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michael scheuer

photo of Michael Scheuer

Scheuer was chief of the CIA's Bin Laden Desk from 1995 to 1999 and headed an internal CIA investigation into the allegations of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda -- an allegation his team found to be false. He is the author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror. In this interview, Scheuer discusses the agency's challenges in adjusting to a post-Cold War climate, the flaws in the Afghanistan war plan, the CIA's performance and problems during George Tenet's tenure and the future of the agency. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 11, 2006.

At the moment of 9/11, give me a report card on the status of the CIA, vis-à-vis the new White House: their attitude, orientation, hopes, fears.

There was a sort of euphoria that the Bush administration was going to be a strong backer of the CIA. They had kept on Mr. [George] Tenet [as director of the CIA], which was surprising given the fact that he was a Democratic operative for most of his career. Certainly Mr. Tenet had reshaped the CIA during his tenure from being an organization that certainly served the president, but also served the rest of the U.S. government, whether it was the Department of Agriculture or the State Department or DoD [Department of Defense]. He had reshaped the CIA. The president was our main reason for existence in the sense that he was what Mr. Tenet called the "first customer."

There was a general feeling that we would get along fine with the Bush administration, although it was clear that some members of that administration, particularly [then-Deputy Secretary of Defense] Mr. [Paul] Wolfowitz and [Secretary of Defense] Mr. [Donald] Rumsfeld, really had very little use for the intelligence community as a whole.

Why, do you think?

I think we weren't giving them the answers over the years that they wanted to hear. Syria is a perfect example. Syria, in my adult life, has always been tagged as an enemy of the United States and as a threat, but once you get inside the intelligence community, you find out that the Syrians are bankrupt, a police state that's riven with factions and couldn't threaten the United States in 100 years.

But because Rumsfeld and [then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas] Feith and Wolfowitz are so pro-Israeli, the answer needs to come back, "Yes, Syria is a threat." Over the course of a decade and longer, even back into the first Bush administration and into Mr. Reagan's administration, the enemies of Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Feith, Mr. Wolfowitz were not necessarily the enemies that you could derive from the intelligence material.

Place for me what you think was the attitude of the vice president [Dick Cheney] toward the CIA.

It was hard to tell up to when we started to go into the Iraq War. The vice president, I think, was as invisible to at least the counterterrorism section of the CIA as he was to the American public, and so until we were preparing to go into Iraq, there really wasn't much of a perception within the counterterrorism community of what the vice president wanted to do or what he thought or what he thought of us.

Certainly, I think he was by senior agency managers fondly remembered from his previous government posts, [because] he had a reputation for being open-minded and very willing to listen to new ideas or divergent analysis. That memory, plus his invisibility before the Iraq war, really created a situation where his attitude towards intelligence surprised a lot of people -- what appeared to be very much an unchangeable mind-set about Iraq and everything associated with it.

What do you mean?

The work that came out of Feith's shop that I saw Šis finding pieces of information in the world of intelligence information that fit the argument they wanted to make.

His repeated visits to the agency -- I think it's not unusual for a vice president or a president to come out to the agency. Sometimes they come out to speak to the workforce; sometimes they come for other reasons -- to speak to the director or to be briefed on a particular issue. But Mr. Cheney came out repeatedly. I have to say I was not in the meetings, but I knew people who were, and he seemed to be very hard over trying to draw more out of the intelligence information that was available than most of the analysts were willing to draw. Whether it was the connection of Al Qaeda to Iraq -- the supposed connection -- or WMD [weapons of mass destruction] or Saddam's involvement [with] the Palestinian terrorists groups, for example, there was just a feeling that he had his mind made up and was looking for us to support that.

And when a vice president or even his chief of staff [at the time, Scooter Libby], for example, shows up at Langley and it's clear what he's looking for, which is kind of confirmation, not free and new thinking, what is the impact of that on analysts at the building?

It really depends on the analysts that are put forward to brief the vice president or his staff, or the president and his staff. Traditionally, you use very senior analysts who have been at it for a long time and who are willing to say, "The evidence says this, and it doesn't say what you are saying it says." You send senior people because they've been down the road for a long while. Their careers are basically made. They're senior officers, and the fear of retribution is not very great.

