on the ground, and it's not; bin Laden has gone big.

... Where are you when you hear about [the bombings in] Dar es Salaam, [Tanzania]?

Well, of course, I'm sleeping; it's 4:20 in the morning in my townhouse in Virginia. The phone rings. I have a telephone that is encrypted in my house. I got up, turned the key and go secure, and now I'm told by the watch center that bombs have just gone off in East Africa, and that Jeff O'Connell, chief of CTC, would like me to come in immediately. I throw my clothes on, fly out the door, and go in. Then I'm with this small group -- O'Connell, [former CIA analyst] Paul Pillar, myself and a couple of others. ... O'Connell was a very decisive guy, and said, "Gary, you're going to Dar es Salaam," and he gave out the air assignments. Then we proceeded. ...

And the meaning of it being an Al Qaeda attack?

Something else big now we have to worry about. Bin Laden's gone big. Scheuer's [bin Laden] unit was about to be closed; there was discussion about folding it into something else, and there was a lot of politics around that. Of course Scheuer got new legs after that bomb went off.

And Al Qaeda being big means what in that part of the world?

Another threat, another serious threat. During the '80s, the Shiites and Hezbollah had been this problem; now we have a Sunni problem, too. This is not good. ...

So when does it cross your field of vision that there's a real interest in the agency and in the American government ... to go kill Osama bin Laden or capture him if we can?

That's years later before we feel that they're serious. Those embassies are blown up, and the response is cruise missiles. It was a pathetic response. Bin Laden was on the ground there. We had realized it was him. We should have just sent troops in and taken him at that point. It [was] an act of war doing what he did, but the administration wanted none of it. ...

... Why, do you think?

They didn't want to have to pay the price of conflict. Now, individually, in my unit, I'm aggressive; I'm always going after these guys. I continue as aggressively as I can in every operation, every day that I'm there, ... and frequently force people's hands so they have to do the operations in the way I design them.

Why?

It's easier to get forgiveness than permission. When pursuing terrorists, I would do as much as I could, and at the last moment, you'd execute the capture and say, "Here we are; we have these guys."

You mean you were actually capturing them?

We would use some of our sources and influence other governments to do that, yes. ... I'm sort of the guy in CIA -- I was like the sixth or seventh man on the basketball team: Any time they needed a tough foul delivered or something done, I get sent in, and I always got the best playing time.

I was very, very lucky, because I'm the guy who gets to go to East Africa for the bombings. I get sent in to Afghanistan 15 months before, at the last minute. I get to go [back] on the 11th of September and replace Gary Schroen [of the CIA's Directorate of Operations] on the battlefield there. ... Whenever they needed something, I was always ready to put my hand up and go. ...

Can you talk about the [2000] attempted capture of an Al Qaeda aide?

Well, I'm, of course, at home in the morning, 7:00, ... and I receive a phone call. It's the deputy in the bin Laden shop, and he's panicked, and said, "Gary, how's your Persian?" I said: "Well, actually, my Persian's pretty good at the moment. I'm in language review." ...He says: "Can you come in? We're having a crisis." So of course I drive in, go to the office, and he said: "Look, we have a team. We've been training these guys for the last two months to ... undertake some highly dangerous missions in Afghanistan. Would you be willing to go, because we only have one Persian speaker on the team?" I said, "Well, when are you leaving?," and he said, "Well, in a couple of hours." I said, "Well, how long is this mission going to be?" They said, "Several months." So I said: "OK, I'm in, let me pass the bad news to my spouse." Then, of course, I went on the mission. Went home, grabbed a couple of thousand dollars, went and bought several thousand dollars' worth of camping gear, good equipment -- told the young sales boy that I was moving to Alaska -- and then, of course, showed up several hours later.

