No longer will Dick Cheney have to pay visits
to Langley, Virginia and lean on CIA analysts to produce the kind of intelligence
a Veep might need; not now that the President has his man, Republican loyalist
Porter J. Goss, heading up the Agency, and a second term in hand. Of course,
the CIA was already highly politicized in the first Bush term. Run by George
Tenet (accurately dubbed "a
political apparatchik" by Toronto Sun columnist Eric Margolis), throughout
most of the last four years, it proved a servile agency despite possessing perfectly
clear-eyed analysts who knew the truth about Iraq and wanted to pass it on.
But not, it seemed, servile enough. Unhappy with the intelligence pickings
from the CIA, the Bush administration turned to its loveably, unreliable then-"friend,"
Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, for the sort of intelligence that could actually
be used to terrify a nation into war – you know, all those weapons of mass destruction
in Saddam's hands, all those ties between Saddam and al-Qaeda – and then Douglas
Feith, the number three man in the Pentagon, created the Office of Special
Plans to "search for information on Iraq's hostile intentions or links to terrorists."
It cherry-picked intelligence from Chalabi and others and passed it up the line
to those eager to speak of mushroom clouds going off over American cities.
Such a complicated process, though. Now, former Republican congressman as
well as ex-CIA agent and spy-recruiter Goss will bring no less loyal political
aides from the House and elsewhere into the Agency's leadership and so simplify
matters in a second Bush term. Already, before November 2, Goss' CIA was working
hard to suppress crucial 9/11 information, as
Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer reported. The CIA will now be
but another, ever
expanding militarized arm of an administration that will already control
Congress (hence no possibility of serious oversight over the Agency), significant
parts of our courts and justice system, a media machine, a political machine,
a religious machine, a majority of the state governments in our federalist system,
and sizable hunks of the government bureaucracy. The President, in other words,
will have his own intelligence arm and secret army at his beck and interventionist
call for the next four years, and no one around to take a peek. The ultimate
check on the administration was the electorate and it just failed. (Oh, let's
not forget that there will at least be angry CIA agents and others still stuck
in this highly politicized system, feeling betrayed, and as things begin to
go truly off the tracks, leaking like mad.)
Of course, this administration has long been intent on putting much of what
it does not only beyond all oversight, but utterly out of sight. After September
11, they put extraordinary effort and legal thought into creating an
offshore mini-gulag, beyond the courts, beyond prying eyes, a torture-system
beholden only to the President of the United States in his role as commander-in-chief.
The CIA was put in charge of the most secret aspects of this system and, as
the part of the government best tooled in the arts of offshore interrogation,
from Abu Ghraib
"ghost prison" in Jordan, they have overseen the worst parts of this black
hole of injustice.
From the penumbra of the secret world of the Bush administration and the CIA
will come future acts sure to outrage Americans. This then is a moment to return
to history and remind ourselves of exactly what mayhem and misfortune the CIA
has actually caused – us as well as the rest of the world. That makes the Chalmers
Johnson essay below on the CIA and Afghan blowback a must read. Johnson is the
author of the prophetic book Blowback,
written before 9/11, and more recently The
Sorrows of Empire, which explores our military reach in the world. This
piece has been slightly adapted from a review that originally appeared in the
London Review of Books, a lively English literary/political publication,
and that is reprinted with the Review's kind permission. Tom
Abolish the CIA!
by Chalmers Johnson
Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden, from
the Soviet Invasion to 10 September 2001, by Steve Coll, New York: Penguin,
2004, 695 pp, $29.95.
Steve Coll ends his important book on Afghanistan by quoting Afghan President
Hamid Karzai: "What an unlucky country." Americans might find this a convenient
way to ignore what their government did in Afghanistan between 1979 and the
present, but luck had nothing to do with it. Brutal, incompetent, secret operations
of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, frequently manipulated by the military
intelligence agencies of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, caused the catastrophic
devastation of this poor country. On the evidence contained in Coll's
book Ghost Wars, neither the Americans nor their victims in numerous
Muslim and Third World countries will ever know peace until the Central Intelligence
Agency has been abolished.
