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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tom Chapman says:

    The closing of this unit will have no effect on the war on terror because it was ineffective to begin with. Anyone my age who grew up watching James Bond at the movies or Mission Impossible on TV has this notion that the CIA is this super-secret organization that conducts complex, ghostly, covert operations around the world to protect the interests of freedom and undermine our enemies. The truth is that the CIA is an organization of paper shuffling, backbiting career bureaucrats who couldn’t find their own collective asses with both hands.

  2. Let’s see. After five years in operation, the target of the CIA unit is able to mastermind the largest terrorist strike against the US. After ten years in operation, they still haven’t captured their target.

    I don’t know why they shut it down, seems like a typically productive government bureaucracy organization to me.

  3. jpe says:

    What I find interesting is Bush’s emphasis on prevention and downplaying of retributive justice. That’s traditionally the province of liberal molly-coddlers (while a liberal, I’ve got a mean retributive streak – so “liberal” isn’t meant as a synonym for “molly-coddlers” here).

    It’s also interesting that someone so hell-bent on attacking the metaphor rather than the meaning (see, eg: “Kerry thinks the WoT is police work”) would leave himself so open to the same kind of attack.

  4. Jon Henke says:

    What was this unit supposed to do? I mean, I’d love to see OBL dead and all, but we’re not prepared to invade Pakistan. So how to people propose we use this unit?

  5. RiverRat says:

    The enemy is not a “movement”. Quit kidding yourself. It’s 2 radicals branches of 2 branches of a barbaric religion. The vast majority of Muslims are not “opposed” to these sects; they’re undecided whether they’ll prevail and pragmatically have chosen to sit it out.

  6. anjin-san says:

    Mr. Bush, a few days after 9-11:

    I want justice,” Bush said. “And there’s an old poster out West� I recall, that said, ‘Wanted, Dead or Alive.'”


    Guess its just one more lie. No justice for the thousands of Americans who were slaughtered on US soil on his watch…

  7. Anjin san,

    Are you for real? Do you have some information that “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. ” is not true?

    Or are you a typical leftist with BDS that can’t look at something without finding someway to blame Bush for any ill in the world.

    This unit has failed under democratic and republican administrations to fulfill its mission, namely to locate Bin Laden so he could be dealt with. Whether the failure was higher than the unit (e.g. authorization to deal with Bin Laden not being given in a timely manner) or is within the unit, the fact remains it failed.

    Having the unit in place or not doesn’t seem to impact our success at getting bin laden. Shaking up some bureaucratic fiefdoms and going at the problem a different way may make sense.

    I don’t have enough information to know if this is a good, bad or indifferent idea. But I sure don’t see anything here (other than the opinion of one bureaucrat who failed at his task and has a vested interest in the unit) that says this means we won’t get Bin Laden. So to take the leap you made that this was somehow a sign that Bush lied is a true example of BDS.

    To extend the wanted poster analogy, one posse has failed, so they are split up and several other posse’s are going after bin laden (and other bad guys). That is a far cry from canceling the wanted poster.

  8. Anderson says:

    The closing of this unit will have no effect on the war on terror because it was ineffective to begin with.

    Au contraire. The OBL unit provided good intel on OBL that could’ve been used to take him out, given some luck and some Clinton-administration spine, neither of which we turned out to possess in abundance. See Coll’s (excellent) book.

    And we wouldn’t have to “invade” Pakistan, except in a fairly technical sense, to insert Special Ops forces to follow up any leads we got. (Personally, I think Pakistan’s failed to exert any meaningful sovereignty over the NW Province, & if we need to go in there, we should. Makes more sense than most of our foreign policy these days.)

    That said, I don’t automatically credit everything Scheuer says (he should probably be under indictment right now for aiding & abetting torture, etc.). Doubtless there’s some bureaucratic spleen involved.

  9. anjin-san says:


    So the CIA issues a press release and all is well. Ask no questions and move along. Guess you trust the government more then I do.

    I still hold Mr. Bush accountable for getting justice for the thousands of Americans murdered on US soil on his watch. Or is the President of the United States not responsible for such things now days?

    As for the “posse”, most of our cowboys are in Iraq, per suing a very dubious mission. Meanwhile the Taliban is making a comeback in Afghanistan.

    Iraq, BTW, has proved to be a fine recruiting and training ground for our enemies, the Taliban is now using tactics developed in Iraq to kill American soldiers.

    Do you seriously think shifting so many assets to Iraq has not hurt the hunt for Bin Laden?

