Wednesday, September 15, 2004

C.I.A. Unit on bin Laden Is Understaffed, a Senior Official Tells Lawmakers

NY Times
September 15, 2004
C.I.A. Unit on bin Laden Is Understaffed, a Senior Official Tells Lawmakers

WASHINGTON, Sept. 14 - Three years after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency has fewer experienced case officers assigned to its headquarters unit dealing with Osama bin Laden than it did at the time of the attacks, despite repeated pleas from the unit's leaders for reinforcements, a senior C.I.A. officer with extensive counterterrorism experience has told Congress.

The bin Laden unit is stretched so thin that it relies on inexperienced officers rotated in and out every 60 to 90 days, and they leave before they know enough to be able to perform any meaningful work, according to a letter the C.I.A. officer has written to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

"There has been no systematic effort to groom Al Qaeda expertise" among C.I.A. officers since Sept. 11, 2001, according to the letter, written by Michael F. Scheuer, the former chief of the agency's bin Laden unit and the author of a best-selling book that is critical of the Bush administration's handling of the war on terror.

Excerpts from Mr. Scheuer's letter were read publicly by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, on Tuesday at a Senate hearing on the confirmation of Porter J. Goss as director of central intelligence. Congressional officials later provided a copy of the letter to The New York Times.

A senior intelligence official who asked not to be identified strenuously disputed Mr. Scheuer's criticism about the resources assigned to the war against Al Qaeda. "The assertions are off the mark," the official said. "There are far more D.O. officers working against the Al Qaeda target both at C.I.A. headquarters and overseas than there were before Sept. 11," the official said, using the abbreviation for the Directorate of Operations, the C.I.A.'s clandestine arm. "Our knowledge of and substantive expertise on Al Qaeda has increased enormously since 9/11. The overall size of the counterterrorism center has more than doubled, and its analytic capabilities have increased dramatically."

In his letter, Mr. Scheuer also described instances in the years before the Sept. 11 attacks in which he said the agency's leadership failed to act decisively in order to target Al Qaeda. "The pattern of decision making I have witnessed," he wrote, "seems to indicate a want of moral courage, an overwhelming concern for career advancement, or an abject inability to distinguish right from wrong."

The intelligence official said Mr. Scheuer had made many of the same claims to independent investigators who had reviewed the C.I.A.'s performance before Sept. 11.

In his letter, Mr. Scheuer the United States had many more opportunities to kill or capture Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks than have ever been made public.

From May 1998 to May 1999, Mr. Scheuer's wrote, "The C.I.A. officers working bin Laden at headquarters and in the field gave the U.S. government about 10 chances to capture bin Laden or kill him with military means. In all instances, the decision was made that the 'intelligence was not good enough.' "

Mr. Scheuer, a 22-year veteran of the C.I.A., served as the first chief of the agency's bin Laden unit from 1996 until 1999.

This year, with the publication of his book, "Imperial Hubris," which he wrote under the name Anonymous, Mr. Scheuer has become the C.I.A.'s leading in-house critic. After he granted news media interviews following the book's publication, the C.I.A. curbed his access to the press. He initially wrote the latest letter in May as an op-ed article. The C.I.A. refused to clear it for publication, but allowed him to send it as a letter to the Congressional oversight committees.

In the letter, Mr. Scheuer provides a number of new details about the history of the C.I.A.'s counterterrorism operations before Sept. 11. For example, he said that the C.I.A.'s bin Laden unit was ordered to be disbanded in the spring of 1998, and that its operations were about to be folded into a small branch office when the C.I.A. director, George J. Tenet, found out about the proposed move. Mr. Tenet reversed the decision just before the August 1998 attacks on two American embassies in East Africa by Al Qaeda. Mr. Scheuer also said that in 1996, the C.I.A.'s bin Laden unit obtained detailed information about Al Qaeda's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. He said that an intelligence report on the matter was initially suppressed within the C.I.A., and was later distributed in an abbreviated form.

"Three officers of the agency's bin Laden cadre protested this decision in writing, and forced an internal review," Mr. Scheuer wrote. "It was only after this review that this report was provided in full to community leaders, analysts and policy makers."