Gary Schroen was the CIA operator who was chosen soon after 9/11 to lead the first trip into northern Afghanistan to connect with leaders of the Northern Alliance, offer money, equipment and political support, and join forces with them to destroy the Taliban in Kabul and other cities in northern Afghanistan. Schroen, who served 35 years in the CIA's Directorate of Operations, is now a contractor with the agency and is the author of First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan. In this interview, he discusses the failed attempts to kill bin Laden before 9/11, his work in Afghanistan before and after 9/11, and his thoughts on George Tenet and the war in Iraq. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 20, 2006.
- Some highlights from this interview
- Leading CIA activities in Afghanistan post-9/11
- An aborted attempt to kill Osama bin Laden
- The structure and culture of the CIA
- Thoughts on George Tenet
- Thoughts on the Iraq war
- The "dark side"
Start with when you joined the CIA. ... What was it to you when you first went in it? What did you do?
I was recruited by the CIA while I was in college. I got a letter in the mail that said, "Your name has been given to us as someone we might be interested in hiring, and if you're interested, send us a response, and we'll arrange an interview." ... By the time I finished with the process of the interviewing, I really did want to be in the CIA. In those days, they didn't give you any information at all about the internal workings of the CIA. ... They made it "need to know"; we were very much into the Cold War mentality. Certain areas of the building were cordoned off. You had to have special clearances and special passes. Now all of that's changed. The whole building is open, and there are no steel gates on stairwells. So it's evolved over the years into a much more relaxed organization as far as the day-to-day workplace. ...
When I think about spying and I think about the Cold War, and then I think about the Church Committee [investigating illegal activities by the CIA], how profound a hit did the CIA take when all that happened in the late '70s?
I think it was a body blow that took a long time to recover from. I don't think that many people had been involved in the kind of things that the Church Committee was looking for. We ended up doing a complete search of all of the old files that had been retired from day one. It was a massive project. I spent two weeks just reading files on the Middle East historical stuff, looking for bad things that had happened.
We all came away really shaken by just this feeling that a lot of people looked at us as a rogue organization. I think many people serving felt we were on the front line of the Cold War -- people risking their lives in difficult places. This was a shock to people like me, who had only been on board for seven, eight years, that there was this attitude out there that really was so negative, and it took a while for us to recover. ...
The analytical side, the Directorate of Intelligence [DI], is set up to take all of the information that comes from every source -- whether it's human reporting that's being sent from a field station, open-source stuff that's coming out of newspapers or off radios or what leaders in foreign countries say, signals, intelligence that's coming out of NSA [National Security Agency] -- all of that, they take. They specialize, in those days especially, in a country or an area and become experts in that area. Their job is to take what is collected and analyze it, refine it, and then publish it to the intelligence community so that people can understand it.
The operators, people like myself, are the guys and gals who go out around the world and find human sources, people in a different country that have information that we can't get any other way than to steal it, and we then convince them to do that. ...
Are there fundamental personality differences between the two sides of the house?
We used to think that there were those kinds of fundamental differences between analysts and operators. The Directorate of Operations [DO] was always the mystique: "We're the guys out on the street; we're the guys who really risk ourselves." That line has blurred over the years, especially since 9/11 and the run-up to that, where analysts are now involved in targeting and actually working with case officers. ... They're actually taking raw intelligence and then working with the operators to come up with, "How do you devise an operation to take people down?" ... They're in some rough places now, on the front lines, where they can actually interface with local sources themselves, or with local liaison services. That line has diminished and has become very, very blurry.
Is that a positive or a negative?
Very positive, because one of the things that we used to do was to restrict the analysts' knowledge of who the assets were, for source protection. ... We're much more comfortable with our internal security system, our encryption system for communications. So it helps the analyst; it helps the whole process of how to judge the intelligence that we're collecting and turn out a better product.
When the [Berlin] Wall falls, where are you, and what do you see as the implications, looking forward, for the agency?
... I was in Pakistan at the time. I was supposed to be the chief of station in Kabul, [Afghanistan]. The Soviets had been driven out of Afghanistan by the mujahideen with the help of the U.S. government and the Pakistani government. The fall of the Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet empire was almost like a tsunami that hit the agency. Our whole reason for being was to take on the main enemy, the KGB, to fight these communist regimes that were out there threatening the United States. When it all fell apart, it took the agency several years to really recover and try to get a new focus. We have enemies that are out there, actively working against the United States, but they're so different. It's not a huge government; it's these tiny cells of individuals who are out there. ...
I think the agency has adapted. Proof of that is what happened in Afghanistan at the end of 2001, after 9/11, and what's happening in Iraq. We've come a long way, and we're a better organization for that kind of turmoil that it caused, the Soviets' collapse.
Did you feel the targeting of America, the terrorist threat really growing, and did you know that that was going to be the new business of the Central Intelligence Agency, especially in your part of the world?
I don't think, in the '80s, that anybody really realized that terrorism would morph in the way it has into this Al Qaeda thing. When you look at terrorist organizations in the '80s, these were politically oriented against specific enemies. You had the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] primarily fighting Israel, and of course then transferring some of that rage and anger against America, who was Israel's main supporter. But their aim [was] to free Palestine, to create a Palestinian state. Black September, all of those organizations, had a specific goal in mind. It was, in a sense, limited.
[Osama] bin Laden has transformed that; it's now a worldwide jihad against the West, primarily aimed at the United States. ... I don't think anyone could have foreseen that, even as late as 1994, '95. We knew bin Laden was out there; we knew he hated America, he hated Israel. But the extent of it, the scope, the way he's changed it, I think, was very dramatic. It's changed our world significantly.
In the '80s, Dewey Claridge and others create the CTC [Counterterrorist Center] inside the CIA. Tell me that story. ...
The Counterterrorist Center was a unique development within the CIA. We are all organized within the Directorate of Operations by geographic areas. Suddenly there was this organization that didn't own any geography; it owned an issue. So there was a great deal of resistance ... as to "Who are these guys now who have this Counterterrorist Center? They report to the director, they have money to do these issues, but it's our turf. How do we somehow come to some agreement?" ...