  10. Anjin san,

    Its not a question of the CIA issuing a press release and all is well. If you haven’t noticed this unit in the CIA hasn’t done its job in the 10 years it has been in existence. Shutting it down looks like a non factor as having it wasn’t leading to success. Now why not is a good issue for understanding to guide future operations. Was it that Clinton wouldn’t do the job he was elected to in giving the authorization to act or the units inability to generate the information. I don’t know. I doubt you know either. But the objective fact is the unit didn’t work. Time for plan B.

    And yes, I do think that this country has the resources to both conduct operations in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Given that the most likely scenario is that OBL is in Pakistan, that doesn’t mean that he is going to be caught any time soon. Are you suggesting we should invade Pakistan?

    If you can remember back about 4.5 years ago, we went into Afghanistan. Over a year later we went into Iraq. If resources alone would have caught OBL, we would have caught him then.

    But lets look at the facts as they exist today. Would we be more or less likely to catch OBL if we left Iraq ala Kerry in 6 to 12 months? I think not. We would lose respect by those countries such as Pakistan who are going to be vital to catching OBL. We would have proved OBL right when he says that if you hit the US with a few blows and we would run away. Every ally would question our commitment to finishing the job. Would the countries around Afghanistan continue to want to aid us if we were seen to be feckless in our support of the nascent Iraqi government? I doubt it. Now how long do you think we could stay in Afghanistan if the countries around it decided to withdraw overflight privileges? Running away from Iraq is a bad idea on so many levels that it amazes me the left keeps bringing it up. But I suspect the real fear on the left is that Iraq is succeeding. That success will hang like a millstone around the neck of the democratic party. Every election, voters will be reminded on what would have happened in Iraq and the rest of southwest Asia if the democrats had had their way.

  11. anjin-san says:


    So Bin Laden is untouchable if he is in Pakistan? What happened to “those who harbor terrorists will share their fate”? Bush did say that, no? Did he have his fingers crossed when he said that? What happened to the GOP talking point about “Bush says what he means and means what he says”? Just BS. it would seem.

    Do you really think its necessary to invade a county to get one man? In your own words, “Are you for real”? At any rate, Iraq remains a great diversion for the right to take the spotlight of of the Bush admin’s failure to get justice for the Americans murdered on 9/11 and its failure to finish the job in Afghanistan.

  12. Herb says:

    As far as Anjin San is concerned, all you have to do to figure him out and know the Hate that guides his every words and actions is to look carefully at his initials.

    AS (Another Sore Loser)

  13. Mark says:

    Running away from Iraq is a bad idea on so many levels that it amazes me the left keeps bringing it up.

    I think you might be oversimplifying “the left’s” suggestion.

    The latest plan I heard from them is similar to Bush’s “when they stand up, we stand down” except that the left wants *specific* milestones to be laid out and some target dates set – all with the understanding that unforeseen events may cause delay.

    I think this is similar to what the new Iraqi government wants.

  14. Mark,

    Can you see no down side to “target dates”? Given the enthusiastic support the democrats have given the war so far, if ‘unforeseen events’ occurred do you really think the democrats would support anything more than staging fighters in Okinawa?

    The democrats put their two strategies out there. One called for a 1 year time line. The other gave no specific time line. Both failed in the senate. They haven’t shown they are serious about ‘bearing any burden’ in winning this war. So excuse me if I don’t take their ‘redeployment’ plans seriously as the path to victory.

    You are right that the second plan (which had no specific milestones or time tables) was closer to the President’s plan. They could have done themselves and this country some good by specifically saying that they supported the president in achieving victory in Iraq, agreed with the president that the US does not want to keep troops in Iraq indefinitely, that the US supports the new Iraqi government and that as the Iraqis become able to provide for their own security the US troops would stand down.

    This would have shown solidarity in the US to the dismay of those we are fighting, would not have been so far from their position that it wasn’t in the range of political compromise and brought us back towards the ‘politics stops at the waters edge’ stage of politics. But people like Anjin san wouldn’t allow that to happen in their party.

    Anjin san,

    Think about you positions in this thread. A reorganization of CIA employees gets blown up as a ‘Bush lied’ meme because somehow OBL has immunity from getting caught. Then your latest suggest that we should violate international law by conducting a hostile act (aka causa belli) with out declaring war in the country of an allie. If you can’t see the difference between someone being in a remote part of a country with out the willing participation of the government and support for terrorists as evidenced by the former regimes of Afghanistan and Iraq, then your powers of discernment are low for even a leftist. I’ll say it again, your BDS is impinging on your ability to deal with the world rationally.

  15. anjin-san says:


    Please show us proof of Saddam supporting terrorists. And please, oh please, not that tired old Salmon Pak nonsense…