Bin Laden Expert Steps Forward

Ex-CIA Agent Assesses Terror War In <i>60 Minutes</i> Interview

One of the Central Intelligence Agency's foremost experts on Osama bin Laden has stepped out of the shadows and joined the public debate over past mistakes and future strategy in the war on terror.

Michael Scheuer is the senior intelligence analyst who created and advised a secret CIA unit for tracking and eliminating bin Laden since 1996. He's also been at the center of a battle between the CIA and the White House over Mideast policy and the war on terror.

What is new for Scheuer - who resigned from the intelligence agency on Friday after 22 years - is commenting by name. This summer, he authored a book, "Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror," under the pen name Anonymous.

The book, written with the CIA's blessing, is critical of the Bush administration's counterterrorism policy, and was viewed by some at the White House as a thinly veiled attempt by the CIA to undermine the president's reelection.

In his first television interview, Scheuer talked to Correspondent Steve Kroft about his frustrations in the war on terror and his assessment of bin Laden's plans - including the al Qaeda founder's interest in nuclear weapons.
Former CIA agent Michael Scheuer spoke to 60 Minutes in his first television interview out of the shadows.

After a 22-year career as a spy charged with keeping secrets, Scheuer decided it was more important to join the public debate on how to best attack Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

"His genius lies in his ability to isolate a few American policies that are widely hated across the Muslim world. And that growing hatred is going to yield growing violence," says Scheuer. "Our leaders continue to say that we're making strong headway against this problem. And I think we are not."

In 1996, at a time when little was known about the wealthy Saudi, other than he was suspected of financing terrorism, Scheuer was assigned to create a bin Laden desk at the CIA.

"The uniqueness of the unit was more or less that it was focused on a single individual. It was really the first time the agency had done that sort of effort," says Scheuer.

Did he try to figure out where bin Laden was? "Where he was, where his cells were, where his logistical channels were," says Scheuer. "How he communicated. Who his allies were. Who donated to them... I think it's fair to say the entire range of sources were brought to bear."

Codenamed "Alec," the unit was originally made up of about a dozen agents. And in less than a year, they discovered that bin Laden was more than some wealthy Saudi throwing his money around - and that his organization, known as al Qaeda, was not a Muslim charity.

"We had found that he and al Qaeda were involved in an extraordinarily sophisticated and professional effort to acquire weapons of mass destruction. In this case, nuclear material, so by the end of 1996, it was clear that this was an organization unlike any other one we had ever seen," says Scheuer.
Scheuer says his bosses at the CIA were initially skeptical of that information. And that was just the beginning of his frustrations.

In a letter to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees earlier this year, Scheuer says his agents provided the U.S. government with about ten opportunities to capture bin Laden before Sept. 11, and that all of them were rejected.

One of the last proposals, which he described to the 9/11 Commission in a closed-door session, involved a cruise missile attack against a remote hunting camp in the Afghan desert, where bin Laden was believed to be socializing with members of the royal family from the United Arab Emirates.

Scheuer wanted to level the entire camp. "The world is lousy with Arab princes," says Scheuer. "And if we could have got Osama bin Laden, and saved at some point down the road 3,000 American lives, a few less Arab princes would have been OK in my book."

"You couldn't have done this without killing an Arab prince," asks Kroft.

"Probably not. Sister Virginia used to say, 'You'll be known by the company you keep.' That if those princes were out there eating goat with Osama bin Laden, then maybe they were there for nefarious reasons. But nonetheless, they would have been the price of battle."

And that doesn't bother him? "Not a lick," says Scheuer.

"My understanding is you had a reputation within the CIA as being fairly obsessive about this subject," says Kroft. "I dislike obsessive," says Scheuer. "I think hard-headed about it."

Whatever you call it, in 1999, three years after he started the bin Laden unit, Scheuer's candor got him into trouble with his supervisors at the CIA. What were the circumstances under which he left the bin Laden unit?

"I think I became too insistent that we were not pursuing this target with enough vigor and with enough risk-taking - - an unwillingness to take risks," says Scheuer. "I got relieved of the position I was in. I had a lovely sojourn in the library and then had other sojourns since."

His exile ended shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, when he was brought back to the bin Laden unit as a special adviser. But by then, everything had changed.

His nemesis had gone underground, and the United States was on its way to invading Afghanistan and Iraq - creating, Scheuer says, the perception in the minds of 1.3 billion Muslims that America had gone to war against Islam.

"The war in Iraq - if Osama was a Christian - it's the Christmas present he never would have expected," says Scheuer.
Right or wrong, he says Muslims are beginning to view the United States as a colonial power with Israel as its surrogate, and with a military presence in three of the holiest places in Islam: the Arabian peninsula, Iraq, and Jerusalem. And he says it is time to review and debate American policy in the region, even our relationship with Israel.

