Osama bin Laden may have met his fate at the hands of military men. But it's a lesser-known fact that, for more than a decade, many of the CIA officers who were tracking the terrorist leader were women. Indeed, for as long as the CIA has been in the business of finding the founder of al Qaeda, and eventually killing him, women have been leading much of the hunt. Some say it's work to which they're particularly well suited.
The CIA established a group devoted exclusively to gathering and analyzing intelligence on bin Laden, known as Alec Station, in 1996. Counterterrorism wasn't the high-stakes, career-advancing line of work that it would become after the 9/11 attacks. And the members of Alec Station, many of whom were women, took a professional risk by pigeon-holing themselves into a profession that didn't seem to have a future.
But this tight band of CIA officers, some of whom called themselves "the Sisterhood," had found a bit of refuge from the male-dominated culture of the agency, in which no woman has ever served as director. They also found a rare, and at the time maybe even unique kind of intelligence work, in which analysts--the traditionally desk-bound thinkers of the agency's Directorate of Intelligence--worked closely with those who ran spies and did the clandestine work of espionage in the field, the members of the agency's Directorate of Operations. Historically, those sides didn't mix much on a personal or professional level. But at Alec Station, analysts and operators worked together, and in fairly short order they realized that the man whom much of the CIA had written off as a feckless wannabe jihadist was poised to become extraordinarily dangerous.
The story of how the CIA first got onto bin Laden's trail, and how it ultimately pointed Navy SEALs to his physical address in Pakistan, is the subject of the new documentary Manhunt, premiering Wednesday night on HBO. Directed by Greg Barker (Sergio, Koran by Heart), it "stars" some of the former members of the Sisterhood and other CIA officers who joined in the hunt for bin Laden and his al Qaeda brethren before and after the 9/11 attacks. The film is based on the book Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden--from 9/11 to Abbottabad, by journalist Peter Bergen, the author of four books on al Qaeda who produced bin Laden's first television interview, for CNN in 1997.
The film Manhunt is a work of broad ambition, so broad, and covering so many years, that after the first half hour, when we were still not very close to Abbottabad, I wondered how Barker would ever bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. (Even though we all know how this story ends.) But the film succeeds by turning the bin Laden story into a personal and intimate one, told entirely through the perspective of the people who actually tried to track him down.
Not every member of Alec Station is here, nor is everyone who played a central role in bin Laden's ultimate demise. But those who speak on camera do so without aliases or disguises, and in numbers that, as far as I can tell, is unprecedented for any work of film or television. If Manhunt weren't also an engrossing story, it would still be notable just for brining into the Klieg lights so many people who spent their lives in the shadows.
The film portrays intelligence work up close, with a particular emphasis on the role of women. Cindy Storer, a former CIA analyst, and Nada Bakos, a former CIA targeting officer who tracked al Qaeda in Iraq, demonstrate how to locate a terrorist using fragments of disjointed and often contradictory information. We watch them tack photos and bits of paper to a white board, connecting the items with colored lines. The picture doesn't come together as quickly as some of Carrie Mathison's jazz-fueled intel binges on "Homeland," but like that fictional representation, real-life analysis is tedious, frequently maddening, and often unproductive. But when it pays off, it does so with lethal effects.
There are times when Manhunt feels like fiction. Marty Martin, who was in charge of the operational hunt for bin Laden after 9/11 and most purely represents the spying-side of the agency (now known as the National Clandestine Service), is as flamboyant and mischievous a character as you'd expect to find in an espionage potboiler. He's full of war stories and serves as the brawn to the analytic brains, and, visually at least, a strong masculine counterpoint to a story dominated by women.
But like a good spy story, not everything is what it seems. Far from butting heads with his women colleagues, either owing to their gender or some link to the "other side" of the CIA bureaucracy, Martin fuses with them. And the farther we get in time from the 9/11 attacks, the more the distinctions across the CIA between men and women, analysts and operators, start to fade, until they become arbitrary. Bakos represents the final synthesis of the two--a targeting officer is both an analyst and an operator. And the blending of those two worlds brings us to the modern CIA, which is more a global paramilitary organization than a Cold War spy house.
Manhunt is a work of empathetic storytelling. Barker doesn't want to tell you the story of finding bin Laden so much as show you how the hunters did it. And because you walk in his subjects' shoes, you feel their triumphs and their failures acutely. You can imagine yourself sitting in an office like theirs, doing mind-numbing work and taking it home in your head at night. You can grieve with the CIA officers who talk, through tears, about their friends and co-workers who were killed in a suicide bombing in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009, an event that the film accurately portrays as a turning point in the CIA's war against al Qaeda--it galvanized the agency to recommit to finding bin Laden. These testimonials make the bin Laden story, which has been the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, accessible.
