A review of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, by Steve Coll
A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies, by James Bamford


In his long and interesting book, Steve Coll, the managing editor of the Washington Post and formerly the paper's South Asia bureau chief, tells a frustrating tale remarkably similar to the one recounted in the 9/11 Commission's report. When the United States fought by proxy in Afghanistan in the early 1980s, it did as the British had done in the 19th century, using Pashtun tribesmen against the Russians. After the Russians left, the U.S. retreated from Afghanistan and, following the Saudis' and especially the Pakistanis' lead, shifted its support to various Islamic militants, many of whom were enemies of its former allies. Out of these Islamic militants came the Taliban, who in 1994 started their conquest of Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden, who returned to Afghanistan in 1996, soon became the power behind the Taliban. "At the end of this twisted road lay September 2001," Coll writes, after which, in order to respond to the attacks, the United States had to cobble together in desperate circumstances the same alliance with the militants' enemies that it could have had a decade earlier, and with which it might have avoided the attacks to which it was now responding.

Ghost Wars appeared several months before the 9/11 Commission's report and is superior to it in several ways. Coll's volume is more focused than the Commission's report, and his judgments of the characters involved—various political figures, bureaucrats, and spies—are more blunt. He concentrates, shrewdly, on the CIA's relationship to Pakistan, on the one hand, and to the White House, on the other. As a result, he sheds valuable new light on two key and ultimately related issues surrounding 9/11: the Clinton Administration's culpability, and our problems with human intelligence and covert action.

Ghost Wars makes clear that the Clinton Administration never focused on Afghanistan, even as it became aware that the Taliban and bin Laden were a growing problem. Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons, restive Muslim extremists, and fraught relationship with India, was more important to the United States than Afghanistan was. America, therefore, had reasons to see events in Afghanistan through Pakistani eyes. To the extent the Clinton Administration cared about Afghanistan and thus wanted to reach some sort of accommodation with the Taliban, it was only due to concern about Afghan women's rights, drug trafficking, or the oil from Central Asia that might pass through the country. In short, bin Laden was never at the top of the U.S. agenda. When Clinton visited Islamabad late in his second term, after the embassy bombings in August 1998, he focused on Pakistan's nuclear weapons and its economy. Taking care of bin Laden was a third-order issue at best.

Since 9/11, it has become customary to blame the CIA and the intelligence community for failing to warn us about the threat that bin Laden posed. If the CIA had been more effective in collecting intelligence on al-Qaeda, so the argument goes, then decision makers would have seen the threat and responded accordingly. Coll's account shows that the CIA, or the portion of it most directly involved in fighting bin Laden, was, as it should have been, ahead of the Clinton Administration in understanding the threat. By the early 1990s, the CIA was reporting on Arab training camps in Paktia province, Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. By 1995, the CIA was telling administration officials that bin Laden was a threat, but in that year neither bin Laden nor al-Qaeda was on the Clinton Administration's list of terrorist groups interfering in the Middle East peace process. In January 1996, the CIA opened a special office to work against bin Laden. By the end of 1997, it was trying to target him in Afghanistan. But in the fall of 1997, neither bin Laden nor al-Qaeda was on the list of foreign terrorist organizations published by the U. S. government. By early 1998, a plan was in place to capture bin Laden using surrogate forces but, Coll concludes, "Clinton himself hung back. He goaded [Richard] Clarke's efforts with 'need to do more'-style notations on the margins of National Security Council memos, but he never insisted on final plans or attack decisions."

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To be sure, Coll does not exonerate the CIA or its leadership. About the latter, he reports that even after then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet "declared war on al-Qaeda," he cut the Agency's budget for fighting terrorism. Coll does, however, put the CIA's failings into perspective. For example, the Directorate of Operations or D.O., the part of the agency that collects human intelligence and carries out covert activities, is often described as gun-shy, unwilling to take risks. After reading Coll's account of the wrangling in the White House over what kinds of force were legal in which circumstances and the "legalistic, restrictive and ambiguous" authorizations that resulted, one can at least sympathize with the Agency's officers who felt that they should be cautious. When the Agency developed a specific plan to capture bin Laden in Afghanistan, the Clinton White House would not authorize it. Finally, over the years, Congressional hearings and the imposition of various review procedures within the D.O. created (not inadvertently) an atmosphere of caution, and at worst actively discouraged risk-taking. Given this history, today's calls for the D.O. to recover the elan and daring of bygone days are incorrectly addressed to the D.O. Its lack of daring is largely a function of political will and leadership.

This becomes even clearer if we consider what happened after 9/11. The attacks created the will to go after bin Laden and al-Qaeda. As was reported in the press, President Bush authorized the CIA to take what some inside the D.O. have described as unprecedented actions to strike at the terrorists. While some of the senior leadership of al-Qaeda remain at large, the D.O. has killed or captured an impressive number of its leaders and cadre. But everything that the D.O. has done since 9/11 could have been done before it. The difference is the political will to act. This does not mean, of course, had the Bush Administration come into office in, say, 1996, that 9/11 would not have happened. Like the rest of the government and the country at large, the Bush team needed the spur of 9/11 to focus on bin Laden's threat.

