Bin Laden Expert Steps Forward

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

Michael Scheuer, one of the CIA's foremost authorities on Osama bin Laden, is the senior intelligence analyst who created and then advised a secret CIA unit for tracking and eliminating bin Laden since 1996.

When Correspondent Steve Kroft first reported this story last fall, Scheuer was at the center of an ongoing battle between the CIA and the White House over Mideast policy and the war on terror.

With the CIA's blessing, Scheuer authored a highly critical book on the administration's counterterrorism policy, published under the name Anonymous, which the White House viewed as a thinly veiled attempt by the CIA to undermine the president. Through it all, Anonymous remained anonymous, until last November, when he resigned from the CIA after 22 years and revealed his identity on 60 Minutes.
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."

Code-named "Alec," the unit was originally made up of about a dozen agents.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."
  • Rebecca Leung

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