CAMPAIGN AGAINST TERROR
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interview: reuel gerecht

[After September 11,] when did you start thinking 'Hey, this might have been [bin Laden or Al Qaeda?']

Immediately. If, once you'd concluded that it's terrorism, the odds of it being Middle Eastern terrorism are extremely high. And if its Middle Eastern terrorism, based on the track record of [Al Qaeda] it was almost a certainty that it was them.

Why?

Well, because the other terrorists supporting states in the Middle East have not engaged in that type of action. It was obvious that it would be a suicidal action, and a telltale sign of Al Qaeda is the holy warrior, suicidal mission. ...

How much information, to your knowledge, did the U.S. have about the possibility of bin Laden doing it?

Well, I think the U.S. intelligence community had broad brush-strokes. Obviously they knew he was there, obviously they knew there were training camps. I think they had some knowledge of the networks. Certainly the individuals that had been arrested after the bombings of the embassies in Africa gave them, for the very first time, sort of a concrete picture of the Al Qaeda apparatus. But so far as having any type of sources in the inner circle, it was pretty obvious that they didn't then and they don't now.

Currently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Gerecht is a former CIA agent who worked in the Middle East for many years. He believes that U.S. intelligence was unprepared for paramilitary operations in Afghanistan after September 11. He told FRONTLINE, "The Central Intelligence Agency simply isn't structured to conduct operations against any type of Islamic terrorism." This interview was conducted on June 19, 2002.

Why didn't they then?

Well, that's a very short question with a very long answer. The Central Intelligence Agency simply isn't structured to conduct operations against any type of Islamic terrorism. The Agency still operates with more or less the same structure as when it came into being in 1947 ...

There are essentially two types of officers in the clandestine service, whom... you would call 'operatives'. There are those who are 'inside officers' and those are individuals who serve with official cover, be it diplomatic or military or something else. They represent the vast majority of officers inside of the clandestine service.

Then you have those who are 'non official officers', which are known under the acronym of NOCs. They tend to be, again they are an outgrowth of the Cold War, and they tend to serve in positions that would seem appropriate if you were in Europe_false businessmen, that type of thing. [But] none of these individuals are likely to run into people who would be a part of the Al Qaeda network, either in the Middle East and certainly not in Afghanistan. ...

If you are operating outside of a U.S. official facility, an embassy or a consulate, everybody's going to know who you are right away. ... [But] I think it is possible for Americans to work against Al Qaeda, Americans who look like white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. John Walker Lindh is a good example. The institution should have tried it a long time ago. It should have tried to send a variety of folks into Al Qaeda. People tend to forget that Al Qaeda is, by definition, an ecumenical organization.

If you look at the individuals who have been arrested, the people we know who were part of Al Qaeda, they don't match one particular ethnic group. They don't come from the same family. They are not like the Iraqi or Iranian or Syrian intelligence services or the Hezbollah, which are very closed systems. Al Qaeda is, by definition, a very open one. Now that doesn't make it easy, but at least it gives an intelligence service the possibility to insert people. But you have to want to do it. You have to be cognizant and you're going to have to try. You can't do these things quickly. In intelligence you really can't be a quick study. It takes time, and you can't make up for lost time very quickly.

They didn't have anybody working out there?

No, of course not. Not at all. The Agency in the field of counterterrorism, and almost every other domain of intelligence, has never really thought about that type of an offensive operation. It's very much a reactive institution. ... Recruitments are something that usually take place in a fairly civilized setting, diplomatic cocktails, etc. The Agency has, to my knowledge, never seriously tried in any area of counterterrorism, whether it's Al Qaeda, or the Iranians or the Syrians or anyone else, it has never tried to develop techniques and tactics of insertion....

The Central Intelligence Agency is no different from any other branch of the American government, the American society as a whole. I think it is fair to say that American society has become quite risk averse. The same society that gives you sponge rubber on kids' playgrounds is also a society that gives you defense and intelligence bureaucracies which are very hesitant to put people into harm's way.

Let's talk about the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud. Do you want to connect that, can you connect that to 9/11?

[At the time of his assassination Massoud was leading the Northern Alliance], the only force left in Afghanistan that opposed the Taliban. He had repeatedly defeated the Taliban's attempts to take the northeastern corner of Afghanistan, in particular the Panjshir Valley. ... Bin Laden's forces had been on the front line with the Taliban for at least three or four years.

When I saw Massoud in 1999, we were having discussions on the contribution of Osama bin Laden. He estimated that upwards of seven hundred men were coming from bin Laden's organization, or at least were Arab-Afghans on the front line against them. Now, that's a fairly significant number since a big battle in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance would be two thousand men, so his contribution was not insignificant.

I think there was a fairly well organized plot and they planned that as a part of the September 11th attack. The objective was to gut the internal opposition to the Taliban, to eliminate it, perhaps in anticipation of an American reaction or perhaps simply as a, what you might say a gift, to Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban.

The two events were thereby connected?

