Best Defense

Your questions for Crumpton — and his answers about Tora Bora, torture, Cheney, ‘Thunderball,’ and good books on intel

Tom: As I expected, your questions for former CIA officer Henry Crumpton, posted as comments or e-mailed to me, were better than mine. So you guys got to ask most of them. Here goes. Best Defense reader: Do you know who actually made the decision not to reinforce your people at the battle of Tora ...


Tom: As I expected, your questions for former CIA officer Henry Crumpton, posted as comments or e-mailed to me, were better than mine. So you guys got to ask most of them. Here goes.

Best Defense reader: Do you know who actually made the decision not to reinforce your people at the battle of Tora Bora? How engaged were Secretary Rumsfeld and President Bush in the operational details, and did they intervene at any point to specify a different approach or overrule General Franks?

Henry Crumpton: I spoke with General Tommy Franks, CENTCOM Commander, about the need for more American forces at Tora Bora within hours of the request from my men in Afghanistan. The details of that conversation are in the book. I do not know if he spoke with the president, secretary of defense, or others about my request.

Several days earlier I did have a conversation with President Bush in the Oval Office about the possibility of enemy leadership escaping into Pakistan. I showed him maps of the area with possible escape routes, explaining that it would be impossible to seal that border although I noted that more recon/interdiction forces would be helpful. We provided our best intelligence, including confirmation of UBL’s presence, and offered our best recommendation but this was ultimately a military decision. Finally, please note that the Tora Bora battle was an overwhelming U.S. victory with hundreds of the enemy killed and no U.S. KIA — but a victory blemished by UBL’s escape.

Best Defense reader: Why haven’t we experienced a Mumbai-like attack, with a suicidal group creating havoc in an urban area with small arms and explosives? Is something like that not important to any terrorist group (if not, why not), or are our defenses too effective, or something else?

Crumpton: The Mumbai style attack, with a team of well trained operatives armed with small arms attacking an urban area, has not happened primarily because UBL preferred a massive attack inside the U.S. against an iconic target, an attack with great symbolic and strategic value. Now that he is dead, there might be emerging AQ leaders who opt for more traditional commando-like attacks aimed at dispersed, soft targets. The 2009 attack at Fort Hood, with 13 dead, is one example of an isolated, successful terrorist attack in our homeland. There have been other attempts, including approximately 10 failed attacks in NYC in the last decade.

There would have been many more attempts, some probably successful, if not for our offensive CT operations abroad. There are daily operations in South Asia, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere, which keep the enemy at bay. Many of the enemy must worry about surviving (some of them, of course, do not survive) rather than attacking our homeland.

Tom: I know that torture has long existed and been used by governments. But I never thought that the United States would make the use of torture official policy. Do you think I am being naïve?

Crumpton: No, you are not naive. You raise an important point, which prompts important questions. What is torture? (My personal view is that none of the U.S. government approved enhanced interrogation techniques were torture — except for water boarding.) Are these techniques effective? (I have no experience in these operations, but many CIA officers whom I trust believe that they are useful. In my role as an intelligence customer while coordinator of counterterrorism at the department of state, I benefited from many reports that came from CIA detainees.) If these techniques are effective, should we use them? (This is a decision for the U.S. policy makers, reflecting the will of the American people, because it goes to who we are as a society. The CIA and even the president alone certainly should not make the decision. In our deliberations we must ask what price we will pay for intelligence. And, what price will we pay for not using such techniques.)

Best Defense reader: It appears likely [Crumpton] crossed paths with Ali Soufan, the former FBI agent who has been a critic of CIA. I wonder what Crumpton’s opinion of Soufan’s reliability might be.

Crumpton: Yes, I did encounter Ali Soufan when he deployed as part of a large FBI contingent to Aden, Yemen, in October 2000 to investigate the al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole. I was there leading the CIA response team. My impression of him at that time was positive: He was knowledgeable, hard working, and his Arabic language was especially useful. I have no way of measuring his reliability, however, during that time or more recently. I have not read his book or otherwise paid attention to whatever criticism of the CIA he has made.