We are flown into the Panjshir Valley [in Afghanistan] ... on a North[ern] Alliance helicopter, which looks like it's held together with bubblegum and bailing wire. I had been a crash firefighter in the Air Force; I knew an aviation accident when I saw one getting ready to happen. It was unbelievable. The aircraft tires had big bubbles the size of 50-cent pieces. There were holes from ground fire throughout the bird. There was an internal fuel tank which shouldn't have been in the middle of the body of the aircraft; it was leaking. We had to open the windows because we would have been asphyxiated. Then we flew in on that. It was quite an exciting flight. ...

That was your first time in Afghanistan?

That was my first time in Afghanistan, and it was fabulous. I was thrilled to be there. ... Unfortunately, there were some reports that came out of left field ... that said, "Bin Laden is aware that there are Americans in the country." He had put a bounty on the life of any CIA officer that could be captured in Afghanistan and brought to him for $3 million. Our headquarters panicked, and they said, "You have to come out." ...

Tell me what the mission was.

Well, we were in there to collect intelligence and, working with the Northern Alliance, to identify one of those key lieutenants near bin Laden ... and to snatch him, to kidnap him.

Did you know who you were after?

We had two or three choices. ... We knew several of the ones that we were looking at.

... Now we come back after being withdrawn. First they tell us, "You have to leave." ... We said, "We can't, because it's cloudy." Well, we were lying. It wasn't cloudy; it was blue sky, but we were trying to do anything possible to extend our mission on the ground. Finally, [there was an] intervention on the seventh floor [of CIA headquarters]: "No, you have to come out, or we'll discipline you, because we know you're not telling us the truth. We're looking at weather maps." This is what we were told. So we had to fly, and the Afghans were horrified. They were horrified that we would tell them that we wanted to come ... and then [at] the slightest threat we would abandon them. It was disgraceful.

Who was it?

It was the CIA's leadership. I would put that on [Director George] Tenet and [Deputy Director of Operations Jim] Pavitt, put that right on them. It was heartbreaking. When I came back, of those six men, two of those men would resign -- ... good men -- because they were just disgusted. They said, "We'll go do something else with our lives."

And you? Why did you stay?

I still believed I could do things; I still believed I could make a difference. I was more senior. I had the chance to be a chief of station. When you're a chief of station, you can make decisions in the field; you can get things done. ...

[Tenet's] reputation among the real working guys?

Well, he spoke very, very well. I remember seeing George Tenet one time get up in front and give a speech on the agency, and it was wonderful. He talked about how proud he was of his service there and of the workforce. When it came down to making the tough decisions, like on that mission, he did not stand with those of us that wanted to fight. That was terribly disappointing. I think he's probably a fine man. I think he's an honest fellow. He wasn't strong enough to lead under those circumstances, unfortunately. It's heartbreaking.

Early part of 2001, a new administration comes to town. Director Tenet is getting face time with the president of the United States. ... Does it feel like things are ... going in the right direction?

They're struggling. [Former CTC Director Cofer Black is] a great guy; he's aggressive. [His deputy, Hank Crumpton], is aggressive, but you can also see that there are political limitations to what can be done, and they're pushing the envelope as hard as they can.

... When Bush comes in, you can feel the difference in CIA: that now we have someone who's concerned and cares about the agency. It's clear he cares about the CIA. His decision to keep Tenet is based on factors that I don't fully understand. ... But you can feel an optimism. His father had been DCI [director of central intelligence]. ... George Bush, the father, understood CIA like no other president. ...

When you say "understood," [he] understood what?

Understood what we did as operations officers. Understood what the product was. Understood how to use the intelligence product. He was masterful in handling the collapse of the Soviet Union, masterful. ... I know chiefs of station that would be called back from overseas with the ambassador to be in front of the president and have a discussion with him. ... I don't know any other president that's done that. That's using intelligence.

So you're sitting there, new president, the son of the beloved George H.W. Bush, and you're hopeful, optimistic, right? And I presume your optimism holds right up to Sept. 11?

I was serving in Latin America; Cofer got me a job in Latin America. ... The president has a lot of interest in Latin America because he's a Spanish speaker, and all of us are feeling pretty good. And then, of course, 11 September happens, [and I am] in Latin America.

