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Context of 'August 20, 2004: CIA’s Bin Laden Unit Effectively Has Only 30 Experts'

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The CIA proposes a policy of abducting Islamic Jihad militants and sending them to Egypt which will soon be approved by President Bill Clinton (see June 21, 1995). The Clinton administration began a policy of allowing abductions, known as “renditions,” in 1993 (see 1993). At first, renditions were rarely used because few countries wanted the suspects. Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, is one of the architects of a 1995 agreement with Egypt to send rendered militants there. He will later recall: “It was begun in desperation.… We were turning into voyeurs. We knew where these people were, but we couldn’t capture them because we had nowhere to take them,” due to legal and diplomatic complications. The CIA realized that “we had to come up with a third party.” Egypt was the obvious choice because the Islamic Jihad is the prime political enemy of the Egyptian government, and many Islamic Jihad militants also work for al-Qaeda, an enemy of the US.
Turning a Blind Eye - However, the Egyptian secret police force, the Mukhabarat, is notorious for its torture of prisoners. As part of the program, the US helps track, capture, and transport suspects to Egypt (see Before Summer 1995) and then turns a blind eye while the Egyptians torture them. Scheuer claims the US could give the Egyptian interrogators questions they wanted put to the detainees in the morning and get answers by the evening. Because torture is illegal in the US, US officials are never present when the torture is done. Further, the CIA only abducts suspects who have already been convicted in absentia. Talaat Fouad Qassem is the first known person the CIA renders to Egypt (see September 13, 1995). But the number of renditions greatly increases in 1998, when the CIA gets a list of Islamic Jihad operatives around the world (see Late August 1998). These renditions result in a big trial in Egypt in 1999 that effectively destroys Islamic Jihad as a major force in that country (see 1999). [New Yorker, 2/8/2005]
CIA, NSC, Justice Department Lawyers Consulted - Scheuer will say that lawyers inside and outside the CIA are intensively consulted about the program: “There is a large legal department within the Central Intelligence Agency, and there is a section of the Department of Justice that is involved in legal interpretations for intelligence work, and there is a team of lawyers at the National Security Council, and on all of these things those lawyers are involved in one way or another and have signed off on the procedure. The idea that somehow this is a rogue operation that someone has dreamed up is just absurd.” [Grey, 2007, pp. 140-141]
Leadership of Program - The rendition program does not focus solely on al-Qaeda-linked extremists, and other suspected terrorists are also abducted. Scheuer will later tell Congress, “I authored it and then ran and managed it against al-Qaeda leaders and other Sunni Islamists from August 1995, until June 1999.” [US Congress, 4/17/2007 pdf file] A dedicated Renditions Branch will be established at CIA headquarters in 1997 (see 1997), but the relationship between Scheuer and its manager is not known—it is unclear whether this manager is a subordinate, superior, or equal of Scheuer, or whether Scheuer takes on this responsibility as well. After Scheuer is fired as unit chief in May 1999 (see June 1999), his role in the rendition program will presumably be passed on to his successor, Richard Blee, who will go on to be involved in rendition after 9/11 (see Shortly After December 19, 2001). In a piece apparently about Blee, journalist Ken Silverstein will say that he “oversaw… the [Counterterrorist Center] branch that directed renditions.” [Harper's, 1/28/2007]

Entity Tags: Mukhabarat (Egypt), Richard Blee, Islamic Jihad, Alec Station, Central Intelligence Agency, Egypt, Michael Scheuer

