At CIA, a convert to Islam leads the terrorism hunt

March 24, 2012

For every cloud of smoke that follows a CIA drone strike in Pakistan, dozens of smaller plumes can be traced to a gaunt figure standing in a courtyard near the center of the agency’s Langley campus in Virginia.

The man with the nicotine habit is in his late 50s, with stubble on his face and the dark-suited wardrobe of an undertaker. As chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center for the past six years, he has functioned in a funereal capacity for al-Qaeda.

Roger, which is the first name of his cover identity, may be the most consequential but least visible national security official in Washington — the principal architect of the CIA’s drone campaign and the leader of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. In many ways, he has also been the driving force of the Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killing as a centerpiece of its counterterrorism efforts.

Colleagues describe Roger as a collection of contradictions. A chain-smoker who spends countless hours on a treadmill. Notoriously surly yet able to win over enough support from subordinates and bosses to hold on to his job. He presides over a campaign that has killed thousands of Islamist militants and angered millions of Muslims, but he is himself a convert to Islam.

His defenders don’t even try to make him sound likable. Instead, they emphasize his operational talents, encyclopedic understanding of the enemy and tireless work ethic.

“Irascible is the nicest way I would describe him,” said a former high-ranking CIA official who supervised the counterterrorism chief. “But his range of experience and relationships have made him about as close to indispensable as you could think.”

Critics are less equivocal. “He’s sandpaper” and “not at all a team player,” said a former senior U.S. military official who worked closely with the CIA. Like others, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the director of CTC — as the center is known — remains undercover.

Remarkable endurance

Regardless of Roger’s management style, there is consensus on at least two adjectives that apply to his tenure: eventful and long.

Since becoming chief, Roger has worked for two presidents, four CIA directors and four directors of national intelligence. In the top echelons of national security, only Robert S. Mueller III, who became FBI director shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has been in place longer.

Roger’s longevity is all the more remarkable, current and former CIA officials said, because the CTC job is one of the agency’s most stressful and grueling. It involves managing thousands of employees, monitoring dozens of operations abroad and making decisions on who the agency should target in lethal strikes — all while knowing that the CTC director will be among the first to face blame if there is another attack on U.S. soil.

Most of Roger’s predecessors, including Cofer Black and Robert Grenier, lasted less than three years. There have been rumors in recent weeks that Roger will soon depart as well, perhaps to retire, although similar speculation has surfaced nearly every year since he took the job.

The CIA declined to comment on Roger’s status or provide any information on him for this article. Roger declined repeated requests for an interview. The Post agreed to withhold some details, including Roger’s real name, his full cover identity and his age, at the request of agency officials, who cited concerns for his safety. Although CIA officials often have their cover identities removed when they join the agency’s senior ranks, Roger has maintained his.

A native of suburban Virginia, Roger grew up in a family where several members, across two generations, have worked at the agency.

When his own career began in 1979, at the CIA’s southern Virginia training facility, known as The Farm, Roger showed little of what he would become. A training classmate recalled him as an underperformer who was pulled aside by instructors and admonished to improve.

“Folks on the staff tended to be a little down on him,” the former classmate said. He was “kind of a pudgy guy. He was getting very middling grades on his written work. If anything, he seemed to be almost a little beaten down.”

His first overseas assignments were in Africa, where the combination of dysfunctional governments, bloody tribal warfare and minimal interference from headquarters provided experience that would prove particularly useful in the post-Sept. 11 world. Many of the agency’s most accomplished counterterrorism operatives, including Black and Richard Blee, cut their teeth in Africa as well.

“It’s chaotic, and it requires you to understand that and deal with it psychologically,” said a former Africa colleague. Roger developed an “enormous amount of expertise in insurgencies, tribal politics, warfare — writing hundreds of intelligence reports.”

He also married a Muslim woman he met abroad, prompting his conversion to Islam. Colleagues said he doesn’t shy away from mentioning his religion but is not demonstrably observant. There is no prayer rug in his office, officials said, although he is known to clutch a strand of prayer beads.

Roger was not part of the first wave of CIA operatives deployed after the Sept. 11 attacks, and he never served in any of the agency’s “black sites,” where al-Qaeda prisoners were held and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques.

But in subsequent years, he was given a series of high-profile assignments, including chief of operations for the CTC, chief of station in Cairo, and the top agency post in Baghdad at the height of the Iraq war.

Along the way, he has clashed with high-ranking figures, including David H. Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, who at times objected to the CIA’s more pessimistic assessments of those wars. Former CIA officials said the two had to patch over their differences when Petraeus became CIA director.

“No officer in the agency has been more relentless, focused, or committed to the fight against al-Qaeda than has the chief of the Counterterrorism Center,” Petraeus said in a statement provided to The Post.

Harsh, profane demeanor

By 2006, the campaign against al-Qaeda was foundering. Military and intelligence resources had been diverted to Iraq. The CIA’s black sites had been exposed, and allegations of torture would force the agency to shut down its detention and interrogation programs. Meanwhile, the Pakistani government was arranging truces with tribal leaders that were allowing al-Qaeda to regroup.

