The CIA agents who hunted Bin Laden tell all – Marlow Stern

Marlow SternThe documentary Manhunt chronicles the CIA’s 20-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Three CIA agents featured in the film tell Marlow Stern about ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ torture, Bill Clinton’s culpability, and more. – Marlow Stern

CIA LogoThe real investigation into Osama bin Laden began all the way back in 1993, just prior to the first World Trade Center attack. A team of female CIA analysts known as “The Sisterhood” was the first to identify evidence that a terrorist group known as al Qaeda was spreading, and that bin Laden was its leader. In 1995 the CIA formed a small group called Alec Station with the express mission of focusing on al Qaeda. However, as terrorist attacks against the U.S. interests abroad became more frequent in the years leading up to 9/11, “The Sisterhood” became convinced that bin Laden was for real, and that his threats against the U.S. should be taken very seriously. They fell on deaf ears, however. And, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, clueless congressmen blamed the CIA for not being vocal enough.

With new intelligence gleaned from “enhanced interrogation techniques” at CIA “black sites,” secretly authorized by George W. Bush’s administration, as well as a covert op that led to the capture of al Qaeda’s Hassan Ghul, who identified bin Laden’s courier, the agency finally tracked down the world’s most elusive terrorist.

Osama bin LadenThe CIA’s 20-year hunt for bin Laden is chronicled in great detail in the documentary Manhunt, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Greg Barker, the documentary will air sometime in May on HBO, and features interviews with CIA insiders as well as unseen al Qaeda propaganda, training, and suicide-note videos.

The Daily Beast sat down with the three key CIA agents featured in the film, including Nada Bakos, a “targeter” tasked with tracking down al Qaeda in Iraq and leader of the team that captured Hassan Ghul, who revealed the pseudonym of bin Laden’s courier; Marty Martin, who was the day-to-day manager overseeing all of the CIA’s worldwide operations against al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden; and Cindy Storer, who was a member of the original “Sisterhood” that tracked bin Laden in the ’90s. We discussed the hunt for bin Laden and their thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty, Bill Clinton, and Condoleezza Rice’s culpability, and more.

A lot of people have given former president Bill Clinton crap for not taking out Osama bin Laden when he had the chance in 1999. Is this criticism warranted?

Marty Martin: The analysts and everyone were ringing the bell that there was a bad guy in Afghanistan who was coming to kill us, and had hundreds of haters going through training camps. Now, you have a national command authority decision. All this data has been given to the president, and at one point there was a debate about whether we should be allowed to have surrogates hit [bin Laden], we should fire missiles at the guy, or we should hit [bin Laden]. If we had taken definitive action then, none of this would have happened. But America wasn’t in that mindset then. But we already knew these guys were for real and coming to kill us—World Trade Center in ’93, Yemen, U.S.S. Cole, the U.S. Embassy bombing—and this was all the same organization. Now, let’s say the Clinton administration was very aggressive and we put three helicopters of Special Forces guys to get him, and one helicopter goes down. Who’s the dumbest president on the planet? All these congressmen would have come out and held him over the coals. Given the political reality we deal with in Washington of the blame game, it’s not so easy.

TDB: When did the CIA become convinced that Osama bin Laden was going to attack the United States?

Nada Bakos: I wasn’t even in the CTC [Counterterrorism Center] in 2000 and I knew that the intention behind al Qaeda and bin Laden had been to hit the U.S.—in the United States. It was just basic knowledge.

Cindy Storer: The entire winter and spring of 2001, everyone was running around trying to get the message out.

Martin: When the planes hit the World Trade Center, we immediately knew that it was al Qaeda. There was no question. I was on the phone saying, “This was al Qaeda, and now we’re going to war.”

TDB: Manhunt spends a bit of time detailing all the CIA memos—and there are many—that were sent to the White House in the spring and summer months leading up to 9/11, so how culpable is Bush?

Martin: The agency did its part of wringing the bell. But it’s up to his national-security team about ringing that bell to the president. And there was a certain lady [Condoleezza Rice], who became secretary of state, and that’s on her. Those closest advisers around the president, it’s their job to advise the president.

Storer: These guys came into office with a realist paradigm where everything had to deal with states, like the Cold War period, so they couldn’t wrap their heads around a non-state actor doing this stuff. We spent the entire year trying to get them to understand this, and 9/11 was the shock. This was a distraction from their real agenda. They did this whole policy review on terrorism on Sept. 9, two days before 9/11, and it was too late.

