Articles

Apr 27, 2013

“Osama’s Real Hunters.” Rave Review of MANHUNT HBO film in Wall Street Journal

 

Osama’s Real Hunters

By NANCY DEWOLF SMITH

“Manhunt” brings to television for the first time a riveting story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden that ended with his death on the night of May 1-2, 2011, when U.S. Special Forces raided his hideout in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Yet the raid is not the focus here.

What makes this documentary so fascinating are the narratives by many of the CIA analysts, operatives and others who worked in the shadows over almost two decades to lay the groundwork for identifying Islamic radicals and tracking terrorists. In interviews, and accompanied by often chilling archival film footage, they describe the passion, the anger, the regrets and the fearful determination that were their only companions in what may be the loneliest profession on earth.

Manhunt

Wednesday, 8 p.m., on HBO

“Manhunt” was directed by Greg Barker and is based on Peter Bergen’s 2012 book, “Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad.” Fortunately for us, the film reaches back much further than 10 years, to a time in the early-to-mid-1990s when the CIA first assembled a team of analysts, chiefly women, that would be known as Alec Station.

 

 

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HBOA former CIA agent in ‘Manhunt.’

The Soviet war against Afghanistan had ended, leaving at loose ends thousands of Arabs and other Muslims from outside the region who had been trained to fight in Afghanistan. Many, as we know now (though the film doesn’t say, Afghans were in fact warning Washington about this even in the 1980s) had been radicalized and prepped to become future warriors in a world-wide Islamic revolution.

It became the job of Alec Station to ascertain what they were up to. Early on the name of the Saudi financier Osama bin Laden came up, along with the first hints of an emerging force we now know as al Qaeda. Like the fictional analyst Connie Sachs in the Cold War thriller “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” some women of Alec Station were dressed down by superiors for obsessiveness—in this case for an alleged fixation on bin Laden.

But the women knew that passion and attention to detail were what their mission required. They shared bottles of Tums as they watched disturbingly violent Islamist videos on the Web, and patiently collected and cataloged names, places and intelligence tidbits whose relevance might not be known and useful until years later.

On the other side of the coin were the operatives, whose talent was spotting potential informants and spies in foreign countries, and developing these assets into reliable sources of information. Coming from the CIA’s Jose Rodriquez and former FBI agent Ali Soufan, for example, the descriptions of vital tradecraft—how to conduct an interrogation, how to build trust—would be mesmerizing even if the stakes weren’t still so high.

The CIA’s Marty Martin also knew how to undermine the propaganda value of a rabid terrorist like 9/11 planner Khalid Sheik Mohammed—by releasing a picture of him not in what Mr. Martin calls KSM’s “Arab yuppie” dress but in a dirty T-shirt that made him look like a low-level gangster after a long night.

In one sense, “Manhunt” functions as exoneration of CIA employees who were accused of, or felt blamed for, a failure to predict the 9/11 attacks in sufficient detail. Their regret and sorrow is palpable here. So is their frustration. In the words of one former analyst: “People say: ‘Why didn’t you connect the dots?’♠Well—because the whole page was black.”

Soon after 9/11, President George W. Bush asked the CIA for a war plan and the result was “The World Wide Attack Matrix.” The goal was to “disrupt and dismantle” al Qaeda. The list of strategies ranged from drone strikes to “coercive interrogation.” The balance of opinion offered here is that most people, including captives, became “compliant” or useful without the induced sensation of suffocation known as waterboarding.

For some, a moment of moral reckoning came after the introduction of a new approach called targeting. Some analysts were sent into the field to track a specific individual, following a trail of phone calls, plane tickets and informational crumbs about wives, habits and the like until a picture of the target emerged.

Then-analyst Nada Bakos (who likely is part of the amalgam that created the character of Maya in the movie “Zero Dark Thirty”) went to Iraq. Her subject was the head of al Qaeda there, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom she describes as “pathological” and a “monster.” As part of her brief, however, Ms. Bakos had to go on raids with special U.S. military teams. She says she felt this was crossing a line for an analyst. We can surmise that it was also shattering to see brutal and sometimes lethal consequences of her work in intelligence gathering.

While Ms. Bakos and some others came to moral terms with their work as a result of soul searching, not everyone was always given to rumination. After 9/11, says Mr. Martin, ” We did things more aggressive. My job was to kill al Qaeda. Get with us—or get out of the way.”

As for bin Laden, an apt epitaph comes from the Saudi journalist Mustafa Ansari, who had access to the fugitive’s family. “Bin Laden’s ideology revolved around death and jihad,” Mr. Ansari says, but the ultimate sacrifice was always for others to make, not him. “He used to say that death for his causes was a beautiful thing. But he never sought death himself. He hung onto life for as long as he could. He did everything possible to stay alive.”

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