Under Mr. Tenet, he was a very big one for pushing forward younger officers, and the danger of that, of course, is obvious to everyone: You send people to brief senior-level people, they have less experience, they're not able to draw on a long track record of working the same issue for a long time, and they've very conscious of living in Washington, in a very expensive environment, and really needing to be promoted. Those type of people are much more pliable in terms of feeling the pressure from a person like the vice president or the president.

Do you think that happened?

It seems to me that it's likely that it happened to some extent. Part of the problem is the agency's a very young organization now. We've lost a lot of people through retirement. When Mr. Tenet first came in, they ran a program that they called the "early-out" program, trying to get people to retire. They thought they would lose a lot of the deadwood. What happened was they lost a lot of their mid-grade managerial-type people who had a lot of years before them and who were very good people.

As a whole, the agency's very young and very inexperienced. Mr. Tenet liked to be associated with younger people and younger officers who were -- and this is only my opinion -- more likely to produce the kind of analysis that he wanted to have produced.

A lot of people have talked to us about the idea that it was a good thing that Director Tenet could find a way to develop a personal relationship with the president of the United States, but that there is a concomitant other side to that story, which is you can find yourself not able to speak truth to power because you're so close to power. What do you think about that double-edged sword?

It's an important, vital situation to have the director of central intelligence [DCI] be a man who has access to the president and who has the president's respect. We had a number of people -- Mr. [John] Deutsch, Mr. [James] Woolsey -- who the president really didn't have any use for, and so the agency did not have the entrée that perhaps it needed, not because it was the agency, but because of the information that it had to offer.

I think personally that it is a mistake for the director of central intelligence to become the president's daily briefer. He becomes a friend to the president, and I really think the last thing the president wants is a buddy as director of central intelligence who doesn't want to hurt his feelings. From what we read in Mr. [James] Risen's new book ... State of War, for example, it shows that Mr. Tenet and the president are very much cut from the same mold: They're both very interested in sports; they're both very jocular in their conversations; and they like to think of themselves as kind of street kids.

It seems to me, as the evidence unfolds, that perhaps Mr. Tenet was too close to the president, and certainly wanted to be part of the team. And unfortunately, one of the primary jobs of the director of central intelligence is to be not part of the team. He's supposed to be the rather unbiased voice.

In a way, I gather both from Risen's book and things we're learning, in judgment calls, which is so much of what CIA does, you can be cautious or you can be supportive. You can say, "Slam dunk," or you can say, "I'm not sure about it."

Part of the problem, I think, is that George Tenet, or any director of central intelligence before the reorganization, was in charge of a $40 billion intelligence community, and he had any number of things to do every day besides preparing to brief the president.

The reason you send a senior analyst to brief the president is because if the president asks a question that goes beyond what's on the piece of paper that you've just handed him, the analyst will be able to answer it. George Tenet -- no man would be able to run the U.S. intelligence community and also be an in-depth analyst on everything from the European community to coca production in South America to Osama bin Laden. So the president was not well served. He was not meeting with a man who could be spontaneous and deliver information beyond the immediate product. ...

The vice president, I think on the 16th of September, 2001, on Tim Russert's show [NBC's Meet the Press] says: "We're going to go to the dark side. American people need to understand that's where we're going. A lot of things are going to happen they're not going to know about. We can't tell them." What are you thinking then?

I didn't really have a good feel for what he meant. I know within the agency itself, our operations didn't change all that much. Our operations were still guided by a core of lawyers who were extremely conservative in their judgments.

We were under a great deal more pressure to arrest people and capture people, but that stuff is not a thing you turn on the tap to varying degrees of intensity. You have to have a target. You have to make sure you're right about the target, and then you move after it. What he meant on the DoD [Department of Defense] side I don't know, but certainly within the CIA, there was no permission to kill anybody besides bin Laden. There was no lessening of the legal guidelines or oversight that was usually observed before 9/11, and there was no decrease rather in the reporting of our activities to the congressional committee. Whatever he meant did not become blatantly apparent to the people working on the job. ...

