The CIA is squelching publication of a new book detailing events leading up to Osama bin Laden's escape from his Tora Bora mountain stronghold during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, says a former CIA officer who led much of the fighting.
In a story he says he resigned from the agency to tell, Gary Berntsen recounts the attacks he coordinated at the peak of the fighting in eastern Afghanistan in late 2001, including how U.S. commanders knew bin Laden was in the rugged mountains near the Pakistani border and the al Qaeda leader's much-discussed getaway.
Berntsen claims in a federal court lawsuit that the CIA is over-classifying his manuscript and has repeatedly missed deadlines written into its own regulations to review his book. His attorney, Roy Krieger, said he delivered papers to the U.S. District Court in Washington after hours Wednesday.
The CIA declined to comment because the suit had not yet been filed officially.
During the 2004 election, President Bush and other senior administration officials repeatedly said that commanders did not know whether bin Laden was at Tora Bora when U.S. and allied Afghan forces attacked there in 2001.
They rejected allegations by Sen. John Kerry, then the Democratic presidential nominee, that the United States had missed an opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden because they had "outsourced" the fighting to Afghan warlords.
"When I watched the presidential debates, it was clear to me ... the debate and discussions on Tora Bora were — from both sides completely incorrect," said Berntsen, who won't provide details until the agency finishes declassifying his book. "It did not represent the reality of what happened on the ground."
A Republican and avid Bush supporter, Berntsen, 48, retired in June and hasn't spoken publicly before.
His book chronicles chapters of his 23 years with the agency. Berntsen spent most of his career as a case officer in the Middle East, serving as the top U.S. intelligence official in three countries.
It covers his role handling the agency's response to al Qaeda's 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. And the book continues through late 2001 when he was assigned to command a CIA team inserted into Afghanistan, code-named "Jawbreaker" — the title of his book, tentatively due out in October.
Berntsen said the story highlights the actions of four brave Muslim American men who went with him.
It's also about decision-making: "Who stepped up, who didn't in all of this," said Berntsen, the recipient of two of the CIA's three highest medals, one for preventing Islamic extremists from assassinating the Indian prime minister in 1996.
He said he felt compelled to write his story. But he also acknowledges he retired two years early because he ruffled senior management feathers. It was clear he wouldn't get further promotions.
Krieger said his client's First Amendment rights are being violated. He's also suing under the Administrative Procedures Act, arguing that the agency has taken more than twice the 30 days allowed by regulation to review the 330-page book.
Berntsen's book is one of a handful written recently by former CIA officers who have wrestled with the agency over what could be published.