"No one wants to abandon the Israelis. But I think the perception is, and I think it's probably an accurate perception, that the tail is leading the dog - that we are giving the Israelis carte blanche ability to exercise whatever they want to do in their area," says Scheuer. "And if that's what the American people want, then that's what the policy should be, of course. But the idea that anything in the United States is too sensitive to discuss or too dangerous to discuss is really, I think, absurd."

Is he talking about appeasement?

"I'm not talking about appeasement. There's no way out of this war at the moment," says Scheuer. "It's not a choice between war and peace. It's a choice between war and endless war. It's not appeasement. I think it's better even to call it American self-interest."

Scheuer believes that al Qaeda is no longer just a terrorist organization that can be defeated by killing or capturing its leaders. Now, he says it's a global insurgency that's spreading revolutionary fervor throughout the Muslim world.

"Bin Laden's still at large. His most recent speech, I think, demonstrates that he's not running rock to rock, cave to cave. We are tangled in a very significant Islamic insurgency in Iraq," says Scheuer.

"Most dramatically, and perhaps least noticed, is the violence inside Saudi Arabia itself. Saudi Arabia was, until just a few years ago, probably one of the most safe countries on earth. And now the paper is daily full of activities and shootouts between Islamists who supported Osama bin Laden and the government there."

But if bin Laden is much stronger than he was, why haven't there been more attacks on the United States?

"One of the great intellectual failures of the American intelligence community, and especially the counterterrorism community, is to assume if someone hasn't attacked us, it's because he can't or because we've defeated him," says Scheuer. "Bin Laden has consistently shown himself to be immune to outside pressure. When he wants to do something, he does it on his own schedule."

"You've written no one should be surprised when Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda detonate a weapon of mass destruction in the United States," says Kroft. "You believe that's going to happen?"

"I don't believe in inevitability. But I think it's pretty close to being inevitable," says Scheuer.

A nuclear weapon? "A nuclear weapon of some dimension, whether it's actually a nuclear weapon, or a dirty bomb, or some kind of radiological device," says Scheuer. "Yes, I think it's probably a near thing."

What evidence is there that bin Laden's actually working to do this? "He's told us it. Bin Laden is remarkably eager for Americans to know why he doesn't like us, what he intends to do about it and then following up and doing something about it in terms of military actions," says Scheuer. "He's told us that, 'We are going to acquire a weapon of mass destruction, and if we acquire it, we will use it.'"
After Sept. 11, Scheuer says bin Laden was criticized by Muslim clerics for launching such a serious attack without sufficient warning. That has now been given. And he says bin Laden has even obtained a fatwa, or Islamic decree, justifying a nuclear attack against the United States on religious grounds.

"He secured from a Saudi sheik named Hamid bin Fahd a rather long treatise on the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the Americans. Specifically, nuclear weapons," says Scheuer. "And the treatise found that he was perfectly within his rights to use them. Muslims argue that the United States is responsible for millions of dead Muslims around the world, so reciprocity would mean you could kill millions of Americans."

Scheuer says the fatwa was issued in May 2003, "and that's another thing that doesn't come to the attention of the American people."

Despite this threat, Scheuer insists the CIA doesn't have nearly enough trained analysts working on the Osama bin Laden unit today. At a time when Congress is considering revolutionary changes in the way the intelligence community is organized, Scheuer sees no major problems with the CIA or the product it produces.

He blames Sept. 11 on poor leadership from people like former CIA Director George Tenet, his chief deputy, Jim Pavitt, and former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, who were invited, but declined, to appear on Sunday's 60 Minutes.

"Richard Clarke has said that you're really sort of a hothead, a middle manager who really didn't go to any of the cabinet meetings in which important things were discussed, and that basically you were just uninformed," says Kroft.

"I certainly agree with the fact that I didn't go to the cabinet meetings. But I'm certainly also aware that I'm much better informed than Mr. Clarke ever was about the nature of the intelligence that was available again Osama bin Laden and which was consistently denigrated by himself and Mr. Tenet," says Scheuer.

"I think Mr. Clarke had a tendency to interfere too much with the activities of the CIA, and our leadership at the senior level let him interfere too much," says Scheuer. "So criticism from him I kind of wear as a badge of honor."

Is there anything about bin Laden that Americans don't know, but should? "Yeah, I think there is. I think our leaders over the last decade have done the American people a disservice in continuing to characterize Osama bin Laden as a thug, as a gangster, as a degenerate personality, as some kind of abhorrent individual," says Scheuer.

"He surely does reprehensible activities, and we should surely take care of that by killing him as soon as we can. But he's not an irrational man. He's a very worthy enemy. He's an enemy to worry about."

"You wrote in your book that he's a great man," says Kroft.

"Yes, certainly a man, without the connotation good or bad, he's a great man in the sense that he's influenced the course of history," says Scheuer.

Does he respect bin Laden? "Until we respect him, we are going to die in numbers that are probably unnecessary," says Scheuer.

  • Rebecca Leung

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