It should by now be generally accepted that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
on Christmas Eve 1979 was deliberately provoked by the United States. In his
memoir published in 1996, the former CIA director Robert Gates made it clear
that the American intelligence services began to aid the mujahedin guerrillas
not after the Soviet invasion, but six months before it. In an interview two
years later with Le Nouvel Observateur, President Carter's national security
adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski proudly confirmed Gates' assertion. "According to
the official version of history," Brzezinski said, "CIA aid to the mujahedin
began during 1980, that's to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan.
But the reality, kept secret until now, is completely different: on 3 July 1979
President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents
of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And on the same day, I wrote a note to the
president in which I explained that in my opinion this aid would lead to a Soviet
Asked whether he in any way regretted these actions, Brzezinski replied: "Regret
what? The secret operation was an excellent idea. It drew the Russians into
the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? On the day that the Soviets officially
crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, saying, in essence: 'We now
have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.'"
Nouvel Observateur: "And neither do you regret having supported Islamic
fundamentalism, which has given arms and advice to future terrorists?"
Brzezinski: "What is more important in world history? The Taliban or
the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of
Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?"
Even though the demise of the Soviet Union owes more to Mikhail Gorbachev
than to Afghanistan's partisans, Brzezinski certainly helped produce "agitated
Muslims," and the consequences have been obvious ever since. Carter, Brzezinski
and their successors in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, including
Gates, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard
Armitage, and Colin Powell, all bear some responsibility for the 1.8 million
Afghan casualties, 2.6 million refugees, and 10 million unexploded land-mines
that followed from their decisions. They must also share the blame for the blowback
that struck New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. After all, al-Qaeda
was an organization they helped create and arm.
A Wind Blows in from Afghanistan
The term "blowback" first appeared in a classified CIA post-action report
on the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953, carried out in the interests
of British Petroleum. In 2000, James Risen of the New York Times explained:
"When the Central Intelligence Agency helped overthrow Muhammad Mossadegh as
Iran's prime minister in 1953, ensuring another 25 years of rule for Shah Muhammad
Reza Pahlavi, the CIA was already figuring that its first effort to topple a
foreign government would not be its last. The CIA, then just six years old and
deeply committed to winning the Cold War, viewed its covert action in Iran as
a blueprint for coup plots elsewhere around the world, and so commissioned a
secret history to detail for future generations of CIA operatives how it had
been done . . . Amid the sometimes curious argot of the spy world – 'safebases'
and 'assets' and the like – the CIA warns of the possibilities of 'blowback.'
The word . . . has since come into use as shorthand for the unintended consequences
of covert operations."
"Blowback" does not refer simply to reactions to historical events but more
specifically to reactions to operations carried out by the U.S. government that
are kept secret from the American public and from most of their representatives
in Congress. This means that when civilians become victims of a retaliatory
strike, they are at first unable to put it in context or to understand the sequence
of events that led up to it. Even though the American people may not know what
has been done in their name, those on the receiving end certainly do: they include
the people of Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1959 to the present), Congo
(1960), Brazil (1964), Indonesia (1965), Vietnam (1961-73), Laos (1961-73),
Cambodia (1969-73), Greece (1967-73), Chile (1973), Afghanistan (1979 to the
present), El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua (1980s), and Iraq (1991 to the
present). Not surprisingly, sometimes these victims try to get even.
There is a direct line between the attacks on September 11, 2001 – the most
significant instance of blowback in the history of the CIA – and the events
of 1979. In that year, revolutionaries threw both the Shah and the Americans
out of Iran, and the CIA, with full presidential authority, began its largest
ever clandestine operation: the secret arming of Afghan freedom fighters to
wage a proxy war against the Soviet Union, which involved the recruitment and
training of militants from all over the Islamic world. Steve Coll's book is
a classic study of blowback and is a better, fuller reconstruction of this history
Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United
States (the "9/11 Commission Report" published by Norton in July).
