A matter of survival

The author of "Imperial Hubris" says the moral cowardice and political correctness of senior intelligence officials have severely hurt the war on terrorism.

Published July 13, 2004 11:07PM (EDT)

The new book "Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terrorism" has been compared to former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke's splashy bestseller, "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror." Like Clarke, the CIA analyst who authored "Imperial Hubris" (under the nom de plume Anonymous) offers an insider's critique of the Bush administration's national security policies. But the analyst, identified in the Boston Phoenix as Michael Scheuer, head of the bin Laden desk at the CIA from 1996 to 1999, is in many ways almost the anti-Clarke.

Whereas Clarke is urbane and sophisticated, with years of experience in the White House and the Pentagon at the highest levels, Scheuer's background is more, well, blue-collar, and his perspective is that of the lower-level functionary. Unlike Clarke, who observed Bush and his team firsthand, Scheuer does not hold President Bush personally responsible for the decision to invade Iraq -- an invasion he criticizes for inflaming Muslim animosity toward the United States. In Scheuer's view, Bush was merely badly advised, and his harshest remarks are reserved for the "cowardly" intelligence bureaucracy that bows to political correctness (as Scheuer sees it) and refuses to present the unvarnished truth to policymakers.

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Scheuer is a Republican who was the first in his family to go to college. He worked as a crane operator to put himself through school, obtaining a Ph.D. in British imperial history from the University of Manitoba in Canada. He joined the CIA in the early 1980s after answering a newspaper ad. In 1999, he was removed from the bin Laden desk for becoming, as Scheuer describes it, too "intense" about the threat from al-Qaida. He says his superiors called him "myopic" -- unable to recognize the larger picture that included diplomacy, politics and international relations. "After 3,000 dead Americans, I take that as a compliment," he says, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Scheuer argues that it's nonsense to say that Osama bin Laden hates America for its freedom. He says bin Laden has laid out specific policy grievances with the United States, including our alliances with Israel and Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes, to build a popular anti-American movement. Scheuer argues that the United States cannot make progress in the war on terrorism until leaders agree to have an honest debate and confront the religious fervor that drives Islamic terrorism -- two efforts about which he is not hopeful.

Under his publication agreement with the CIA, Scheuer is not allowed to confirm his identity. A big man with wire-rimmed glasses and a gray-streaked beard, he spoke with Salon recently in the conference room of his publisher, Brassey's, in an anonymous office park near Dulles, Va.

You quote frequently from Robert E. Lee, Lincoln and Sherman in your book. People don't generally think of Civil War leaders in the context of the threat from militant Islam. Why all the references to the Civil War?

The book is designed for Americans. I am by training a historian. I tried to use analogies to indicate to Americans they should not think this is a movement that is completely foreign to their experience, or to their ideas. It's not an un-understandable problem. It stems from religion and politics and wars of liberation, although our leaders don't say that, and certainly the senior members of our intelligence community don't say that. I thought it would be helpful to an American reader to see an analogy that is at least plausible.

There's some confusion about your argument on the use of force. You say the United States must bring about a "Sherman-like razing" of the infrastructure of terrorism, which you describe as a "relentless, brutal and blood-soaked defensive military action" that must continue until "we have annihilated the Islamists who threaten us." Are you advocating such an offensive? Or are you saying that because we have failed to address this problem in the past, and because it is not likely that America will change its policies, you see no other option?

The way I would say it is that because we refuse to accept the enemy as he is -- not opposed to our democracy or our social system -- because of the unpopularity of our policies in the Muslim world, we have left ourselves only one option, and that's the military option. They never quote the last sentence of the passage, where I say we'll have to become more aggressive and that this is neither admirable nor desirable, but until we have a debate over the nature of our policies, it is our only option.

So are you advocating that we change our policies?

I'm advocating that until we decide ... I think my bottom-line position is it's not a choice of war and peace, it's a choice of war and endless war -- until we look at our policies and debate our policies. And maybe at the end of the day, the American people through their elected officials will say, "The status quo is fine. These are the policies that we want to keep." And if that's the decision, well, that's fine. Going into it, we know that we will be bleeding treasure and lives for the foreseeable future.

We don't realize that now, but that's the reality. If we don't change policies to some extent, we are bin Laden's only indispensable ally. Our policies are measures; they're visible. And certainly the scientific polling that's beginning to come out of the Middle East shows that our policies are detested by large majorities in every country polled. And at the same time, majorities have some respect for our society as an equitable society.

So you'd like to see the debate at least be waged?

That's the beginning. I was loath to put in a section of suggestions in the book. I don't think you can have a policy to win this war until you understand why the war is occurring. And that entails a debate over policies that have been more or less on autopilot for 30 years. But you're exactly right -- I'm not saying when that debate will occur.

But you're not advocating annihilation? People have picked up on that passage, and I'd like you to clarify.

