It is hazardous to undertake a biography of a living person or a history of current events; perspective is difficult to achieve. The difficulty is enhanced when the person and the events are the focus of political debate. Michael Scheuer’s “Osama Bin Laden” and Peter Bergen’s “The Longest War” illustrate the hazards. Mr. Scheuer is out to present something perhaps slightly different from a biography—more a guide to understanding Osama bin Laden, with biographic features included, because he sees bin Laden as America’s central adversary. Mr. Bergen, by contrast, says that his aim is to offer “a history of the ‘war on terror’ in one volume” whose “organizing principle . . . is to examine not only the actions and strategies of the United States and its key allies, but also those of al Qaeda and its key allies, such as the Taliban.” The two books share the rationale, articulated by Mr. Bergen, that just as a history of World War II told only through the view of Franklin Roosevelt “would make little sense, so do we benefit from a better understanding of Osama bin Laden and his followers.”
Mr. Scheuer was the head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999 and remained a counterterrorism analyst with the agency until 2004. He has written other books focusing on Islamist terrorism, and on bin Laden in particular, and he has appeared frequently on television as an expert on these subjects. Among the views featured in his analyses is the contention that the U.S. is in thrall to Israel and that the Jewish state and its supporters exercise an inordinate and unhealthy influence over U.S. foreign policy. He went so far as to suggest, in 2005, during a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations that the presence of the Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C., was intended to stir American guilt over the Holocaust and thereby generate sympathy for Israel.
In Mr. Scheuer’s more recent television appearances—and in “Osama Bin Laden”—he seems to have dialed back that particular view, if not entirely eliminated it. The book jacket carries an effusion from Mr. Bergen himself describing Mr. Scheuer as “one of the most original and thoughtful interpreters of bin Laden and al Qaeda.” Although some of what Mr. Scheuer has to say is at war with common sense—of which a bit more later—Mr. Bergen’s praise is not completely unwarranted.
Mr. Scheuer has been studying bin Laden since the 1990s, some of that time in the employ of the CIA. It is impossible for a person of even questionable judgment not to have learned much in that time that is useful. He claims here that American leaders up to and including Barack Obama have deceived us about the nature of our adversary by portraying al Qaeda falsely as “an organization of thugs led by a sociopath.” Rather, Mr. Scheuer says, a realistic biographical sketch limited to 10 qualities would portray bin Laden as “pious, brave, generous, intelligent, charismatic, patient, visionary, stubborn, egalitarian, and, most of all, realistic.” Mr. Scheuer tells us to reject comfortable myths about bin Laden and instead take the advice of Robert E. Lee to his son, to “look upon things as they are; take them as you find them.”
The author describes the development of bin Laden’s thought, from the hatred of Jews and Israel that he learned from his father in Saudi Arabia, where his family owned a prosperous construction conglomerate, to an immersion in Islamic thought and practice that Mr. Scheuer identifies as a Salafi-jihadist variety of Sunni Islam. We’re told about bin Laden’s contempt for what he sees as the un-Islamic and corrupt regimes that control Muslim countries—not only Egypt, Jordan, Algeria and the wealthy Emirates but also bin Laden’s own country, controlled by the House of Saud.
Bin Laden was particularly mortified by the Saudi willingness to have U.S. troops—infidels—stationed on the holy soil of the Arabian peninsula during and after the first Gulf war following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Although that intramural contempt drove much of bin Laden’s thought early on, Mr. Scheuer argues, by August 1996, when bin Laden issued the first of his two formal declarations of war against the U.S., he had come to regard American financial, military and political support for all he opposed as the greatest problem. Mr. Scheuer perceives three goals that bin Laden set for himself: to drive the U.S. from as much of the Muslim world as possible; to destroy both Israel and what he saw as corrupt and oppressive Muslim regimes; and to stamp out what to bin Laden and other Sunni Muslims is the heresy of Shia Islam.
