Commentary Magazine


Michael Scheuer Watch #8: Please Pass the Truth Serum

As I noted in the previous edition of this series, in a letter that appeared in the June 2005 COMMENTARY, Michael Scheuer claimed that between 1992 and 1999, CIA officers working in the units led by him accomplished a number of important counterterrorism feats, which he then proceeded to enumerate. The final accomplishment on his list was generating “all–repeat, all–of the chances that the United States has ever had to capture or kill bin Laden.” Scheuer continued by saying “that there is no need to take my word for any of this” and “for the last item, read the 9/11 Commission report.”

I have now re-read the report. Scheuer–he is called “Mike” in the report to conceal his then-still-secret identity–figures prominently in the narrative. How does he come out?

In early 1998, the CIA developed a dramatic plan to capture Osama bin Laden. The operation was considered up and down the rungs of the relevant national-security bureaucracies of the Clinton administration and ultimately shelved as too risky. Here are some relevant excerpts that tell the story in brief:

“Mike” thought the capture plan was “the perfect operation.” It required minimum infrastructure. The plan had now been modified so that the [U.S.-allied Afghan] tribals would keep bin Laden in a hiding place for up to a month before turning him over to the United States–thereby increasing the chances of keeping the U.S. hand out of sight. “Mike” trusted the information from the Afghan network; it had been corroborated by other means, he told us. . . . Military officers reviewed the capture plan and, according to “Mike,” “found no showstoppers”. . . .

In Washington, [National Security Advisor Sandy] Berger expressed doubt about the dependability of the tribals. In his meeting with  [CIA director George] Tenet, Berger focused most, however, on the question of what was to be done with bin Laden if he were actually captured. He worried that the hard evidence against bin Laden was still skimpy and that there was a danger of snatching him and bringing him to the United States only to see him acquitted.

On May 20, Director Tenet discussed the high risk of the operation with Berger and his deputies, warning that people might be killed, including bin Laden. Success was to be defined as the exfiltration of bin Laden out of Afghanistan. A meeting of principals was scheduled for May 29 to decide whether the operation should go ahead.

The principals did not meet. On May 29, “Jeff” informed “Mike” that he had just met with Tenet, [CIA Deputy Director of Operation James] Pavitt, and the chief of the directorate’s Near-Eastern division. The decision was made not to go ahead with the operation. “Mike” cabled the field that he had been directed to “stand down on the operation for the time being.” He had been told, he wrote, that cabinet-level officials thought the risk of civilian casualties–“collateral damage”–was too high.

This version of events is more or less corroborated by Tenet’s recently published memoirs, At the Center of the Storm:

Mike Scheuer, the head of the Alec Station [the name of the CIA’s bin Laden unit] was strongly in favor of going ahead with the operation. I took his recommendation very seriously, but six senior CIA officers stood in the chain of command between Mike and me. Most of them were seasoned operations officers, while Mike was an analyst not trained in conducting paramilitary operations. Every one of the senior operations officers above Mike recommended against undertaking the operation.

Say what you will about Michael Scheuer–and I’ve already said a lot–he comes out looking pretty good in both the 9/11 Commission report and in Tenet’s memoirs. In this and other equally dramatic episodes recounted in the report, the hero of our Watch was pressing for action against bin Laden, and the bureaucracy above him–for reasons that appear preposterous in hindsight and probably appeared preposterous at the time–was pressing back. Surely, a neutral observer might say, this portion of Scheuer’s record counts for something.

Yes, it certainly does. Nonetheless, I have more dots that I have been unable to connect. Before I explain what they are, I have to bring two new characters into this tale.

Jamie S. Gorelick is an attorney at the firm Pickering, Hale & Dorr. Before that, she served as deputy attorney general of the United States and in a variety of other high-level positions in the Clinton administration.

Slade Gorton is an attorney at the firm of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Preston Gates Ellis. Before that, he spent 18 years as a U.S. Senator (Republican) representing the state of Washington. And before that, he was attorney general in the state of Washingtonl.

Both Gorelick and Gorton served on the 9/11 Commission. Both, unlike me, are pillars of the establishment, and both have earned respect and built careers by choosing their words with care and circumspection. In 2005, they signed a joint letter to COMMENTARY in which they wrote the following carefully chosen and circumspect words:

The 9/11 Commission, on which the two of us served as commissioners, thoroughly and exhaustively interviewed Michael Scheuer, whose book Imperial Hubris is criticized at length [in the May 2005 May 2005 COMMENTARY] by Mr. Schoenfeld. 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” (emphasis added).

Several questions arise from this:

1. Is there a transcript of Scheuer’s session with Commission investigators?

2. Is the transcript classified or under seal?

3. If it is classified or under seal, can it be obtained using the Freedom of Information Act?

4. What exactly did Scheuer tell the investigators?

5. If “much of what [Scheuer] had to say was not borne out by [the] investigation,” which parts were of “real value” and which parts were the reverse?

6. What inferences, if any, can we draw from the Gorelick-Gorton statement about Michael Scheuer’s integrity and how do they fit into a larger view of his credibilty?

What we have here is a collection of dots that form only a partial picture. If you can help me connect them, write to [email protected] and put Michael Scheuer Watch in the subject line.

Confidentiality is guaranteed. (But see my Why Journalists Are Not Above the Law to understand exactly how far I would go in honoring that guarantee.)

A complete guide to other items in this Michael Scheuer Watch series can be found here.

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