From 1989 to 1992, Coll was the Washington Post's South Asia bureau
chief, based in New Delhi. Given the CIA's paranoid and often self-defeating
secrecy, what makes his book especially interesting is how he came to know what
he claims to know. He has read everything on the Afghan insurgency and the civil
wars that followed, and has been given access to the original manuscript of
Robert Gates' memoir (Gates was CIA director from 1991 to 1993), but his main
source is some two hundred interviews conducted between the autumn of 2001 and
the summer of 2003 with numerous CIA officials as well as politicians, military
officers, and spies from all the countries involved except Russia. He identifies
CIA officials only if their names have already been made public. Many of his
most important interviews were on the record and he quotes from them extensively.
Among the notable figures who agreed to be interviewed are Benazir Bhutto,
who is candid about having lied to American officials for two years about Pakistan's
aid to the Taliban, and Anthony Lake, the US national security adviser from
1993 to 1997, who lets it be known that he thought CIA director James Woolsey
was "arrogant, tin-eared and brittle." Woolsey was so disliked by Clinton that
when an apparent suicide pilot crashed a single-engine Cessna airplane on the
south lawn of the White House in 1994, jokers suggested it might be the CIA
director trying to get an appointment with the President.
Among the CIA people who talked to Coll are Gates; Woolsey; Howard Hart, Islamabad
station chief in 1981; Clair George, former head of clandestine operations;
William Piekney, Islamabad station chief from 1984 to 1986; Cofer Black, Khartoum
station chief in the mid-1990s and director of the Counterterrorist Center from
1999-2002; Fred Hitz, a former CIA Inspector General; Thomas Twetten, Deputy
Director of Operations, 1991-1993; Milton Bearden, chief of station at Islamabad,
1986 -1989; Duane R. "Dewey" Clarridge, head of the Counterterrorist Center
from 1986 to 1988; Vincent Cannistraro, an officer in the Counterterrorist Center
shortly after it was opened in 1986; and an official Coll identifies only as
"Mike," the head of the "bin Laden Unit" within the Counterterrorist Center
from 1997 to 1999, who was subsequently revealed to be Michael F. Scheuer, the
anonymous author of Imperial
Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. (See Eric Lichtblau,
CIA Officer Denounces
Agency and Sept. 11 Report)
In 1973, General Sardar Mohammed Daoud, the cousin and brother-in-law of King
Zahir Shah, overthrew the king, declared Afghanistan a republic, and instituted
a program of modernization. Zahir Shah went into exile in Rome. These developments
made possible the rise of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a pro-Soviet
communist party, which, in early 1978, with extensive help from the USSR, overthrew
President Daoud. The communists' policies of secularization in turn provoked
a violent response from devout Islamists. The anti-Communist revolt that began
at Herat in western Afghanistan in March 1979 originated in a government initiative
to teach girls to read. The fundamentalist Afghans opposed to this were supported
by a triumvirate of nations – the U.S., Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia – with quite
diverse motives, but the U.S. didn't take these differences seriously until
it was too late. By the time the Americans woke up, at the end of the 1990s,
the radical Islamist Taliban had established its government in Kabul. Recognized
only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, it granted Osama
bin Laden freedom of action and offered him protection from American efforts
to capture or kill him.
Coll concludes: "The Afghan government that the United States eventually chose
to support beginning in the late autumn of 2001 – a federation of Massoud's
organization [the Northern warlords], exiled intellectuals and royalist Pashtuns
– was available for sponsorship a decade before, but the United States could
not see a reason then to challenge the alternative, radical Islamist vision
promoted by Pakistani and Saudi intelligence . . . Indifference, lassitude,
blindness, paralysis and commercial greed too often shaped American foreign
policy in Afghanistan and South Asia during the 1990s."