More rhetorical than anything else?

I think so. I think you remember Cofer Black who was the Chief of CTC [Counterterrorist Center] said, "We're going to put their heads on pikes. And we want flies crossing -- crawling across their dead eyes." That kind of headquarters' hero talk was a lot of what went on. The reality of it is the government is still a very cautious, and at times cowardly, organization.

The sort of crowning achievement that a lot of people point to, [during] Tenet's time, was the Afghanistan plan.

I think the Afghanistan plan is the perfect example of the president being subject to an ignorant analyst. Mr. Tenet's plan, as best I recall from Mr. [Bob] Woodward's book [Bush At War], was a few CIA officers, a few special forces people and bags and boxes of money. He sold that to the president of the United States and to Secretary [of State Colin] Powell and to Mr. Rumsfeld. And he only sold that because he didn't consult with anybody within his own agency.

I, for all of my sins, have spent the better part of 15 years working in the Afghan [venue] at a time when there were billions of dollars available to use with the Afghans to get them to do what we wanted them to do, and not once in that period can I recall an Afghan doing anything we ever asked them to do. They'll take your money, they'll say they're going to do it, but they're extremely independent people and unwilling to have you believe that they're doing your bidding. If you wanted something done and an Afghan was going to do it in any way, and you paid him, he might do something else just so you don't think he's your operative.

We had 15 years' experience of that. Everyone who was cognizant of how Afghan operations worked would have told Mr. Tenet that he was nuts. And as it turned out, he was. ... The people we bought, the people Mr. Tenet said we would own, let Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan into Pakistan.

So here we are, four-plus years later, with an insurgency that's increasing in pace and deadliness in Afghanistan, we still don't have Osama bin Laden, and all as the result of a program that no agency officer familiar with Afghanistan would have suggested Mr. Tenet deliver to the president of the United States.

So where does Tenet get an idea like this? How does he walk into the president of the United States and say, "Here's an idea"?

I think it's the abject fear of American casualties. It's something that cuts across both [the Clinton and Bush] administrations. ... Policy-makers will grasp at any program that seems to accomplish their ends with a minimum loss of American lives or no loss of American lives. The desire to find proxies to do the dirty work of the American government is as strong today as it was during the Cold War, but without the justification.

During the Cold War we used proxies because we didn't want to have a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. There's no Soviet Union today. The reality of the world is that if you don't do your own dirty work, no one else is going to do it.

... It was a staggeringly bad decision on the part of Mr. Tenet, but it came right down from him to the rest of the community. They set up a special unit to support the U.S. military and the CIA officers who were going in on the ground in Afghanistan, and they refused to put anyone who had any experience on Afghanistan into the unit. They brought in people from the [Africa] Division, from the Latin America Division. Those were the people that were supporting people in Afghanistan. ...

That is not at all to take away from the bravery of the CIA officers and the special forces officers who led the way into Afghanistan. They did a marvelous job: They won the cities; the Taliban left the cities. But that wasn't winning the war; it was just simply winning the cities. At times, intelligence work is inspired ad hoc; you do the best you can at the moment. And the American intelligence community as a whole, it does not have a lot of expertise on anything, because we prize generalists. We want people who can work on Europe for three years and work on Latin America and then do the politics of oil and move and move and move. Really the only experts we have in the community are scientific people, [experts on] Soviet missiles or communications satellites.

But Afghanistan was an exception. We were in Afghanistan from 1979 until 1994, and we had officers who worked [on it] those 15 years almost entirely. We had more expertise on Afghanistan inside the headquarters at Langley than any other single topic, aside from the scientific topics, at the time of 9/11. None of it was called on, except for Gary Schroen and Gary Berntsen -- who were sent in and put on the ground -- and a couple of other officers. But the support was never mobilized in headquarters to either provide very well-informed operational advice. Most importantly, there was no analysis done that was worth much of anything.

That's all a function of the leadership, because the assets were available; they chose not to use them.

And how would things have been different, like if Plan B would have been followed?

