A new book by the senior Central Intelligence Agency officer who headed the Osama bin Laden station warns that the United States is losing the war against radical Islam and that the American invasion of Iraq has only played into the enemy’s hands.
In the book, “Imperial Hubris,” the author is identified only as “Anonymous,” but former intelligence officials have identified him as a 22-year veteran of the CIA who is still serving in a senior counterterrorism post at the agency and headed the bin Laden station from 1996 to 1999, they said.
The 309-page book, obtained by The New York Times, provides an extraordinary glimpse into a school of thought inside the CIA and includes harsh criticisms of both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
“There is not now, and never has been, a shortage of knowledge about the nature and immediacy of the bin Laden threat, but only a lack of courage to tell the truth about it fully, openly, and with disregard for the career-related consequences of truth telling,” the author writes.
“U.S. leaders refuse to accept the obvious,” the book says. “We are fighting a worldwide Islamic insurgency – not criminality or terrorism – and our policy and procedures have failed to make more than a modest dent in enemy forces.” It describes the threat as rooted in broad opposition within the Islamic world to American policies and actions there.
In the book’s preface, the author appears to direct criticism, not only at policy makers, but at his superiors within the intelligence community, including George Tenet, the director of central intelligence. Tenet fended off criticism after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks before announcing this month that he would resign July 11.
The author expresses “a pressing certainty that Al Qaeda will attack the continental United States again, that its next strike will be more damaging than that of 11 September 2001, and could include use of weapons of mass destruction.”
“After the next attack,” he adds, “misled Americans and their elected representatives will rightly demand the heads of intelligence-community leaders; that heads did not roll after 11 September is perhaps our most grievous post-attack error.”
It is rare but not unknown for a CIA officer to publish a book while still serving at the agency, but highly unusual for such a book to focus on such a politically explosive topic.
Under rules imposed on all CIA employees, the book had to be cleared by the agency before it could be published, and it was apparently approved for release on condition that the author and his agency not be identified.
The book itself describes “Anonymous” only as “a senior U.S. intelligence official with nearly two decades of experience in national security issues related to Afghanistan and South Asia. It identifies a previous book, “Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America,” as having been written by the same author.
In both works, it says, “the author remains anonymous as the condition for securing his employer’s permission to publish.”
A senior intelligence official said the arrangement requiring that the author remain anonymous had been based on concern that the strong opinions expressed in the book could rebound against currently serving intelligence officers. The official said that the book had been vetted only to insure that it not include classified information. “We still have freedom of speech,” the official said. “It doesn’t mean that we endorse the book, but employees are free to express their opinions.”
In a report issued in March, the staff of the Sept. 11 commission described the bin Laden unit as a place where a “sense of alarm about bin Laden was not widely shared or understood within the intelligence and policy communities.” Another new book, “Ghost Wars,” by Steve Coll of The Washington Post, was based in part on interviews with the former station chief, who was identified only as Mike. Coll’s source was described as someone who made no secret of his frustration with what he regarded as an inadequate response to the threat posed by bin Laden and his followers.
In the book, the author denounced the American invasion of Iraq as “an avaricious, premeditated unprovoked war against a foe who posed no immediate threat,” and said it would only further fuel the anti-American sentiments on which bin Laden and his followers draw.
“There is nothing that bin Laden could have hoped for more than the American invasion and occupation of Iraq,” he writes.
In warning that the United States is losing the war on terrorism, the author cites testimony by Tenet, who warned Congress earlier this year of widening anti-American sentiment among Sunni Muslim extremists and the proliferation of destructive expertise.
The author’s assessments are blunt: “In the period since 11 September, the United States has dealt lethal blows to Al Qaeda’s leadership and – if official claims are true – have captured three thousand Al Qaeda foot soldiers.”
At the same time, he writes, “We have waged two failed half-wars and, in doing so, left Afghanistan and Iraq seething with anti-U.S. sentiment, fertile grounds for the expansion of Al Qaeda and kindred groups.”
The bin Laden station, part of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, was established in 1996 as part of an organizational experiment that marked the first time the agency had dedicated a station to an individual instead of a country. A staff report issued by the Sept. 11 commission in March, based in part on extensive interviews with the former station chief, described leaders of the station as having been deeply frustrated when a covert action plan to capture bin Laden in the spring of 1998 was not recommended by the CIA’s leadership for approval by the White House.
The station chief and other leaders were transferred from the bin Laden station in mid-1999, according to the Sept. 11 commission report, after morale within the unit sagged and President Bill Clinton was informed by his national security adviser that covert actions against bin Laden had not been fruitful.
At least one press account has described the bin Laden unit in critical terms, noting, among other things, that it was staffed largely by women. In the book, the author defends them in staunch terms, saying that “a small group of officers who have worked against the bin Laden target since 1996,” most of them women, “has provided the U.S. government with repeated opportunities to end the problem of bin Laden.” He says the group’s members “remain today the core of America’s effort” to defeat the Al Qaeda leader.