Thursday, February 16, 2006

Knocking On Osama's Cave Door

The CIA Operative Says He Was There at the Right Time. His Ex-Bosses Insist No One Was Home.
By Richard Leiby, Washington Post Staff Writer
Washington Post
February 16, 2006

NEW YORK -- Gary Berntsen was known at CIA headquarters as an aggressive field operative, the type inclined to act first and ask permission later. But he possessed the right combination of brawn and brains for tough missions. When summoned to the front office in the Counterterrorist Center in October 2001, Berntsen recalls, his boss's orders were simple: "Gary, I want you killing the enemy immediately."

He left for Afghanistan the next day determined to eliminate one man in particular. By Berntsen's telling, he could have gotten Osama bin Laden -- if only they'd given him the troops and the time to get the job done.

Now whenever he sees the al Qaeda leader threatening attacks against Americans, "I'm horrified," Berntsen says. "I feel haunted by the fact that it wasn't done. I did every single thing I could do there."

So what to do next? Write a book. It seems to be a popular career afterlife for a growing number of spooks. Berntsen's contribution to the genre is "Jawbreaker," his score-settling insider's account of how bin Laden eluded capture at Tora Bora that December. Its cover advertises it as "The Book the CIA Doesn't Want You to Read!"

The world's most notorious terrorist has been in Berntsen's sights since 1998, when he investigated al Qaeda links to the bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. In his book, Berntsen recounts a 23-year counterterrorism career, but the headline is this: Bin Laden escaped through snow-covered mountain passes into Pakistan, the ex-spy alleges, because U.S. generals failed to heed his call for 800 troops.

Berntsen's account is sharply at odds with that of Army Gen. Tommy Franks, former head of Central Command, who has written that bin Laden "was never within our grasp." All due respect to Franks, Berntsen says, but "I was the guy on the ground" who ran the CIA's largest paramilitary operation against the Taliban and bin Laden.

"We could have ended it all there."

Berntsen, 48, who retired from the agency last June, calls himself an "adrenaline addict" and looks the part of an action dude: Six feet tall, 225 pounds, with penetrating green eyes, close-cropped hair and an elastic face that reflects a simmering intensity that occasionally rises to a full boil. During lunch in a quiet French restaurant in Manhattan, he serves up his story with grins and grimaces and large helpings of bravado.

His covert line of work was simple: Find and neutralize terrorists. Now his overt mission is self-promotion: He wrangles reporters and talk show hosts (among them the shock jocks Greaseman and Mancow), offering sound bites on CNN, and doing all he can to boost sales of "Jawbreaker: The Attack on bin Laden and al-Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA's Key Field Commander," authored with a wordsmith named Ralph Pezzullo.

The book takes its title from the CIA name for units that operated in Afghanistan even before the war, then worked side by side with Special Forces and Special Operations troops and initiated combat missions. Though "Jawbreaker" would seem to capture Berntsen's tough-guy persona, he says it was just a code word spit out by a computer.

"I'm grateful it came out with something good that I can make use of on the cover of my book." He chuckles. "It could have been 'Doorstop' or something like that."

The book's release was stalled for more than four months by the CIA's publications review board, which vets manuscripts by active and retired employees. Berntsen took the CIA to court twice to release the manuscript. "Didn't they read my psychological profile?" he marvels, then spells out what it would say: "This guy is a risk-taker. And if he believes he's right, he's not gonna walk away. They just wanted me to go away."

The book dropped on Dec. 27, right into the black hole between Christmas and New Year's, which further irritated the author. But Berntsen found some advantage in the censorship: "Jawbreaker" is replete with blacked-out passages, after some of which he inserts stinging notes to the reader. Such as: "CIA censors redacted this section dealing with a bureaucratic tie-up at headquarters that had put our whole operation at risk."

A CIA spokesman, Tom Crispell, said that "as a rule" the review process is done within 30 days. "But a complicated manuscript can take longer" and negotiations between the author and the agency over redactions can further extend the process, he added. "We are legally obligated to protect sensitive intelligence information from disclosure."

Slipping the Noose
"Jawbreaker" is the latest in an expanding shelf of books from counterterrorism experts who fault politicians and CIA paper-pushers for not fully recognizing the threat of al Qaeda before 9/11. Berntsen's friend Michael Scheuer, who headed the agency's bin Laden task force and authored "Imperial Hubris," offered an astounding blurb:

"Read this heartbreaking book, keep it safe, and reread it after al-Qaeda detonates a nuclear device in America. You will then know who signed the death warrant for tens of thousands of your countrymen."

