Former Head of CIA's Bin Laden Unit: Clinton Admin Played Role in Nixing Osama Op

In response to an article published at NewsBusters and The American Thinker, I have received two e-mail messages from Michael Scheuer, a 22-year veteran of the CIA that used to head up “Alec Station,” the Counterterrorist Center’s Osama bin Laden unit. (Update: Scheuer is the individual regularly referred to in the 9/11 Commission report as "Mike".) His name might ring a bell as the previously anonymous author of the books Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror and Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America. In his writing as well as his interviews, Scheuer is an outspoken critic of the current Administration’s prosecution of the war on terror, as well as an opponent of the war in Iraq. As such, he is not considered to be a friend of the president’s.

That said, after reading my piece about the smear campaign against ABC’s “The Path to 9/11,” Scheuer apprised me of an op-ed he had written for the Washington Times on July 5 of this year. Given its context to this issue, I wanted to share it with our readers, and will do so in its entirety in a moment.

However, before I do, let me first share a more recent opinion offered by Scheuer as answers to some questions I asked of him in response to his first e-mail message: “Is the scene in question as depicted by Rush an accurate account of the plan to capture or kill bin Laden in Afghanistan. If so, who do you believe gave the order to halt it?” Scheuer responded:

Regarding the scene, it was never clear to my officers or myself who canceled the operation. It is true that Clarke was bad-mouthing it. What I don't think people know, however, is that the Agency had thoroughly reviewed the plan and had approved its execution at the highest level -- that is, at the level of DCI Tenet and his immediate subordinates. (NB: At Tenet's direction, JSOC commanders at Fort Bragg also reviewed the plan. They approved it, said they could not do better, and built two sand-table mock-ups of the bin Laden's compound for us to use in preparing the operation.) My officers and I were told that the plan had been sent to Clarke and the NSC for approval. The next thing we knew, the Chief of CT at CIA told us that the plan had been canceled because civilians might get killed, there was not a hundred percent chance that we would get bin Laden, and that if bin Laden was killed in the capture effort the CIA might get accused of assassination. The implication to us at the time was that the NSC canceled the operation, but Tenet later claimed he did it himself. I don't know what the full truth is on this issue. Interestingly, after our east Africa embassies were bombed on 7 August 98, Clarke ordered us to immediately revive the capture plan, but of course by then the chance had been well and truly lost.

Update: Scheuer's statements above are somewhat confirmed by the 9/11 Commission report:

"Mike" thought the capture plan was "the perfect operation." It required minimum infrastructure. The plan had now been modified so that the tribals would keep Bin Ladin 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. The lead CIA officer in the field, Gary Schroen, also had confidence in the tribals. In a May 6 cable to CIA headquarters, he pronounced their planning "almost as professional and detailed...as would be done by any U.S. military special operations element."

Update: Another interesting part of the 9/11 Commission report concerning this matter:

On May 29, "Jeff" informed "Mike" that he had just met with Tenet, 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."

As a further elaboration of Scheuer’s views, here is his July 5 Washington Times op-ed that will certainly shed more light on the current controversy surrounding ABC’s “The Path to 9/11”:

Bill and Dick, Osama and Sandy

With one credible September 11 movie, "United 93," under our belts, it will be interesting to see whether ABC-TV will complete the September 11 Commission's whitewashing of the pre-September 11 failure of U.S. intelligence-community leaders in its forthcoming mini-series based on Richard Clarke's memoir, "Against All Enemies."

Media teasers about the mini-series have said that Mr. Clarke -- the former "terrorism czar" -- and a senior FBI officer, the late John O'Neill, will be the heroes of the saga. If true, and if ABC's fact-checkers are not diligent in verifying Mr. Clarke's stories and claims, the mini-series will be the September 11 commission's dream come true: The Bush administration will be blamed for September 11, the feckless moral cowardice of the Clinton administration will be disguised and Mr. Clarke and Mr. O'Neill -- in my view, two principal authors of September 11 -- will be beatified.

Mr. Clarke's book, on the basis of my involvement to varying degrees in the issues it covers, is a mixture of fact, fiction and cover-up. Mr. Clarke seems to get most names and dates right, and is correct in damning the early Bush administration for obliviousness to the al Qaeda threat. We must also take him at his word on his touching, if sycophantic, tales of Mr. Clinton instructing a young boy to be good to his mom and Hillary Rodham Clinton's secluded moment praying on her knees.

