Profile: Gary Berntsen
Gary Berntsen was a participant or observer in the following events:
At approximately 5:30 in the morning, Kenya time, Mohammed Saddiq Odeh is arrested at the airport in Karachi, Pakistan. Odeh is one of the bombers in the embassy bombings which take place four hours later in Kenya and Tanzania (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). [United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 38, 5/2/2001]
Odeh Stopped Because of Alert Inspector or CIA? - He had flown out of Nairobi, Kenya, the night before, with his plane stopping in Dubai on the way to Pakistan (see August 6-7, 1998). According to some accounts, an inspector notices that Odeh’s passport picture has a beard, while Odeh does not have a beard and looks different. Furthermore, Odeh is unable to look the inspector in the eyes. But according to UPI, he is stopped because he had been identified by the CIA. In any case, over the next hours, he is handed over to intelligence officers and makes a full confession. He admits that he is a member of al-Qaeda, led by bin Laden, and that he is the head of the al-Qaeda cell in Kenya. He even gives the address of the villa where the bomb was built and the names of the other bombers. [Bergen, 2001, pp. 116; United Press International, 1/2/2001; Associated Press, 4/3/2001; Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 213]
False or Mistaken Account by CIA Officer - CIA officer Gary Berntsen heads the CIA’s emergency deployment team to Tanzania in the immediate wake of the bombings. He will improbably claim in a 2005 book that the US at first primarily suspects Hezbollah. According to him, it is only on August 15 when a CIA officer in Karachi happens to notice an article saying that an Arab traveling on a false passport was arrested in Karachi near the time of the bombings. This is discovered to be Odeh, who is transferred to US custody. Only then does al-Qaeda’s involvement become clear. Perhaps to support this timeline, Berntsen also falsely claims that another bomber, Mohamed al-Owhali, is arrested on August 15 when in fact he is arrested three days earlier. [United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 38, 5/2/2001; Berntsen and Pezzullo, 2005]
Odeh's Confession and Other Al-Qaeda Evidence Kept Secret for Days - Publicly, the US does not link any evidence from the bombing to al-Qaeda until August 17, when Odeh’s confession is finally mentioned in front page news stories. Even then, the story is based on accounts from Pakistani officials and US officials say they cannot confirm it. [Washington Post, 8/17/1998] In fact, there is a wealth of information immediately tying al-Qaeda to the bombings that is kept secret, including wiretaps of many of the bombers (see April 1996 and May 1998), informants in the cell (see Before August 7, 1998), and even a statement of responsibility that was intercepted hours before the bombings had occurred (see August 5-7, 1998).
In November 1997, an Egyptian named Mustafa Mahmoud Said Ahmed walked into the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, and told CIA officers of a group planning to blow up the embassy (see November 1997). His warning would turn out to be a startlingly accurate description of the 1998 US embassy bombing in Nairobi (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). Ahmed apparently is involved in the bombing of the US embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that takes place the same day the Nairobi embassy is bombed. One day after the attacks, Ahmed contacts the British embassy and offers to help. He is overheard saying, “I told them everything I knew.” He also tells the British that it was “not the first time” he had cooperated with Western officials, and that he had been doing so “since last year.” [New York Times, 10/23/1998; New York Times, 1/9/1999] CIA officer Gary Berntsen will later reveal that he meets Ahmed as Ahmed is being kicked out of an allied government’s embassy. Berntsen then interviews Ahmed, and while the account of the interview is almost completely censored, Ahmed apparently gives information that leads to the arrest of one of the embassy bombers in Pakistan on August 15. This is the crucial break that allows the US to conclusively determine al-Qaeda’s role in the bombings and arrest some of the other bombers. [Berntsen and Pezzullo, 2005, pp. 22-25] The US does not ask for Ahmed’s extradition, and he is charged for the Tanzania bombing in that country. The New York Times will report, “Several non-American diplomats in the region [speculate] that the United States is allowing the Tanzanians to try Mr. Ahmed because they fear his trial in America might bring to light his dealings with American authorities and other Western intelligence services.” [New York Times, 10/23/1998; New York Times, 1/9/1999] In March 2000, Tanzania will announce that all charges against Ahmed have been dropped and he is being deported. No reason will be given. [New York Times, 3/20/2000]