The airplanes hit the buildings. ... Did you have any hand in the designing of the [Afghan] plan before Sept. 11?

No, I'm the tool that gets used and gets sent out. The plan, of course, is designed by Cofer and Hank. ... It's very different than anything that's been done before. ...

When the vice president, I think it's on Sunday the 16th, says "The American people are going to need to understand we're going to have to go to the dark side. Some things are going to be done that they're not going to know about necessarily like." What do you think he meant by that, "the dark side"?

I don't know. I would just say this, that CIA officers, of course, are in Afghanistan for the first time since World War II, involved in battlefields and combat operations, creating battles, initiating combat, doing things that we hadn't done in 60 years. So I think it's kind of a shock to the military too, to learn that oh no, there's a team in this place, and they're going for air support. ...

And we're fast. We're nimble. The military is big. It's bureaucratic. I've got to get approval all the way up. It's a different culture. Whereas CIA, Hank and Cofer push all the authority out to the guys in the field, you have a lot of decision-making latitude to do that. ...

When you're sitting in the Latin American country, ... how soon do you hope for or get the call for service in the war on terror?

Well, as soon as it occurs, I receive an e-mail instructing me and others that I shouldn't volunteer, which I found [an] incredible message to receive since I had been one of the last people on the ground. The last team inside of Afghanistan had been me. I spoke Persian. I had done all of this. So I sent a note back saying, "Sorry, I'm volunteering."

Who sent the message?

The Latin America Division. They were trying to protect their own rice bowl, their own personnel. ... So I sent a note saying, "I'm coming," and then I begin communicating with CTC by e-mail. ... Within two weeks, just as Gary Schroen flies out, I come in behind him to help organize the unit as it's being created in Washington to support him in the field. ...

That ... meeting at Camp David on Sept. 15, where Tenet and [CIA deputy director] John McLaughlin lay the plan out, ... many people say it's the first of maybe two of the greatest CIA moments of all times: They get the first assignment on the war on terror, and they win in Afghanistan. Do you know what the plan is? Are you aware of it?

They didn't know what the plan was. They knew they were going to send people out there, but the intelligence business is about human resources. The most important thing you can have is the right personnel. ... Just because you sent 60 CIA officers to the field doesn't mean you'll win. You'd better send the right ones. ...Hank and Cofer knew that, and Hank made the final decision on every single man that went to the field on those teams. I selected most of them. They told me: "You select them; you give them to me. If I say no, don't ask me again." And I didn't.

And the criteria, other than Persian-speaking, was?

No, it was a combination of stuff. We wanted to have Persian speakers that were established case officers; paramilitary officers that had been former SEALs, former Delta Force, former special forces; native Persian, native Arabic. ... Everybody had to bring something significant to the table. And they had to be guys that we knew that we could trust, and we knew that we would probably lose at least a third of them. ... Cofer, when we sat down in my meeting before I left, he told me: "One-third of your men will die. Be prepared for that. I accept it; you need to accept it and proceed aggressively. I want you killing the enemy in 48 hours." These are essentially my orders.

Go kill the enemy.

Yes, find them and destroy them.

So there wasn't really a CIA plan.

Well, they had the plan to send teams out there, but the team had to evolve. ... Gary Schroen goes out to the field. ... He's like a general, ... Gary goes out for the first phase and does the negotiations. ... When I go out, the organization changes. I'm the equivalent of, say, a full colonel in rank. Each of those teams -- and I had the big team; I had the motherlode -- but each of us individually, they didn't answer to me; they answered back to Hank. ... And because of communications, because of technology, Hank is able to engineer this. He's able to do something that I'd never seen before: He and Washington [have] the capability to truly understand what is occurring on the ground. ...Hank, because of his ability to work 20 hours a day nonstop, his ability to read and comprehend information, his just raw intellect -- that's the single greatest demonstration of leadership I've ever seen in my life, what he does during the war. It's unbelievable.