Oh, no doubt about it. No doubt about it. We know from the planning for the assassination against Massoud that planning went on months in advance, the case was the same for 9/11. So, it's very clear that Al Qaeda, that Osama bin Laden, had the two together in his mind and were operating in conjunction.

How closely had America worked with Massoud?

Not much. There's a good deal of myth out there about that. The Agency has given out a story before ... suggesting that there was a fairly aggressive plan from 1988 forward. I've spoken to Afghans, I've spoken to Massoud and to former colleagues who are still in the Agency, on what was really going on there and very little was going on.

There was some increased contact but, for the most part, agency officers didn't like going into Northern Afghanistan. They rarely went there. There were certain joint programs that were beginning to happen, but for the most part the Afghans themselves didn't take them very seriously. There was not a serious exchange of weapons, there was no promise of serious support, there was some technical assistance given. But for the most part, if one wanted to summarize it, the Americans would fly on occasion into the Panjshir Valley, say "Pretty pretty please, tell us everything you know about Osama Bin Laden. Could you please do it in English? And could you please do it quickly so we don't have to stay here overnight?" Then they'd fly out.

Why didn't they like going in?

It's uncomfortable; it's perhaps a little dangerous. They just didn't. There's sensitivity in the U.S. government about having too much connection with Massoud. The State Department had never met him inside of Afghanistan. They did not want to send a signal that the United States was aligning itself in any way, shape, or form with Massoud. There were contacts outside of Afghanistan, Central Asia. Those contacts were always discreet. They never wanted to make them public. ...

Right after 9/11, what was your understanding of what action was going on and how that was planned?

Well, I can't really talk that much about the details of that plan, what really came about. I think it is fair to say that the Agency operations in Afghanistan after 9/11 took some time to develop. Certainly the Pentagon was not terribly impressed with the paramilitary operations that the Agency was engaging in, and that's not surprising.

The Agency paramilitary officers do not really train for serious military coordination with the U.S. Armed Forces, which is why you see the proper paramilitary forces of the Special Forces from the U.S. military very quickly take a greater and greater role in coordinating targeting. They are designed, they are trained, to do that. CIA paramilitary officers are not. ... There was an understanding in the beginning, I think on the part of the Pentagon, that perhaps the Agency paramilitary forces would 'quote', "know the terrain and know the people better." That wasn't true, and I think the Pentagon discovered that the cultural knowledge, the on-the-ground knowledge, on the part of the Agency forces was no better than their own.

You mentioned that [there was] some legal situation in the CIA and the Pentagon, about the nature of [the Northern Alliance]. What was that?

There was a problem during the first stages of the war. Because the Northern Alliance was not a recognized government, according to U.S. law, the Pentagon cannot deliver military supplies directly to an unrecognized ... governing sovereign authorities. The Agency can. So, you had a situation that was time consuming, if not amusing, where Pentagon and Agency lawyers had to coordinate on how to most effectively legally transfer hardware from the Pentagon to the Agencies, so that material could be transferred to the Northern Alliance.

So, when the U.S. began to engage with forces there, was it an aggressive engagement right away? Or how did it develop?

I think it developed fairly slowly. I'm not sure if you go back and look at it, I think it is fairly clear the U.S. government really didn't have a precise strategy on how it was going to proceed. If you go back and listen to the spokesman from the Pentagon, they're talking about the campaign going on in the winter. Concerning Kabul, [linkto chron] there's great resistance on whether they want the Northern Alliance to take it. The supplies are coming in very slowly. Part of that has to do with the logistical issues that I just mentioned between the Agency and the Pentagon. But part of it unquestionably also had to do with America's military policy and, larger than that, its strategic policy in Afghanistan. It really didn't come into shape from the very beginning. Our Afghan war was a work in progress. And that's understandable.

When the U.S. did engage in [partnering with] different Afghan factional leaders, how did they decide who to work with?

In the beginning it was fairly easy, in that, the only people to work with were the Northern Alliance, who are preeminently, primarily Tajiks, not exclusively so, but overwhelmingly so ... As the war moved on and it became possible to deal with others. I mean Karzai is one of them you could start working with. Pashtuns were the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan, Uzbeks, and others. But for the most part, in the beginning, it was strictly with the Northern Alliance, with the Tajiks because no one really likes to say these things, but the Pashtuns were the Taliban. So it was very difficult to work with effective Pashtun forces because most of them were siding with the Taliban. Once it became clear how serious the United States was, and people inside of Afghanistan could see clearly, the Taliban were numbered and people started changing sides. It became much easier to find Pashtuns with whom to work. ...

Hamid Karzai was he on the radar screen before 9/11.

