Best Defense

The CIA people who found bin Laden: What they’re thinking about what they did

The CIA people who found bin Laden: What they’re thinking about what they did

During the summer, the Best Defense is in re-runs. Here are some favorites that ran in late 2012 and in 2013. This item originally ran on April 19, 2013.  

The other night I went to a preview of Manhunt, a HBO documentary that will air on that network on May 1 and thereafter many times on CNN.

The documentary was like a high-class version of a Frontline episode, filmed and edited well, with expensive touches like music. One of the themes was how many of the analysts who targeted bin Laden were women. Another was how isolated it felt to be in the CIA after 9/11. Overall, I found the film a great document, but too inclined to give the CIA a pass, especially on the issue of torture and on some specifics, such as how the Khost bombing that killed seven CIA officers in December 2009 was allowed to happen.

But what I want to talk about today was the discussion following the film, which was even more interesting. (I took notes, having asked Peter Bergen, the documentary’s executive producer, beforehand if I could, and was told yes.) It felt historic, a bit like being in the same room with the D-Day planners.

It also felt a bit like an encounter group. Clearly there had been strong disagreements within the CIA about the course they took:

  • Phillip Mudd, a former deputy director of counterterrorism at the CIA, began the conversation by saying he was not proud of what they did but that they did what they believed they had to do.
  • John McLaughlin, who was deputy director of the CIA on 9/11, recalled “how alone the CIA felt” in the years following the attacks.
  • Susan Hasler, who used to write the daily intel brief for the president, followed with a twist on that: “It was extremely lonely….We just didn’t understand why we were going into Iraq” in 2003.
  • Jose Rodriguez, a former director of the CIA’s clandestine operations, also was in the audience. He is remembered today as the man who ordered the destruction of the videotapes of some post-9/11 CIA interrogations. In the documentary, he downplays the significance of waterboarding. In the post-showing discussion, he said that, “We took a lot of risks, but we were successful.”
  • Another guy with a Southern accent, whose name I didn’t quite catch (I don’t know the intel world nearly as well as I know the military world — he’s probably a big name), said, “We destroyed the enemy. However we cannot kill them all.” So, he said, “We have to give people hope…in Kabul, in Gaza, in their own neighborhoods.” This was a kind of theme of the end of the discussion — that the CIA did what it could tactically, but that for long-term success, there has to be a national strategy that they couldn’t provide.

What I found myself wondering as I listened to all this was a question an Army officer who worked on Guantanamo issues asked me years ago: How can you win a war for your values by using tactics that undermine them?

At the end of the discussion, I turned to the woman standing next to me, who I think had just been identified in the film as the chief bin Laden hunter. “So, are you Jessica Chastain?” I asked, referring to the actress who played that role in Zero Dark Thirty. (Yes, I know, on reflection, it was a stupid way to put it. I have been told that the Chastain character was a composite of several of the CIA women, including Jennifer Matthews, who was killed in the Khost bombing.)

“No,” the woman replied, “Jessica Chastain wasn’t there.” Great answer!