Inside agency headquarters, a bitter battle between then-CTC chief Robert Grenier and the head of the clandestine service, Jose Rodriguez, was playing out. Rodriguez regarded Grenier as too focused on interagency politics, while Grenier felt forced to deal with issues such as the fate of the interrogation program and the CIA prisoners at the black sites. Resources in Pakistan were relatively scarce: At times, the agency had only three working Predator drones.

In February that year, Grenier was forced out. Rodriguez “wanted somebody who would be more ‘hands on the throttle,’ ” said a former CIA official familiar with the decision. Roger was given the job and, over time, the resources, to give the throttle a crank.

Grenier declined to comment.

Stylistically, Grenier and Roger were opposites. Grenier gave plaques and photos with dignitaries prominent placement in his office, while Roger eschewed any evidence that he had a life outside the agency. Once, when someone gave him a cartoon sketch of himself — the kind you can buy from sidewalk vendors — he crumpled it up and threw it away, according to a former colleague, saying, “I don’t like depictions of myself.”

His main addition to the office was a hideaway bed.

From the outset, Roger seemed completely absorbed by the job — arriving for work before dawn to read operational cables from overseas and staying well into the night, if he left at all. His once-pudgy physique became almost cadaverous. Although he had quit smoking a decade or so earlier, his habit returned full strength.

He could be profane and brutal toward subordinates, micromanaging operations, second-guessing even the smallest details of plans, berating young analysts for shoddy work. “This is the worst cable I’ve ever seen,” was a common refrain.

Given his attention to operational detail, Roger is seen by some as culpable for one of the agency’s most tragic events — the deaths of seven CIA employees at the hands of a suicide bomber who was invited to a meeting at a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, in December 2009.

An internal review concluded that the assailant, a Jordanian double-agent who promised breakthrough intelligence on al-Qaeda leaders, had not been fully vetted, and it cited failures of “management oversight.” But neither Roger nor other senior officers were mentioned by name.

One of those killed, Jennifer Matthews, was a highly regarded analyst and protege of Roger’s who had been installed as chief of the base despite a lack of operational experience overseas. A person familiar with the inquiry said that “the CTC chief’s selection of [Matthews] was one of a great number of things one could point to that were weaknesses in the way the system operated.”

Khost represented the downside of the agency’s desperation for new ways to penetrate al-Qaeda, an effort that was intensified under President Obama.

Roger’s connection to Khost and his abrasive manner may have cost him — he has been passed over for promotions several times, including for the job he is thought to have wanted most: director of the National Clandestine Service, which is responsible for all CIA operations overseas.

‘A new flavor of activity’

But current and former senior U.S. intelligence officials said it is no accident that Roger’s tenure has coincided with a remarkably rapid disintegration of al-Qaeda — and the killing of bin Laden last year.

When Michael V. Hayden became CIA director in May 2006, Roger began laying the groundwork for an escalation of the drone campaign. Over a period of months, the CTC chief used regular meetings with the director to make the case that intermittent strikes were allowing al-Qaeda to recover and would never destroy the threat.

“He was relentless,” said a participant in the meetings. Roger argued that the CIA needed to mount an air campaign against al-Qaeda “at a pace they could not absorb” and warned that “after the next attack, there would be no explaining our inaction.”

Under Hayden, the agency abandoned the practice of notifying the Pakistanis before launching strikes, and the trajectory began to change: from three strikes in 2006 to 35 in 2008.

A second proposal from the CTC chief, a year or so later, had even greater impact.

“He came in with a big idea on a cold, rainy Friday afternoon,” said a former high-ranking CIA official involved in drone operations. “It was a new flavor of activity, and had to do with taking senior terrorists off the battlefield.”

The former official declined to describe the activity. But others said the CTC chief proposed launching what came to be known as “signature strikes,” meaning attacks on militants based solely on their patterns of behavior.

Previously, the agency had needed confirmation of the presence of an approved al-Qaeda target before it could shoot. With permission from the White House, it would begin hitting militant gatherings even when it wasn’t clear that a specific operative was in the drone’s crosshairs.

Roger’s relentless approach meshed with the Obama mind-set. Shortly after taking office, Obama met with his first CIA director, Leon E. Panetta, and ordered a redoubled effort in the fight against al-Qaeda and the search for the terrorist group’s elusive leader.

From 53 strikes in 2009, the number soared to 117 in 2010, before tapering off last year.

The cumulative toll helped to crumple al-Qaeda even as CTC analysts finally found a courier trail that led them to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Roger does not appear in any of the pictures taken inside the White House situation room when bin Laden was killed last May. Officials said he stayed in place at CIA headquarters and barely allowed himself to exult.

For all the focus on “kinetic” operations during Roger’s tenure, “he believes this is not a war you’re going to be able to kill your way out of,” said a former colleague. To him, “There is no end in sight.”

When the bin Laden operation concluded, he stepped outside to smoke.

Staff writer Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Greg Miller covers the intelligence beat for The Washington Post.
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