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

The CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center creates a special unit focusing specifically on bin Laden. It is informally called Alec Station. About 10 to 15 individuals are assigned to the unit initially. This grows to about 35 to 40 by 9/11. [US Congress, 9/18/2002] The unit is set up “largely because of evidence linking [bin Laden] to the 1993 bombing of the WTC.” [Washington Post, 10/3/2001] Newsweek will comment after 9/11, “With the Cold War over, the Mafia in retreat, and the drug war unwinnable, the CIA and FBI were eager to have a new foe to fight.… Historical rivals, the spies and G-men were finally learning to work together. But they didn’t necessarily share secrets with the alphabet soup of other enforcement and intelligence agencies, like Customs and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and they remained aloof from the Pentagon. And no amount of good will or money could bridge a fundamental divide between intelligence and law enforcement. Spies prefer to watch and wait; cops want to get their man.” [Newsweek, 10/1/2001] Michael Scheuer will lead the unit until 1999. He will later become a vocal critic of the US government’s efforts to combat terrorism. He later recalls that while bin Laden is mostly thought of merely as a terrorist financier at this time, “we had run across bin Laden in a lot of different places, not personally but in terms of his influence, either through rhetoric, through audiotapes, through passports, through money-he seemed to turn up everywhere. So when we [created the unit], the first responsibility was to find out if he was a threat.” [Vanity Fair, 11/2004] By the start of 1997, the unit will conclude bin Laden is a serious threat (see Early 1997).

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Michael Scheuer, Alec Station, Al-Qaeda, Counterterrorist Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Imagery of bin Laden’s Tarnak Farms compound prepared for the aborted operation.Imagery of bin Laden’s Tarnak Farms compound prepared for the aborted operation. [Source: CBC]In 1997 and early 1998, the US develops a plan to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. A CIA-owned aircraft is stationed in a nearby country, ready to land on a remote landing strip long enough to pick him up. However, problems with having to hold bin Laden too long in Afghanistan make the operation unlikely. The plan morphs into using a team of Afghan informants to kidnap bin Laden from inside his heavily defended Tarnak Farm complex. Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, calls the plan “the perfect operation.” Gary Schroen, the lead CIA officer in the field, agrees, and gives it about a 40 percent chance of succeeding. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 220-221; Washington Post, 2/22/2004; Vanity Fair, 11/2004] The Pentagon also reviews the plan, finding it well crafted. In addition, there is “plausible denialability,” as the US could easily distance itself from the raid. Scheuer will comment, “It was the perfect capture operation becauase even if it went completely wrong and people got killed, there was no evidence of a US hand.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 192] However, higher-ups at the CIA are skeptical of the plan and worry that innocent civilians might die. The plan is given to CIA Director George Tenet for approval, but he rejects it without showing it to President Clinton. He considers it unlikely to succeed and decides the Afghan allies are too unreliable. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 220-221; Washington Post, 2/22/2004; Vanity Fair, 11/2004] Additionally, earlier in May 1998, the Saudis promised to try to bribe the Taliban and try bin Laden themselves, and apparently Tenet preferred this plan (see May 1998). Scheuer is furious. After 9/11 he will complain, “We had more intelligence against this man and organization than we ever had on any other group we ever called a terrorist group, and definitive and widely varied [intelligence] across all the ends, and I could not understand why they didn’t take the chance.” [Vanity Fair, 11/2004] There will be later speculation that the airstrip used for these purposes is occupied and will be used as a base of operations early in the post-9/11 Afghan war. [Washington Post, 12/19/2001]

Entity Tags: George J. Tenet, Central Intelligence Agency, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Michael Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, Alec Station