... The bottom line here is that money is important, but what you're really going to have to make is a heavy commitment of American resources and risk American lives. Those were A and B. [The advantage of Plan] A was it made sense; Americans understand the use of money. They like to believe that Third World people will sell their mothers for 15 bucks. And it was attractive because the casualties would be over.

Plan B, which I think is more in touch with reality, is expensive, bloody, time-consuming; something that probably no president wants to hear.

And yet [Plan A] is played as this tremendous success.

Well, sure it is, partly because Afghanistan is not high on the media's agenda. I think it would be, except for Iraq. Iraq has sucked off the coverage. But if you look at the Third World and the European coverage of Afghanistan, Afghanistan is going down the tubes as a narco state, as a state with a rising insurgency and with a troubling deterioration of the Pakistani nation because of the violence along the border. ...

Were you aware that there was an impulse inside the agency or some kind of message being sent that we've got to prepare and start thinking about Iraq?

I don't think in September to December '01, no. But by the spring of 2002, it was becoming very apparent that they were thinking about going to war against Iraq. I think it could be said that the people working counterterrorism didn't take it all that seriously. In the judgment of people who were working the issue of Al Qaeda and thinking about Iraq, the threat level was so infinitesimal from Iraq and so dramatic from Al Qaeda that I don't think people really took it seriously. It was kind of talk. You knew that Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld [had] and certainly the president has the reputation of wanting to get Saddam for having tried to kill his dad.

But clearly, Saddam was a Third World, tinpot, disarmed, ruthless dictator. Osama bin Laden we were worried about, according to the words of the president and all of his advisers, were worried about him having a nuclear weapon to use on the United States. There really wasn't any balance between the two threats, but clearly by 2002 in the springtime, it was almost taken for granted that we were going to go to war with Iraq, in addition to having missed Osama bin Laden.

And for those of you who knew about terrorism and counterterrorism, that must have been like a --

It was a nightmare. I know Tenet was briefed repeatedly by the head of the bin Laden department, that any invasion of Iraq would break the back of our counterterrorism program, and it was just ignored. Maybe the part of the agency that dealt with Iraq was eager to get rid of the problem and tried to do it, but the counterterrorism section of the agency thought it was really shooting your foot with a great big gun, because compared to Al Qaeda and what it represents, Saddam was a zero threat. ...

When it comes time for Iraq to emerge, [to] get the evidence together, obviously, they created under Doug Feith this office of [Policy] Counterterrorism [Evaluation] Group [PCTEG] run by [Michael] Maloof ... and these guys kind of get into your business a little bit. They start reading raw information, ... and they start ordering this information in a kind of new way, a lot of it to do with Al Qaeda and its connection [to Saddam]. ... When do you hear about their existence?

Mostly through the leaks in The [Washington] Post, but I had firsthand experience in dealing with the aftermath of the paper that supposedly proved there was a connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq. The paper struck me simply as -- there is what you could call intelligence information available to prove almost any case that you wanted to prove. If you were a nondiscerning intelligence amateur, you could prove that the Queen of England was really a man who has been masquerading as a woman for 30 years. It's there. The information explosion in this world is such that if you want to prove a case, you can prove it. You can have footnotes; you can have documents.

The test of an intelligence officer is not so much the ability to accumulate information; it's to judge between different pieces of information, and not to take a piece of information and use it in a piece of analysis simply because it fits your case, but to use it because it either comes from a reliable source like signals intercepts, from a human source that has been vetted over time as a reliable person, or it comes from documentary information -- papers you've stolen from another government or some other organization.

The work that came out of Feith's shop that I saw, especially on Al Qaeda and Iraq, was simply what I described previously -- is finding pieces of information in the world of intelligence information that fit the argument they wanted to make.

Tenet, to his credit, had us go back 10 years in the agency's records and look and see what we knew about Iraq and Al Qaeda. I was available at the time, and I led the effort. We went back 10 years. We examined about 20,000 documents, probably something along the line of 75,000 pages of information, and there was no connection between [Al Qaeda] and Saddam.