As Mr. Scheuer tells it, bin Laden set out to lure the U.S. into Afghanistan, where he and the other mujahadeen would inflict the same fate on us that they had inflicted on the Soviet Union. Based on our response to the bombing of Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 and the murder of Marines in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1992, bin Laden was confident that, if bloodied, we would run. The 1998 near-simultaneous bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2000 attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole in Aden, Yemen, were designed—in Mr. Scheuer’s telling—to entice us to attack bin Laden in Afghanistan, where he had cultivated, and bought, the friendship and protection of the Taliban and of Pashtun tribes.
The 9/11 attack, according to Mr. Scheuer, was a success for bin Laden because it finally lured the U.S. into attacking al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The invasion of Iraq, in the author’s view, compounded the success by spreading U.S. troops, dissipating resources and inviting Muslim hostility. So taken is Mr. Scheuer with what he perceives as bin Laden’s skill that he dismisses out of hand the view of many observers, including Mr. Bergen, that the U.S. response in Afghanistan seriously damaged al Qaeda and actually surprised bin Laden—a view, Mr. Scheuer writes, that “tends to ignore the fact that bin Laden worked hard to lure U.S. forces into Afghanistan, which he would not have wanted to do had it meant al Qaeda’s annihilation.” Which is to say, no good commander would score a tactical victory at the cost of a strategic defeat. Too bad a certain admiral named Yamamoto isn’t around to ask about that.
“Osama Bin Laden” seems so wound up with its subject that much else gets lost, including any analysis of what it is in Islam that might motivate Muslims apart from the example of bin Laden. Mr. Scheuer presents him as nothing less than a latter-day Saladin—the hero who stopped Richard the Lionheart from reconquering Jerusalem. The longer bin Laden evades capture or death, the more powerful his myth grows.
Mr. Scheuer’s disdain for America’s political and intelligence establishment is on gaudy display throughout the book. He tells us that in both Afghanistan and Iraq the U.S. “has fielded a slow-moving, over-equipped, and casualty-averse army that failed to win under careerist generals drawing advice from New Age social scientists bent on pursuing hearts and minds and avoiding blood and iron.” His respect is reserved for the unnamed intelligence professionals who share his view of the need to see bin Laden clearly, or at least as Mr. Scheuer sees him, and for the young Marine and Army noncommissioned officers and troops who must engage an enemy different from the one their senior commanders have told them to expect, under unrealistic rules of engagement. He urges us to think of the soldiers as “lions led by self-serving moral cowards.”
Despite the summary dismissal of estimable generals such as Jack Keane, Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, and despite Mr. Scheuer’s allegiance to the Great Man theory of history, he does advance some provocative arguments for taking a dim view of the future. He sees the group al Qaeda in Iraq as organized and building safe havens against the day when U.S. troops withdraw; then the terrorists will be able to spread Salafist ideology through the Levant and exercise their influence among an increasingly receptive Palestinian population, particularly in Gaza. Frightening if true, and decidedly against the grain of the current narrative from Iraq.
Peter Bergen, who wrote two prior books on bin Laden and al Qaeda and is CNN’s national-security analyst, casts a wider net than Mr. Scheuer, aspiring to provide not only a history of the “war on terror”—he always uses the quotation marks, lest you think he is so unsophisticated as to endorse the idea—but also an “objective analysis” of matters that, since the war’s inception, “have become deeply politicized.”
He does offer some valuable insights, but by and large they do not concern matters that “have become deeply politicized.” Mr. Bergen gives a riveting account of the December 2001 battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan showing that bin Laden certainly was there and escaped, which he would not have been able to do had enough U.S. troops blocked the way. But there is a shoulda-woulda-coulda aspect to such a claim—how many troops would it have taken? and was getting them there feasible?—that makes the story of a missed opportunity feel speculative, even in Mr. Bergen’s own account.
His description of The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and murder suggests that al Qaeda was apparently not involved at first. And the author shows that several al Qaeda higher-ups—including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the planner of the 9/11 attacks, who also takes credit, if that is the word, for beheading Pearl—were captured because they made the mistake of hiding out in Pakistan’s cities instead of in the country’s remote western areas. Informants abound in cities; in the countryside, the terrorist leaders would have enjoyed the protection of Pashtun tribes, whose loyalty bin Laden had both earned and paid for.