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Apparently, this surveillance photo of a C-130 transport plane from the United Arab Emirates plays a key role in the decision not to strike at bin Laden.Apparently, this surveillance photo of a C-130 transport plane from the United Arab Emirates plays a key role in the decision not to strike at bin Laden. [Source: CBC]Intelligence reports foresee the presence of Osama bin Laden at a desert hunting camp in Afghanistan for about a week. Information on his presence appears reliable, so preparations are made to target his location with cruise missiles. However, intelligence also puts an official aircraft of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and members of the royal family from that country in the same location. Bin Laden is hunting with the Emirati royals, as he does with leaders from the UAE and Saudi Arabia on other occasions (see 1995-2001). [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004; Vanity Fair, 11/2004] According to Michael Scheuer, the chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, the hunting party has “huge fancy tents, with tractor trailers with generators on them to run the air-conditioning.” Surveillance after the camp is established shows the “pattern of bin Laden’s visits—he would come for evening prayers or he would come for dinner and stay for evening prayers.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 192] Local informants confirm exactly where bin Laden will be in the camp on February 11, and a strike is prepared. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004; Vanity Fair, 11/2004] But policy makers are concerned that a strike might kill a prince or other senior officials, and that this would damage relations with the UAE and other Persian gulf countries. Therefore, the strike is called off. Bin Laden will leave the camp on February 12. A top UAE official at the time denies that high-level officials are there, but evidence subsequently confirms their presence. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004; Vanity Fair, 11/2004; Shenon, 2008, pp. 192] Scheuer will claim in 2004 that “the truth has not been fully told” about this incident. He will claim that the strike is cancelled because senior officials at the CIA, White House, and other agencies, decide to accept assurances from an unnamed Islamic country that it can acquire bin Laden from the Taliban. “US officials accepted these assurances despite the well-documented record of that country withholding help—indeed, it was a record of deceit and obstruction—regarding all issues pertaining to bin Laden” in previous years. [Atlantic Monthly, 12/2004] This may be a reference to Saudi Arabia. In mid-1998, the CIA called off a plan to capture bin Laden in favor of an ultimately unfulfilled Saudi promise to bribe the Taliban to hand bin Laden over (see May 1998). Many in US intelligence will be resentful over this missed opportunity and blame a conflict of interest with the Emirati royals (see Shortly After February 11, 1999).

Entity Tags: Michael Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, Alec Station, United Arab Emirates

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The failure to strike at bin Laden in February 1999, despite having unusually good intelligence about his location (see February 11, 1999), causes strong resentment in the US intelligence community. It is believed that the US held its fire because of the presence of royalty from the United Arab Emirates(UAE), but some felt those royals were legitimate targets as well since they were associating with bin Laden there. Further, intelligence at the time suggests the planes carrying these royals to Afghanistan were also bringing weapons to the Taliban in defiance of United Nations bans. Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit at the time, is particularly upset. He reportedly sends a series of e-mails to others in the CIA that are, in the opinion of one person who read them, “angry, unusual, and widely circulated.” His anger at this decision not to strike at bin Laden will apparently contribute to him losing his position leading the bin Laden unit a few months later (see June 1999). Some resentment is directed at counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke, who voted against the missile strike. Clarke was known to be close to the UAE’s royal family. He’d negotiated many arms deals and other arrangements with them, including an $8 billion deal in May 1998 to buy F-16 fighters from the US (see Early February 1999). [Coll, 2004, pp. 447-450] In March 1999, Clarke calls Emirati royals and asks them to stop visiting bin Laden. However, he apparently did not have permission from the CIA to make this call. Within one week, the camp where the Emiratis and bin Laden met is abandoned. CIA officers are irate, feeling that this ruined a chance to strike at bin Laden if he made a return visit to the location. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 138]

Entity Tags: Taliban, Richard A. Clarke, Michael Scheuer, Alec Station, United Arab Emirates

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Michael Scheuer.
Michael Scheuer. [Source: Publicity photo]CIA Director George Tenet removes Michael Scheuer as head of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit. Scheuer had headed the unit since its inception in 1996 (see February 1996), and was known as a strong advocate for more government action against bin Laden. The full name of the new head of the unit has not been released and little is known about his performance. [Vanity Fair, 11/2004] Deputy Director of Operations Jack Downing tells Scheuer he is being fired because he is “mentally burned out” and because of a recent disagreement with the FBI over whether the deputy chief of Alex Station, who was detailed to the CIA from the FBI, could release information to the FBI without Scheuer’s approval. Downing tells Scheuer he was in the right, but that the criticism of his subordinate “should not have been put on paper”, and the FBI’s management is angry with him. Downing says he will get a medal and a monetary award, but should tell his subordinates he has resigned. Scheuer refuses to lie to his officers, signs a memo saying he will not accept a monetary award, and tells Downing “where he should store the medal.” [Scheuer, 2005, pp. 263-4; Wright, 2006, pp. 313] According to author Steve Coll, Scheuer’s CIA colleagues “could not be sure exactly [why Scheuer left] but among at least a few of them a believe settled in that [he] had been exiled, in effect, for becoming too passionate about the bin Laden threat…” In particular, he was angry about two recent missed opportunities (see 1997-May 29, 1998 and February 11, 1999) to assassinate bin Laden. [Coll, 2004, pp. 449-450] Scheuer will write in 2004 that, “On moving to a new position, I forwarded a long memorandum to the Agency’s senior-most officers—some are still serving—describing an array of fixable problems that were plaguing America’s attack on bin Laden, ones that the bin Laden unit had encountered but failed to remedy between and among [US intelligence agencies]… The problems outlined in the memorandum stood in the way of attacking bin Laden to the most effective extent possible; many remain today.” Problems include poor cooperation between agencies and a lack of experienced staff working on the bin Laden issue. Scheuer never receives a response to his memo. [Atlantic Monthly, 12/2004]