There were indications that Al Qaeda people had transited Iraq, probably with the Iraqis turning a blind eye to it. There were some hints that there was a contact between the head of the intelligence service of the Iraqis with bin Laden when he was in the Sudan, but nothing you could put together and say, "Here is a relationship that is similar to the relationship between Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah," which was what Doug Feith's organization was claiming. There was simply nothing to support that.

So we did the research, we gave him the documentation, we came up with a conclusion. But then we turned all of that information over to the analysts, and the analysts then did the same thing. They, as far as I know, found no connection that was remotely approaching what DoD was claiming in regard to Saddam and Al Qaeda. So there was a great deal of surprise when we heard Secretary Powell at the U.N. discussing the existence of that kind of a relationship. At least in that aspect of going to war with Iraq, it seems to me that the president was told what he wanted to hear. ...

You think that's what was up. These guys were not cooking it, but --

It just seems to me they knew what they wanted, and they had to find a way to provide the support for their desire. It's kind of like writing a book, and you know at the end what you want to say, and you're going to only use information that supports what your bottom line is in your book. That's not intelligence work; that's special pleading. And that's kind of what I thought the papers that came out of DoD resembled, the special pleading.

And when [Pentagon intelligence] says we'd find things and we'd put them back into the system, and we'd ask the CIA what they thought of our stuff, [that] we're just another view in helping us understand any of this stuff, what's the answer to that?

Feith's shop was obviously set up to argue against what the CIA was saying, not on the basis of different information or new information. ... The agency I think did a very good job, at least on Al Qaeda and Iraq, which is what I know firsthand. ...

Help me understand how an idea like [9/11 hijacker Mohamed] Atta meeting with [an] Iraqi agent in Prague -- how does something like that get started and stay alive, all the way to the vice president several times saying on television, "It's true"?

Well, the way it starts is you get a report, probably from an unreliable source, or from a reliable source who's mistaken, that says Atta and Sam the Iraqi had breakfast in Prague. Or you have one piece of information. So what do you do with it? You say, "Well, this doesn't seem likely, but let's look into it," so you task other sources. You look back into information that perhaps didn't appear relevant before, but maybe now [does], and you surround the story with all of the available evidence.

In the Atta thing, it became apparent that it was wrong. Whoever reported it may not have had a nefarious reason for reporting it -- maybe he thought it was true -- but the fact was that the overwhelming amount of evidence, when that one piece was put in with the rest of it, made it nonsense.

Again, I think it's a perfect case of special pleading. We're going to hang our hats on taking America to war on the fact that the guy who did 9/11 had breakfast with an Iraqi in Prague sometime. It's very sellable in a sound bite, but it's not intelligence; it's just assertion.

What does that feel like? You're a guy who knows about these things. Help me understand what that feels like. Basically what the vice president is saying is, "The CIA is wrong, and my guys are right."

Well, the idea of somebody important saying, "The CIA is wrong," is common. You kind of live with that. But what was disturbing was going to war on a piece of information that you knew was wrong. They could say the CIA was wrong, but the CIA indeed told them that that piece of information was incorrect. It was just a case of there really was very little intelligence work involved in going to war in Iraq. It was all special pleading: "We're going to war with Iraq -- that's the bottom line. You find a way to support what we want to do, and if you don't, then you become the enemy."

And how does that message get spread?

Well, I think, in the case you point out of Atta and the Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague, versus supposedly the discussion by Mr. Powell at the U.N. of the Iraq-Al Qaeda connection, it becomes apparent that you do your job, but it doesn't make any difference. They're going to go to war, and they're going to use stuff, whether you say it's right or wrong.

So what you do is do your job on a day-to-day basis, and you try to continue to tell the truth. What it does eventually, though, is through the system there is a [rift] in the trust that the people at the mid- and lower levels have for their leaders, because those people know what they're telling Mr. Tenet and his lieutenants. You begin to wonder, is he telling the president this? If he is, and the president is ignoring him, that's dangerous. But if he's not telling the president, in a way that's even more dangerous. So there's kind of a [rift] in the trust of leadership when this kind of thing occurs.