What's going through your head as you're going in? Take me to the moment where you land and you see Schroen.

... I'm inserting on one helicopter with a couple of my men, and Hank is inserting ... on another helicopter. ... He comes out because he wants to see the front. As I'm flying in, I recognize, too, that half of my team has never been on an operation before, ... so I've got to stay focused on them. ... I've got to convince them they're with me; they're going to be fine -- we're going to win; I don't lose. That's the first thing I have to worry about. Then I also recognize I'm going to pair each of those young guys up with an experienced person so they don't get killed and blown away early on. And I do that.

You figure it's going to be hot?

Yeah, I figure the front lines -- because I'd seen them before -- it's going to be like World War I. It's going to be trench warfare. It's going to be ugly. I think it's going to possibly drag on for months. I'm not convinced we're going to win them right away. ... The Taliban are quite confident, ... and they were not that disturbed by our aerial bombardment. They actually thought they were going to win. ... But when I got on the ground there, there was no doubt what I was going to do, and I would have no problem eliminating our enemies. ...

Got there, the first thing I had to do is I had to get Hank down to the front, Hank and [Vice] Adm. [Albert] Calland, who's now the DDCI [deputy director of central intelligence]. ... It's kind of ironic, because ... the Taliban doesn't realize that the man that's planning their demise, the agency guy and the military guy, ... all [are] within 100 meters of them. ...[They] stayed two days, three days, and then they left, and then from there I'm able to get focused on the mission. ... A lot of my guys wanted to go down and just start shooting guys on the front lines, and I had to explain: "We've got to collect intel, intel, intel. Stay on intel. If we can't kill them in onesies and twosies, we've got to be able to stay focused on the Intel mission and use 500-pounders to kill them and 50s and 100s, because there's so few of us and so many of them." Everybody understands it.

And then we proceed.The problems with communications on the front lines, because we didn't have a native Persian speaker -- I brought one in with me, improved it right away. ... Now I had a native Arabic speaker with me, and more would come, but that helped. The military showed up -- great guys, great fighters, no language capability. It was a terrible mistake. Special forces teams -- you know, they have these A-teams. They should put a native linguist on every SF team, because it's a lot for these guys to learn. I know how hard it is for me to learn Persian, how it was to learn Spanish after 40. ... Language skills are something all unto themselves. That would help the Army's language abilities programs.

For those of us who sat around here watching that part of the war, ... on CNN there were pictures of ... the paratroopers coming out of an airplane, and it was done. Was it harder than that? Was it bloodier than that?

It was harder than that. It was harder than that.

What don't we know about that war?

First off, I think that [it was] very savage up in Mazar-e-Sharif. The BLU-82s that they used -- they dropped two of them up there to break the front lines. That was pretty savage. ...

What's a BLU-82?

BLU-82 is a daisy cutter, a 15,000-pound device. It's the largest bomb in our inventory shy of a nuclear weapon. ... It's got a long fuse on it so that when it hits the ground, it doesn't fill the crater, and the blast goes way out. It was initially constructed to cut landing zones in jungles. We use two of those up there on the front lines. Just shattered their will. It was pretty savage. ...Similarly, what people don't understand is down in Kandahar, that team that went in there ... literally landed on a leaf in a lily pond full of Taliban and Al Qaeda. These guys entered into an area, and there were thousands of people hunting them. ... You're talking about the band on the run. Holy cow, that was very dangerous. ...

And you?

I was lucky. I was up in an area where I had a very large team, was working with the Northern Alliance on the front line. It was a more traditional front line. It was like World War I where we were. We were outnumbered. We probably had 6,000 or 7,000, and they had 15,000. ... My concern was that they would just overwhelm us, overrun us. So the danger for us was different, but it was sizable. The special forces teams with us did great work. ... They kept the Taliban from initiating an offensive against us. ... Had they conducted a full offensive, they'd [have] overrun the Northern Alliance, probably captured and killed all of us. ...

