Is C.I.A. bin Laden Unit Understaffed?

C.I.A. Unit on bin Laden Is Understaffed, a Senior Official Tells Lawmakers [RSS] (James Risen, NYT)

Three years after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency has fewer experienced case officers assigned to its headquarters unit dealing with Osama bin Laden than it did at the time of the attacks, despite repeated pleas from the unit’s leaders for reinforcements, a senior C.I.A. officer with extensive counterterrorism experience has told Congress. The bin Laden unit is stretched so thin that it relies on inexperienced officers rotated in and out every 60 to 90 days, and they leave before they know enough to be able to perform any meaningful work, according to a letter the C.I.A. officer has written to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. “There has been no systematic effort to groom Al Qaeda expertise” among C.I.A. officers since Sept. 11, 2001, according to the letter, written by Michael F. Scheuer, the former chief of the agency’s bin Laden unit and the author of a best-selling book that is critical of the Bush administration’s handling of the war on terror. Excerpts from Mr. Scheuer’s letter were read publicly by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, on Tuesday at a Senate hearing on the confirmation of Porter J. Goss as director of central intelligence. Congressional officials later provided a copy of the letter to The New York Times.

A senior intelligence official who asked not to be identified strenuously disputed Mr. Scheuer’s criticism about the resources assigned to the war against Al Qaeda. “The assertions are off the mark,” the official said. “There are far more D.O. officers working against the Al Qaeda target both at C.I.A. headquarters and overseas than there were before Sept. 11,” the official said, using the abbreviation for the Directorate of Operations, the C.I.A.’s clandestine arm. “Our knowledge of and substantive expertise on Al Qaeda has increased enormously since 9/11. The overall size of the counterterrorism center has more than doubled, and its analytic capabilities have increased dramatically.”

In his letter, Mr. Scheuer also described instances in the years before the Sept. 11 attacks in which he said the agency’s leadership failed to act decisively in order to target Al Qaeda. “The pattern of decision making I have witnessed,” he wrote, “seems to indicate a want of moral courage, an overwhelming concern for career advancement, or an abject inability to distinguish right from wrong.”

Both Scheuer and the Agency obviously have axes to grind here and I have no way of knowing whom to believe but am dubious of claims that we have fewer officers working the bin Laden trail now than pre-9/11. For one thing, even aside from the national security angle, it’s in everyone’s bureaucratic and political interest to nab bin Laden and/or ward off future attacks. Indeed, the very behaviors that Scheuer claims are causing less attention on bin Laden would almost surely lead in the other direction. Obviously, President Bush and other senior political figures have much to gain from that. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly in gauging agency behavior, the dictates of bureaucracy would seem to incentivize these things as well. The bin Laden hunt is a great justification for increased funding from Congress and would obviously be something that case officers would be begging to do from a career enhancement standpoint.

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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.