Funding the Fundamentalists
The motives of the White House and the CIA were shaped by the Cold War: a
determination to kill as many Soviet soldiers as possible and the desire to
restore some aura of rugged machismo as well as credibility that U.S. leaders
feared they had lost when the Shah of Iran was overthrown. The CIA had no intricate
strategy for the war it was unleashing in Afghanistan. Howard Hart, the agency's
representative in the Pakistani capital, told Coll that he understood his orders
as: "You're a young man; here's your bag of money, go raise hell. Don't fuck
it up, just go out there and kill Soviets." These orders came from a most peculiar
American. William Casey, the CIA's director from January 1981 to January 1987,
was a Catholic Knight of Malta educated by Jesuits. Statues of the Virgin Mary
filled his mansion, called "Maryknoll," on Long Island. He attended mass daily
and urged Christianity on anyone who asked his advice. Once settled as CIA director
under Reagan, he began to funnel covert action funds through the Catholic Church
to anti-Communists in Poland and Central America, sometimes in violation of
American law. He believed fervently that by increasing the Catholic Church's
reach and power he could contain Communism's advance, or reverse it. From Casey's
convictions grew the most important U.S. foreign policies of the 1980s – support
for an international anti-Soviet crusade in Afghanistan and sponsorship of state
terrorism in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
Casey knew next to nothing about Islamic fundamentalism or the grievances
of Middle Eastern nations against Western imperialism. He saw political Islam
and the Catholic Church as natural allies in the counter-strategy of covert
action to thwart Soviet imperialism. He believed that the USSR was trying to
strike at the U.S. in Central America and in the oil-producing states of the
Middle East. He supported Islam as a counter to the Soviet Union's atheism,
and Coll suggests that he sometimes conflated lay Catholic organizations such
as Opus Dei with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian extremist organization,
of which Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant, was a passionate
member. The Muslim Brotherhood's branch in Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami, was
strongly backed by the Pakistani army, and Coll writes that Casey, more than
any other American, was responsible for welding the alliance of the CIA, Saudi
intelligence, and the army of General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan's military
dictator from 1977 to 1988. On the suggestion of the Pakistani Inter-Services
Intelligence (ISI) organization, Casey went so far as to print thousands of
copies of the Koran, which he shipped to the Afghan frontier for distribution
in Afghanistan and Soviet Uzbekistan. He also fomented, without presidential
authority, Muslim attacks inside the USSR and always held that the CIA's clandestine
officers were too timid. He preferred the type represented by his friend Oliver
Over time, Casey's position hardened into CIA dogma, which its agents, protected
by secrecy from ever having their ignorance exposed, enforced in every way they
could. The agency resolutely refused to help choose winners and losers among
the Afghan jihad's guerrilla leaders. The result, according to Coll, was that
"Zia-ul-Haq's political and religious agenda in Afghanistan gradually became
the CIA's own." In the era after Casey, some scholars, journalists, and members
of Congress questioned the agency's lavish support of the Pakistan-backed Islamist
general Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, especially after he refused to shake hands with
Ronald Reagan because he was an infidel. But Milton Bearden, the Islamabad station
chief from 1986 to 1989, and Frank Anderson, chief of the Afghan task force
at Langley, vehemently defended Hekmatyar on the grounds that "he fielded the
most effective anti-Soviet fighters."
Even after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, the CIA continued
to follow Pakistani initiatives, such as aiding Hekmatyar's successor, Mullah
Omar, leader of the Taliban. When Edmund McWilliams, the State Department's
special envoy to the Afghan resistance in 1988-89, wrote that "American authority
and billions of dollars in taxpayer funding had been hijacked at the war's end
by a ruthless anti-American cabal of Islamists and Pakistani intelligence officers
determined to impose their will on Afghanistan," CIA officials denounced him
and planted stories in the embassy that he might be homosexual or an alcoholic.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan descended into one of the most horrific civil wars of
the 20th century. The CIA never fully corrected its naive and ill-informed reading
of Afghan politics until after bin Laden bombed the US embassies in Nairobi
and Dar es Salaam on August 7, 1998.