Entity Tags: Michael Scheuer, Jack Downing, George J. Tenet, Alec Station, Central Intelligence Agency, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Following the replacement of Michael Scheuer by Richard Blee as chief of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit (see June 1999 and June 1999), the relationship between Alec Station and its FBI counterpart headed by John O’Neill does not improve. The relationship between Scheuer and O’Neill was extremely stormy, but Blee’s arrival does nothing to calm matters. As O’Neill is the FBI manager most knowledgeable about al-Qaeda, the combative nature of the relationship may hamper interagency counterterrorism efforts. Author James Bamford will write, “The epicenter of the clash between the two cultures [of the FBI and CIA] was the relationship between [Blee] and John P. O’Neill, the flashy, outspoken chief of the FBI’s National Security Division in New York.” An associate of O’Neill’s will say of Alec Station staff, “They despised the FBI and they despised John O’Neill.” A CIA officer will add, “The working relationships were very difficult at times.” [Bamford, 2004, pp. 217-8]

Entity Tags: Richard Blee, John O’Neill, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Alec Station, James Bamford

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The FBI’s most senior representative at Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, develops cancer and is forced to resign, meaning no FBI agent assigned to Alec Station has the power to release information from the CIA for months. A key cable informing the FBI that hijacker Khalid Almihdhar has a US visa will fail to be released to the FBI around this time (see 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000). The representative, who is referred to in documents as “Eric”, is deputy chief of Alec Station. He has the power to release information to the FBI having acquired this power in a row with former Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer (see June 1999). The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General will say Eric left the unit in mid-January, which would have given him over a week to give the FBI information about Almihdhar discovered during the surveillance of an al-Qaeda summit held from January 5-8 (see January 5-8, 2000). It is known Eric accessed a cable related to the Malaysia summit on January 5 and discussed surveillance photos taken of the summit with CIA officer Tom Wilshire (see (Mid-January 2000)). Author Lawrence Wright will comment: “None of the… FBI agents remaining in Alec had the seniority to release information, and consequently had to rely on the agency to give them permission for any transfer of classified cable traffic.” [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 241, 320 pdf file; Wright, 2006, pp. 313]

Entity Tags: Office of the Inspector General (DOJ), “Eric”, Alec Station, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Just prior to 9/11, the CIA and FBI do not have enough staff working on al-Qaeda. Only 17 to 19 people are working in the FBI’s special unit focusing on bin Laden and al-Qaeda. [US Congress, 9/18/2002] The FBI has a $4.3 billion anti-terrorism budget, but of its 27,000 employees, just 153 are devoted to terrorism analysis. [Sydney Morning Herald, 6/8/2002] The FBI’s “analytic expertise has been ‘gutted’ by transfers to operational units” and only one strategic analyst is assigned full time to al-Qaeda. The FBI office in New York is very aware of the threat from bin Laden, but many branch offices remain largely unaware. [US Congress, 9/18/2002] A senior FBI official later tells Congress that there are fewer FBI agents assigned to counterterrorism on this day than in August 1998, when the US embassy bombings in Africa made bin Laden a household name. [New York Times, 9/22/2002] The CIA has only about 35 to 40 people assigned to their special bin Laden unit. It has five strategic analysts working full time on al-Qaeda. [US Congress, 9/18/2002] The CIA and FBI later complain that some of these figures are misleading. [New York Times, 9/18/2002] “Individuals in both the CIA and FBI units… reported being seriously overwhelmed by the volume of information and workload prior to September 11, 2001.” Despite numerous warnings that planes could be used as weapons, such a possibility was never studied, and a congressional report later blames lack of staff as a major reason for this. [US Congress, 9/18/2002] Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) also notes, “Between the Department of Justice and the FBI, they had a whole task force working on finding a couple of houses of prostitution in New Orleans. They had one on al-Qaeda.” [CBS News, 9/25/2002]