It's the second book by a Jawbreaker team leader. Last year agency veteran Gary C. Schroen, who preceded Berntsen into the battle, published "First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan."

Schroen's memoir recounted instructions from Cofer Black, then director of the CIA Counterterrorist Center: "I want bin Laden's head shipped back in a box filled with dry ice. I want to be able to show bin Laden's head to the president."

Berntsen got the same sort of speech. If the Saudi's scalp eluded him, it wasn't for a lack of his shouting and cursing up the communication lines to get his small team the military backup he needed to grab bin Laden.

Berntsen says he knew exactly where the 1,000-man jihadist force had fallen back in the mountainous region near the Pakistani border. An Arabic-speaking Jawbreaker team member reported hearing bin Laden speaking on a radio taken from a dead al Qaeda fighter. The terrorist leader exhorted his followers to keep fighting and, at one point, apologized "for getting them trapped . . . and pounded by American airstrikes," Berntsen writes.

By his estimate, there were just 40 Special Operations soldiers and a dozen other Special Forces on hand to head off bin Laden's potential flight "across hundreds of miles of caves and mountain passes." The exclamation points come fast and furious in the book as Berntsen vents:

"We needed U.S. soldiers on the ground! . . . I'd sent my request for 800 U.S. Army Rangers and was still waiting for a response. I repeated to anyone at headquarters who would listen: We need Rangers now! The opportunity to get bin Laden and his men is slipping away!!"

He recalls shouting at an Army general in Kabul who had made it clear that ground troops would not be coming, for "fear of alienating our Afghan allies." "Screw that!" Berntsen retorted.

In Berntsen's view, the Afghan militia that Franks relied on was "unreliable" and "cobbled together at the last minute" -- certainly not the army to trust with nabbing the man who had ordered the 9/11 attacks. "I'd made it clear in my reports that our Afghan allies were hardly anxious to get at al-Qaeda in Tora Bora," he writes. But his superiors at Langley told him it wasn't the CIA's call to make.

This account seems to jibe with Sen. John Kerry's charge during the 2004 campaign that President Bush had wrongly "outsourced" the job of getting bin Laden to Afghan warlords. Franks, in a New York Times op-ed piece in October 2004, defended Bush, saying: "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."

Berntsen writes that Franks "was either badly misinformed by his own people or blinded by the fog of war," but his critique stops there.

"I am a Republican," he says, staunchly supporting the president and his approach to the war on terrorism. "It doesn't help to be beating up on George Bush. I could be saying savage things about a lot of people, but it doesn't help. I don't want to diminish the president's ability to fight this war."

Berntsen prefers to call the Afghan campaign a "flawed masterpiece" -- the flaw being that bin Laden escaped.

Learning to Fly Straight
The son of an aerospace engineer, Berntsen misspent his youth in the teenage wastelands of Long Island in the mid-1970s. "Dope wasn't my thing," he writes, "but I drank beer by the six-pack from the age of thirteen." He graduated one from the bottom of his high school class of 300 -- a "functional illiterate with a 65.6 grade point average."

He straightened himself up by joining the Air Force, where he was a firefighter for four years. Crises, explosions, people dying around him: "I learned to function under high levels of stress. I actually kind of like it."

He parachuted out of airplanes for sport. He was studying political science and Russian at the University of New Mexico when the CIA recruited him.

The agency's Middle Eastern division was in mourning when he arrived in 1983. Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists had blown up the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 17 Americans, several CIA employees among them. "Almost the entire station was wiped out," Berntsen says.

Station chief William Buckley -- whom Berntsen had gotten to know in Washington -- was later kidnapped, tortured and killed by a group of Hezbollah jihadists. "There was no way I couldn't volunteer to go to the Middle East," he says. "I felt a personal obligation. I figured, if I don't step up, who's gonna do it?"

He eventually would learn Farsi, head operations against Hezbollah and spend three years with the Iran unit in Europe, "deployed all over the world against assassins," he says.

He also served in Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Balkans and South America. He won't discuss the details but says, "Every time there was a difficult job to do, I got sent." Berntsen generically describes being in the middle of gun battles and directing combat and air strikes, but says he, personally, never had to kill anyone.