Manhunt inevitably draws comparisons to that other big movie about killing bin Laden. But while Zero Dark Thirty purports to be a work of journalism, Manhunt actually is. There are no pseudonyms or character composites. And when some of the same events are portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty, which is a superb film, they feel beyond the realm of our everyday experience. We can more easily imagine ourselves like Storer, showing up to work every day and banging her head against a desk, than we can see ourselves on the deck of a Blackhawk helicopter, wearing night-vision goggles and carrying an assault rifle.
Barker's empathy imposes certain limits on his film. You don't know where he stands on some of the most controversial and socially important questions of the bin Laden story, such as whether torture produced information that helped the CIA finish their manhunt. When Barker and I met in Washington a few weeks ago, he told me it's the mark of a successful film that you can't say for sure what he thinks. Not everyone who watches Manhunt will be satisfied with Barker's approach, which leaves some very big questions about some very dark days not fully answered.
But we shouldn't expect every story about bin Laden to be told through the lens of a moral dilemma. It's enough, at least for this film, to show people doing a job, one that was measured in years and lives lost, and that changed those who did it, just as it changed history.
In 2006, as the war in Iraq was reaching a fever pitch, a Pentagon employee working on special operations teamed up with a Czech technology entrepreneur who had dabbled in the porn business and devised what they considered an ingenious plan. Knowing that video games played on mobile phones were popular throughout the Middle East, the team wanted to build games that contained positive messages about the United States. But the games weren't just about propaganda. Every download would give the United States a window into the digital comings and goings of whomever was playing it it, a cyber foothold that could allow American spies to potentially track and collect information on thousands of people.
The propaganda/spy campaign was dubbed Native Echo, and it was conceived by Michael Furlong, a colorful civilian employee working for US Special Operations Command, and a company called U-Turn, which was headquartered in Prague and founded by a pro-American Czech national named Jan Obrman, whose parents had fled the Soviets in the 1960s. The idea was to target Middle Eastern teenagers in "high risk/unfriendly areas," and over time to integrate the US messages "into the lifestyle of the targets," ideally to make them more amenable to US armed forces, and to counter the rhetoric of Muslim fundamentalists.
The full account of this previously unreported intelligence operation is found in the new book The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti. The book explores the ways in which the CIA--which before 9/11 had long been out of the business of killing people--and the US military--which had not been the domain of spies--have often changed roles over the past decade. It is filled with characters, like Furlong, who move between the membranes of these two worlds, and find themselves at home in either one.
Mazzetti writes that the first mobile game developed for Native Echo was modeled on the popular Call of Duty series. This new "shooter" game, Iraqi Hero, "took the player on an odyssey through the streets of Baghdad, shooting up insurgents trying to kill civilians in a wave of terrorist attacks," Mazzetti writes. "The goal was to reach an Iraqi police station and deliver the secret plans for an upcoming insurgent attack, plans that had been stolen from a militia group's headquarters."
Native Echo was timed to coincide with the US troop surge in Iraq in 2007. Its "main focus was on combatting the flood of foreign fighters entering Iraq from Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and parts of North Africa," Mazzetti writes.
As an intelligence collection program, Native Echo was both broad and audacious:
"Thousands of people would be sending their mobile-phone numbers and other identifying information to U-Turn, and that information could be stored in military databases and used for complex data-mining operations carried out by the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies. The spies wouldn't have to go hunting for information; it would come to them."
In order to hide the US role in the scheme, "Furlong convinced [U-Turn's] executives to create an offshore company that could receive Pentagon contracts but not be tied directly to the United States," Mazzetti writes. Obrman set up JD Media Transmission Systems, LLC, incorporated in the Seychelles Islands, in order to receive money transfers from the US through a foreign bank account.
Furlong was a master at working the byzantine procurement bureaucracy to further his covert plans. "Taking advantage of a law that allows firms owned by Native Americas to get a leg up when bidding on government contracts, Furlong arranged for U-Turn to partner with Wyandotte Net Tel, a firm located on a tiny speck of tribal lands in eastern Oklahoma," Mazzetti writes.
U-Turn developed two more games for Native Echo--Oil Tycoon, which challenged players to protect vital pipelines and infrastructure, and City Mayor, in which players became urban planners and rebuilt a fictional city destroyed by terrorists. The team came up with various ways to distribute the games, including by hand via memory cards, which could be sold or given away in markets and bazaars, Mazzetti reports. "The way to get far wider distribution, however, was to post the games on Web sites and blogs frequented by gamers in the Middle East. This allowed [Special Operations Command] to monitor how many people were downloading the games and, more important, who was doing it."