A cooperative agreement between the U.S. and Pakistan was anything but natural
or based on mutual interests. Only two weeks after radical students seized the
American Embassy in Tehran on November 5, 1979, a similar group of Islamic radicals
burned to the ground the American Embassy in Islamabad as Zia's troops stood
idly by. But the US was willing to overlook almost anything the Pakistani dictator
did in order to keep him committed to the anti-Soviet jihad. After the Soviet
invasion, Brzezinski wrote to Carter: "This will require a review of our policy
toward Pakistan, more guarantees to it, more arms aid, and, alas, a decision
that our security policy toward Pakistan cannot be dictated by our non-proliferation
policy." History will record whether Brzezinski made an intelligent decision
in giving a green light to Pakistan's development of nuclear weapons in return
for assisting the anti-Soviet insurgency.
Pakistan's motives in Afghanistan were very different from those of the U.S.
Zia was a devout Muslim and a passionate supporter of Islamist groups in his
own country, in Afghanistan, and throughout the world. But he was not a fanatic
and had some quite practical reasons for supporting Islamic radicals in Afghanistan.
He probably would not have been included in the U.S. Embassy's annual "beard
census" of Pakistani military officers, which recorded the number of officer
graduates and serving generals who kept their beards in accordance with Islamic
traditions as an unobtrusive measure of increasing or declining religious radicalism
– Zia had only a mustache.
From the beginning, Zia demanded that all weapons and aid for the Afghans
from whatever source pass through ISI hands. The CIA was delighted to agree.
Zia feared above all that Pakistan would be squeezed between a Soviet-dominated
Afghanistan and a hostile India. He also had to guard against a Pashtun independence
movement that, if successful, would break up Pakistan. In other words, he backed
the Islamic militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan on religious grounds but was
quite prepared to use them strategically. In doing so, he laid the foundations
for Pakistan's anti-Indian insurgency in Kashmir in the 1990s.
Zia died in a mysterious plane crash on August 17, 1988, four months after
the signing of the Geneva Accords on April 14, 1988, which ratified the formal
terms of the Soviet withdrawal. As the Soviet troops departed, Hekmatyar embarked
on a clandestine plan to eliminate his rivals and establish his Islamic party,
dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, as the most powerful national force in
Afghanistan. The U.S. scarcely paid attention, but continued to support Pakistan.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the implosion of the USSR in 1991,
the U.S. lost virtually all interest in Afghanistan. Hekmatyar was never as
good as the CIA thought he was, and with the creation in 1994 of the Taliban,
both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia transferred their secret support. This new group
of jihadis proved to be the most militarily effective of the warring groups.
On September 26, 1996, the Taliban conquered Kabul. The next day they killed
the formerly Soviet-backed President Najibullah, expelled 8,000 female undergraduate
students from Kabul University, and fired a similar number of women schoolteachers.
As the mujahedin closed in on his palace, Najibullah told reporters: "If fundamentalism
comes to Afghanistan, war will continue for many years. Afghanistan will turn
into a center of world smuggling for narcotic drugs. Afghanistan will be turned
into a center for terrorism." His comments would prove all too accurate.
Pakistan's military intelligence officers hated Benazir Bhutto, Zia's elected
successor, but she, like all post-Zia heads of state, including General Pervez
Musharraf, supported the Taliban in pursuit of Zia's "dream" – a loyal, Pashtun-led
Islamist government in Kabul. Coll explains:
"Every Pakistani general, liberal or religious, believed in the jihadists
by 1999, not from personal Islamic conviction, in most cases, but because the
jihadists had proved themselves over many years as the one force able to frighten,
flummox and bog down the Hindu-dominated Indian army. About a dozen Indian divisions
had been tied up in Kashmir during the late 1990s to suppress a few thousand
well-trained, paradise-seeking Islamist guerrillas. What more could Pakistan
ask? The jihadist guerrillas were a more practical day-to-day strategic defense
against Indian hegemony than even a nuclear bomb. To the west, in Afghanistan,
the Taliban provided geopolitical 'strategic depth' against India and protection
from rebellion by Pakistan's own restive Pashtun population. For Musharraf,
as for many other liberal Pakistani generals, jihad was not a calling, it was
a professional imperative. It was something he did at the office. At quitting
time he packed up his briefcase, straightened the braid on his uniform, and
went home to his normal life."