In the winter of 1999, a covert four-man CIA and NSA team arrives in the part of Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance. They set up a listening post within range of al-Qaeda’s tactical radios. The Northern Alliance is shown how to run it, and then the team leaves. [Washington Post, 12/19/2001; Miniter, 2003, pp. 197-198] In March 2000, CIA agent Gary Berntsen leads a small CIA team into Northern Alliance territory (see March 2000). While there, they improve the existing listening post and set up a new one closer to Taliban-controlled territory. [Berntsen and Pezzullo, 2005, pp. 57-61] The US makes little use of the intelligence gained from these intercepts, leading Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud to conclude that the US is “not serious” about getting bin Laden. [Miniter, 2003, pp. 197-198]
Maj. Brock Gaston. [Source: State Department]CIA official Gary Berntsen and a US Army Special Forces major known as Brock (an apparent reference to Maj. Brock Gaston) lead a six-person team with the mission to enter Afghanistan and capture one of bin Laden’s top aides. The exact target is not specified; the team is expected to take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves. The team passes through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, then meets up with Northern Alliance forces in the part of Afghanistan still under their control. But from the very beginning they encounter resistance from a CIA superior officer who is based in a nearby country and is in charge of CIA relations with the Northern Alliance. Known publicly only by his first name Lawrence, he apparently had a minor role in the Iran-Contra affair and has a personal dispute with Gaston. The team stays at Ahmad Shad Massoud’s Northern Alliance headquarters high in the Afghan mountains for about two weeks. However, they never have a chance to cross into Taliban territory for their mission because Lawrence is sending back a stream of negative messages to CIA headquarters about the risks of their mission. A debate ensues back at headquarters. Cofer Black, head of the CIA’s Counter Terrorist Center, and his assistant Hank Crumpton support continuing the mission. But CIA Director George Tenet and his assistant Jim Pavitt cancel the mission on March 25. Upon returning to the US, Berntsen, Gaston, Black, and Crumpton formally call for Lawrence’s dismissal, but to no effect. Berntsen will later comment that Black and Crumpton “had shown a willingness to plan and execute risky missions. But neither CIA Director George Tenet nor President Bill Clinton had the will to wage a real fight against terrorists who were killing US citizens.” [CNN, 12/15/2001; Berntsen and Pezzullo, 2005, pp. 43-64]
On September 19, 2001, Cofer Black, head of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, speaks to Gary Berntsen, a CIA officer who is about to lead the first unit of CIA operatives into Afghanistan. Black tells Berntsen that President Bush has signed a new intelligence order. As Black will put it in 2002, the gloves are off (see September 26, 2002). Black orders Berntsen: “You have one mission. Go find the al-Qaeda and kill them. We’re going to eliminate them. Get bin Laden, find him. I want his head in a box.… I want to take it down and show the president.” Berntsen replies, “Well, that couldn’t be any clearer.” [Washington Post, 11/18/2002] Indeed, two days before Bush, signed new orders giving the CIA broad new powers (see September 17, 2001 and September 17, 2001).
Bernsten and his team arrive in Afghanistan on September 26 (see September 26, 2001).
The ISI secretly assists the Taliban in its defense against a US-led attack. The ISI advises Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that the Taliban will hold out against the US invasion until the spring of 2002 at least, and then will be able to hold out through a guerrilla war. Encouraged, Musharraf allows the ISI to continue to supply the Taliban on a daily basis. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid will later explain, “The ISI justified its actions as stemming from fear of an Indian controlled Northern Alliance government after the overthrow of the Taliban. It also did not want to totally abandon the Taliban, its only proxy in Afghanistan. At the same time, the [Pakistani] army wanted to keep the Americans engaged, fearing that once Kabul had fallen, they would once again desert the region. With one hand Musharraf played at helping the war against terrorism, while with the other he continued to deal with the Taliban.”