Mazzetti concludes that it's hard to know how far Native Echo went, and even how many companies like U-Turn were hired to create propaganda for the military. Furlong came up with other wild ideas, some of which were never approved. But the relationship between the military and U-Turn blossomed, and it offers a concrete illustration of how the armed forces evolved into a network of spies.
The Way of the Knife is full of stories like this, of people living on the edge between two worlds, frequently not sure how to operate on turf that had long been forbidden. The book is a culmination of Mazzetti's years of reporting on the intersections of the military and the CIA, and it is a forceful, compelling articulation of a new way of war. Mazzetti's reporting has been among some of the most important, in that it has shed light on usually hidden practices, particularly the use of brutal interrogations on terrorist detainees. As the book unfolds, we see how the 9/11 attacks shake the CIA out of their Cold War culture of espionage, and turn the agency into a highly-efficient global killing force.
I spoke with Mazzetti yesterday as he was heading off to New York to begin a book tour. He said that he began working after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and that the first few months of writing were filled with some anxiety, since his journalism beat was now the hottest around. Lots of his competitors were writing books and long magazine articles about the raid. But Mazzetti said that he wanted to write something broader, to show how the long arc of the war on terror has fundamentally changed how the US fights.
"I covered the Pentagon for five years, and then I have been covering the intelligence world since 2006," Mazzetti said. "And really, I realized that I was kind of covering the same beat. The lines that existed before 9/11, where the military did this and the spies did that, really have blurred."
Mazzetti said he's glad to be back at the Times after a 15-month book leave. He had missed the collegiality of an office. Writing a book is solitary business. But in the midst of the project, Mazzetti and his wife, Lindsay, welcomed Max, their first child.
"I can't wait until he is old enough to read this book," Mazzetti writes in his acknowledgments. "I cherish the memories of the mornings we spent together during the first few months, and of the smiles he delivered when I came home at the end of particularly frustrating days of book writing. They put things in perspective."
Ken Anderson and Ben Wittes, two good friends of Dead Drop, are embarking on an intriguing and from my perspective quite welcome new project. They're writing a book that will pull together all the significant speeches Obama administration officials have given on national security law, and then "weave it all back together, creating a synthetic account of the administration’s views that is worth more collectively than the sum of its parts."
Called Speaking the Law, it will be "a kind of handbook on the framework for counterterrorism," using administration officials' own words as the foundation. "Consider it the White Paper the administration has never issued," say Ken and Ben.
I suspect Obama administration officials themselves will be among this book's most avid readers, given the authors' premise, and that journalists and scholars will find it useful as well:
"There is a myth that the administration has had little to say on the subject of its counterterrorism authorities, especially targeted killing and drones--largely because it has declined to release publicly its Office of Legal Counsel targeted killing memoranda. Part of the point of Speaking the Law is to show how wrong this myth really is. The administration has actually said a huge amount. It’s just that it has said a great deal of it orally, and has broken up its utterances among a number of different statements."
The authors are publishing the chapters serially online, and then the Hoover Institution will put out a hardcover version when all the work is finished. The introduction and first chapter are available now.
If John Brennan is confirmed as the next Director of the CIA--an outcome that appears all but certain--he will be only the third career CIA officer to run the agency in the past four decades. Robert Gates, in 1991, and William Colby, in 1973, were the other two. And the last director who could claim strong ties to Langley was George Tenet, who was nominated by Bill Clinton in 1997, and who'd been the deputy director for only a few years.
Brennan worked for Tenet first in 1999, as his chief of staff, and then as deputy executive director in 2001. In his confirmation hearing this week, Brennan cast himself as a cog in a much greater machine when he explained why, if he personally objected to parts of the Bush-era regime of brutal interrogations, he didn't take action to stop it. He wasn't "in the chain of command" for the program, Brennan told Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
The chain of command, and Brennan's position in it, has defined his working life. Brennan spent nearly three decades as a career intelligence officers. He held a series of significant posts, but he never rose to the most senior, political ranks of leadership. That's one reason why, when the incoming Obama administration floated his name for CIA Director in 2008, some old CIA hands were skeptical. Nothing against Brennan, some of them explained at the time, but he'd never been the deputy director, nor even executive director. His last significant job before leaving government for a brief stint in the private sector was as director of the newly formed Terrorist Threat Integration Center, the predecessor to the National Counterterrorism Center. Again, not an insignificant job, but not an obvious launching pad to one of the most important jobs in the United States government.
