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Former CIA targeting officer talks about post-9/11 hunt for terrorists

In the tumultuous months following the 9/11 attacks, as scores of U.S. intelligence analysts and operations officers were enlisted in determining whether there was any connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda, former CIA analyst and targeting officer Nada Bakos recalled the mounting pressure for answers that came from certain corners of the George W. Bush administration.  

"[T]he issue of whether or not Iraq was connected to Al Qaeda, the implication -- from some members of the White House, and some members of [the Department of Defense] -- is that there was some kind of connection," Bakos said.

But she continued, "The ultimate conclusion was that there was not a link, to put it plainly. We couldn't find substantial evidence that Saddam had ever really worked with al-Qaeda. And there was no link between Iraq and 9/11."

In an interview with Intelligence Matters host and CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell, Bakos, who has just published an account of her time at the CIA called, "The Targeter: My Life in the CIA, Hunting Terrorists and Challenging the White House," described her decision to complete a tour in Iraq just after the initial U.S. invasion in 2003 – as well as the uncertainty and confusion that she encountered on the ground.

"I ended up being the second person from our team that went to Iraq. I really didn't have any idea what to expect," she said.

Having first joined the CIA's Human Resources department before transitioning to become an analyst, Bakos was tasked with continuing to hunt for evidence of connections between Iraq and 9/11, principally by interviewing detainees who were in military custody.

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She was in particular pursuit of information about a formerly low-level jihadist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who in would go on to swear fealty to al-Qaeda in 2004 and found a group called al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI ultimately became the precursor organization for ISIS.

"Some of these guys were arrested because they were suspected to be what we were terming 'insurgents,' Bakos said of the detainees. "And some of these guys, it was suspected, could be foreign fighters. And my whole interest really at the time was, were these guys working with Zarqawi? Where is he? Is he still in the country? And what is he doing at that moment?"

Zarqawi remained elusive. And a few months after returning from Iraq, Bakos, suffering from an acute sense of burnout and amid concerns that the U.S. lacked a cohesive strategy for a way forward, prepared to resign from the CIA.

"I remember having a phone call with my husband [to-be] … just relaying to him how hopeless it already started to seem," Bakos told Morell. "I was burned out, and I was really tired of answering the same question over and over and over again. That came back to me constantly, in addition to trying to keep up on the daily intelligence that was coming in, and trying to provide that information back to the policy-maker," she said.

She nonetheless agreed to stay at the CIA in a new role as a targeting officer in the agency's operations arm, working to identify or recruit potential assets to work as spies for the United States and help dismantle Zarqawi's network. 

"I felt like at least at that point, I'd be doing something, versus answering a question," Bakos said.

Bakos ultimately became the branch chief of the Zarqawi unit, telling Morell that, after joining al Qaeda, Zarqawi had escalated and expanded brutal tactics that caused "huge destruction" on the ground.

"He took violence to a whole different level," Bakos said. "He was also targeting civilians, other Muslims, lots of Shia. He was basically doing anything he wanted to just sow chaos."

The U.S. came close to capturing Zarqawi in February of 2005, after a tip came in that he would be traveling in a white pick-up truck, Bakos said. The truck wound up evading overhead surveillance by disappearing under a tree canopy and Zarqawi fled on foot, leaving behind a laptop.

"On one hand, it was fantastic we were able to get that close," Bakos recalled. "But on the other hand, to be able to be that close and not actually capture him or kill him at that point, that was incredibly frustrating."

Zarqawi was eventually killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006, months after Bakos had transitioned to another role in the CIA. She found out via a news report about his death while traveling with work colleagues.  

"I felt like it was a huge relief. I knew it wasn't the end of anything, necessarily, but it was a huge relief," she told Morell.

But Zarqawi had already sown the ideological seeds that would take root and radicalize Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now the leader of ISIS.

"[Zarqawi] had such a broad network," Bakos said. "And that extremist ideology we knew, from what happened with al-Qaeda, wasn't going away."

"So, while it wasn't surprising that it morphed, it was slightly surprising that it morphed in such an intense, dynamic way that it did," she said.

For much more from Michael Morell's conversation with Nada Bakos, including highlights from her new book, "The Targeter," you can read the transcript here and subscribe to "Intelligence Matters" here.

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