If the CIA understood any of this, it never let on to its superiors in Washington,
and Charlie Wilson, a highly paid Pakistani lobbyist and former congressman
for East Texas, was anything but forthcoming with Congress about what was really
going on. During the 1980s, Wilson had used his power on the House Appropriations
Committee to supply all the advanced weapons the CIA might want in Afghanistan.
Coll remarks that Wilson "saw the mujahedin through the prism of his own whisky-soaked
romanticism, as noble savages fighting for freedom, as almost biblical figures."
Hollywood is now making a movie, based on the book Charlie
Wilson's War by George Crile, glorifying the congressman who "used his
trips to the Afghan frontier in part to impress upon a succession of girlfriends
how powerful he was." Tom Hanks has reportedly signed on to play him.
Enter bin Laden and the Saudis
Saudi Arabian motives were different from those of both the U.S. and Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia is, after all, the only modern nation-state created by jihad. The
Saudi royal family, which came to power at the head of a movement of Wahhabi
religious fundamentalists, espoused Islamic radicalism in order to keep it under
their control, at least domestically. "Middle-class, pious Saudis flush with
oil wealth," Coll writes, "embraced the Afghan cause as American churchgoers
might respond to an African famine or a Turkish earthquake": "The money flowing
from the kingdom arrived at the Afghan frontier in all shapes and sizes: gold
jewelry dropped on offering plates by merchants' wives in Jedda mosques; bags
of cash delivered by businessmen to Riyadh charities as zakat, an annual Islamic
tithe; fat checks written from semi-official government accounts by minor Saudi
princes; bountiful proceeds raised in annual telethons led by Prince Salman,
the governor of Riyadh." Richest of all were the annual transfers from the Saudi
General Intelligence Department, or Istakhbarat, to the CIA's Swiss bank accounts.
From the moment agency money and weapons started to flow to the mujahedin
in late 1979, Saudi Arabia matched the U.S. payments dollar for dollar. They
also bypassed the ISI and supplied funds directly to the groups in Afghanistan
they favored, including the one led by their own pious young millionaire, Osama
bin Laden. According to Milton Bearden, private Saudi and Arab funding of up
to $25 million a month flowed to Afghan Islamist armies. Equally important,
Pakistan trained between 16,000 and 18,000 fresh Muslim recruits on the Afghan
frontier every year, and another 6,500 or so were instructed by Afghans inside
the country beyond ISI control. Most of these eventually joined bin Laden's
private army of 35,000 "Arab Afghans."
Much to the confusion of the Americans, moderate Saudi leaders, such as Prince
Turki, the intelligence chief, supported the Saudi backing of fundamentalists
so long as they were in Afghanistan and not in Saudi Arabia. A graduate of a
New Jersey prep school and a member of Bill Clinton's class of 1964 at Georgetown
University, Turki belongs to the pro-Western, modernizing wing of the Saudi
royal family. (He is the current Saudi ambassador to Great Britain and Ireland.)
But that did not make him pro-American. Turki saw Saudi Arabia in continual
competition with its powerful Shia neighbor, Iran. He needed credible Sunni,
pro-Saudi Islamist clients to compete with Iran's clients, especially in countries
like Pakistan and Afghanistan, which have sizable Shia populations.
