WASHINGTON — A senior CIA counter-terrorism official has defied orders to stop publicly criticizing the U.S. government's response to Al Qaeda, complaining that no one has been held accountable for failures that helped lead to the Sept. 11 attacks and warning that uncorrected management problems continue to put Americans at risk.
Michael Scheuer, a 22-year veteran of the CIA and former chief of the unit that tracked Osama bin Laden, acknowledged in an interview that he might be putting his job in jeopardy, particularly by discussing details of a September letter in which he cited 10 examples of agency failures to aggressively pursue Bin Laden or otherwise halt the growth of Al Qaeda.
Scheuer decided over the weekend to speak out, he said, because his concerns were being ignored by his superiors at the CIA and by the Sept. 11 commission.
"I'm proud to work [at the CIA], and they can say what they want about me, but I have no intention of leaving," Scheuer said. "They may force me to leave, they may fire me. But it's the best place to work that I know of. I'm proud to be an intelligence officer, and I want to stay one."
A U.S. intelligence official confirmed Monday that the CIA was reviewing the matter for possible disciplinary action.
"Mike Scheuer is not authorized to speak on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency," the official said. "There are procedures to follow for employee contacts with the press, and he has not followed those procedures."
In July, Scheuer anonymously wrote a best-selling book, "Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror," in which he faulted the way the U.S. was combating terrorism. The CIA soon ordered Scheuer to stop criticizing the agency during public appearances to promote the book.
But he continued working as a senior intelligence service official at the CIA's counter-terrorism center, a measure of the respect he receives at the agency.
One whistle-blower expert said that Scheuer's decision to publicly defy the CIA was unprecedented.
"I've never seen someone at that level come forward in the way that he has. It just doesn't happen," said Kris Kolesnik, executive director of the National Whistleblower Center.
Scheuer has made some of the charges before, both in the book and in interviews. But his Sept. 8 letter to the House and Senate intelligence committees goes into much greater detail about alleged shortcomings within the agency and the government at large.
In a version of the letter obtained by The Times, Scheuer identified himself as a "senior, serving CIA officer" and told the committee members that his memo discussed issues "which ought to be factored into your decisions" when passing intelligence reform legislation. Scheuer said that he had written the letter in May but that the CIA had refused to approve its publication.
In the letter, Scheuer alleged that the CIA's Bin Laden unit had acquired detailed information in 1996 about "the careful, professional manner in which Al Qaeda was seeking to acquire nuclear weapons." Those findings were suppressed within the CIA, and only disseminated after protest forced an internal review.
Scheuer also told panel members that the unit repeatedly was rebuffed in seeking special operations troops to plan moves against Bin Laden, was denied requests for verbatim transcripts of National Security Agency intelligence and was briefly disbanded in spring 1998.
He also told them that CIA officers gave the government "about 10" opportunities to capture or kill Bin Laden and that the main U.S.-based Bin Laden unit had fewer experienced Al Qaeda experts today than it had on Sept. 11, 2001.
In the interview, Scheuer said CIA officials "seem to take a special pride in not finding anybody culpable and not pointing fingers, and I just think it's a mistake. I think there is some responsibility and it lies at senior levels. And I think that's why they are having a hard time doing it."
"I think if they could find a [lower-level CIA employee] to hang, they would do that in a minute," Scheuer said of the agency.
Scheuer also criticized the Sept. 11 commission for "not naming names" when issuing its 567-page report last summer and calling for an overhaul of U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism operations.
Portions of his September letter surfaced over the weekend on the Atlantic Monthly website. The New York Times also published an article Monday based on his comments.
Scheuer, who was interviewed by the Sept. 11 panel for at least 15 hours, said he chose to publicize the 10 examples of agency failures and leave out "dozens of others" to protect classified data. But all of the incidents, he said, undercut a central premise of the commission's report, in which it blamed the attacks largely on the government's budgetary, structural or organizational problems.
Instead, Scheuer said, key pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failings were caused by bad decisions and other mistakes by identifiable individuals, in some cases "unelected, unaccountable officials who made an art of outlasting their elected superiors."
Such decisions by senior intelligence officials — "not legal 'walls,' organizational structure, or inadequate budgets — have been at the core of our failure against Bin Laden," Scheuer wrote in his letter. "None of these panels, to my knowledge, have yet focused on the reality that, while the 11 September attacks probably were unstoppable, it was decisions by human beings — featuring arrogance, bad judgment, disdain for expertise and bureaucratic cowardice — that made sure the intelligence community did not operate optimally to defend America."
Scheuer told the Los Angeles Times that "all the issues raised in my letter, the 10 issues, came directly to the attention of [former CIA Director George J. Tenet], the deputy director of operations [James L. Pavitt], senior members of the NSA and the FBI."
Tenet and Pavitt left the CIA in recent months and were unavailable for comment. But the U.S. intelligence official who responded to Scheuer's statements said both those men, as well as other agency officials, took direct action to correct problems as soon as they became aware of them.
The intelligence official also said that Scheuer was premature in complaining that the CIA hadn't disciplined anyone, because the agency's inspector general was in the final stages of completing an investigative audit on the subject. And he said that although some of the structural problems that led to intelligence failures had been addressed, others could not be until Congress passed a package of intelligence reform legislation.
Scheuer said many long-standing problems remained, including the CIA's difficulty in getting verbatim transcripts from the National Security Agency, even though other governments such as Britain and Canada got the transcripts.
And although the CIA has corrected staffing shortages at its Bin Laden unit, it will take several years to train the new agents and make them effective in the hunt for Al Qaeda, Scheuer says.
"What we are doing now is what we should have been doing since Sept. 12. We're three years behind the curve," Scheuer said.
Scheuer said he had not raised his concerns with new CIA Director Porter J. Goss, the former Florida Republican congressman who once worked as a CIA agent.
"I have no knowledge of what his intentions may be vis a vis me, but I may find out in the next few days," Scheuer said.
© Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times