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Of course, what appears to be a lack of political resolve might instead have been a lack of confidence in the CIA. The U.S. government tended to see Afghanistan through Pakistani eyes for good reasons. For these same reasons, the D.O. worked through the Pakistanis. But it also had no choice. It could work independently in Afghanistan only with great difficulty and only through surrogates—Afghans it had worked with and trained during the fight against the Soviets. For reasons that Coll explains, the Clinton White House and others had doubts about the surrogates' competence and reliability. This undermined Clinton's willingness to use them against bin Laden. In the struggle against al-Qaeda before 9/11, we relied so heavily on the Pakistanis, with such damaging consequences, because we could not operate in Afghanistan by ourselves; we could not do it by ourselves because the Clinton Administration lacked the will to authorize the D.O. to do it; the administration lacked the will, at least in part, because for good reasons it did not believe that the D.O. could do it.

Why was the D.O. so incapable? There is no evidence that the D.O. has ever had the capability to do what was needed to get bin Laden in Afghanistan. The standard explanation, to which Coll only alludes, is that the D.O. continues to rely on officers operating under official cover from embassies who meet and recruit people who have information we need. This was fine for the old European world of nation-states, but it is completely inadequate for the world of non-state terrorists and drug traffickers that we now confront. Bin Laden and his cadre do not attend embassy cocktail parties. The current model of spying is especially inadequate, according to the standard explanation, when there is no embassy in the country where our enemies are operating (Afghanistan) or the country is a totalitarian police state (Iraq) and we do not have the freedom to meet the right kind of people. In these cases, we simply have no access. One final element in the now common criticism of the current model is that the emphasis on recruiting (promotions depend on recruiting) has led to the reporting of false recruitments and ultimately to an organization run by people with no integrity, who manage the cynical and demoralized.

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James Bamford's latest book sheds some light on these problems, despite itself. Supposedly an exposé of how the Bush Administration abused our intelligence agencies and twisted intelligence reporting to justify war with Iraq, A Pretext for War fails to support its principal thesis in sufficient detail to carry much weight. What we get instead is a lot of innuendo and blatant bias. 

Bamford does present some information useful for anyone interested in understanding what the D.O. is like and what true reform of it will require. Like many people (including Reuel Marc Gerecht in the Weekly Standard), Bamford touts the effectiveness of D.O. officers who do not work out of embassies under official cover. He offers lengthy excerpts from interviews he conducted with such officers, in which they explain why they should be used more. This argument has a surface plausibility. In presenting it, however, Bamford actually ends up revealing to his readers most of the problems with such non-official cover officers. Apparently, he does not realize this, blinded as he is by his desire to make the Bush Administration appear incompetent. In any event, he does nothing to help his readers notice or think through the problems of operating against non-state actors or police states. 

Nor, one must say, does Gerecht in his accumulating writings in the Weekly Standard. After reciting the standard explanation for the weakness of our human intelligence capabilities, Gerecht offers his alternative: the CIA must hire new employees who are like the terrorists culturally and who can operate outside official cover, slowly working their way into terrorist organizations. Gerecht notes without explanation or detail that the whole system for "finding, training, and deploying" such people needs a complete overhaul. He also states without explanation that these people will need to be paid considerably more than they are now—as much, he reckons, as a quarter-million dollars a year. Perhaps this is to compensate them for the dangers they will face: he predicts that some of them will die on the job. 

In laying out this alternative, Gerecht, like Bamford, does not seem aware of the enormous problems his scheme would generate. It may well take this new breed of case officer several years to penetrate the terrorist organizations. How will the CIA maintain control and direction over them during this time? If we give these new case officers "a license to kill," how will the CIA or the president know that the killing they do actually serves some broader strategic interest? This is not a moral question, though that question remains, but a matter of knowing whether the killings by the new case officers actually accomplish what the U.S. government intends. More generally, how will the CIA know that its new case officers are making progress? How will it vet them? How will it know that they have not gone over to the other side or to some third party? Why could these new case officers, facing great dangers if they carry out their mission, not take the quarter-million for several years while pretending to seek access to the terrorists, and then suddenly announce that they would like to resign? 

We may be able to come up with good answers to these questions, but if we do, it will not be because we spend time imagining romantic derring-do. The key to answering these questions is altogether mundane: bureaucracy, or rather the recognition that we must understand how human beings operate in organizations. Even "human intelligence" is a bureaucratic activity and should be, since that is an important part of ensuring both democratic accountability and operational control. 

These questions concerning Bamford's motives and Gerecht's solutions are not intended, of course, to let America's human intelligence capability off the hook. Coll's book makes clear just how much our capability needs improvement by its factual, careful presentation of the U.S. government's failed efforts to take action against al-Qaeda. No doubt those, like Gerecht, who believe that more derring-do is necessary will be impatient with talk of bureaucracy. But starting with the bureaucratic issues does not mean that we will never get to the derring-do. It just improves the chances that such efforts will amount to something.