ISI Supplies and Advisers - Fuel tankers and supply trucks cross the border so frequently that one border crossing in the Pakistani province of Balochistan is closed to all regular traffic so ISI supplies can continue to the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar with little notice. [Rashid, 2008, pp. 77-78] Between three and five ISI officers give military advice to the Taliban in late September. [Daily Telegraph, 10/10/2001] At least five key ISI operatives help the Taliban prepare defenses in Kandahar, yet none are punished for their activities. [Time, 5/6/2002] Secret advisers begin to withdraw in early October, but some stay on into November. [Knight Ridder, 11/3/2001] Large convoys of rifles, ammunition, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers for Taliban fighters cross the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan on October 8 and 12, just after US bombing of Afghanistan begins and after a supposed crackdown on ISI fundamentalists. The Pakistani ISI secretly gives safe passage to these convoys, despite having promised the US in September that such assistance would immediately stop. [New York Times, 12/8/2001]
US Aware of ISI Double Dealing - Rashid will later comment, “Thus, even as some ISI officers were helping US officers locate Taliban targets for US bombers, other ISI officers were pumping in fresh armaments for the Taliban.” On the Afghan side of the border with Pakistan, Northern Alliance operatives keep track of the ISI trucks crossing the border, and keep the CIA informed about the ISI aid. Gary Berntsen, one of the first CIA operatives to arrive in Afghanistan, will later say, “I assumed from the beginning of the conflict that ISI advisers were supporting the Taliban with expertise and material and, no doubt, sending a steady stream of intelligence back to [Pakistan].” [Rashid, 2008, pp. 77-78]
Taliban Collapses as ISI Aid Slows - Secret ISI convoys of weapons and other supplies continue into November. [United Press International, 11/1/2001; Time, 5/6/2002] An anonymous Western diplomat will later state, “We did not fully understand the significance of Pakistan’s role in propping up the Taliban until their guys withdrew and things went to hell fast for the Talibs.” [New York Times, 12/8/2001]
Gary Bernsten. [Source: CNN]Veteran CIA agent Gary Berntsen leads a CIA undercover team, codenamed Jawbreaker, to capture or kill bin Laden in Afghanistan (see September 26, 2001). In a 2005 book, also called Jawbreaker, Berntsen will describe how his team monitored multiple intelligence reports tracking bin Laden on a path through Jalalabad to Tora Bora (see November 13, 2001). He will claim that at the start of December 2001, one of his Arabic-speaking CIA agents finds a radio on a dead al-Qaeda fighter during a battle in the Tora Bora region. This agent hears bin Laden repeatedly attempt to rally his troops. On the same radio, that agent and another CIA agent who speaks Arabic hear bin Laden apologizing to his troops for getting them trapped and killed by US aerial bombing. Based on this information, Berntsen makes a formal request for 800 US troops to be deployed along the Pakistani border to prevent bin Laden’s escape. The request is not granted. Berntsen’s lawyer later claims, “Gary coordinated most of the boots on the ground. We knew where bin Laden was within a very circumscribed area. It was full of caves and tunnels but we could have bombed them or searched them one by one. The Pentagon failed to deploy sufficient troops to seal them off.” Although the area is heavily bombed, bin Laden is able to escape (see Mid-December 2001). [Berntsen and Pezzullo, 2005, pp. 43-64; London Times, 8/14/2005; MSNBC, 12/29/2005; Financial Times, 1/3/2006] A Knight Ridder investigative report will later conclude, “While more than 1,200 US Marines [sit] at an abandoned air base in the desert 80 miles away, Franks and other commanders [rely] on three Afghan warlords and a small number of American, British, and Australian special forces to stop al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from escaping across the mountains into Pakistan.” Military and intelligence officials warn Franks that the two main Afghan commanders cannot be trusted. This turns out to be correct, as the warlords accept bribes from al-Qaeda leaders to let them escape. [Knight Ridder, 10/30/2004] In 2005, Berntsen will call himself a supporter of Bush and will say he approves of how CIA Director Porter Goss is running the CIA, but he will nonetheless sue the CIA for what he claims is excessive censorship of his book. [London Times, 8/14/2005; MSNBC, 12/29/2005]
Gary Berntsen, leader of the CIA effort in Afghanistan, names the four most wanted terrorist suspects in Afghanistan at a meeting of his team. They are al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, his second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda military commander Mohammed Atef, and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM). Berntsen places one of his subordinates in charge of these four men, giving orders to “find and kill” them. Berntsen also wants the Taliban’s top three intelligence officials killed. [Berntsen and Pezzullo, 2005, pp. 114] While the connections between the other three and al-Qaeda are well known by this time, the US government apparently first develops information indicating KSM is the mastermind behind 9/11 during FBI questioning of military training camp facilitator Abu Zubaida around April 2002. [New York Times, 4/22/2009] However, KSM is an known terrorist and one of the top 22 fugitives named by the FBI the previous month (see October 10, 2001).
