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?

Another management issue, undoubtedly complicating the UBL unit's analytical and operational tasks, was its engagement in a fierce and prolonged episode of bureaucratic friendly fire. Although details here have been heavily redacted, the report states "that UBL Station and [deleted] were hostile to each other and working at cross purposes." Although unable to assess the specific impact of this "counterproductive behavior," the OIG found that the firefight "complicated" and "delayed" certain unspecified counterterrorism efforts. If this intra-organizational warfare took place during his tenure, Scheuer must have been at its very center.

Of course, to be fair, even though the bureaucratic infighting is said to have continued "over a period of years before 9/11," it is not entirely clear if the OIG is describing a conflict that took place under Scheuer's reign or that of his successor. On the other hand, it is completely clear that while Scheuer was running the UBL Station, the unit was producing shoddy work.

As part of its mandate, the OIG assessed the quality of the CIA's counterterrorist "analytic products," that is, its studies of bin Laden and al Qaeda, in the relevant period. It found that "important elements were missing." It seems that when facts were gathered, "discussion of implications was generally weak." But facts were not always gathered. Indeed, "a number of important issues were covered insufficiently or not at all." In a conclusion unquestionably bearing on Scheuer's tenure, it found that there had been no "strategic assessment of al Qaeda by CTC or any other component" and that "no comprehensive report focusing on UBL [Osama bin Laden]" had been produced in the period running from 1993 to September 11, 2001. In other words, in 1996, after Scheuer was assigned the job of countering Osama bin Laden, he never bothered with the first and most elementary task of intelligence tradecraft: assembling and evaluating the known facts about his principal target.

All told, the lapses committed by the UBL unit were so egregious that the OIG report recommends that the CIA formally consider taking disciplinary action against the chiefs of the counterterrorism section--Scheuer's superiors--for "the manner in which they staffed the UBL component." A plausible inference, but one difficult to confirm without further declassification, is that putting and keeping the negligent Scheuer in charge was one element of their malfeasance.

If the full OIG report does indeed contain far more detailed criticism of Scheuer's performance, it would not come as a surprise. Significant questions have been raised in the past not only about Scheuer's competence as a manager and an analyst, but also about his probity.

Scheuer testified at length before the 9/11 Commission. Serious doubts have emerged about the veracity of the information he provided. Two of the 9/11 report commissioners, Jamie Gorelick and Slade Gorton, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, have described "thoroughly and exhaustively" interviewing Scheuer in the course of the commission's investigation. Their conclusion did not mince words: "On a number of factual issues, he was of real value. But much of what he had to say was not borne out by our investigation."

Scheuer's integrity is more radically called into question by his own false statements about his career, including his 2005 claim in the correspondence section of Commentary that he was awarded the CIA's Intelligence Commendation Medal in part for "supply[ing] all of the information used in the federal indictment of Osama bin Laden." Osama bin Laden was indicted in 1998. Scheuer was given his CIA medal in 1995, three years before the indictment and one year before he was assigned to the UBL Station.

On top of incompetence, such résumé embellishment does not form a pretty picture. As the prime plotter of September 11, Osama bin Laden would seem to have good reason to heap praise now on Michael Scheuer. Be that as it may, it would be wrong for us to place blame for the great intelligence failure on any one individual. The more dots one connects about the CIA, the more Scheuer appears to be a representative figure. Along with the continuing respect accorded this counterterrorism expert by the media, that is the real scandal revealed by the OIG report.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, the senior editor of Commentary, writes regularly for contentions, the magazine's blog.