It took several years before there was a feeling that we could work together and that there was value added for both sides if we would cooperate. Once that was achieved, then the Counterterrorist Center and the Narcotics Center that came along afterwards really were able to blossom, and to really add value to individual stations' efforts in the field.
Who were these guys? Who was Dewey Claridge?
There were a number of CI [central intelligence] officers back in the late '70s and '80s who were larger-than-life characters. They were in an era when, when you were [chief of station], you basically called the shots for your station. You developed a mystique about you, and you attracted young officers to you. Dewey was one of these guys. He was a great storyteller, and he was a tough guy to work for, but he got the job done. ... There was a group, of course, that would say, "These are all the cowboys." But they were guys who wanted to get out in the field, get their boots muddy and really get the job done.
But they were, from what we can tell, a bit of an anomaly, as you've said, in an organizational sense. ...
You do get a lot of this "What are they doing? They're reporting back to Dewey." It goes through the chief [of station], but they're really taking their orders from a different boss. ... I think that the smart people running their stations said: "This is value added. I don't have to pay this out of my budget. I get three officers who come in, and I'll just have to ride herd a little closer on them. But I will get a lot more work done."
But they really were characters, I gather.
Very much so, yes. These were the guys who, like I said, they wanted to be where the action was, the guys who run to the sound of the guns. ...
Were you one of those guys?
No. I stayed in the traditional mode of [a] Near East case officer. I was chief of station in Kabul and never got there; I ended up in Pakistan working for Milt Bearden. But we did a lot of those kinds of things: going into Afghanistan just across the border, going in and meeting with the mujahideen. I got a taste for it and kind of liked it.
What was the most dangerous thing you did in that phase, going into Afghanistan?
In the '88 to '90 period, we were ordered not to go into Afghanistan, that it was still too dangerous. ... We managed to get around those restrictions to some extent. I took a small team in to look at a radio station that we had built and were paying for the mujahideen to broadcast propaganda. While we were there at the radio station -- I guess our presence had been noted, and we were shelled, ... which was a rather hairy half-hour, sitting in a bunker while these things blew up around us. ...
Let's go back to Washington, in a way. It's the '90s. It's post-Gulf War I. The CIA is really -- let's be generous -- going down the drain. There's [former Director James] Woolsey, and for a while he can't even buy an appointment with the president. ... Clinton doesn't seem to care at all, in lots of ways. And they find themselves briefing daily Al Gore, who needed something to do at the time as well. How bad was it?
Well, it was one of those periods that seems to be cyclical. You get, depending on the president and the world situation, whether the CIA is going to be part of the White House team or not. With the Clinton administration, for a long time it wasn't. ... But we continued to work against the targets that we knew were important. ... There was a period when the seventh floor may have been having a lot of angst about their role, but the organization, at the working level, we had our nose to the grindstone, and we were moving forward.
I was running Iranian operations back in, it would have been 1992 to 1994, at headquarters. At that time, Iran had come back up on the NSC's [National Security Council's] radar screen, and George Tenet was in charge of this covert action area of the NSC. ... I ended up doing a number of papers for him on various aspects of Iran. ...
I got to know him fairly well, and I liked him. He's a very personable man. He's very intelligent. He's kind of a rough-and-tumble kind of guy; he presents himself as a "man's man." ...
We had had a lot of turmoil at the top. I don't think anybody thought [Dr. John] Deutsch was going to be a good DCI [director of central intelligence]. He came in ... with that [notion] that human intelligence was a thing of the past; that we needed a lot more technical stuff -- we needed satellites; we needed other kinds of collection stuff -- and that we really should rid of these cowboys in the DO.
When George Tenet took over as the DCI, it was a 180-degree sea change. He was very much enthusiastic about the Directorate of Operations, about human intelligence, what went on out there. ... His relationship with Clinton -- or lack thereof, or whatever -- that didn't seem to bother us, because what we were looking for was encouragement, and somebody to say: "I'm not going to cut money, but I'm going to give you more money. I'm going to ask you to do more, and I'm going to give you the resources to do it." ...
He, from the beginning of the Bush administration, establishes something a lot of people said was critical, both good and bad: a direct personal relationship with the president. Where do you stand on that, on the value of "face time"?
I've never been up at that level. It was an excellent move -- because he had been shut out of the Clinton administration and sidelined to a great extent -- getting in with President Bush every morning, briefing him. I think their personalities are alike in some ways. They're both "men's men" and they can talk rough -- you know, "We're going to do this and do that."
It gave Tenet a level of access that could have made a real difference in the intelligence being presented. The negative side of it, in hindsight and in reading books that have come out examining the relationship, ... [was] that that relationship didn't work as effectively in getting the CIA's product to the president in a way that impacted.
I think the problem rested not in his relationship with George Bush, but probably with [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and [Vice President Dick] Cheney, who apparently simply were so overwhelming at the bureaucratic infighting that they were able to isolate him, and, in a sense, perhaps, kind of force him into becoming more of a cheerleader for the direction the administration was taking than he should have been. His "slam dunk" statement, which he has said was the worst two words he's ever uttered -- (laughs) -- will haunt him. His reputation will probably hinge on that and how all of that relationship worked.
So what was on your plate in the mid-'90s -- '96, '97, '98?
I became chief of station in Islamabad in the very beginning of '96. At that point, there was no interest by the U.S. government in Afghanistan. ... The Taliban were in there; everyone knew that they were committing human rights violations and were just a miserable government, treating their people terribly. But really, no one back in Washington really cared that much. Afghanistan was a backwater, and that's what the country had evolved to -- well, they'll sort their problems out.
We, by May of '96, though, realized that the equation had changed when Osama bin Laden and his group arrived from the Sudan. CTC began to switch its attention to Afghanistan in a big way. It still was difficult for me, as the chief in Islamabad, [Pakistan], to take any kinds of action, because Afghanistan was a separate country, ... but I began to, by the summer of '96, try to focus attention and renew some contacts with old mujahideen commanders with whom we had had relationships in the '70s and '80s. ...