What a difference four years and a kill list make. Whereas Brennan's nomination for CIA Director once seemed implausible, now it seems so obvious. Books will be written (some are now) about how Brennan's four years as Obama's counterterrorism adviser seasoned him, changed him, and made the chief architect of the global drone campaign the logical candidate to take over the helm of the CIA.
But for now, it's instructive to remember Brennan's history as a career government employee, as a man who spent years in service regardless of who was the commander-in-chief. Indeed, that may be the best way to understand how he'll run the CIA.
Brennan's resume is well-documented. Stints as an analyst, a briefer, as a case officer in the field, the station chief in Riyadh. But it's perhaps his time in Washington, in those years when he served in fairly senior ranks and then briefly left government, that give the best clues to his future. These positions were rungs in a career ladder, yes. But some of them were thankless jobs, particularly director of the TTIC/NCTC. I covered the organization when it was first stood up, and like so many post-9/11 "centers," there was an air of uncertainty and desperation about the place. It's always hard being the new kid on the bureaucratic block. Would the center get enough funding? Enough people? Would it have sufficient clout in the intelligence community?
The initial answers were no, no, and no, but that's always how it is for a new organization. Running a place like that, when you know everyone's either against you or ambivalent about your success, must do something to a person. It must be forging. I don't know what it did to Brennan, but I suspect it was a stark reminder of the hierarchies of power. And he was smart enough to know that if anything went south on his watch (i.e., another terrorist attack), all the fingers would be pointed at the new guy. "We built this center to prevent the next 9/11. Why did you fail us?" Going from such a vulnerable position to the heights of power, at the White House, and becoming in the process arguably the most powerful man in the intelligence community...well, that must also change a person.
I had a long sit-down interview with Brennan in 2008, when he was an adviser to the Obama campaign and the chairman of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a sort of social and professional club for intelligence veterans. I asked him if there was one particular path that he thought was most productive in addressing the spread of terrorism. Consider his response in light of the man Brennan has become, the Drone Master:
"A lot of these issues, including counterterrorism, cannot be solved with kinetic force. I am a strong proponent of trying to focus more of our efforts on the upstream phenomenon of terrorism. I make the analogy to pollution. We learned that pollutants kill us when they get into the water we drink or the fish we eat or the air we breathe. But I think we also learned that we have to go upstream to identify and eliminate those sources of pollution. Terrorism is a tactic, and we have to be more focused upstream. Since 9/11, understandably we've focused downstream, on those terrorists who might be in our midst or trying to kill us, the operators. I think there needs to be much more attention paid to those upstream factors and conditions that spawn terrorists."
I doubt Brennan has abandoned that philosophy. But it's clearly not driving current policy. Still, in our interview, Brennan demonstrated a nuanced understanding of how many different components of government would have to work together to address the terrorism in the way he imagined. He said he was an advocate of reviewing "governance structures," and finding ones that "transcend administrations." He had, in other words, a bureaucratic answer to a strategic problem, and arguably a political one.
In his new perch at the CIA, Brennan will have to marshall that spirit of cooperation in a way that wasn't required at the White House. He's running an agency now. A powerful one, for sure, but one of many in a larger system. No doubt he will find the task more manageable and agreeable than his predecessor, Gen. David Petraeus, who never seemed to adapt to life without four stars on his shoulder.
At his confirmation, Brennan signaled that he's willing to play nicely with others, and that he actually looks forward to it. In his opening statement, he spoke about the man who is technically going to be his boss, another intelligence pro with a storied career:
"It would also be a tremendous privilege to serve with Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, who has mentored literally legions of intelligence professionals ever since his service in Vietnam. ... He and I share identical views on the role of intelligence and the importance of giving current and future generations of intelligence professional the support they need and so richly deserve."
No disrespect to Gen. Clapper or any of his predecessors. But I don't think that any CIA Director has ever spoke so fondly of the DNI. And if he did, I'm sure he didn't mean it.
"It would be the greatest honor of my professional life" to head the CIA, Brennan said. I don't doubt him. He has demonstrated considerable political skill in making it this far. And that will be essential at Langley. But for Brennan, this is more than a prestige job. It's a homecoming. And it's important to view his actions in the coming months and years through that lens.
John Brennan's confirmation hearing for CIA Director has suddenly become a lot more consequential.
In the past few days, we've gotten a window into Brennan's role in the Bush-era terrorist interrogation program--it looks more significant than previously reported--and now comes a leaked Justice Department "white paper" that describes the administration's rationale for why targeted killings of U.S. citizens, a program that Brennan has overseen, are legal.