I'm not sure it's ever occurred before in terms of justifying going to war, and so I think it's an extremely dangerous precedent.

What is the feeling, if you can generalize, at Langley about the answer to your question, "Was Tenet telling and the president wasn't listening," or, "Was Tenet not telling?"

I think there was a great deal of faith in Tenet. Tenet was very well liked. He was kind of the first rock star DCI. ... There was a desire to believe that he was telling the president what his officers were telling him.

I can only speak from my own experience, when we had multiple opportunities to kill Osama bin Laden. Just by the circumstance of the position I held, it evolved in prepping Mr. Tenet for various meetings with the president, [former coordinator for counterterrorism] Mr. [Richard] Clarke, [Clinton's National Security Adviser] Mr. [Samuel] Berger, and I always thought that he was delivering the message that we had decided on within the agency. Usually it was the information that we have about Osama bin Laden is not perfect, but you're not going to give anything that's going to be better than this. This is a genuine opportunity.

In the books that have come out since 9/11 -- and I think of Mr. Clarke's book [Against all Enemies] and Mr. Risen's book [State of War] -- there's a contradiction in what my perception was, because Tenet is portrayed in those instances as someone who's telling his colleagues at the Cabinet table that the information is not really good; we're really not sure of it. In my own mind, I have come up with the question of whether or not he was giving the president, Clinton in this case, the straight skinny. What occurred under Mr. Bush, I was not in a similar position to know on Iraq.

But let's say you went through those 20,000 documents, 70,000 pages, whatever it was, find no connection, who do you report that up to? And how long does it take to get to DCI?

Well, it certainly went and got to the DCI immediately, through the [Directorate of Operations], because that's where we did the research. And then it went up from the analytic shop to the deputy director for intelligence, Ms. [Jami] Miscik at the time, and presumably she took it to the director.

I need to point out that during the period from when we started to chase Osama bin Laden, from 1996 until 9/11, there was not a lack of people looking for a connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda. We looked for it consistently, and we would do [a] periodic review of all of the information we had, and we could never prove a connection. ...

Somehow, between the people who did the research and the analysis on the link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and that bottom line getting to the president, there was a garble or a miscommunication, because if the president believed that the agency believed there was a connection, then something happened at that point, because there was no connection.

[Ibn al-]Sheikh al-Libi, [who] since we talked last has been in the newspaper a lot -- this is a guy who was rendered, probably to Egypt. Do you know any more about, for example, how the decision was made in Washington to give him to the CIA and take him away from the FBI?

I don't, although it's a good decision. Anything you can get away from the FBI is worth doing. They're not dumb people; they're just so handicapped by domestic U.S. laws that it's very difficult for them to exploit opportunities on a terrorism case. I think it was a natural thing to do. The Egyptians are extraordinarily good allies in the war against counterterrorism, and they're very good at debriefing people. And that doesn't mean torture. I certainly can't say they never use torture, but I worked with the Egyptians for over a decade, and they're very methodical debriefer[s], very knowledgeable people.

People who work on terrorism in Egypt work on it for their careers. They're not like Americans, [who work on terrorism] for two or three years; they work 15, 20 years on that. So I think it was a natural decision to take him there, and probably the right one. ...

We knew from the start that [the people detained] were trained to deceive, or they were trained to supply a great deal of factual information that would take you forever to corroborate, and it would be dated and leave you nowhere. They were also taught and trained that martyrdom came on the battlefield and in prison, so you're going to go to heaven one way or another. Finally, they're not stupid people. If you are focused on a particular issue, whether it's Al Qaeda's money or Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and you're focusing your questions on that, [they have a] perfect opportunity to deceive. Even Sheikh al-Libi, Abu Zubaida, any of these people are going to pick up on that, and they're going to feed you information that you want to hear.

In a sense, they're fighting the jihad from the south, and to take any of this without putting it together with all the other information you have is a mistake. It's just like taking Mohamed Atta [meeting that] Iraqi intelligence person in isolation, and saying, "Aha, we've got the proof; let's go to war." Taking what even Sheikh al-Libi said about Iraq and Al Qaeda without putting it into the global picture of what you know about that relationship is also wrong, negligent. Apparently that's what they did, and apparently Sheikh al-Libi led us down the primrose path. ...