This small group within the CTC -- the UbL [Usama bin Laden] group, as we call them -- early on recognized that this guy was somebody we should really pay a heck of a lot of attention to. Even as early as 1996, they were behind a lot of the pressure to get the Sudanese to expel him.
Did you have any involvement in the early bin Laden stuff?
From 1996 until summer of 1999, as chief of station in Islamabad, I was the field director of all operations that were conducted to try to capture bin Laden, ... everything from capturing him while he's in convoy en route from, let's say, Kandahar city to his farm outside of the city in Tarnak, up to actually planning a raid by our Afghan group into Tarnak. ... [We] suggested cruise missile strikes against bin Laden on several different occasions, those kinds of things. ...
You had a little bit of a smile on your face when you were talking about cruise missile strikes on him. Tell me that story.
After the bombings in [the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in] East Africa -- the scope of them was shocking, I think; the thousands of innocent people who were wounded and maimed -- the Clinton administration obviously wanted to do something. There was intelligence that indicated that bin Laden and his senior guys were going to be at a camp inside Afghanistan but near the Pak border, and they were going to be holding some sort of a strategy meeting. This seemed to be good information, and it had been collected enough in advance to allow cruise missiles to be positioned, either from aircraft [or] some of our ships and submarines, that could be fired in there.
The problem would be that the cruise missiles would have to fly over Pakistan to reach their targets, and there was a big question about how the Pakistani government would react. ... We had good relations with the chief of the army staff in Pakistan, but we didn't give them the advance warning, because we were afraid that the word would get out, and bin Laden would be warned by elements there within the Pakistani government, military and security forces that support bin Laden and admire him.
The missiles flew. We missed him by some degree of time -- a half hour, two hours, we don't know. ... The reaction, because Pakistani people felt resentment that these missiles had flown over Pakistan -- one actually fell short and landed in Pakistan -- [was] that this was an international incident, that America was ignoring Pakistan's sovereignty. I think it made the administration a little more leery of using cruise missiles because of these kinds of issues.
In your position as chief of station, would you have been involved in designing the plan to fact-check the human [intelligence]?
Other than that missile strike -- that was in August of '98 -- every other operation, basically, was generated through my office. ... We had connections to the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud's group of Tajik fighters up in the north. The CIA was sending teams into northern Afghanistan from '97 up until about 2000 to meet with Massoud's people, to try to get them involved. ...
It was a day-to-day thing with my office there in Pakistan, to try to stage-manage what was going on in the field. We had a lot of advice, help and orders coming out of Washington, and everything that we planned or put together had to be vetted back in Washington, ... all the way up to the NSC, again weighing, would collateral damage happen in this raid? ... Is it worth the risk? Are we going to make the situation worse by doing these kinds of activities?
We had him in the desert, I think in early 1999, in southern Afghanistan, in February. He was staying with a group ... from the United Arab Emirates [UAE] with whom the United States has very good political relations. My Afghans tracked bin Laden to that camp. ...
We could have struck with either cruise missiles, B-1 or B-2 bomber[s]. Again, the question was collateral damage: What about the Arabs that are there in the camp? What about our relations with the UAE? ... The bottom line was, we didn't take a shot, and we missed him. I don't think we ever came that close again, other than December of 2001 at Tora Bora.
[Did] you advocate it?
Oh, absolutely. Bin Laden's organization had just bombed two embassies in Africa, killed hundreds, wounded thousands, and he was a mass murderer. ... He wasn't just some strange Arab who wandered in and they gave him desert hospitality; they knew exactly who he was. I've said several times in the past, "If you lie down with the dogs, you're going to wake up with fleas."
So my advice was: "Take the shot. We won't get another one, and we'll regret not doing this." ...
How intensely do you argue in moments like that?
You argue till you're told to shut up and that the decision's been made. ...
Help me understand the food chain then. It goes from you in Islamabad to where and whom?
The chain of command would be from me, as chief of station, back to the chief of the Near East Division and to the chief of CTC, who then would be working up to the director of central intelligence, DCI, who would then be taking people like those two gentlemen ... down to the NSC, to the White House, to absolutely put everything out on the table.
Of course, something like that would take the president actually to give the authority to do the strike. ...
It went upstairs.
It went upstairs, and went down to the White House. Actually, the debate went on for over a week, because he was there for several weeks. I'd wake up in the morning, go in; I'd get a question: "What tent is bin Laden sleeping in?" ... Then we got one that said, "Where does he go to the bathroom at?" And I said: "I don't have a clue, and even if I knew, what difference would it make? He doesn't go on a schedule!"
Questions like "Which tent are they using as a mosque? Where do they go to pray?" You're looking at a picture from above. How do I know? ... You're getting down into the nitty-gritty, that it was impossible to answer. It just seemed to me at the time that, especially coming out of the NSC, this was a way to find a reason not to do it, rather than to find a way to get the job done.
But Clinton had signed eight or 10 findings that you could kill him?
I think everybody knew and realized we could kill bin Laden. The problem was, we were going to kill a bunch of these Arabs. ... They could have been some of the sons of the ruler of Abu Dhabi, [the capital of UAE], or Dubai. Who knew who they were? The risk of damaging our relationship with them in an area where we don't have a lot of good friends, and the fact that they were buying a whole fleet of F-16 fighter aircraft, all of those factors weighed into the decision that said: "No, we'll get him another time. There will be more shots. There will be more opportunities."
And your understanding, admittedly secondhand at least, of how Tenet acquitted himself during this process? ...
It was my impression, in the field, that he made a strong case for it, but that it was coming out of the NSC, where there was this hesitation to take bin Laden out sitting in the midst of a group of Gulf Arabs. ... To some extent, maybe [counterterrorism expert] Dick Clarke also.
That was what we were told out in the field -- that's coming second- or thirdhand -- ... that Clarke had been one of the individuals generating a lot of questions about who was in the camp, how the camp was laid out, where was bin Laden. ...
Isn't that interesting? Because of course Dick Clarke ... has made himself famous as an anti-Osama bin Laden warrior.