Prince Turki was also irritated by the U.S. loss of interest in Afghanistan
after its Cold War skirmish with the Soviet Union. He understood that the U.S.
would ignore Saudi aid to Islamists so long as his country kept oil prices under
control and cooperated with the Pentagon on the building of military bases.
Like many Saudi leaders, Turki probably underestimated the longer term threat
of Islamic militancy to the Saudi royal house, but, as Coll observes, "Prince
Turki and other liberal princes found it easier to appease their domestic Islamist
rivals by allowing them to proselytize and make mischief abroad than to confront
and resolve these tensions at home." In Riyadh, the CIA made almost no effort
to recruit paid agents or collect intelligence. The result was that Saudi Arabia
worked continuously to enlarge the ISI's proxy jihad forces in both Afghanistan
and Kashmir, and the Saudi Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention
of Vice, the kingdom's religious police, tutored and supported the Taliban's
own Islamic police force.
By the late 1990s, after the embassy bombings in East Africa, the CIA and
the White House awoke to the Islamist threat, but they defined it almost exclusively
in terms of Osama bin Laden's leadership of al-Qaeda and failed to see the larger
context. They did not target the Taliban, Pakistani military intelligence, or
the funds flowing to the Taliban and al-Qaeda from Saudi Arabia and the United
Arab Emirates. Instead, they devoted themselves to trying to capture or kill
bin Laden. Coll's chapters on the hunt for the al-Qaeda leader are entitled,
"You Are to Capture Him Alive," "We Are at War," and "Is There Any Policy?"
but he might more accurately have called them "Keystone Kops" or "The Gang that
Couldn't Shoot Straight."
On February 23 1998, bin Laden summoned newspaper and TV reporters to the
camp at Khost that the CIA had built for him at the height of the anti-Soviet
jihad. He announced the creation of a new organization – the International Islamic
Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders – and issued a manifesto saying that
"to kill and fight Americans and their allies, whether civilian or military,
is an obligation for every Muslim who is able to do so in any country." On August
7, he and his associates put this manifesto into effect with devastating truck
bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The CIA had already identified bin Laden's family compound in the open desert
near Kandahar Airport, a collection of buildings called Tarnak Farm. It's possible
that more satellite footage has been taken of this site than of any other place
on earth; one famous picture seems to show bin Laden standing outside one of
his wives' homes. The agency conceived an elaborate plot to kidnap bin Laden
from Tarnak Farm with the help of Afghan operatives and spirit him out of the
country but CIA director George Tenet canceled the project because of the high
risk of civilian casualties; he was resented within the agency for his timidity.
Meanwhile, the White House stationed submarines in the northern Arabian Sea
with the map coordinates of Tarnak Farm pre-loaded into their missile guidance
systems. They were waiting for hard evidence from the CIA that bin Laden was
Within days of the East Africa bombings, Clinton signed a top secret Memorandum
of Notification authorizing the CIA to use lethal force against bin Laden. On
20 August 1998, he ordered 75 cruise missiles, costing $750,000 each, to be
fired at the Zawhar Kili camp (about seven miles south of Khost), the site of
a major al-Qaeda meeting. The attack killed 21 Pakistanis but bin Laden was
forewarned, perhaps by Saudi intelligence. Two of the missiles fell short into
Pakistan, causing Islamabad to denounce the U.S. action. At the same time, the
U.S. fired 13 cruise missiles into a chemical plant in Khartoum: the CIA claimed
that the plant was partly owned by bin Laden and that it was manufacturing nerve
gas. They knew none of this was true.
Clinton had publicly confessed to his sexual liaison with Monica Lewinsky
on August 17, and many critics around the world conjectured that both attacks
were diversionary measures. (The film Wag the Dog had just come out,
in which a president in the middle of an election campaign is charged with molesting
a Girl Scout and makes it seem as if he's gone to war against Albania to distract
people's attention.) As a result Clinton became more cautious, and he and his
aides began seriously to question the quality of CIA information. The U.S. bombing
in May 1999 of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, allegedly because of faulty
intelligence, further discredited the agency. A year later, Tenet fired one
intelligence officer and reprimanded six managers, including a senior official,
for their bungling of that incident.