Does it surprise you that that information was moving across the system without anybody who's reading it knowing that it's coming from this character?

I think it would be an exaggeration to say that no one knew about it. I would think analysts within the Counterterrorist Center knew where it was coming from. Analysts or other officers who work maybe in other areas, like strictly on Iraq, might not know where it came from. But in a sense, it's probably better to be able to identify, at least in general terms, the source. But there are legitimate concerns about protecting sources and methods.

In my 22 years of experience at the CIA, the Bush administration was the first who was willing to focus on one particular report, one piece of information to the exclusion of everything else, and act on it. The danger is not so much that the analyst doesn't know exactly where it's coming from, because he's going to fit it in with all the other information; the danger comes from a government or an administration that is only looking for something that will support what they want to do. That's not intelligence; that's special pleading. ...

When [former Director of the Counterterrorist Center (CTC)] Cofer Black says, "The gloves are coming off," when Cheney says, "We're going to the dark side," a lot of that rhetorically is fighting a kind of public war against these guys: ... "We're very happy to let you know that we've got black prison sites in Poland and Romania and other places because we want to scare the bejesus out of you."

Yeah. And that takes you directly to the point where our bipartisan leadership doesn't understand: These guys don't scare. They don't have palaces to take care of. They don't have electrical grids. They don't have missile sites. This is what they think of your threat and your deterrence. There's no way to scare these folks. So we're stuck in the mind-set of speaking as if we're trying to scare [Cuban President Fidel] Castro, who has things to protect in the country, and boundaries and electrical grids. But Osama bin Laden and his allies, you know, what are we going to do?

Truly it's a historical moment. I'm not sure that any great power in the history of man has been in the position if we're attacked again, we have absolutely nothing to respond against. That's an issue which no one seems to be taking very seriously. If Osama bin Laden detonates a small nuclear device in an American city, what do we do? Do we just literally wipe Mecca and Medina off the face of the earth in order to feel better about it? There is no "there" there for this enemy, and until we come to grips with that idea, the idea that we're fighting an effective war is probably a mistake.

One of the lessons we keep learning in this last couple of months of interviewing people and thinking about this is the Central Intelligence Agency is wobbly at best right now. The old Central Intelligence Agency you joined doesn't exist anymore, practically speaking. It may be that this president and future presidents, at least in the near term, aren't going to have the tool of the Central Intelligence Agency that you aspired to be part of when you joined. What happened to the agency?

I think the enemy changed, first of all, with the end of the Soviet Union. That was the reason we existed, to make sure America never fought or lost a war with the Soviets. But the paradigm that the world has worked on for so long has shifted in terms of threat. It's not nation-states anymore. Is China a threat? Yeah. Is Russia still a threat? Maybe. But they're predictable threats, and they have something to lose in the world.

One of the worst things an intelligence officer can face in his career or her career is to have a piece of new information, something that no one's ever seen, because it makes the person that you're reporting to very uncomfortable. That's what we've encountered over the past 15 years with issues like proliferation, issues like terrorism and narcotics.

The people you're delivering intelligence to are people who were brought up in the Cold War, in the contest between nation-states. They're not comfortable with thinking that the world's greatest power can be threatened by a couple of Arabs with long beards, squatting around the desert campfire in Afghanistan. It doesn't register. ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] register; the chemical warfare from a nation-state registers. But how do you deal with this kind of amorphous problem? ...

Do you feel like [former CIA Director Porter] Goss was sent in to kind of clean house?

Whether or not he was sent in to do that, that was the effect. He brought in some people that were very civility-challenged, and we lost some very good officers, who should have been there for another 10 or 12 years before they retired, to the private sector unnecessarily.

Did the agency need to be cleaned up? I think it did. I think Mr. Tenet didn't leave a good residue behind him. In many ways, the agency under Mr. Tenet became kind of a Soviet experimental environment for diversity programs and multicultural programs and the rest of that kind of stuff. It's all important, but I'm not sure that you experiment with your intelligence service in those areas. ...