He's very strong on it. I just think that the circumstances at that camp, with the people that were there hosting bin Laden, were such that, whether it was him personally or more the whole group around there saying, "We can get bin Laden later in a situation where we're not killing people, maybe, who are our friends" -- although if they're sitting with a mass murderer who claims he's at war with America, what kind of friends are they? ...
What's it like to be you, sitting at that desk? And how do you get the word to stand down, and we're not going to do it? ...
I can't remember the circumstances, but I know that I got a cable that said, "The decision has come from the NSC that we will not launch an attack on bin Laden at this time." We were ordered to then take steps to protect our Afghan assets who were out there putting themselves at considerable risk, because part of the requirements were to actually send our guys to the area, where they could put their eyes on the camp, to ensure that bin Laden was still there. ...
You look back on it; it must be beyond piss[ing] you off.
There's only so much you can do within the bureaucracy other than, at some point, throw your hands up and resign. ... I'd made the best case; it was up -- CIA presents the information; we present the opportunity; we evaluate the risks, turn it over to policy-makers. That's the role.
Was I upset? Yeah. Do I regret that we didn't? Yes, very much so. I think it would have changed the equation. Might not have stopped 9/11 -- that plan was well in train -- but it might have hindered it. It might have delayed it. Maybe it would have stopped it, but we'll never know. He's still out and about.
He's still out and about. 9/11 happens, Gary, and where are you?
I had actually entered the retirement program at the CIA. I was getting ready to retire. I was in the office, finishing up the final things, ... when people turned the television on. We were getting calls from CTC, friends of the CTC in and around the building, that the World Trade Center, one of the towers had been struck.
What was the mood at Langley at that moment?
I think it was shock. I think the shock hit when the second aircraft hit the second tower. Because the group of people -- we were like, 30 of us standing around -- as soon as the second aircraft smashed into the second tower, everyone said, "Bin Laden. It was bin Laden. This isn't an accident, this isn't some tragedy, that, you know, that's some tragic accident. This is the attack that bin Laden's been promising."
We were ordered to evacuate, because there was still a threat that there might be other aircraft, and the CIA would be an easy target to hit. ... That really was irritating, because ... that's not what we do. When there's an attack, you go to the place where the attack is at and try to solve things. We were all standing out in the parking lot in this massive traffic jam, saying, "What in the hell is going on?"
I went home that night, and my wife was off in Beirut; she's a State Department officer. ... My son had been at the Pentagon. Once I had gotten sure that all my children were safe and my wife was OK, I [was] just sitting there thinking, this has happened, and I'm in retirement now. This has come at the wrong time. I want to be in the fight. Luckily, I was tapped two days later to get into the fight.
I was called the night of the 13th of September by people in CTC that said, "Cofer wants to meet with you the following morning." It was a very short meeting, and they just said: "Will you take a team into Afghanistan, leaving within three to five days? Can you get it together? You'll go in, link up with Massoud's guys in the Northern Alliance and prepare the battlefield, bring the special forces in, and let's get the war started." I agreed with absolute joy. Yes, absolutely.
My last meeting with Cofer before I left was interesting. He basically said to me: "I want to make it clear what your real job is. All these other things -- linking up with the Northern Alliance, preparing the battlefield, helping the special forces get in or whatever happens -- is fine. But once the Taliban are broken, your job is to find bin Laden, kill him and bring his head back on ice."
(Laughs.) I said, "Well, that's about the clearest, most direct order I've ever received as a CI officer." And I said: "I'll do my best. We'll try to get the job done."
Tell me about him.
Cofer is a dynamic guy. When you look at him from across a room, you wouldn't think that this is this ball of energy, this bold kind of a guy. He ran CTC, the Counterterrorist Center, for several years before 9/11, and he did it very aggressively. ... Those teams that went into northern Afghanistan to meet with Massoud from '97 through early 2000 were basically driven by Cofer. ...
When 9/11 happened, ... it was Cofer who really took the lead in being the most vocal person saying: "OK, this is a tragedy, but the gloves are off. We're going to go out, and we're going to defeat Al Qaeda. We're going to kill bin Laden, and we are going to win this war." ... Everybody felt that way, but it was Cofer who just seemed to light that spark. He's a very, very dynamic and interesting guy.
When you're sitting there in your house, and you know your wife is safe, and you know your kids are safe, and you're watching endless repeats of the planes flying into the buildings, ... what are you thinking the Central Intelligence Agency's role will be in what it will take to win?
Having spent three and a half years in the field looking at him, and then two more years back at headquarters in a senior position within the Near East Division, it was clear that bin Laden had built himself a safe haven in Afghanistan that would make it incredibly difficult for us to get at him. He had courted Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban; he had dispensed monies for charitable things -- paving the streets in Kandahar and this kind of stuff. ...
But what he did, ultimately, to cement that relationship was on the 9th of September of 2001, his plan to kill Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was the only serious opponent of Mullah Omar left in Afghanistan, that plan came to fruition, and unfortunately, Ahmed Shah Massoud was killed in a bomb blast by two Arabs posing as journalists. That rocked the Northern Alliance -- like I say, the only army left on the ground in Afghanistan -- and it made Mullah Omar indebted to bin Laden for removing his only major enemy, this leader who was so charismatic. ...
I never expected that I would get the call to go in; I think it was the right choice at the time, given my long relationship with those guys in the Northern Alliance. ... I knew we could be in within days of getting the order to go in, and indeed we were. I was surprised at how slow the U.S. military was to get themselves in a position where they could come and join us.
My team -- I guess there were seven officers, including myself and three air crew -- flew in on the 26th of September. It wasn't until the night of the 19th of October or the morning of the 20th that the first special forces A-team came in. So we were there for just about a month by ourselves, in the valley, we were the only Americans in the country for almost a month.
The plan that famously gets executed for the Afghanistan war, is it your plan, yours and others'? Was it already on the shelf? I've read that it was in existence since the Clinton days, and that Clinton had said, "We're not interested in a kind of alliance like this with the Northern Alliance."