[Did you interrogate any captured Al Qaeda or Taliban fighters?]

While I'm there, we do no interrogations; any individuals that were captured I turned over to the U.S. military. Just like [slain CIA operative] Mike Spann and the other officer did, they'd go through, "Do you want to talk to us?" They'd give a prisoner a couple of minutes. They were looking for someone that would step forward and volunteer information.

That actually occurs. Someone does step forward and provides information to a friendly intelligence service -- not a U.S. service, but a friendly intel service -- who then stops the follow-up attack to 9/11, the attacks in Singapore. They're going to use 21 tons of explosives against the U.S., the Israeli, the Australian and British Embassies. That comes from one of the prisoners. ... We had provided medical assistance to that man, and another service was talking to him, ... and then he decided to cooperate. ...

Once Kabul falls, where are you?

In Kabul. I go in. Several of my men go in without permission; they roll in with the growing air strikes. As the thing collapses, I immediately ... load my helicopter, ... because I want to be at the airport where we can receive more things. ... My concern was, of course, that there were still holdouts behind it, fighting in the city; they'd be bombing us immediately. But that didn't happen. But you have to be aware of that. We saw that during the Iraq conflict.

What is it like to take a [city like that]?

I was not happy, because I was trying to save hostages. ... We had planned to seize the city two days later. We were going to drop a BLU-82 and then launch an offensive on [Nov.] 14. The city fell, I believe, on the 12th. ... I was very troubled entering, because I was afraid that I was going to find the hostages that had their throats slit, even though I had paid a source on the other side to save them. ... Turned out to be lucky, and the man we had paid had turned them over to people that had let them go. But I was very, very concerned about them, ... because I didn't want them to be turned over to bin Laden and used as human shields. ...

Did you feel like [you had achieved] victory? I mean, when Kabul falls and there's still Kandahar, there's still --

It doesn't feel like victory, no, because I'm looking for bin Laden right away, because I want to start killing him and his people immediately. So almost immediately we find out he's fled into Nangarhar province. I assemble a team; I send them down to Nangarhar province immediately.

And?

Well, first off, I'm trying to get the Northern Alliance to send a team with me. They don't want to; ... it's not their homeland. I ask special forces if they'll send people in. They say: "No, we're not going down there. It's unstable. You don't have a reliable ally." ... I understand, because ... the bar is higher for them, because the American public, if you lose the lives of soldiers, ... there's significant criticism. To be honest, you lose CIA officers, [the] American public isn't as concerned.

So I send my eight guys down there. Four of them are agency; three of them are JSOC officers, Joint Special Operations Command. They came to help us with the hostages, rescue the hostages, ... and then without telling anyone, I [sent] them down to into Nangarhar province. They were thrilled to do it.... They go down; they link up with a warlord. Then with that warlord, we'd collect intelligence. I received intelligence from the Northern Alliance that bin Laden had fallen back into the mountains, so then we drive down to the foot of the White Mountains [region near Tora Bora]. We put a four-man team up in the mountains alone. We have them insert, based on intelligence that we have, that bin Laden has fallen back to about a thousand people. And then we come upon his camp ... at Melowah. And then four guides, two CIA officers and two JSOC with about 10 Afghan guards, call in the first 56 hours of air strikes against the motherlode of al-Qaeda down below them. It was a nice beginning to what would be about a 16-day battle.

How many of them do you figure you killed?

We didn't do a body count. Of course, we threw a BLU-82 in there as well, which just blows things to bits. You have to go in there with Q-Tips to get samples, literally; that's how devastating that thing is. It just vaporizes things that are close to the center. You're not going to find bodies.The U.S. military, CENTCOM [Central Command], was very generous with air power. ... Really, really pounded them.

But they weren't so generous with the non-Rangers.