I know the United States government was aware of him ... but I don't think the attention to him was in any way terribly serious. I don't think, before 9/11, that the American attention to Afghanistan was really terribly energetic. ... I think there's a certain retrospective embellishment of what the United States government was doing in Afghanistan before 9/11. This is certainly true with the Central Intelligence Agency. It wants to give the impression, quite understandably, that it was energetically engaged in trying to build up opposition to the Taliban and trying to find ways to get to bin Laden and trying to find ways to develop intelligence on him. But again, I think the truth be told that until 9/11 the U.S. government was not spending much of its time, much of its energies, on trying to be serious about countering the Taliban and countering the inside of the country.

So jump forward, after 9/11, when the engagement began. You know we've all heard the incredible stories about the Special Forces guys and all that. Can you tell us in general terms, these guys usually (or always) have C.I.A. military operatives with them, but can you give a fuller picture of what was going on?

... Well, there were unquestionably C.I.A. paramilitary forces there. We know that without a shadow of a fact. The Afghans would talk about it; they have no hesitation of talking about it. Their primary mission there is two-fold. It's to coordinate and it's to gather intelligence. Tactical military intelligence. That is the same role, to a great extent, of the Special Forces there too. It's natural you would have both because the Pentagon, which did not believe that the Agency effort in the beginning was as good as it should have been, and wanted to put more of its own to the ground. But that still wouldn't in any way prevent cooperation and coordination between the two of them.

And why didn't they think that the Agency as could as it could have been at the beginning.

The initial view was, from what I gather, that the Pentagon folks had hoped, were encouraged, to believe that the Agency paramilitary officers would have more on the ground knowledge. That they would be more culturally adept, or linguistically adept, etc. I believe that the Pentagon discovered that that was not true. That's not to say the Agency paramilitary officers weren't competent, but they did not have that operational edge that made them better than the Pentagon Special Forces who, by their very nature and training, knew a hell of a lot more about tactical coordination, with American air units and such things.

And as the war was happening very quickly, who was sort of taking the lead on the ground, Special Forces units or the Agency guys?

It's my understanding that on the ground the military force was always the Pentagon. When war starts it is always the Pentagon that has control over such operations. Now the Agency had its own independent existence, and with the use of Predator aircraft, it had also some independence. But as the war developed, I think it's beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Pentagon was the overwhelming player on the ground. ...

You said that in the early days engagement began more slowly, then suddenly it sped up very quickly. What happened? Was that part of the plan? Or it just kind of happened? It was overtaken by events?

I think that the pivotal event was that U.S. airpower began to effectively coordinate with the Northern Alliance. Once the airpower was applied effectively, the Taliban's lines crashed. That was a foregone conclusion. I don't know why anyone thought the Taliban were going to hold out for any length of time whatsoever. They were hardly a disciplined military force. ...

[Do you think there should have been] a lot more U.S. troops on the ground [in Afghanistan] from the beginning?

Yeah, I think there was a conscious decision on the part of the Pentagon to keep the numbers of U.S. armed forces down. I think the military brass really didn't want to put that many American men into harm's way. ... We should have had armed forces in Kandahar within a week after we decided to go to war. We could have militarily handled it. It was an open plain to the south. You could establish a beachhead there, as we did fairly simply. Helicopter, gun ships, and aircraft should have, could have, guaranteed security. You could have reigned the town.

The objective was to bring down the Taliban as quickly as possible, to stop Mullah Omar from getting out, and to find as many people as possible, and kill as many people as possible, within the Taliban and Al Qaeda's inner circles. As we've seen, a lot of the people have been able to flee, either into Pakistan, Kashmir, or Iran. There's no guarantee that we could have stopped that. But if we'd had more American armed forces on the ground. If we had not relied on Afghan surrogates as much as we did, [it did not] prove as nearly as effective as I think the Pentagon actually thought they might be. We could have caught more people and perhaps, who knows, have caught the major fish_or killed him.

Balancing that was part of the concern that you want to let the Afghans do it themselves, or appear to be doing it themselves.

No, I think the real concern with the U.S military is that they were trying to keep the number of armed forces down and make it a Special Forces campaign. Again, tactically one can understand why they did that. Strategically I think it's a bad idea. I think that there should have been more forces engaged earlier, and you would have had a better chance of catching, or killing, the people that we wanted.

But that would have meant more U.S. casualties.

Sure. I think would have meant more U.S. casualties.

And, so, playing the devil's advocate, it worked. Al Qaeda was dismantled, so we hear, in Afghanistan.

I think one of the reasons you need, casualties should not in any way have deterred us. That part of the problem with bin Laden isn't really what this is about, and what fighting bin Ladenism is about. It is reversing the perception in the Middle East, that bin Laden underscored with great eloquence, that since a bombing in Beirut in 1983, the United States has been running.

It's scared to fight, scared to fight in Beirut, scared to fight in Mogadishu, and scared of fighting in Iraq. U.S. government needs to ensure that under all circumstances, that perception is eliminated. One of the ways you do that, the most effective way you do that, is to strengthen, to demonstrate that we will put our armed forces in harm's way. ...

Was that perception correct?

Oh yes. I think bin Laden's analysis of U.S. resolve was correct. We ran. ...

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