[Head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), 2001-2003, Carl] Ford makes a really strong, deeply emotional case that the Central Intelligence Agency has become kind of reporters, almost like New York Times front-page guys, but not professors like they used to be.

One of the big problems of Mr. Tenet's decision to reconstitute the agency as the president's servant, almost exclusively the first customer, as I said earlier, is that when you go to talk to the president, you have X number of minutes, and his staff has told you how long a piece of paper should be delivered to him, whether it's 30 lines or 40 lines or two-and-a-half pages. Whatever you've got to tell him has to fit in that timeframe and on that format of the paper.

So you don't develop expertise. What you develop is an ability to be concise, an ability not to clog your analysis with irrelevant detail. And also that's very true. People like Mr. Rumsfeld and a lot of senior people in all the administrations I worked for have been of the opinion, "Why do I need the CIA, because I can turn on CNN or some other [news agency] -- BBC, immediate satellite television?" What you need them for is to be what [Ford] says about the professors.

Before Mr. Tenet, we had very important customers, for example, at the Agriculture Department who wanted to know about wheat crops, rice crops elsewhere in the world, so we [develop] an expertise on that kind of esoteric topic. Or people at Interior wanted to know about hydroelectric power in other places in the world. So what we developed is a very broad base of deep expertise. But once CIA became primarily the servant of the executive branch, and especially the White House, there was no market for that kind of in-depth research, and everybody became semi-television reporters. That's going to take a long time to rebuild, if they decide to do it. ...

Were you worried about resources being transferred because of the [buildup] of Iraq? Did that happen? How did that happen?

Yeah. Well, certainly by the spring of 2002, the number of people coming into the bin Laden unit had slowed, because they were being diverted to work on Iraq. Also, some of the Arab linguists we had working on bin Laden were diverted to Iraq, and this is just six months, seven months after 9/11.

But in a bigger sense, this is another example of thinking state threats are more serious than transnational threats, because from the formation of the unit that went against Osama bin Laden, it was always short-staffed, even up until Goss' confirmation hearings, when the Senate asked him why enough people weren't being given to the bin Laden unit. So that's nine years into the process of chasing bin Laden, and the unit was still undermanned.

... It was a foregoing conclusion that war was coming with Iraq and that resources were going to have to be spent away from Al Qaeda towards supporting the effort in Iraq.

And the effect of that in terms of the Al Qaeda war?

It certainly made it more difficult, at least. One of the things about terrorism is that because it's not concentrated in one nation-state, support from headquarters to the people in the field is very much more important than traditionally has been the case, because what happens in terrorism in a country -- say, Yemen -- may have antecedents in 15 or 16 countries around the world, and the people who are operating in Yemen are not going to be able to know those things. It's the responsibility of the headquarters unit to be able to integrate all the information pertinent to that one little event in Yemen.

When you drain experienced people away from working on terrorism and move them over to work on Iraq, you put people in place who are brand-new, inexperienced and unable to provide the kind of support that's necessary to the field, to the operators in the field. So Iraq was not only a physical drain in terms of money and people, but an expertise drain that we could ill afford at that time.

So in effect, we're not fighting the war on terror.

Haven't begun to fight the war on terror. First of all, we can't discuss it amongst ourselves in this country because it's not politically correct to do so. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush decided that we're being attacked because they hate freedoms and liberties and elections and gender equality. As long as we're pursuing it from that side, we don't understand the enemy's motivation.

We also like to say that they are people who are gangsters and criminals and on the lunatic fringe of the Muslim world, which makes a halfhearted effort to arrest them one man at a time justifiable. Both of those things are wrong.

We're being attacked because of what we do in the world, and we're being attacked by a great and rising percentage of the Islamic world. If we don't come to grips with that, we lose. We haven't yet. I think the efforts we're making now on the war against terrorism 10 years from now are going to look infinitesimal because of the spread of Islamic anti-Americanism. When we look back 10 years from now, we will find that the fuel that fed that fire is a four-letter word called Iraq. ...

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posted june 20, 2006

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