Losing bin Laden

Northern Alliance forces battle Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Nov. 27, 2001
Northern Alliance forces battle Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Nov. 27, 2001 (Getty Photo From "Jawbreaker")
Reviewed by John Lehman
Sunday, February 12, 2006


The Attack on Bin Laden and al-Qaeda:

A Personal Account by the CIA's Key Field Commander

By Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo

Crown. 328 pp. $25.95

The U.S. campaign in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda will certainly go down in history as a brilliantly executed military victory in an entirely new age of warfare. But its glory was a bit marred, just as in Operation Desert Storm, by the failure to kill or capture Dr. Evil. Despite a huge and costly effort by the media, the public still has an incomplete picture of what really happened during the first post-9/11 war and of how Osama bin Laden survived it. While not intended to be a comprehensive history of the campaign, Gary Berntsen's Jawbreaker provides a valuable new account by a major participant that fills in many blanks.

Berntsen was a top CIA field commander in the most critical sector of a new kind of war. What made the Afghan campaign a landmark in U.S. military history is that it was prosecuted by Special Operations forces from all the services, along with Navy and Air Force tactical airpower; operations by the Afghan Northern Alliance and the CIA were equally important and fully integrated. No large Army or Marine force was employed. The complex campaign had not been practiced or war-gamed before 9/11, but despite the inevitable conflicts and shouting matches, the different elements of American might came together brilliantly. Berntsen exemplified this new synergy; at various times, the CIA veteran had elements of the Delta Force, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs and tactical air units reporting to him.

This field commander was straight from central casting: a hell-raising kid who found himself during military service and was later recruited by the CIA and served as an operative for 22 years. Berntsen's counterterrorist philosophy is simple and straightforward: "Focus on those groups that pose an immediate threat and strike them quickly; understand that the risks cannot be removed even though CIA and political leadership will always gravitate towards risk-free solutions." His story is a comforting reminder that underneath the ponderous and bloated Washington intelligence bureaucracy, there are still doers and risk-takers who fear neither Washington bureaucrats nor al Qaeda -- and are eager to get in harm's way.

In 2000, Berntsen had led a promising effort to work with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance "to capture a bin Laden lieutenant." But the operation was called off, for which he blasts CIA Director George Tenet and President Clinton for lacking "the will to wage a real fight against terrorists who were killing U.S. citizens." Berntsen was withdrawn and sent to a comfortable position as CIA station chief in a country in Latin America. After 9/11, Berntsen immediately began jostling to get to the center of the strike against al Qaeda. He got his wish and was one of the first senior CIA officials inserted into Afghanistan.

Unlike the public image of the self-effacing spy always lurking in the shadows, the CIA operatives I have known have never been shy about tooting their own horn. Berntsen shares that characteristic hubris, and Jawbreaker is written (with the help of Ralph Pezzullo) in the first-person singular from start to finish. "In the past, I've stopped dozens of bombings and assassinations overseas," Berntsen brags. "I've also hunted down and captured terrorists from various groups. These are CIA successes that were never reported in the news."

Although the book dwells on such successes, Crown Publishers has chosen unnecessarily to position it as a diatribe that the CIA tried to suppress. In fact, while the CIA dragged its feet in reviewing the manuscript for classified material and redacted plenty of specifics, the book is hardly an attack on the CIA. Perhaps unintentionally, Berntsen demonstrates that the agency employed quite a few superb people -- not only field operatives such as himself and his supervisor, Gary C. Schroen (who told his own side of the story in his gripping 2004 memoir First In ), but also desk-bound officials back at Langley such as the agency's counterterrorism chief, Cofer Black. In fact, the overall picture of the CIA here is far more flattering than that in The 9/11 Commission Report . Still, to portray Jawbreaker as "the book the CIA doesn't want you to read" (as the cover puts it), the publisher has displayed the redactions throughout the book as large black lines. But there are good reasons to keep some operational secrets; some of the censor's decisions are obvious absurdities, but, many others, as far as I can tell, seem quite sensible.

If the worst part of the book is its packaging, the best aspect of Jawbreaker -- named after the code-name for the CIA teams working with the Northern Alliance -- is its day-by-day account of the execution of an aggressive strategy that originated at the most senior levels of the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA. The tale of how about 110 CIA operatives and 350 Special Forces troops spearheaded the toppling of the Taliban is a thrilling read -- and a heartening one to anyone jaded by the endless bureaucratic paralysis in Washington that stymies a truly successful fight against the jihadists today. It comes as a relief to see Americans truly focused on getting the job done, using whatever it took to prosecute the war ferociously and effectively.

The success of the Afghan campaign makes all the more heartbreaking the unnecessary failure to kill bin Laden during its endgame. Contradicting Bush administration denials, Berntsen writes that his teams discovered bin Laden and the remnants of his entourage in the now famous Tora Bora Mountains along the lawless, rugged Afghan-Pakistani border. U.S. operatives under his direction were able to call in precision strikes 24 hours a day and pulverize the remaining al Qaeda forces. Berntsen recounts very credibly how he and others pleaded with Gen. Tommy Franks and the Pentagon brass to put in blocking forces so that bin Laden and the remnants of al Qaeda's leadership could not flee into Pakistan. But for reasons that remain unclear to Berntsen (and, indeed, to this reviewer), the Bush administration or Franks decided to depend instead on local Afghan warlords rather than put U.S. forces on the ground to block bin Laden's escape. The CIA and Berntsen, who had many years of experience with these militiamen, warned that relying on them, with their many personal agendas and family and tribal ties, would mean letting al Qaeda's leader cross easily into Pakistan. Ignoring their counsel was a huge blunder -- one we continue to pay for as we are taunted by bin Laden, who remains alive and well, probably in the mountains of Pakistan, continuing to inspire jihadists worldwide and helping organize the increasing counterattacks on the fragile democratic government in Kabul. Berntsen did his best to try to get bin Laden; many in Washington have yet to do theirs. ยท

John Lehman, who was secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration, was a member of the 9/11 Commission.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company