On the fantasy level, Mr. Clarke lays it on thick. His claim that the Clinton administration "defeated an al-Qaeda attempt to dominate Bosnia" is nonsense; bin Laden sent few fighters there because he had no contiguous safe haven for them. Mr. Clarke's claim that "the CIA had taken months to tell the FBI" several hijackers were in America is a lie. FBI officers sat in the unit I first commanded and then served in and they read the same information I did. If the data did not get to FBI headquarters it is because the FBI then lacked, and still lacks, a useable computer system. The FBI did not know the September 11 hijackers were here because Judge Louis Freeh and Robert Mueller have failed to provide their officers computers that allow them to talk securely to their headquarters and other intelligence community elements.

Another spectacular untruth is on page 52: "Later in the 1990s, CIA... [failed] to put U.S. operatives into the country [Afghanistan] to kill bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership, relying on Afghans instead." Mr. Clarke, of course, was at the center of Mr. Clinton's advisers, who resolutely refused to order the CIA to kill bin Laden. In spring 1998, I briefed Mr. Clarke and senior CIA, Department of Defense and FBI officers on a plan to kidnap bin Laden. Mr. Clarke's reaction was that "it was just a thinly disguised attempt to assassinate bin Laden." I replied that if he wanted bin Laden dead, we could do the job quickly. Mr. Clarke's response was that the president did not want bin Laden assassinated, and that we had no authority to do so.

Mr. Clarke's book is also a crucial complement to the September 11 panel's failure to condemn Mr. Clinton's failure to capture or kill bin Laden on any of the eight to 10 chances afforded by CIA reporting. Mr. Clarke never mentions that President Bush had no chances to kill bin Laden before September 11 and leaves readers with the false impression that he, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, did their best to end the bin Laden threat. That trio, in my view, abetted al Qaeda, and if the September 11 families were smart they would focus on the dereliction of Dick, Bill and Sandy and not the antics of convicted September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.

About John O'Neill, little needs to be said. In my own experience, Mr. O'Neill was interested only in furthering his career and disguising the rank incompetence of senior FBI leaders. He once told me that he and the FBI would oppose an operation to capture bin Laden and take him to a third country for incarceration. When I asked why, he replied, "Why should the FBI help to capture bin Laden if the bureau won't get credit among Americans for his arrest and conviction"?

So, I look forward to ABC's mini-series, as well as to seeing the quality of the network's fact-checkers. If they do their job well, some of the September 11 Commission's whitewash may start to be peeled away. If they fail, however, the reality that Bill, Dick and Sandy helped to push Americans out of the windows of the World Trade Center on that September morning will be buried in miles of fantasy-filled celluloid.

Finally, on a personal note, it appears necessary to clear up some misunderstandings about the focus I have given to this issue the past couple of days. The truth is that I have not yet seen “The Path to 9/11,” and, frankly, have no opinion on it. How can one have an opinion on something one hasn’t seen?

In reality, that has been my point from the start. Too often in our country today, folks are inflamed by books, movies, and TV programs they haven’t either read or viewed. We see this on a regular basis whenever a conservative book is published, and the author will be thoroughly eviscerated on one of the network morning shows by some holier-than-thou type who hasn’t read the book in question at all. How many of the hollering left actually read Ann Coulter’s recent book before they shouted from the rooftops, “Off with her head”?

Well, it appears this has happened with “The Path to 9/11,” and all those guilty of rendering an opinion without having seen it should be ashamed of themselves. This is especially true of those in the blogosphere that have fanned the fires of discontent concerning this program before it even aired.

Is this miniseries a perfectly accurate accounting of the events surrounding the attacks on our nation five years ago? I don’t know. As Brent Bozell said in his piece concerning this matter:

The movie is based on the report of the 9/11 Commission, which itself is not infallible in its conclusions on what went wrong and what needs to fixed. Moreover, up front the moviemakers note it has composite characters and manipulates the time of events for a better movie experience. As a "docudrama" it has taken certain poetic license with history.

The reality is that none of us knows all of the details surrounding this event, or leading up to it. Anyone that watched the 9/11 Commission hearings has to be aware that many of the witnesses from both administrations appeared unwilling to be completely candid. Was this due to a need to protect national security, or to cover one’s backside? Who knows? But, this Commission and everything surrounding it was highly politicized, and, as a result, we might never know all the facts.

In the end, “The Path to 9/11” is just a made-for-television docudrama…nothing more, nothing less. As such, rather than its existence further dividing our nation on the fifth anniversary of this solemn event, maybe we should all just watch it, and decide for ourselves its merit and veracity.

Update by Matthew Sheffield. Unfortunately for free speech, ABC bowed to threats from Democrats and edited out portions critical of the Clinton admin. See our NB megaroundup here.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.