Entity Tags: Patrick J. Leahy, US Congress, Osama bin Laden, Alec Station, Central Intelligence Agency, Al-Qaeda, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Michael Scheuer, former head of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit (see February 1996), returns to the unit to serve as an adviser, but is not allowed to debrief detainees. Scheuer, who was fired from the unit in 1999 (see June 1999), remains with Alec Station until 2004, when he resigns from the CIA and authors Imperial Hubris, a book critical of the CIA and the US government’s fight against terrorism in general. He had finished his first book, Through Our Enemies’ Eyes, before 9/11, and it is released in 2002. He will later complain that he is given a job title but no official duties. Other CIA officers seek out his services, but these requests are blocked, apparently by James Pavitt, the Deputy Director of Operations. Scheuer comments: “The CIA knew that Through Our Enemies’ Eyes was respected by Islamists and that, as the author, I would be an effective debriefer. Mr. Pavitt, however, put burying my career above using me to elicit information to defend America.” [Scheuer, 2005, pp. 264; Scheuer, 2006, pp. xvii]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Scheuer, Alec Station, James Pavitt

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

CIA official Michael Scheuer says that the CIA’s bin Laden unit, Alec Station, is still effectively less than 30 people strong. Scheuer was head of the unit until 1999 (see June 1999, and he says this was about the size of the unit when he left. Technically, the unit has hundreds of employees, but Scheuer claims this is not really true. He says: “The numbers are big, but it’s a shell game. It’s people they move in for four or five months at a time and then bring in a new bunch. But the hard core of expertise, of experience, of savvy really hasn’t expanded at all since 9/11.” [Guardian, 8/20/2004] There were about 35 to 40 people in the unit at the time of the 9/11 attacks (see Just Before September 11, 2001). The unit will be closed down altogether one year later (see Late 2005).

Entity Tags: Alec Station, Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Scheuer, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

In 2005, the CIA gives President Bush a secret slide show updating him on the hunt for bin Laden. Bush is taken aback by the small number of CIA case officers posted to Afghanistan and Pakistan. A former intelligence officer will later tell Newsweek that Bush asks, “Is that all there are?” In fact, the CIA had recently doubled the number of officers in the area, but many are inexperienced and raw recruits. Most veteran officers are involved in the Iraq war instead. [Newsweek, 8/28/2007] However, rather than increase the staff working on bin Laden in response to Bush’s complaint, later in the year the CIA will close Alec Station, the unit hunting bin Laden (see Late 2005).

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

Late 2005: CIA Closes Unit Hunting Bin Laden

The CIA closes its unit that had been in charge of hunting bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders. Analysts in the unit, known as Alec Station, are reassigned to other parts of the CIA Counterterrorist Center. CIA officials explain the change by saying the agency can better deal with high-level threats by focusing on regional trends rather than on specific organizations or individuals. Michael Scheuer, who headed the unit when if formed in 1996 (see February 1996), says the move reflects a view within the CIA that bin Laden is no longer the threat he once was, and complains, “This will clearly denigrate our operations against al-Qaeda.” Robert Grenier, head of the Counterterrorist Center in 2005, is said to have instigated the closure. [New York Times, 7/4/2006; Guardian, 7/4/2006] The White House denies the search for bin Laden has slackened, calling the move merely a “reallocation of resources” within the CIA. [Reuters, 8/17/2006]

Entity Tags: Robert Grenier, Osama bin Laden, Counterterrorist Center, Alec Station, Michael Scheuer, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

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