Senior CIA officer says efforts against al-Qaida still lag

Friday, September 17th 2004, 6:31 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A senior CIA officer says bad decisions, understaffing and infighting among intelligence agencies stifled efforts to stop Osama bin Laden and his network. More than three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the agency remains short-staffed, he says.

In an unusually critical campaign for a government employee, Mike Scheuer has spent much of the last three months publicly criticizing his agency. Most government officials wait until they retire, as former National Security Council aide Richard Clarke did.

In July, Scheuer, head of the CIA's bin Laden unit until 1999, published his best-selling book ``Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror.'' Then, he was only identified as ``Anonymous.''

Last week, Scheuer sent the Senate Intelligence Committee a six-page letter accusing senior career civil servants of failing to ensure the ``optimal performance'' of the U.S. intelligence community and of missing opportunities to stop bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist group and prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Scheuer lists 10 management and leadership problems in the letter, delivered just before the confirmation hearing of President Bush's nominee to run the CIA, Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla. A congressional source provided a copy to The Associated Press this week.

``There has been no systematic effort to groom al-Qaida expertise among Directorate of Operations officers since 11 September,'' Scheuer writes, referring to the CIA's most famous division, its clandestine service. ``Today, the unit is greatly understaffed because of a 'hiring freeze' and the rotation of large numbers of officers in and out of the unit every 60 to 90 days.''

He says experienced officers do less work and become trainers for officers who leave before they are qualified for the mission. Senior CIA managers running operations against al-Qaida have made pleas for more officers, Scheuer says.

The CIA declined to comment on Scheuer's statements.

An intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Scheuer met numerous times with a commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks and made the criticisms found in his letter. The official said the clandestine service has more officers working against al-Qaida at headquarters and overseas than before the Sept. 11 attacks, and also has more expertise on al-Qaida.

At his confirmation hearing, Goss said he reached conclusions similar to Scheuer's and sees a need to improve the CIA's human intelligence capabilities: ``They are our best bet for dealing with the war on terrorism,'' Goss said.

In his letter, Scheuer details past intelligence woes. He says the CIA initially suppressed a 1996 report about al-Qaida's unsuccessful efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that an abbreviated version was circulated within the intelligence community following internal protests.

He also describes disputes between the CIA and another intelligence agency over access to al-Qaida communications intercepts.

Scheuer complains that the bin Laden unit was ordered to disband in spring 1998, leading many there to look for jobs just before the East Africa embassy bombings in August. Then-CIA Director George Tenet intervened and kept the unit open.

Scheuer says intelligence officers were transferred at critical times, and the military wouldn't provide U.S. special-operations experts to help plan actions against al-Qaida.

When Scheuer wrote his book, he was initially only allowed to be identified as ``Anonymous.'' He did a series of television interviews with his face darkened and print interviews on the condition he not be identified. Gradually, his identity has come out.

In an AP interview in June, speaking anonymously, the author said he saw a ``denigration in my responsibilities'' over the last five years. This week, his editor, Christina Davidson of Brassey's Inc., said he is considering leaving the agency.

``The anonymous author of Imperial Hubris is very close to resignation for a number of reasons, including denial of interviews,'' said Davidson, who is still bound by an agreement with the CIA not to identify Scheuer.