Surprised The CIA Has Closed Its Unit Hunting Down Bin Laden? Don't Be -- The Groundwork Has Been Laid By The Bush Administration For Four Years
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 have confirmed to the New York Times.
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 Bin Laden to justice "dead or alive."
Agency officials spun that tracking 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. "The efforts to find Osama bin Laden are as strong as ever," spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise Dyck told the Times.
Michael Scheuer, a former senior CIA official who was the first head of the unit, said the move reflected the mistaken view within the agency that Bin Laden was no longer the threat he once was. "This will clearly denigrate our operations against Al Qaeda," he told the Times.
This is just the latest in a series of events and statements that show that Bin Laden has gone from wanted "dead of alive" to being of lesser importance -- a positive primarily for the families of 9/11 victims seeking "closure." Our leadership has gone from targeting Bin Laden as a key to the war on terror, to marginalizing him as just one person in a broad fight.
When did the change start? In 2002, around the same time the administration began talking about a possible Iraq War. Capturing Bin Laden -- from the mouths of various people in the administration -- became secondary to fighting the "war on terror," which included, with increasing prominence, Iraq.
The change in stance on capturing Bin Laden is completely out-of-step with the nation -- last month, 86% of Americans said in a USA Today/Gallup poll that it was somewhat, very or extremely important that Bin Laden be captured or killed, a number that had barely changed over the past two years. That fact is probably inconvenient, but the spin has already begun, and no doubt it will be repeated. Given the lack of success in finding Bin Laden, what other choice is there but to spin?
That Bin Laden remaining at large keeps alive the threat of another attack on our nation? Cynics would suggest that benefits the Bush Administration, which has a history of playing the fear card -- in speeches and commercial messages.
Let's review the road from "dead or alive" to important only as "closure."
-- President Bush said on the night of Sept. 11, 2001: "The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts."
-- Over the next three months, Bush on several occasions repeated that he wanted to bring Bin Laden to justice "dead or alive."
-- By the spring of 2002, Bush's tone had changed. From a March 13, 2002, press conference:
BUSH: "(T)he idea of focusing on one person is -- really indicates to me people don't understand the scope of the mission. Terror is bigger than one person. And he's just -- he's a person who's now been marginalized. ... So I don't know where he is. You know, I just don't spend that much time on him, Kelly, to be honest with you."
-- In 2003, General Peter Pace (now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), told reporters: "(Bin Laden) has taken himself out of the picture. ... It is not an individual that is as important as is the ongoing campaign of the coalition against terrorists."
As CNN correspondent Jamie McIntyre noted at the time: "They'd love to get him tomorrow, if they could. Since they can't, they're downplaying the role that he's playing."
-- In 2004, Bush seemed to agree with McIntyre, apparently resigned to the idea that we may not capture bin Laden. Speaking to Tim Russert on the Feb. 8, 2004 edition of Meet the Press, Bush said: "I have no idea whether we will capture or bring him to justice, may be the best way to put it."
-- But by that fall, Bush changed his tone again -- for a national audience watching the third presidential debate.
BUSH: "Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations. Of course we're worried about Osama bin Laden. We're on the hunt after Osama bin Laden. We're using every asset at our disposal to get Osama bin Laden."
-- And last fall, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice offered this in an interview with Newsweek:
RICE: I would like nothing better to get the phone call that says we captured Osama bin Laden. I mean, in a sense, I think it’s, you know, it’s a kind of issue of closure ... (B)ut in terms of the operation itself, I’ve always argued, and I argued from the very beginning, and in fact, the fact that the President argues, reflected in his September 20 speech, we decided in that speech he’d only mention Bin Laden once because nobody wanted to give the impression that this was about a single person.
So maybe it shouldn't be surprising that the CIA has closed the unit hunting for Bin Laden. Various officials have been laying the groundwork for that decision for four years.