"Extremely well informed" is how Sandy Vogelgesang, former ambassador to Nepal, remembers Berntsen. "He's rock solid -- the kind of person who evokes total confidence."

From Berntsen's perspective, the CIA lost its way in the Clinton years, particularly under then-Director John Deutch and his deputy, George Tenet. On the paper covering the lunch table he draws a pie chart to illustrate how Tenet "shrank" the covert-ops mission of the agency. Much like the 2002 book "See No Evil" by Robert Baer, another former counterterrorism operative, Berntsen's memoir depicts a sclerotic spy service clogged by bureaucratic inertia after the Cold War, ill prepared to penetrate terrorist groups.

"In George Tenet's CIA the conduct of operations was less important than Beltway politics and networking on the seventh floor [at Langley]," Berntsen writes. "I watched in frustration as officers who sat in safe staff jobs were promoted faster than ops officers who risked their lives in the field."

No comment, said Bill Harlow, a former CIA spokesman helping Tenet write a memoir. "Director Tenet won't be offering any comments on anybody's books, good or bad."

(Perhaps he'll open up once he has a book to flog.)

'Gotta Break China'
There's a grand tradition among those who work in the trenches for any organization to fume about the boneheads and second-guessers at the top and in the rear echelons. The guys on the ground get labeled "difficult personalities." Hotheads, sometimes. Berntsen says any such criticism of him "may be valid," but makes a point: "Why is it that Gary Berntsen was always the guy who was sent?"

Black, who approved Berntsen's assignment to Afghanistan, answers: "When you go into battle, you don't go with your weak sisters. He is exactly the kind of guy you want to have."

Black and others point out that there was no modern playbook for intelligence officers waging war as they did in Afghanistan -- it hadn't been done since World War II. "He went into a battle whose outcome was highly uncertain," Black says, "and lived up to the highest tradition of dropping OSS agents into Nazi Germany."

"Gary did a helluva job," agrees Billy Waugh, a legendary Special Forces veteran who served with Berntsen and appears in the book. Waugh was 72 at the time he deployed to Afghanistan as a CIA contractor. He affords Berntsen a high honor: "I called him the old man. . . . He was the boss."

The very qualities that set Berntsen apart may ultimately have undermined his career. He wanted to stay months longer in Afghanistan but was posted back to Latin America (where he was on 9/11). "There were politics involved" is how he vaguely puts it now.

But he has no regrets: "There's a time to be diplomatic, but after they kill 3,000 people in your country, you just say, 'I'm doing this!' Somebody's gotta break china, and I'm out there breaking china."

He believes "additional catastrophic attacks" on America are coming and the last great hope lies in the CIA's clandestine service -- but it must cultivate a new generation of operatives like him. The ones whose psych profiles come back "risk-taker."

He issues pronouncements as if they should be engraved in marble under the CIA insignia at Langley. Such as: "It's not about connecting the dots. It's about collecting the dots."

And: "The field leads. Headquarters doesn't lead. Sorry ."

"Let me explain something," he says. "When you're in the field, you see it, you smell it, you hear it, you're writing about it, you send messages back to Washington. But Washington always has a hard time understanding it all. You know what I mean. . . . They spend their afternoons at their soccer games with their kids. . . . They're involved, but they don't live it like you do."

In Afghanistan, "I had a little green notebook. I'm keeping track of everything that I'm doing on the fly -- with no staff. . . .

"How much staff do you think General Franks had? Me: No staff!"

He sips his coffee. Laughs quietly. "I'm just hanging out there on the end of a very long branch."

You can tell it is a place he likes to be, a man alone with uncertain ground below. He is unafraid to drop, but talking to him for a few hours reveals a certain anxiety, a sense that he's casting about. He is a warrior who needs to know his next mission.

At midlife, Berntsen is reconfiguring his career and more. Separated from his wife of 20-plus years, he has moved back to the New York area. His daughter, a Navy intelligence officer, just got married. His son is in college.

Berntsen is already writing his next book, which will be about counterterrorism policy. He's pitching a TV documentary and a movie. He's thinking about getting back into government service. He's networking with Republican politicians. He wants someday to run for office.

The war won't end when somebody boxes up the head of bin Laden. "The fight we're in will be for the next two decades, and I plan to be part of this fight," he says.

But there is one thing he's learned since leaving the battlefield: "I have to take it down to a point below simmer and try not to be so angry."


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