I was the one who, as chief of station in Islamabad, reopened our contact with Ahmed Shah Massoud. ... CTC jumped on board on that, and so we were able to open it. CTC pushed hard to keep that relationship going. ... But there was a debate back in Washington, especially between the State Department and NSC, about what were we going to do about Massoud? He was the only opposition to the Taliban; the Taliban were hosting Osama bin Laden; we wanted bin Laden; therefore, an enemy of our enemy should be our friend. ... Unfortunately, the debate over how much aid that Massoud was going to be given was resolved negatively, as far as I was concerned. ... Basically the U.S. government said they weren't going to help Massoud.
Luckily, his death came so close to the 9/11 tragedy that the Afghan Taliban weren't able to take advantage of the chaos they caused within the Northern Alliance, and we were able to come in. ...
Where are you when you hear that he's been murdered? How do you react?
I came into work on the 9th of September, ... and someone came by and said, "You know Massoud, don't you?" I said, "Yeah, I know him." They said: "Well, he's been killed. He was blown up yesterday in an assassination operation." ... My initial reaction was one of sorrow, because I had really liked him, and felt like he and I had had a personal relationship. But it was sadness for Afghanistan, because the only thing I could picture was the Taliban saying, "Now is the time to strike," and that these guys were going to be driven out of Afghanistan after 20-something years of struggle. And of course, two days later, Massoud's assassination really took on more import, because had it happened six months earlier, we probably wouldn't have had a foothold to use to get into Afghanistan.
Was there any hint inside you, as an experienced person from that part of the world, that the announcement of Massoud's death was a precursor to bin Laden or Al Qaeda action?
I must admit I didn't put it together. I was more thinking of the tragedy of what was going to happen in Afghanistan. ... I did not connect those two things until the second aircraft hit, and I was standing in the parking lot, saying, "Ah, that's what Massoud's death was about."
So that's when you figured it out. On the 15th of September, Saturday, the president's war cabinet meets at Camp David. Director Tenet is there, [CIA deputy director from 2000 to 2004] John McLaughlin is there, and they are offering a plan that the president seems extremely eager to adopt, which is your plan. ... Is it already a foregone conclusion? I mean, you've already been asked by Cofer to go on the 13th.
My understanding was that Cofer and Tenet had spoken to the president, at least on the 13th, and offered to send a team in. They said, "We can get a team in very quickly." They came back, based on his favorable but probably informal agreement, and called me. ... So yeah, it was a foregone conclusion by the 14th, for me, that we were going.
Rumsfeld, apparently, at that meeting on Saturday at Camp David, looks at [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1997 to 2001 Gen. Hugh] Shelton and to [Gen.] Tommy Franks, the head of CENTCOM [Central Command]: "What have you got for me?" Does it surprise you that the military didn't have a plan, or that the plan they had was heavy and cumbersome?
I was a little surprised that there wasn't some sort of a plan for a contingency: What happens if we have to go in to Afghanistan? I would have assumed that somebody at the Pentagon, some group of guys would have put a plan together.
My surprise came more in as of the first day we started, on the 14th, one of my points to the young guy who was my deputy, who had all kinds of contacts within the special operations community, ... I said: "Reach out to these guys. Let's talk to the SEALs. Let's talk to Delta. Let's talk to SOCOM [Special Operations] Command. Let's talk to CENTCOM. Anybody you know, let's invite. We need to have a military officer, a special operations guy, come along with us." Everybody that he talked to said: "God, I want to go. I'd go myself, but we can't get the bosses to agree to even which special operations group is going to take the lead in this."
It just seemed like total confusion there, and so we packed up and got ready to go. ... It took several weeks before that sorted itself out.
They were behind the eight ball from the get-go.
Yeah, I think they were. We traveled so light and so small that we didn't need a whole lot of infrastructure. But these guys, once they started to deploy into Uzbekistan, they took over an airfield there, at Karshi Khanabad, "K2," and turned it into just this giant U.S. military facility, with tons and tons of equipment and miles of tents. And we went in with seven officers and three guys flying the helicopter. ...
But once they got on the ground, the relationship between CIA and those special forces A-teams was superb; it was seamless. It was the way it really should have worked. But it was clear to us that the U.S. military really struggled to come up with a plan as to how to deal with this one. I think that's one reason why the Iraq plan didn't include as much of the CIA involvement and was much more a conventional war, "big army" versus the special operators.
You can imagine how Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney felt, that George Tenet, friend, or ally at least, of [then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell, arrives with a fast, efficient, cool idea, right? To take down something the Russians couldn't do and the British couldn't do -- Rumsfeld, a bureaucratic knife fighter of the first magnitude, sitting there saying, "Tenet wins today"?
We got that impression. It was very clear, in the to and fro once we were in Afghanistan, that there was a great deal of resentment coming out of the military over this, and they were very, very anxious to put boots on the ground. I think that the choice of ... the Green Berets was a very good one, because they are capable of moving a lot of people. ... It [took] a couple of weeks for them to deploy and then another couple before they were actually able to insert troops.
And what were you doing during that month, treading water?
Oh, no. God, we were busy. My role primarily was to interface with the leadership of the Northern Alliance, the general, now Marshal [Mohammed Qasim] Fahim, who had taken over command of the Northern Alliance; with their intelligence chief; with their foreign minister, Dr. Abdullah -- trying to convince them that we were deadly serious about coming in and really providing them with assistance. I was passing out large sums of money for specific purposes to generate the impression that we weren't going to talk; we were going to actually help them get ready to fight. ... And when I began to distribute money -- $200,000 here, $250,000 for this -- I think that they were convinced that we were sincere. ...
At the same time, my team conducted front-line surveys with GPS coordinates to delineate where the friendly guys were at and where the bad guys were. ... We were very, very busy with all of that. ...
When you're headed there, on the flight over, is it a foregone conclusion, Gary, that we're going to kick ass there?
My first evening, when I actually sat down with the head of the intelligence service, I said: "What you guys have never had is the kind of tactical support that the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy is going to be able to put on the ground. The Taliban have never experienced -- and no matter how fierce the battles you fought with them -- have never experienced 1 percent of the terror that they're going to feel when we start dropping bombs on them."
