The Magazine

The CIA Examines Itself

The results aren't pretty.

Sep 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 01 • By GABRIEL SCHOENFELD
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Who is to blame for the intelligence disaster of September 11? The sixth anniversary of the attacks is upon us, and the finger-pointing continues unabated. Last month the CIA reluctantly made public a summary of a 2005 report prepared by its Office of Inspector General (OIG) undertaken to determine if any agency employees "should be held accountable" for failing to forestall the worst attack on our homeland in our history. Among others, the report harshly judges the performance of former CIA director George Tenet, and the media have understandably focused on that. But how do other lower-level CIA officers come out? That is a question about which the press has been remarkably incurious.

One important figure is Michael Scheuer, who served as chief of the Osama bin Laden unit, or the "UBL Station" as it was called, within the CIA's Counterterrorism Center (CTC) from 1996 to 1999 and then assumed other related positions until his resignation from the agency in 2004. Since leaving the CIA, Scheuer has become one of the nation's most visible counterterrorism experts. He has served as an on-air "consultant" to both CBS and ABC News, is sought after for comment by leading journalists, and teaches a course on terrorism at Georgetown University.

He has also been caught up in controversy, asserting for example that Israel has been conducting clandestine operations to influence American politics. Pressed to provide an example, he has cited, bizarrely, the establishment of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on the National Mall. So high-profile has Scheuer become that even Osama bin Laden has been taking note. In his newly released video, the leader of al Qaeda singles Scheuer out as one of two writers--the other is Noam Chomsky--worth reading about world and Islamic affairs.

Given the brightening spotlight under which Scheuer has been dwelling, the question of how he fares in the OIG report is all the more interesting. But the answer is a minor mystery. All names have been omitted from the summary made available to the public. Because Scheuer was running the UBL Station for only a portion of the period under review, it is not clear at every juncture whether its findings apply to Scheuer or to his successor. But some clearly do pertain to him.

Before entering into particulars, one needs to understand something about the place of counterterrorism at the CIA in the years in which Scheuer was running the UBL Station. As one of the more devastating passages in the OIG report makes plain, even after the al Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and Tenet's declaration that "he wanted no resources spared" in the battle against Osama bin Laden and that "we were at war," the CIA director was diverting resources away from counterterrorism to pay for unrelated programs.

Although such skewed budgeting sheds no direct light on Scheuer's performance, the scant attention paid to counterterrorism suggests that the UBL Station, a sub-unit of the counterterrorism department, was a bureaucratic backwater. Unsurprisingly, therefore, as the report subsequently makes plain, it was not staffed with the CIA's savviest spies. Indeed, the OIG report states bluntly that "most of its officers did not have the operational experience, expertise, and training necessary to accomplish their mission in an effective manner."

Is that scathing assessment in any way connected to the mismatch between Scheuer's mission and his academic career? In 1986, Scheuer earned a Ph.D. from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. This school has earned an international reputation in the field of grain-storage technology, but it is not exactly known for its contribution to the study of foreign policy. In any event, given the wholly irrelevant nature of Scheuer's doctoral research--his dissertation traced the comings and goings of an obscure Canadian diplomat in the years before World War II--assigning him to run the bin Laden section was of a piece with, indeed, can be taken as a symbol of, the entrenched neglect of Islamic terrorism within the agency.

If training was not up to par in the UBL unit, neither was management. For one thing, the section had "detailees" from other government agencies on its staff. These employees were left in the dark about "the nature of their responsibilities," especially regarding the crucial task of regularly conveying information to their parent bodies. The unambiguous implication is that important counterterrorism leads never made it to organizations that were in a position to act on them, including, most critically, the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the State Department. Why not? Who was in charge?