US Marines landing near Kandahar on December 10, 2001. [Source: Earnie Grafton / Agence France-Presse]A force of about 1,200 US marines settles in the countryside around Kandahar, Afghanistan. This will make up nearly the entire US force actually on the ground in the country during the war to remove the Taliban from power. Over the previous week, CIA Deputy Counter Terrorism Center Director Hank Crumpton had been in contact with Gen. Tommy Franks and other military leaders at CENTCOM, arguing that “the back door was open” in Tora Bora and the troops should go there instead. But Franks responded that the momentum of the CIA’s effort to corner bin Laden could be lost waiting for the troops to arrive. [Suskind, 2006, pp. 58] The marines will end up being largely unused in the Kandahar region while bin Laden will escape from Tora Bora. In 2005, Gary Berntsen, who was in charge of an on-the-ground CIA team trying to find bin Laden, will claim that Franks “was either badly misinformed by his own people or blinded by the fog of war. I’d made it clear in my reports that our Afghan allies were hardly anxious to get at al-Qaeda in Tora Bora.” [Financial Times, 1/3/2006] The Afghan allies the US relies on to find bin Laden will actually help him escape (see Mid-November 2001-Mid-December 2001).
Gary Berntsen on an airplane, date and location unknown. [Source: National Geographic]Richard Blee, head of the Sunni Extremist Group at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and a former head of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, is made chief of the CIA’s new station in Kabul. Blee replaces Gary Berntsen, who had effectively led the CIA’s war effort against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Berntsen is unhappy with being replaced, saying: “It felt as though someone had just thrown a bucket of cold water in my face. I couldn’t believe they were doing this in the middle of the most important battle of the war.” The battle of Tora Bora begins around this time and, although the US thinks it has Osama bin Laden cornered there, he somehow manages to escape (see November 16, 2001, November 26, 2001 and Early December 2001).
Replacement Decision Is Not Well Received - Berntsen’s staff members are also unhappy with the decision, and slap their hands over their heads and groan when they find out about it. They tell Berntsen, “No disrespect to Rich, but when you leave, we leave.” Berntsen will attribute Blee’s selection to his closeness to CIA Director George Tenet and Deputy Director of Operations James Pavitt, and will also hint that Blee strongly desired the job. [Berntsen and Pezzullo, 2005, pp. 296-7, 306] Berntsen pushed hard for US troops to be deployed to catch bin Laden (see Late October-Early December 2001), but it is not known whether Blee is in favor of using US troops or not. Blee will also instigate the transfer of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi from the FBI to Egypt shortly after arriving; this is the first such transfer of a major figure after 9/11 (see Shortly After December 19, 2001).
Blee's Replacement - Blee is apparently replaced as chief of the Sunni Extremist Group by someone known only as Hendrik V. (see (Between Summer and Winter 2001)). Hendrik V. will later be replaced by an official known as “Marty M.” before March 2003. [Tenet, 2007, pp. 232, 251] That is almost certainly Marty Martin, someone said to lead the search for bin Laden from 2002 to 2004 (see (Shortly After October 29, 2004)).