I said, "What our job is here is to get Americans on the ground that can help bring those bombs right on top of the Taliban." And I was absolutely convinced that that would happen, and that the Taliban would break quickly. Once we did it, by the beginning of November, when we really finally got our bombing strategy in order and we started concentrating on the front lines, they broke and melted away.
So you are there, you've got a plan, you've got an idea, you know what needs to be done, and once again political issues enter in. ...
The initial bombing strategy employed by CENTCOM was to attack what they considered to be strategic targets behind the lines. Again, my advice from the field was, "Bomb the front-line troops here in Kabul and in other places around where the Northern Alliance forces can then take advantage of that and move forward." What I didn't realize until a week after my first cable saying that was that the Pakistani government was putting a great deal of pressure on the administration to hold the Northern Alliance in check. ...
The Pakistanis kept saying: "Please work in the south. ... Get the Pashtuns organized, and once they're ready to go, then we'll turn everybody loose." Well, that was a formula for disaster. We needed time to get the Northern Alliance ready, but once we had special forces teams in the Panjshir Valley with me, ... it was clear that if we concentrated our bombing up there, we could have a breakthrough.
Part of my job was to convince Washington that the [Northern Alliance] Tajiks weren't going to have a bloodbath in Kabul, ... and if we depended on the Pashtuns, we'd be months, because the Pashtuns that had really opposed the Taliban had been disarmed, and a majority of them backed the Taliban. ...
And finally, the bombing started, I think, around the 7th of November on the Takhar front, where [Northern Alliance commander Marshal] Fahim's soldiers were facing to the west, and to the north of Kabul. ... Finally, around the 9th or 10th of November, bombing started on the Kabul front, and Fahim's forces walked into Kabul city on the morning of the 14th. Unopposed. I mean, they had some hard fighting, but within three days, the lines had melted away and they were in charge of the city. That could have happened -- that could have happened in October. Early in October.
Who in the administration, or where in the administration, would the decision to listen to the Pakistanis and go their way on this have resided?
I think there would have been a lot of support for that idea from the Department of State. This was the same group of people that were running those areas of State, the South Asian bureaus and all, that had opposed support to Massoud. They really favored a Pashtun government; Pashtuns have traditionally been the leadership of Afghanistan, and it's a traditional role that they assume is their right. ... The Pakistanis had been the most supportive government supporting the Taliban, ... and so the Pakistanis were playing [the] "If we can't have the Taliban, we want the Pashtuns" card. It didn't hinder the long-term effect of what we could have done; we just simply could have defeated the Taliban probably a month to three weeks sooner than we did.
You know, the most exercised I've ever seen [CIA bin Laden Desk Chief and author] Mike Scheuer in all these interviews we've done with him was over this idea of the plan and who got to execute it. Other than Gary [Bersten], there were guys brought in from Latin America, guys brought in from here and there; that all the guys didn't know what the hell they were doing. Does he have a case to make there?
To some extent, yes, I think so. Afghanistan isn't that complicated, but if you haven't looked at it before, it is. ... Nobody had really paid a whole heck of a lot of attention in the administration, and certainly not down at CENTCOM, as to understand what was happening there. There were a handful of guys like me and guys who had done a lot of stuff in Afghanistan who understood that, and thank goodness most of us were involved. But there were a lot of guys brought in from other areas of the agency ... who really didn't understand. ...
But you would get people [asking]: "Well, why are we paying this money? How can you trust these guys?" It made it frustrating in the field sometimes to be talking to people who really didn't understand what was going on.
And when Scheuer says, "We won [Kabul], but we didn't win Afghanistan. We don't have much of Afghanistan now, and we lost bin Laden in the process because of this," what do you say?
He's right to a point. The northern third of Afghanistan is much different than the Pashtun south. There [in the north], these tribal entities ... all look primarily to a single leader, and that single leader can pretty much sway the entire population that he represents. While they may dislike each other, they'll usually tend to work together a lot better than the Pashtuns who live in areas that are cut by mountains, so that you get groups of Pashtuns separated by mountains. Even their languages evolve differently. They don't like each other; they don't get along well; it's a much more complicated tribal structure there.
You had to pick one or two tribal leaders down in the south and work with them. There was all kinds of problems. We didn't understand the south like we did the north, ... so we ended up not really winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, but destroying the Taliban and then putting a government in place that hopefully would be able to win the hearts and minds. That hasn't quite happened yet.
Maybe someday. Better chance there than what I see in Iraq. But the situation is much different there, too.
Tell me the story of the arrival of the other Gary.
At some point late in October, headquarters said, "We want to bring you home, Gary," because big elements within CTC were saying, "You've got the right idea; we need you back here to sell this thing politically." ...
They had already identified my replacement: I call him Gary II -- Gary Berntsen and his crew. They were coming out, and we were going to do a handoff, and that happened on the 4th of November. ... We literally hugged each other with the helicopter blades twirling and shouting in each other's ears, and I got on the CH-47 he had gotten off of and flew out.
What did you shout?
"Good luck." (Laughs.) I think it was something along the lines [of] "You're going be in Kabul soon." He was very excited to be there. You could just feel the tension build; it was like a spring being wound. We knew that once we started bombing, the Northern Alliance was going to jump.
And you had to come back to Washington basically to kick-start the political process so the bombing would happen.
Well, that was what the aim [was]. I got so ill on the trip back that I ended up almost going to the hospital. I spent a week recovering from problems that I had all the way through my time out there. By the time I got back, things had started to break out there, ... so I ended up just going to work for CTC and supporting the guys back out in the field.
Is it amazing to you, though, that we would dither like that at that moment?
No, it didn't. Having dealt with trying to get bin Laden and seeing ... how this debate works, and all of the nuances, ... no, it didn't surprise me that they would be dithering up until the fact that the phone rang, and it was Gen. Fahim [riding] into Kabul, calling to say: "I'm here. Thanks. I've taken the city." ... [And] Gary Berntsen's team called, and said: "We're in Kabul! We've commandeered a hotel, and we're putting up for the night. Let's get on with it. What do we do next?"
And were you there when such a call came in? ... What's the reaction?
