Imperial Hubris Author Quits CIA

Former Chief of CIA’s Bin Laden Unit Leaves (Dana Priest, WaPo)
Ex-chief of CIA’s bin Laden unit leaves (MSNBC-Newsweek)

Michael Scheuer, the author and former chief of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, announced yesterday that he had resigned from the agency so he could speak openly about terrorism and what he sees as the government’s failure to understand the threat from al Qaeda. “I have concluded that there has not been adequate national debate over the nature of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and the force he leads and inspires, and the nature of the intelligence reform needed to address that threat,” Scheuer, whom the CIA banned from speaking publicly in July, said in a statement issued by his publisher.

The agency allowed Scheuer to publish his book, “Imperial Hubris,” anonymously, and to conduct media interviews to promote it under the name “Mike.” The book became a bestseller. But he became a critic of the war in Iraq, saying it inflamed anti-American sentiment among Muslims, and eventually his name was published. After some White House officials and pundits asserted that the CIA had allowed Scheuer to act as its surrogate critic on the war, CIA officials forbade him from speaking publicly.

Scheuer said in an interview with The Washington Post on Monday that he believes the agency silenced him after CIA officials realized he was blaming the CIA, not the administration, for mishandling terrorism. “As long as the book was being used to bash the president, they gave me carte blanche to talk to the media,” he said. “But this is a story about the failure of the bureaucracy to support policymakers.” The statement, issued in the name of Scheuer’s publicist, Christina Davidson, said Scheuer criticized the CIA leadership for allowing “the clandestine service to be scapegoated for pre-9-11 failures — failure more properly placed at the door of senior members of the U.S. intelligence community and senior policymakers, for whom, in Scheuer’s view, saving lives has seldom appeared to be the top priority.”

Scheuer was chief of the CIA’s bin Laden station from 1996 to 1999 and remained a counterterrorism analyst after that. He could not be reached for comment yesterday. The statement released by his publicist said that “after a cordial meeting with senior CIA officials on Tuesday, Scheuer decided that it would be in the best interests of the intelligence community and the country for him to resign in order to continue speaking publicly with regard to Osama Bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the 9-11 Commission Report.”

Presumably, as a former CIA officer with long access to classified materials, there are still substantial restrictions on his ability to speak out. Certainly, the CIA still has to approve his published works.

Update (1312): Jim Henley and Matt Yglesias have some thoughts on the implications of this, both pointing to recent news of a “purge” at the Agency.

As I’ve noted previously, changing the leadership of CIA is essential if one believes it is screwed up (as Scheuer does, although I’m not sure if he approves of the replacements). Certainly, for critics of the Iraq War (which Henley, Yglesias, and Scheuer are) it’s a given that the Agency’s leadership, especially former DCI Tenet, screwed the pooch on Iraq.

I’ve got a whole category devoted to Imperial Hubris and Scheuer’s arguments, so I’ve certainly spilled enough pixels on them. I simultaneously agree with his major arguments, disagree with some of his conclusions, and think he went about some of his criticisms the wrong way. Most importantly, though, it’s simply improper for a senior bureaucrat to be publically undermining his agency. The nature of bureaucratic operation requires that there be lively interchange of ideas inside but a single voice outside. The private sector is clearly where Scheuer belongs at this point. His service has been valuable and honorable but, like a general who feels he can no longer carry out the orders of the Commander in Chief, a senior intelligence officer who feels the national security apparatus is going in the wrong direction must make his calls from the outside if they’re not heard from within.

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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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. IR says:

    Am I reading this piece correctly? Scheuer was the bin Laden go to guy under the Clinton Administration, which didn’t take the issue of terrorism too seriously…And, much like Richard Clarke, Scheuer found himself in a subordinate role when the Bush Administration moved in.

    Then, the CIA put an arbitrary gag on him when he wanted to make some cash off of bashing them…so he switched his toon to blame the Administration (although they don’t tell you which Administration)…and the CIA OK’s the release of the book. Now, Scheuer, claims he is resigning (uhuh…) in order to inform the public (at, what, $10,000 a speech?)….

    Hack alert…

  2. James Joyner says:

    Scheuer claims in IMPERIAL HUBRIS as well as his previous book, THROUGH OUR ENEMIES’ EYES, that his unit was calling for much tougher action against Osama long before 9/11 but they were ignored by higher ups in the CIA and elsewhere. TOEE was mostly written pre-9/11, which lends some credence to his story. He’s very critical of the Clinton Administration in the first book and even more critical of the Bush Administration in the second.