Jose Rodriguez. [Source: CIA]Jose Rodriguez, formerly chief of the CIA’s Latin American division, is appointed head of its rapidly expanding Counterterrorist Center. The appointment surprises some, as Latin America is not at the heart of global counterterrorism efforts and Rodriguez, who cannot speak Arabic, has no experience in the Middle East. In addition, Rodriguez was removed from his position in 1997, after he tried to get the government of the Dominican Republic to drop charges against a person described as a “friend,” and was criticized by the CIA Office of Inspector General for showing a “remarkable lack of judgment” over the affair. [International Herald Tribune, 12/8/2007] CIA officer Gary Berntsen, who served under Rodriguez as a station chief in an unnamed South American country, will be critical of him in a 2005 book. When Berntsen, an officer with a wealth of counterterrorism experience, took up his position in South America following the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000, Rodriguez greeted him “by saying that he had heard about my successful record of conducting counterterrorism operations, but that would not, repeat not, be my primary mission as a Chief of Station in South America. He stated categorically that he wanted me to conduct normal foreign intelligence collection against traditional targets and no, repeat no, counterterrorism. I was stunned. Had this man been living in a cave the last two years?” Berntsen was also surprised when, after 9/11, he received a message from CIA headquarters asking for volunteers to fight terrorism, and then a message from Rodriguez ordering all Latin American station chiefs not to volunteer. Berntsen will comment: “I didn’t understand… he was ordering me and other highly skilled officers in Latin America not to step forward? Had this guy taken leave of his senses? In a time of national tragedy was he still thinking of how to protect his Division?” [Berntsen and Pezzullo, 2005, pp. 69, 71] Rodriguez’s identity is supposedly secret until the summer of 2007, shortly before he retires from the agency. [Associated Press, 8/8/2007] Rodriguez will be put in charge of the Directorate of Operations in 2004, but will become involved in a scandal over the destruction of videotapes of detainee interrogations (see November 2005 and December 6, 2007). [International Herald Tribune, 12/8/2007]
In the 2004 presidential campaign, Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry accuses the Bush administration of allowing bin Laden to escape Afghanistan in late 2001 by not sending enough US troops to contain him when he was trapped in the Tora Bora region. The New York Times publishes an op-ed by Gen. Tommy Franks, the former head of US Central Command. Franks writes, “On more than one occasion, Senator Kerry has referred to the fight at Tora Bora in Afghanistan during late 2001 as a missed opportunity for America. He claims that our forces had Osama bin Laden cornered and allowed him to escape. How did it happen? According to Mr. Kerry, we ‘outsourced’ the job to Afghan warlords. As commander of the allied forces in the Middle East, I was responsible for the operation at Tora Bora, and I can tell you that the senator’s understanding of events doesn’t square with reality.… We don’t know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora in December 2001. Some intelligence sources said he was; others indicated he was in Pakistan at the time; still others suggested he was in Kashmir. Tora Bora was teeming with Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives, many of whom were killed or captured, but Mr. bin Laden was never within our grasp.” Franks is a vocal supporter of Bush’s reelection. [New York Times, 10/19/2004] Shortly after Franks’ comments, four Knight Ridder reporters who had been at Tora Bora during the battle revisit the issue. They discover that “Franks and other top officials ignored warnings from their own and allied military and intelligence officers that the combination of precision bombing, special operations forces, and Afghan forces that had driven the Taliban from northern Afghanistan might not work in the heartland of the country’s dominant Pashtun tribe.” [Knight Ridder, 10/30/2004] Author Peter Bergen asserts, “There is plenty of evidence that bin Laden was at Tora Bora, and no evidence indicating that he was anywhere else at the time.” Bergen cites after-action US intelligence reports and interviews with US counterterrorism officials that express confidence bin Laden was at Tora Bora. He notes that bin Laden discussed his presence at the Tora Bora battle in a audio message released in 2003. [PeterBergen (.com), 10/28/2004] In 2005, Gary Berntsen, who was in charge of an on-the-ground CIA team trying to find bin Laden (see September 26, 2001), will claim that he gave Franks definitive evidence that bin Laden was trapped in Tora Bora (see Late October-Early December 2001). [Financial Times, 1/3/2006] In 2006, former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will comment, “Yes, we know [bin Laden] absolutely was there.… And yes, he did escape. And Gen. Franks and the president can deny it until the cows come home, but they made a mistake. They did let him go away.” [PBS Frontline, 6/20/2006] In late 2006, it will be reported that the CIA possesses a video showing bin Laden walking out of Afghanistan at the end of the Tora Bora battle. It has not been reported if the CIA was aware of this video in 2004 or not (see Mid-December 2001).
Entity Tags: Richard A. Clarke, Thomas Franks, Peter Bergen, George W. Bush, John Kerry, Al-Qaeda, Bush administration (43), Gary Berntsen, Osama bin Laden, Taliban
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan, 2004 Elections
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