Oh, everybody was shouting and hollering, because it was really a moment we had been waiting for for almost -- well, Lord, for almost two months, and finally had it, because then we thought, now we can get bin Laden. Our guys can actually start to move beyond Kabul and down into the areas where bin Laden is hiding. That's the story that Gary Berntsen can tell you. ...
Did you see intelligence at the time that indicated that [Mullah] Omar was in the country and bin Laden was in the country clear up until Kabul falls? ...
We had intelligence that continued to develop that bin Laden and [senior Al Qaeda leader] Ayman al-] Zawahiri were in Afghanistan, probably in the eastern areas, hiding out there. ... We actually, I'm convinced, wounded him. He was there at Tora Bora; I don't think there's any question now that bin Laden was at Tora Bora, was wounded in some way, something to his left side, but was well enough to be able to walk out and go through the Afghan troops that we had hired to close those passes into Pakistan and escape.
What happened with the border closing and the 10th Mountain Division?
My opinion -- and I don't know if Gen. Franks has a different version -- but we didn't have, I don't think, enough conventional military forces on the ground at the time to surround the battlefield. We could come from the north, west and south, but we couldn't block the east. It's rugged, rugged terrain, and we didn't have enough U.S. troops.
What we ended up doing was to hire Afghan tribal leaders in that area. It's a very strong area for Taliban support, though, ... and also a great deal of support for bin Laden. ... And so as we began to close in, these guys just opened up the doors and let Al Qaeda and a lot of the Taliban senior guys drift across back into Pakistan. ...
How did you hear that bin Laden had escaped?
A tape came out that was released toward the end of December. ... The CIA confirmed that it was him and, from other things that he said, that it was post-Tora Bora.
How did you feel personally?
I had enough knowledge of Pakistan to realize that the tribal areas along the Pak-Afghan border, the tribal areas inside of Pakistan, are not ruled by the government of Pakistan. ... I knew that if bin Laden was smart, he would hide in those tribal areas, where he would have some emotional support for him, because he's a hero to many of those kind of people there. ...
Secondly, he has enough money to buy loyalty or rent loyalty there. ... I think that's exactly what happened: It took him a while, but ... he's got himself something that's probably fairly comfortable. And he's protected; he doesn't move around a lot.
Who do you blame?
I have to blame the Pakistani government, Gen. [Pervez] Musharraf. I think he's been cooperative with the U.S. and with CIA in the war on terror to an incredible degree, ... but when it comes to working in those tribal areas, it's incredibly difficult, and he just isn't willing to step up to the political danger that he would face should he do that. ... He's between a rock and a hard place. But if you have to say, "Who is responsible for our not having Osama now?," I would say it's Gen. Musharraf.
In your experience, was what happened in Afghanistan ... the high point of your experience with the CIA, in terms of the CIA as an institution?
I think you're absolutely right. What happened there in those last few months of 2001 to me was a validation of what the agency could be and should be. We were ready; we had established contacts long before anybody thought we'd needed them; ... we had the means in the area to allow us to infiltrate into the hostile territory to meet with colleagues there who were besieged. We had the area knowledge; we had language skills. We did it right. We did it cheap. ... We probably, in my little operation in the Panjshir Valley, spent about $6 million during that period, and we ended up freeing the northern half of the country for probably $10 million total, and no loss of American life, except for [former Marine and CIA agent] Mike Spann, unfortunately. ...
It made me very proud to be a member of the CIA. It was the highlight of my career to watch the organization come together and do the job that it did.
George Tenet probably should have left right then.
Probably should have, yes, and written his book, yeah -- (laughs) -- instead of delaying, because now it will have to be a defense of himself, probably, after the Jim Risen book [State of War].
What's the next thing that happens?
I don't know. There was talk early on of him having political ambitions in New York state, maybe run for Congress or something, but I don't know now. ... With his image being tarnished so badly, I have no idea what he'll do. I don't even know what he's doing now, very honestly. I know he was going to write a book, and he had an offer and turned it down. So I don't know what he's going to do.
I like him. I hope he lands on his feet. He got sucked up into a situation within that administration, got in over his head. ...
The idea that some people, almost right away on the 11th, are saying: "Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein; a state sponsor, World Trade Center '93." Did Saddam, [with a] question mark, pass through your consciousness on the 11th?
No. Having looked at the intelligence that was being produced, there seemed to me to be no link at all between Saddam and Al Qaeda or bin Laden. Saddam was one of the people that bin Laden would hate, just sort of instinctively: a secular dictator punishing the people, crushing Islam in his country. The fact that there might have been some discussions with Al Qaeda operatives and Iraqi intelligence, it would be common for that part of the world, especially if the focus was more on the Palestinian issue and all. ...
When I came back and heard that Iraq was being mentioned in the earliest moments after 9/11 as what we should attack, I thought, "Oh, my God. That can't be true. Clearly bin Laden and his guys are sitting in Afghanistan; that's where we've got to go. Don't mess with Iraq; this has nothing to do with them." ... Everybody standing around, as I said, said, "It's the attack bin Laden and the al-Qaeda have been promising. This is it." We didn't have to look for-- there was no Saddam Hussein's hand that we could ever see.
And the years that you spent in Islamabad, ... you're not seeing Saddam connections? You're not hearing about [9/11 hijacker Mohamed] Atta meeting in Prague or anything?
Well, no. But two years after that, from '99 until I retired, I was the deputy chief of the Near East Division, and so ... I read massive amounts of stuff every day coming in from all over the Middle East. Again, there was the fact that Saddam represented everything in the Arab world that bin Laden hates. It just never occurred to me that there would be any real link there between the two.
When do you know, Gary, that gun sights are turned to Saddam Hussein?
I think by March of 2002. You could see changes being made in the staffing -- U.S. military staffing -- in Afghanistan, that the Green Beret units, the special forces group for the most of it were being pulled out to refit and get ready for Iraq. ... So we began to have some difficulty staffing Afghanistan on our side, and it was clear that the kind of guys that I think a lot of us believed were essential -- U.S. military personnel with special operations capabilities -- were being pulled away. So it was as early as March, April, of 2002.