Best Defense reader: Was Osama bin Laden’s significance known or understood at the time he was in Sudan? Why did President Clinton decline Sudan’s offer to turn him over to us? 

Crumpton: The CIA knew about bin Laden and his emerging role as a terrorist leader when he was in Sudan. There was extensive intelligence reporting about him. I cannot measure the specific impact of that intelligence, however, on the policy makers who received the reporting — although I can surmise it was minimal given the weak policy response then and throughout the coming years, until 9/11.  

Tom: Was VP Cheney’s office a help or a hindrance to your operations?

Crumpton: The vice-president seemed quietly supportive of our Afghanistan campaign during the fall of 2001. He seemed to endorse my briefings with nods of approval and occasional constructive questions and comments. He was always polite and encouraging to me in these meetings. His leadership role in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, however, set back our efforts in Afghanistan and hurt our intelligence and foreign policy relationships with many Middle Eastern and other allies.

Best Defense reader: What do you miss most about the clandestine life? 

Crumpton: My friends in the CIA, other U.S. government organizations, and foreign allies, including some heroic unilateral sources. I do not miss U.S. government employment. My 26-year run was wonderful, the realization of a boyhood dream to serve our nation. But, now, I love the private sector, especially serving some great clients with great missions of delivering free market power to many parts of the world. I also love the creative freedom and opportunities available to a small business leader and entrepreneur.

Tom: Which national security commentators do you follow, if any?

Crumpton: David Ignatius, Fareed Zakaria (read his book: The Future of Freedom), Tom Friedman, Elliot Cohen, Peggy Noonan, Steve Coll, David Brooks, Lee Kwan Yew, Joseph Nye, Martin Indyk, James Fallows, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and of course Sun Tzu. 

Tom: What is the origin of the feud between you and David Kilcullen?

Crumpton: I did not know there was a feud. Perhaps a brief history? I met David at a Johns Hopkins SAIS conference in 2005 and soon thereafter hired him as a strategist working for me when I was the coordinator for counterterrorism at the department of state. This was an unprecedented bureaucratic and political feat — hiring an Australian national in that new role — thanks to the intervention of DNI John Negroponte and others. This effort, I believe, helped advance the important security relations with one of our most important and effective allies, Australia. David proved very competent and worked tirelessly, helping me develop regionally-based counterterroism strategies.

In early 2007 General David Petraeus called me and asked if I would loan David to him, to help craft a counterinsurgency plan for Iraq. I agreed. A couple of years later, after I had launched my consulting firm, I hired David again. He worked for me in that private sector capacity for a year, then departed to pursue other work. I hope that he will continue to contribute to our collective understanding of irregular warfare.

Best Defense readers: What is your favorite movie about intelligence operations? Your favorite novel? And which do you think are the worst? 

Crumpton: Movies. Thunderball….okay…okay….not a great instructive film or a great work of art, but it had a profound influence upon me as a young boy and helped inform my dreams of national service and grand adventure. One of the great suspenseful espionage movies: North by Northwest. One of the worst spy movies: Syriana.  

Books. The novel Body of Lies by David Ignatius, particularly the focus on the relationship between the CIA operations officer and foreign liaison chief, and the operations officer and a local unilateral agent. Other novelists such as Le Carre and Greene are superb artists but I grow weary of the pitiful moral angst, self-loathing, and pessimism that permeates their novels. For a great instructive biography, read Sir Richard Francis Burton by Edward Rice. What a brilliant, brave operative who epitomized empathetic understanding of diverse cultures and the collection of deep, profound intelligence. The worst spy book . . . too many to list.

Best Defense reader: What advice would you give to a young person who wants to become an analyst for the CIA?

Crumpton: Know yourself. If you don’t get that right, nothing else matters including your analytical judgments, which will be skewed and contorted. Knowing yourself requires constant testing and measurement, which only happens in stressful, real-life environments. So get out of the classroom and employ and hone your intellectual virtue. Then, reflect upon your actions, recalibrate your course as needed, and practice and practice with deliberate reasoning, emotional value, and enthusiastic optimism. Never quit — while remembering that a sense of discipline will keep you alive and a sense of humor will keep you sane.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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