TDB: Which was Iraq, apparently.

Storer: Partly, yeah.

TDB: After 9/11, when did the CIA start bringing terrorists to “black sites” and using “enhanced interrogation techniques?”

Martin: We started bringing guys there in late 2001, and Abu Zubaydah was the first one.

TDB: I understand you’ve all seen Zero Dark Thirty. Are any of you portrayed in the film? I know Jennifer Matthews, who was killed in the suicide bombing at Khost, is in there and played by Jennifer Ehle.

Martin: That was not Jennifer. They did her a terrible disservice. They made her look flippant and foolish. The true “Maya” was in fact second-generation and mentored by Jennifer.

Storer: The Maya in the movie is a compilation of women because the fact of the matter is that one person is not around that long, doing that much.

TDB: So you’re trying to tell me there wasn’t one gorgeous redheaded CIA analyst who was mainly responsible for hunting down Osama bin Laden? [Laughs]

Bakos: [Laughs] It took many people to do this. It’s not just one beautiful redhead. It’s more than two data points of collection, and Zero Dark Thirty makes it look like a Sherlock Holmes mystery. And before  “Maya” was assigned to the case, the plot line on the bin Laden courier had already been developed by other analysts.

Martin: I will say, their depiction of the actual raid and the build-up to it is one of the things that I really respected about Zero Dark Thirty. It isn’t just wham-bam like an action movie; these things take time. And there were a lot of redheads, oddly enough!

TDB: What about Zero Dark Thirty’s torture scenes?

Martin: It’s absolutely wrong. The torture stuff was totally inaccurate and did not happen that way. It was much more systemic, clinical, and professional. Obviously, it’s a very controversial topic, and people do need to understand that that program absolutely contributed to saving lives, but it did so combined with a global effort.

TDB: But there is a scene in the film where you, Nada, are asked about how Hassan Ghul gave up the courier’s name and you laugh. And then it cuts to the narrator saying that the details of Ghul’s interrogation have remained sealed. 

Bakos: Oh … that was just me at the end of my 12-hour day. Hassan Ghul did clarify who al-Kuwaiti was, but the name had come out before.

TDB: One of the things that really surprised me in watching Zero Dark Thirty was that bin Laden didn’t have any sort of fail-safe in case of a raid. It seemed like the SEALs made an awful lot of noise during Operation Neptune Spear, including crashing the chopper in his backyard, blowing multiple doors with explosives, etc.

Bakos: Me too! Like … where’s the tunnel?

Martin: [Laughs] It’s happening a lot quicker than you think. Plus, dogs barking and shit happening always goes on in the third world, so you don’t think there are guys in night-vision coming to kick your butt!

TDB: How complicit do you feel Pakistan was in hiding bin Laden? I mean this guy was shacked up there since 2005 in a huge fortress situated near a military base.

Martin: Here’s the deal: somebody had to know something. Do I think the Pakistani leadership did? No. But the ISI knew elements.

Storer: Somebody had to know something. They used al Qaeda to fight in Kashmir, so when you see he’s located by a military base by Azad Kashmir, you have to ask, “What the heck’s going on here?”

TDB: Anything else you’d like to add about the hunt for OBL?

Storer: Our first PDB [President’s Daily Brief] on this thing was in ’93, two weeks before the World Trade Center bombing, about Afghan Arabs running all around the world doing crazy stuff. We got, “Oh, the president didn’t ask about that; he doesn’t care about that.” And then the World Trade Center bombing happens, and we get a call that day: “Do you know anything about these Afghan Arabs?” And I was too polite to say, “Fuck you.”

Martin: Just because Osama’s dead doesn’t mean shit. Thousands of Afghan Arabs went through terrorist training programs, and now they’re all around the world. Who do you think did the thing in London? Spain? Recently in Algeria? Now, this is something [Bill] Clinton has to justify, because all of them go back to those years that we didn’t do anything; that we watched and warned. And we’ve had to play catch-up ever since. And it’s still not over. – The Daily Beast, 23 January 2013

» Marlow Stern is the assistant culture editor of Newsweek and The Daily Beast and holds a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial department of Blender magazine, and as an editor at Amplifier Magazine and Manhattan Movie Magazine.

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