No, but yet you have to understand, too -- and I've gone back and forth in my mind -- ... the military finds out all of a sudden the CIA has sent a team up onto a mountain. I didn't ask them permission to do that or permission to initiate combat for those people down below. They find out when we're up on the radio asking for air strikes, and then they provide the air power. By then, after a couple of days of that, I was able to convince special forces to send a team down there to participate with us. ... We get a team down there, and we're able to create a triangle, three different observations points over a large area to cover. ... A small element of Delta Force goes down, about six first with a native Pashtun speaker that I provide. ... Then finally the rest of Delta Force would arrive; about day 11 we get about 40 of them down there with all our people together. ... Fabulous, fabulous people. Can't say enough about them.

And they feel like they've got the scent of bin Laden, and they're going to go get him.

Well, we know. We pick up a radio off of a dead body, and we're listening to bin Laden speak to his men. We're listening to him pray with them. We're listening to them talk about him.

You can taste it.

We can taste it. And then I ask for a BLU-82, and they give me one. ... Peter Bergen, who's written another book on bin Laden [Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden and The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al Qaeda's Leader], said to me that he had talked with a source [who told him] that bin Laden had been actually injured in that bombing with the BLU-82. ... So he was in there. And then of course we followed up with B-52s. We really did a lot to reduce the number of Al Qaeda terrorists that could have exited Afghanistan and gone out into the world and continued to fight against us. There was a lot that was done very well. ...

But he gets away.

He gets away, gets out. I even asked that we put American soldiers on the back side [of the mountains], but the Pakistani frontier force comes up, captures 130 of them. But bin Laden is able to vector off and evade capture. I understood that once that happened, it was going to be a big problem capturing him after that, and that's proved to be very difficult.

There was a meeting in Kabul ... where you were asking for the troops [to come in at Tora Bora]. What happened?

... I had meetings with the military on the ground there. First we drafted a document which indicated what sort of offensive operations we were taking, where we were going to conduct in Tora Bora. I presented those to the senior officer in the country, who had no interest in looking at it, which sort of surprised me. Finally another very, very senior officer from the CIA ... said to me: "Gary, he didn't look at it because he doesn't want his fingerprints on it. Things go badly, it's all on you." I said, "Well, that's fine; it's on me."And then, of course, I specifically requested to him that we needed to put [in] ground forces. More than once I stated that, and I wrote it, and I documented my requests back to my organization. History will vindicate me if anyone says I'm not telling the truth. Eventually these things will be declassified. They can see the nature of my requests and the dates on those requests, so I'm confident.

[But couldn't the president have ordered the troops in?]

... Of course. During the 2004 campaign, when you had the Kerry/Bush discussion on this, and John Kerry says, "The president contracted this all out to the Afghans to do this," well, that's not exactly true. ... It was mostly us. We had our teams out there calling in air strikes. We did use Afghans as blocking forces, and Delta Force would go in. ... The Afghans didn't want to fight. ... We had to pay them, had to yell at them, had to threaten them, had to do all sorts of things to get them to get into combat.

There was truly a fog over what occurred, and it doesn't surprise me, because there is often lots of bureaucracy between that man in the field, whether he's a CIA officer or a military commander, and the commander in chief back there. ... And the president, of course, relied on the people around him. I don't think the president was served well. ... I know the president would have done anything possible to kill bin Laden at that point, but I'm certain my requests never got to him.

You blaming Tenet?

... It was CENTCOM's decision. ... I think Tenet stepped up on that.

So with [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld?

There's a book written by [CENTCOM deputy commander] Mike DeLong [with Noah Lukeman] called [Inside] CENTCOM: [The Unvarnished Truth About the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq]. In that book, DeLong talks about a conversation that he has with Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld calls CENTCOM and says, "Send in troops," and CENTCOM's response is: "The altitude's too high. It's too cold." It's this, it's that -- makes up a lot of reasons. And Rumsfeld says, ... "I ski at 14,000 feet, and I'm 70," and the response is, "You don't have to carry a pack." And he says, "OK, do what you think is right."So the secretary of defense wanted them in there, but he left the final decision to the commanders on the ground, and they didn't want to do it, based on the reading of Mike DeLong's book.

