In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, CIA analysts were ordered repeatedly to redo intelligence assessments concluded that Al Qaeda had no operational ties to Iraq, according to a veteran CIA counter-terrorism official who has written a book that is sharply critical of the decision to go to war with Iraq.
Agency analysts never altered their conclusions, but saw the pressure to revisit their work as a clear indication that Bush administration officials were seeking a different answer regarding Iraq and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the CIA officer said in an interview with The Times.
“We on the Bin Laden side [of the agency’s analytic ranks] were required repeatedly to check, double-check and triple-check our files about a connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq,” said the officer, who spoke on condition that he be identified only by his first name, Mike.
Asked whether he attributed the demands to an eagerness among officials at the White House or the Pentagon to find evidence of a link, he said: “You could not help but assume that was the case. They knew the answer [they wanted] before they asked the question.”
The officer is the author of a forthcoming book titled, “Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror,” published by Brassey’s Inc. of Dulles, Va. He is listed as “Anonymous” on the book, which describes him as a “senior U.S. intelligence official with nearly two decades of experience in national security issues.”
The author has held a number of high-ranking agency positions, including serving from 1996 to 1999 as head of a special unit tracking Bin Laden.
The book was approved for publication by the CIA after a four-month review -- creating an unusual situation in which one of the secretive agency’s senior officers was offering public criticism of administration policies and the prosecution of the war on terrorism.
CIA spokesman Bill Harlow emphasized that the opinions in the book were those of the author, not the agency. He acknowledged that the book’s publication was awkward for an agency that sought to be apolitical, but that the CIA found no classified material in it, and therefore allowed its release.
Some have questioned the author’s motives, noting that he was removed as head of the Bin Laden unit in 1999 over concerns about his performance. An intelligence official who has worked with the author at the CIA said that he might have been embittered by his removal, but that “people tend to think of him as a straight shooter.”
Mike said he was removed from the post because agency leaders “thought I was too myopic, too intense, too aggressive.” He declined to elaborate. But he insisted that he did not write the book to settle scores.
“The important thing to me is that we’re missing the boat on this issue,” he said.
The book has created a stir in intelligence and policymaking circles for its scathing critique of U.S. efforts after the Sept. 11 attacks. In the book, Mike writes that the war in Afghanistan was in many respects a failure because the United States waited nearly a month to launch the invasion -- allowing Al Qaeda operatives to flee -- and relied heavily on proxy Afghan forces that were not always loyal to the U.S. cause.
The book asserts that invading Iraq has inflamed anti-American sentiment to such a degree that it is minting a new generation of terrorists.
“We have waged two failed half-wars and, in doing so, left Afghanistan and Iraq seething with anti-U.S. sentiment, fertile grounds for the expansion of Al Qaeda and kindred groups,” he writes.
In an interview this week, Mike, who has close-cropped hair and a beard, said Monday’s transfer of authority to Iraq was likely to do little to curtail insurgent attacks.
“Iraq, with or without a transfer of power, will be a mujahedin magnet as long as whatever government is there is dependent on America’s sword,” he said, adding that he thought his view was widely shared among counter-terrorism officials at the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
The stealth manner in which sovereignty was transferred this week in Iraq -- in a surprise ceremony two days ahead of schedule involving L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, and the country’s interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi -- also sent a weak signal, he said.
“From Bin Laden’s perspective, we were afraid they were going to attack us and we left like a thief in the night, with Bremer throwing the keys to Allawi,” he said. “They can only see this as a victory.”
Mike’s criticism of the war in Iraq echoes that of other prominent counter-terrorism officials, including former White House aide Richard A. Clarke. But he is the first active CIA official to make the criticism publicly, albeit anonymously. Mike, however, faulted Clarke and others who served in the Clinton administration for failing to mount operations to capture or kill Bin Laden when the CIA had intelligence on his whereabouts.
He said he thought Bin Laden would have been extremely reluctant to enter a collaborative relationship with Hussein, in part because he saw Iraq’s military and spying services as inferior, incapable of protecting the security of Al Qaeda plans and operations.
Mike said that because he did not work in the agency’s Iraq section, he could not assess the accuracy of claims that analysts were pressured by the White House to tailor their assessments of Iraq’s alleged illicit weapons programs to help make the case for war. Despite being forced to redo their work several times, he said, counter-terrorism analysts never altered their conclusion that Iraq was not working with Al Qaeda.
“There was pressure to perform. But to its credit, the intelligence community as a whole said there was nothing” to suggest a collaborative relationship, he said. “The director on down insisted we call it straight.”
Mike still serves in the agency’s counter-terrorism center, but acknowledges that he has been marginalized. “I get invited to speak” on counter-terrorism at the Defense Department, the FBI and the National Security Agency, he said, “but not within my own building.”
He wrote an earlier book, also anonymously, on Bin Laden and Islamic terrorism that was titled, “Through Our Enemies’ Eyes.”