C.I.A. Closes Bin Laden Unit
The CIA has quietly shut down its bin Laden hunting unit.
The Central Intelligence Agency has closed a unit that for a decade had the mission of hunting Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, intelligence officials confirmed Monday. The unit, known as Alec Station, was disbanded late last year and its analysts reassigned within the C.I.A. Counterterrorist Center, the officials said. The decision is a milestone for the agency, which formed the unit before Osama bin Laden became a household name and bolstered its ranks after the Sept. 11 attacks, when President Bush pledged to bring Mr. bin Laden to justice “dead or alive.”
The realignment reflects a view that Al Qaeda is no longer as hierarchical as it once was, intelligence officials said, and a growing concern about Qaeda-inspired groups that have begun carrying out attacks independent of Mr. bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Agency officials said that tracking Mr. bin Laden and his deputies remained a high priority, and that the decision to disband the unit was not a sign that the effort had slackened. Instead, the officials said, it reflects a belief that the agency can better deal with high-level threats by focusing on regional trends rather than on specific organizations or individuals. “The efforts to find Osama bin Laden are as strong as ever,” said Jennifer Millerwise Dyck, a C.I.A. spokeswoman. “This is an agile agency, and the decision was made to ensure greater reach and focus.”
Michael Scheuer, a former senior C.I.A. official who was the first head of the unit, said the move reflected a view within the agency that Mr. bin Laden was no longer the threat he once was. Mr. Scheuer said that view was mistaken. “This will clearly denigrate our operations against Al Qaeda,” he said. “These days at the agency, bin Laden and Al Qaeda appear to be treated merely as first among equals.”
In his book “Ghost Wars,” which chronicles the agency’s efforts to hunt Mr. bin Laden in the years before the Sept. 11 attacks, Steve Coll wrote that some inside the agency likened Alec Station to a cult that became obsessed with Al Qaeda. “The bin Laden unit’s analysts were so intense about their work that they made some of their C.I.A. colleagues uncomfortable,” Mr. Coll wrote. Members of Alec Station “called themselves ‘the Manson Family’ because they had acquired a reputation for crazed alarmism about the rising Al Qaeda threat.”
Of course, they were right to be alarmed. Still, this move strikes me as reasonable enough. If bin Laden and Zawahiri were killed today, it would be cause for celebration but probably have relatively minor effect. Our enemy is not a single man at this stage but a movement.