... When do you come back? And does it feel like the crowning achievement of the CIA?

No. I'm told in early December: "You're being replaced. We're going to bring somebody in who is going to be the chief of this whole thing now. You can go back to Latin America." ... I was surprised that I was pulled out at that point, but I understood how the politics works in all of this. But I was not celebrating. ... It was bittersweet, because I didn't know if [bin Laden] was dead. I didn't know if I'd finished it. ...

When did you begin to sense, Gary, that within the agency itself resources, interests, enthusiasm had turned its eye on Saddam Hussein and away from Afghanistan?

I never felt that while I was there. ... I had gone back to Latin America. But even at that point, some people were saying, "Oh, the United States was diverting resources." We didn't need that much more in resources to finish it -- 600 to 800 guys at that point, had we done it at the right time. It was the failure to make the adjustment. As I've stated in other places, it was a flawed masterpiece ... that we were able to have an equation where U.S. forces and CIA officers working in tandem with insurgent forces could defeat a much larger group. But at that final moment when we closed with bin Laden, at that point they failed to recognize that we needed our own men to do that final bit of fighting. ...

Why?

They hadn't planned for it. The U.S. military, I'm sure it has a battle plan for almost every place in the world: landing on the shores of this place, doing an airdrop on this field. [They] probably didn't even have maps of Tora Bora. ...

Had it been done all over again, the military should have inserted an intelligence officer with Gary Schroen when he went in. ... Or they would have had someone attached to me 24 hours a day. ... I didn't see a military intelligence officer in Afghanistan until two days before I left. ... They had just showed up.

What does that tell you? ...

... Lack of flexibility, lack of creativeness, a reliance on bureaucracy and doctrine. That's what it was.

Not exactly a transformative moment for the military.

No, and that's the problem in the military leadership. ... And then, of course, CIA authorities are different. A chief out there who knows what his authorities are ... can be creative, doesn't need to ask permission for everything, whereas in the military, it's much more rigid.

Mike Scheuer and others have said to us: "It's not that we lost Afghanistan, but we haven't yet won Afghanistan. We won the cities, but bin Laden lives in the mountains in Pakistan, and much of the country is still very much in play." ... From where you were sitting, did it feel very much that way? And did you wish that the war on terror had not moved in the direction of Iraq and had finished the job in Afghanistan? Could it have?

I looked at the construction of democracy there. [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai is a figure that is trying to transform the country, ... and the initial steps were very positive. It's a country that's remote; it's poor; it's backward. It's got several thousand years of producing heroin. Nobody thought this was going to be easy, and no one has invested the amount of money that would be necessary to fix that place. ... But they're making progress. We've made a certain amount of investment. We have to recognize that that is going to take a long, long time. ...

The second part of your question, as far as going on to Iraq and the war on terror, I looked at Saddam Hussein as a weapon of mass destruction. I was never all that concerned about the fact that whether he did or didn't -- he always possessed the desire to have that. He had a modern industrial state beneath him and oil; he would eventually get them at some point. He had rejected a dozen U.N. calls to open up his programs. ... He caused that war. People want to say, "It's President Bush's fault." He caused that war in my eyes.

The problem that we made there was after the invasion: the failure to seize the magic moment; ... to maintain order; to not allow rioting; to recognize when the insurgency began and to suppress it quickly. Tactical errors were made in those first six months that have made it almost impossible to catch up ... and have cost us dearly the lives of more than 2,000 of our citizens out there. Terrible. But I don't doubt that we needed to go and to deal with Iraq, because I believe they presented a threat. I'd read the intelligence over the year. I had worked on Iraqi issues when I first began in NE Division, and Saddam was doing horrific things, horrific things. ... So he had the desire, he had the intention, to eventually acquire those things to defend his regime. The fact that they weren't found, quite frankly, to me it didn't make much of a difference. ... The problem is the administration based its argument to the American people on the fact that he had that. ...

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posted june 20, 2006; updated sept. 4, 2011

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