Did it feel like it was slipping away -- like Afghanistan, and even the war on terror?
Well, we had this remnant of the Al Qaeda, the most senior leaders still there, still active. At that point, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed hadn't been captured, the guy who actually masterminded 9/11. The business hasn't been finished yet. ... I can remember trying to take issues about Afghanistan to the NSC during 2002 and early 2003 and being told: "It's off the agenda for today. Iraq is taking the whole agenda." Things that we desperately needed to do for Afghanistan were just simply pushed aside by concerns over in Iraq. There just wasn't the time. ...
[And] inside the CIA?
To some extent, yes. ...
Cofer moved on by mid-2002. He became an ambassador for counterterrorism over at State for a year, and he retired from there.
I think it's as early as Sept. 21 that the CIA, in writing, tells the administration, "There's no connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein." And yet the CIA gets involved in the weapons-of-mass-destruction arguments. How does it feel inside the agency when that shift is happening?
A lot of people [who] were assigned to the Iraqi task force took the job reluctantly; they're ordered to do something, and it wasn't an illegal order. The administration was interested in Iraq, and Saddam posed a potential threat to the United States. ... It was clear that this administration was going to push the issue of Iraq to the limit, so [the thinking was], join in and do it willingly and try to give them the best information possible so they can make the right decisions, and soldier on. ...
[Former CIA analyst] Paul Pillar said the politicization of the process was really horrible.
I had very little knowledge of Iraq. I had purposely stayed away from it.
I didn't want to get involved. I thought it was just the wrong thing to do. I could contribute to Afghanistan, but I had nothing about Iraq.
On the 16th of September, 2001, the vice president goes on television, on Meet the Press, and says: "The American people are going to need to understand, we're going to have to go to the dark side. A lot of things they're not going to know about, a lot of things they're not going to want to know about, but we're going to have to do it." ... What do you think he means by that, or meant by that, anyway?
My impression at the time was that the administration was trying to send a message, and certainly CIA leadership was trying to send a message, that the gloves were off. ... I think what the vice president was probably saying was, we're going to do things like assassination operations; we were going to go into places and not try to capture these guys, but just kill them, and that ... there would be a lot of people who would object to those kind of tactics.
Do you know, from the position you had, that we had done that?
I honestly don't know of any assassination operations that we specifically have run there. ... But have we killed terrorists using Predator [unmanned] aircraft to spot them and bring in U.S. military? Oh, absolutely. It's a war, and you see the enemy leadership meeting for a meeting, you go in and bomb it.
But the kind of thing like out of the movies -- or the movie Munich -- where the guys go out and take revenge, I have no knowledge that anything like that has ever happened.
You think it could?
I think it could. Certainly renditions have been discussed. I don't have any direct knowledge [that] the U.S., CIA or whatever has conducted renditions where they've kidnapped people off the street. But if there's any validity to those claims, certainly assassination could have been attempted. ... We would have that capability, if we decided to go there.
And other "dark side" operations -- extraordinary renditions and other things -- were you aware of those things from what you were doing?
I knew that we were rounding up people in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the victory. When the south broke, we were looking for high-value targets and sorting through them. But I was not aware of an overall organized rendition program, if such a thing exists, because something like that clearly would have been held very, very tightly within the CIA, within the U.S. government. Same as some of the other issues that have come up recently: domestic wiretapping, surveillance. Those kind of things are very, very tightly held.
[What about this issue of treatment of prisoners?]
It's a question I thought about a lot. ... I don't remember a debate on holding prisoners or how they should be treated. ... Our allies were capturing hundreds of Taliban and foreign fighters. ... We began first to count on the Afghans to hold these guys, and that became too much of a challenge. There were a couple of cases where there were claims of mistreatment [of] prisoners. ...
I think we kind of evolved into setting it up where we could ensure that the treatment was better. How that evolved after that initial start, and to what people say might be abuse of prisoners, of their human rights, I don't know. ...
Sitting in your house on the night of 9/11, is one of the things that crosses your mind, Gary, that the CIA is going to be blamed by some for 9/11 --"the greatest intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor"?
Having been inside the CIA during the run-up to 9/11, there was a steady drumbeat of reporting that was coming out of CTC and the UBL shop ... that said: "There will be a major attack in the United States by the Al Qaeda. We don't know what it is, but we know from everything that we're picking up that they're planning something big and spectacular." ... I felt that we had done a reasonable job in sounding the alarm. ...
But we didn't do enough. We didn't penetrate bin Laden's inner circle; we still haven't. ... So yeah, there was a failure. If all the government agencies that are involved in collecting intelligence and analyzing it had been working in a coordinated manner, maybe we would have gotten a better handle on what was going on. We certainly understood that bin Laden was a threat, but I don't think we had any idea that something that massive, where you could hijack four aircraft in one day, that that could have happened.
[What are your thoughts on Tenet's resignation?]
I think Tenet was a good soldier and stepped forward. ... End result is that you've got new leadership in the CIA now. Of course, the CIA director's job has been downgraded from director of central intelligence to director of the Central Intelligence Agency. There have been some organization changes, ... apparently all in an effort to try to improve the collection and analysis of information. ... It's another one of those cyclical things where what we did in Afghanistan has been sort of put back; ... it's a period where the agency's regrouping and recouping. We'll see what happens.
It's amazing, though, how quickly it went from hero to goat or whatever in the public perception post-Afghanistan.
Well, it was, yes. Personally, this whole Iraq thing, it just sucked us into this vortex. We're in a giant whirlpool which you can hardly get out of. It's just such a shame, such a mistake.
When you heard that Rumsfeld was setting up a separate intelligence shop, what did you think of that?
The U.S. military has had intelligence collection shops; frankly, I don't think that they've ever gotten it right. For Rumsfeld to think that he's going to train some special forces operators in a few weeks or a couple of months and then send them out into countries where they're going to be able to perform efficiently I think is just a pipe dream.
It takes years to get CIA officers to where they're up and fully running, and that's all we do is concentrate on intelligence. ... So I think it's another overreach by Rumsfeld. It's not going to have anything but bad consequences overseas.