The revelations in both documents seem obviously engineered to put Brennan in the hot seat about two controversial programs, one of which, targeted killings, some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee still believe they have insufficient information. So, now we know the likely frame for Thursday's confirmation hearing, and I presume that some significant debate will turn on the question of what constitutes an "imminent threat."
The leaked Justice Department white paper arguably attempts to redefine what most people would consider the common sense definition of imminent threat--that is, an enemy is about to take up arms against you, or is preparing to attack you. Think bombers readying for takeoff, or a foreign nation basing missiles within range of the United States or its allies.
But that's not the kind of imminence the administration is looking for when deciding whether to kill a U.S. citizen. Indeed, the white paper argues that it would have made no sense to wait for the 9/11 hijackers to board airplanes before moving with lethal, preemptive force against them, had that been an option.
The paper argues that terrorist groups are always plotting, and that they would presumably strike if they had the opportunity. So if someone is a member of Al Qaeda, or an affiliate, he by definition poses a threat to America. But that doesn't mean said terrorist is poised to strike, and therefore, in a given moment, constitutes an imminent threat. Does it?
Now we enter a gray area that this white paper is unable to clear up.
"Imminence must incorporate considerations of the relevant window of opportunity, the possibility of reducing collateral damage to civilians, and the likelihood of heading off future disastrous attacks on Americans," the white paper states in a section that addresses the central issues. (The question of imminence comprises much of the 16-page document.) Nothing in that sentence tells you when a terrorist is judged to be an imminent threat. Rather, it describes the considerations government officials must make when determining whether to kill him now. Or, imminently.
"Thus, a decision maker determining whether an al-Qa'ida operational leader presents an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States must take into account that certain members of [AQ] (including any potential target of lethal force) are continually plotting attacks against the United States; that [AQ] would engage in such attacks regularly to the extent it were able to do so; that the U.S. government may not be aware of all [AQ] plots as they are developing and thus cannot be confident that none is about to occur; and that, in light of these predicates, the nation may have a limited window of opportunity within which to strike in a manner that both has a high likelihood of success and reduces the probability of American casualties."
This paragraph could be summed up as "a list of reasons not to not kill a terrorist."
The white paper attempts to give some more detail on the decision-making process for concluding that someone is, in fact, imminently threatening the United States. But it's thin.
"A high-level official [the white paper never specifies that this must be the President] could conclude, for example, that an individual posts an 'imminent threat' of violent attack against the United States where he is an operational leader of [AQ] or an associated force and is personally and continually involved in planing terrorist attacks against the United States."
Ok, we're getting somewhere. You're an operational leader of a terrorist cell, you're a very dangerous guy.
"Moreover, where the [AQ] member in question has recently been involved in activities posing an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States, and there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities, that member's involvement in [AQ's] continuing terrorist campaign against the United States would support the conclusion that the member poses an imminent threat."
That seems a reasonable conclusion to draw, presuming that the evidence of previous activities is sound. I doubt anyone would argue that a terrorist who has attempted to kill Americans, but who has failed, won't try to do so again.
But nothing in the white paper constitutes a check list of all the requirements or characteristics for becoming an imminent threat in the government's eyes. Does the high-level official rely on visual identification of a target from drone footage? Intercepted communications showing X degrees of separation to a known terrorist group? Human tips? Some combination of the above? Is two out of three enough?
We're not likely to hear anything about these specifics, not in an open, unclassified hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee. And the white paper doesn't go there.
"This paper does not attempt to determine the minimum requirements necessary to render" a lawful targeted killing, it states. So, this paper can be described as the legal rationale for targeted killing in theory, if not as practiced by the Obama administration today. This is not a new revelation. (Indeed, the white paper references some speeches on this subject by senior administration officials.) But the introduction of the white paper into the public domain creates many new dynamics, and not just for Brennan's upcoming confirmation hearing.
One last point that may have implications beyond the realm of counterterrorism. Does the administration think its legal rationale for targeted killings is flexible enough to be applied to non-terrorist threats to national security? Could it justify, say, killing a member of a hacker collective whom the government believes is trying to take down a power grid with a cyber attack?
The white paper "does not assess what might be required to render a lethal operation against a U.S. citizen lawful in other circumstances," it states. So, the paper doesn't say the rationale could not be used against hackers. It just doesn't assess the question at all. If the potential breadth of the rationale does come up at Brennan's hearing, we'll be in the land of "hypotheticals," and in Washington, those are always easy to dodge.