What I intended to write in the book was that this is not the terrorism of the '70s or the '80s that was a lethal nuisance. It was a tragedy when an airplane got knocked down, or when that gentleman got pushed off the Achille Lauro. Those were tragedies, but they were not threats to national security. Al-Qaida, bin Laden and what they personify are a threat to national security. So we have to defend ourselves in some manner. It is a question of survival, not of anybody occupying North America.

If our goal is to preserve our way of life and live as we want, not as we have to, then we're going to have to defend ourselves. Optimally you're going to use every weapon at your command to defend yourself, not just military, not just economic, not just political. But right now, the military option is the only one on the table.

Just to be clear -- are you advocating that we use military power?

I certainly think the application of military power to date has been dainty. Had we used our own people and our military power, we probably would have gotten bin Laden at Tora Bora [in Afghanistan] in the winter of 2001. But we didn't. We counted on surrogates. I think that's a prime example. We attacked Afghanistan, and the estimate was there were 50,000 Taliban guys with guns. We let probably 40,000 go home. In Iraq we let 400 out of 500,000 go home. It just seems to me that we've got to come to grips with the idea that if we're going to survive, and we're not going to change policies, then the only option for defending America is the military option.

You paint this as a matter of survival.

Yes, very much so.

You think if we don't respond correctly our entire way of life will be threatened? Does "a matter of survival" mean there is the possibility that a nuclear weapon will be used?

Well, no, not to that extent. But certainly if they have a weapon of mass destruction, they'll use it. They don't want to fight this war forever. They're looking to win, and winning to them simply means getting us out of the region.

That brings up the issue of what the "enemy" is. You say that al-Qaida is different from the wider Islamist movement. Not everyone is a member of al-Qaida; not everyone is a Wahhabi. But there is this political Islamic movement, and many of its members do believe that an Islamic nation will be established, what they call the caliphate. I have talked to some who believe that even the United States can eventually become an Islamic nation. But that's not really al-Qaida's goal, you argue. So what are we talking about exactly? What is the enemy? Is it just al-Qaida?

No, it is certainly not just al-Qaida anymore. It is various and sundry groups that are associated with it. And unfortunately [the movement] is increasingly becoming one of attacks on Americans by people who have no connection to al-Qaida but agree with its goals and its criticism of our policy. Bin Laden's goal has been very clear from the start. He believes that eventually Islam will reestablish a caliphate, but that's not his goal. I don't think he believes anyone is going to die for that kind of amorphous dream.

His goal is to focus first on the United States, because he sees that governments in the Middle East that he opposes and thinks are apostate -- and Israel -- exist because we protect them militarily and give [billions of dollars] worth of aid to Israel and to the Turks and the Egyptians.

Let's talk a little bit about your experiences in seeing this information filter up, or not, to policymakers. You praise former CIA director George Tenet, and I'm interested in your opinion of him. But you also say we need to get rid of these craven bureaucrats who are not presenting the unvarnished truth. Is that possible?

If it's not, we're in serious trouble. Because as long as Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush are saying that religion has nothing to do with this -- that the movement bin Laden personifies is what Tenet called the "lunatic fringe of the lunatic fringe" of the Muslim world -- as long as our leaders are saying those things, it's clear to me that the message from the people who work the issue is not getting up the chain of command.

But have you considered that it is too politically explosive for them to say otherwise?

Absolutely. But it's so politically incorrect to say it that I don't believe there are any senior bureaucrats who are going to carry [such a message] to the president: "If you go into Iraq, you'll be occupying two of the holiest places in Islam, and the Israelis will have the third [Jerusalem]. And therefore you will anger 1.3 billion Muslims." I doubt that message was delivered.

So whose fault is this?

I think there's a certain moral cowardice in the senior levels of the bureaucracy in the intelligence community. Certainly in the past 12 years the intelligence community has become an experimental lab, if you will, for multiculturalism, diversity, just general political correctness. I don't think there's anyone who approves of harassment in the workplace or discrimination because you're a woman or a minority. But the truth of the matter is, when you're talking about interactions between societies and people, you must talk about cultural attributes, the power of religion, the effect of tribalism, animosities driven by ethnic differences. And until you do that, you haven't done your job.

The atmosphere within the intelligence community is not one that promotes a freewheeling debate. One of the best short examples of that is from a brilliant woman named Ellen Laipson [a Clinton-era National Security Council staffer]. She wrote in Foreign Affairs a review of Dan Benjamin and Steve Simon's book ["The Age of Sacred Terror: Radical Islam's War Against America"] and of how, in her experience, many analysts who were bright and recognized the problem were afraid to voice their views because they were afraid they'd be identified as not part of the team.

Is this why you wrote the book?

It's one of the reasons I wrote the book, absolutely. I frankly think that nothing in my book will not be recognized by people who work the issue on a day-to-day basis. When I talk to an interviewer, and I listen to what I'm saying, I sometimes think they're going to get up and walk out, because it's boilerplate. But the people I talk to sometimes look at me like I have three purple heads. "It's about religion? It's about policies? Well, that's kind of racist, isn't it?" And I say, "No, it's just reality."

By Mary Jacoby

Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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