Knocking on Osama's Cave Door

Gary Berntsen looks out on Ground Zero in New York. In his book
Gary Berntsen looks out on Ground Zero in New York. In his book "Jawbreaker," he asserts that he could have caught Osama bin Laden if superiors had provided 800 more men. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006


Gary Berntsen was known at CIA headquarters as an aggressive field operative, the type inclined to act first and ask permission later. But he possessed the right combination of brawn and brains for tough missions. When summoned to the front office in the Counterterrorist Center in October 2001, Berntsen recalls, his boss's orders were simple: "Gary, I want you killing the enemy immediately."

He left for Afghanistan the next day determined to eliminate one man in particular. By Berntsen's telling, he could have gotten Osama bin Laden -- if only they'd given him the troops and the time to get the job done.

Now whenever he sees the al Qaeda leader threatening attacks against Americans, "I'm horrified," Berntsen says. "I feel haunted by the fact that it wasn't done. I did every single thing I could do there."

So what to do next? Write a book. It seems to be a popular career afterlife for a growing number of spooks. Berntsen's contribution to the genre is "Jawbreaker," his score-settling insider's account of how bin Laden eluded capture at Tora Bora that December. Its cover advertises it as "The Book the CIA Doesn't Want You to Read!"

The world's most notorious terrorist has been in Berntsen's sights since 1998, when he investigated al Qaeda links to the bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. In his book, Berntsen recounts a 23-year counterterrorism career, but the headline is this: Bin Laden escaped through snow-covered mountain passes into Pakistan, the ex-spy alleges, because U.S. generals failed to heed his call for 800 troops.

Berntsen's account is sharply at odds with that of Army Gen. Tommy Franks, former head of Central Command, who has written that bin Laden "was never within our grasp." All due respect to Franks, Berntsen says, but "I was the guy on the ground" who ran the CIA's largest paramilitary operation against the Taliban and bin Laden.

"We could have ended it all there."

Berntsen, 48, who retired from the agency last June, calls himself an "adrenaline addict" and looks the part of an action dude: Six feet tall, 225 pounds, with penetrating green eyes, close-cropped hair and an elastic face that reflects a simmering intensity that occasionally rises to a full boil. During lunch in a quiet French restaurant in Manhattan, he serves up his story with grins and grimaces and large helpings of bravado.

His covert line of work was simple: Find and neutralize terrorists. Now his overt mission is self-promotion: He wrangles reporters and talk show hosts (among them the shock jocks Greaseman and Mancow), offering sound bites on CNN, and doing all he can to boost sales of "Jawbreaker: The Attack on bin Laden and al-Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA's Key Field Commander," authored with a wordsmith named Ralph Pezzullo.

The book takes its title from the CIA name for units that operated in Afghanistan even before the war, then worked side by side with Special Forces and Special Operations troops and initiated combat missions. Though "Jawbreaker" would seem to capture Berntsen's tough-guy persona, he says it was just a code word spit out by a computer.

"I'm grateful it came out with something good that I can make use of on the cover of my book." He chuckles. "It could have been 'Doorstop' or something like that."

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company