The Clinton administration made two more attempts to get bin Laden. During
the winter of 1998-99, the CIA confirmed that a large party of Persian Gulf
dignitaries had flown into the Afghan desert for a falcon-hunting party, and
that bin Laden had joined them. The CIA called for an attack on their encampment
until Richard Clarke, Clinton's counter-terrorism aide, discovered that among
the hosts of the gathering was royalty from the United Arab Emirates. Clarke
had been instrumental in a 1998 deal to sell 80 F-16 military jets to the UAE,
which was also a crucial supplier of oil and gas to America and its allies.
The strike was called off.
The CIA as a Secret Presidential Army
Throughout the 1990s, the Clinton administration devoted major resources to
the development of a long-distance drone aircraft called Predator, invented
by the former chief designer for the Israeli air force, who had emigrated to
the United States. In its nose was mounted a Sony digital TV camera, similar
to the ones used by news helicopters reporting on freeway traffic or on O.J.
Simpson's fevered ride through Los Angeles. By the turn of the century, Agency
experts had also added a Hellfire anti-tank missile to the Predator and tested
it on a mock-up of Tarnak Farm in the Nevada desert. This new weapons system
made it possible instantly to kill bin Laden if the camera spotted him. Unfortunately
for the CIA, on one of its flights from Uzbekistan over Tarnak Farm the Predator
photographed as a target a child's wooden swing. To his credit, Clinton held
back on using the Hellfire because of the virtual certainty of killing bystanders,
and Tenet, scared of being blamed for another failure, suggested that responsibility
for the armed Predator's use be transferred to the Air Force.
When the new Republican administration came into office, it was deeply uninterested
in bin Laden and terrorism even though the outgoing national security adviser,
Sandy Berger, warned Condoleezza Rice that it would be George W. Bush's most
serious foreign policy problem. On August 6, 2001, the CIA delivered its daily
briefing to Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, with the headline "Bin Laden
determined to strike in U.S.," but the president seemed not to notice. Slightly
more than a month later, Osama bin Laden successfully brought off perhaps the
most significant example of asymmetric warfare in the history of international
Coll has written a powerful indictment of the CIA's myopia and incompetence,
but he seems to be of two minds. He occasionally indulges in flights of pro-CIA
rhetoric, describing it, for example, as a "vast, pulsing, self-perpetuating,
highly sensitive network on continuous alert" whose "listening posts were attuned
to even the most isolated and dubious evidence of pending attacks" and whose
"analysts were continually encouraged to share information as widely as possible
among those with appropriate security clearances." This is nonsense: the early-warning
functions of the CIA were upstaged decades ago by covert operations.
Coll acknowledges that every president since Truman, once he discovered that
he had a totally secret, financially unaccountable private army at his personal
disposal, found its deployment irresistible. But covert operations usually became
entangled in hopeless webs of secrecy, and invariably led to more blowback.
Richard Clarke argues that "the CIA used its classification rules not only to
protect its agents but also to deflect outside scrutiny of its covert operations,"
and Peter Tomsen, the former US ambassador to the Afghan resistance during the
late 1980s, concludes that "America's failed policies in Afghanistan flowed
in part from the compartmented, top secret isolation in which the CIA always
sought to work." Excessive, bureaucratic secrecy lies at the heart of the Agency's
Given the Agency's clear role in causing the disaster of September 11, 2001,
what we need today is not a new intelligence czar but an end to the secrecy
behind which the CIA hides and avoids accountability for its actions. To this
day, in the wake of 9/11 and the false warnings about a threat from Iraq, the
CIA continues grossly to distort any and all attempts at a Constitutional foreign
policy. Although Coll doesn't go on to draw the conclusion, I believe the CIA
has outlived any Cold War justification it once might have had and should simply