When Mr. Bergen turns to issues that have become highly politicized, the promised “objective analysis” comes out decidedly one way. The Bush administration, in his telling, was collectively asleep at the switch when al Qaeda struck on 9/11, even though the administration had a casus belli against al Qaeda—the October 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden—already in place when it took office. (The Clinton administration did not respond to the attack, Mr. Bergen says, either out of a desire to protect President Clinton’s legacy-quest in the form of an Israeli-Palestinian peace or out of sheer exhaustion.)
Similar nonobjective analysis is applied to the 9/11 attack: It was a strategic blunder by al Qaeda, Mr. Bergen concedes, because the U.S. response destroyed the safe haven provided by the Taliban in Afghanistan; it nearly obliterated the senior leadership of the organization; and it elicited world-wide condemnation. But America, he says, then squandered its advantage by invading Iraq at the insistence of a small band of willful neocons. These people, some of whom had unspecified “ties” to Israel, according to the author, wanted to find a reason for war with Iraq and confected a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda to add to the illusory pretext of weapons of mass destruction.
Then Mr. Bergen turns his analysis to how the Bush administration exacerbated the damage that the war in Iraq did to America’s “place in the world” with the “futile, counterproductive, and extralegal” manner of its treatment of suspected terrorists. The U.S. confined innocents at Guantanamo, he says, and turned them into radicals; handed over others to foreign governments with a wink and a nod that bespoke an awareness that they would be tortured; and allowed the CIA to run an interrogation program that “amounted to” torture and in any event yielded nothing valuable that could not have been obtained by conventional interrogation.
In the end, Mr. Bergen says, bin Laden’s call to radicalism seems likely to be rejected by Muslims not so much because of any exertions of the U.S. but because of the influence of “mainstream Islam itself.” After all, we’re told, the 9/11 attack itself was “un-Islamic” (emphasis in original).
Each of the propositions above will be familiar to those whose appetite for current events is satiated by the majority of newspapers and television-news outlets. For those readers, “The Longest War” will be comfort food. Other readers, especially those familiar with the larger public record, will detect that virtually all of Mr. Bergen’s propositions contain a heavy dose of humbug.
Consider the matter of detainee treatment—the CIA interrogation program and Guantanamo. There is source material available—Marc Thiessen’s indispensable “Courting Disaster” comes to mind—describing in detail the considerable successes of the CIA program and the steps that were taken to ensure that it did not involve torture. (Torture, by the way, is a criminal offense with a definition—conduct under color of law undertaken with the specific intent to cause severe physical or mental pain or suffering—that is nowhere discussed by Mr. Bergen.)
Nor was there anything “extralegal” about the CIA interrogations. Jack Goldsmith, a well-regarded former Justice Department lawyer with firsthand knowledge, has written that, if anything, the whole U.S. approach to dealing with terrorists was lawyered down to a gnat’s eyelash. If an author really wanted to learn whether the CIA program was necessary and effective, he would have spoken to George Tenet and Gen. Michael Hayden, the two former CIA directors with personal knowledge; Mr. Bergen seems not to have interviewed either man.
As to Guantanamo itself, Mr. Bergen suggests that it is populated largely by hapless victims of circumstance, many of whom were radicalized by mistreatment—a suggestion that relies on such sources as the lawyer for one of the detainees and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which in turn relied on interviews with the detainees. Disregarded in all of this is not only common-sense skepticism about such sources but also such basic materials as the al Qaeda training manual seized in a 2000 raid in Manchester, England, which instructs would-be terrorists to claim, if captured, that they were tortured.
Myths about Guantanamo like those purveyed by Mr. Bergen have been exploded in numerous reports, including one in 2004 by the Navy’s inspector general, Adm. Albert T. Church III (a cousin of the late liberal icon Sen. Frank Church of Oregon), and by accounts that make it plain that there was a screening process for detainees, with less than 1% transferred to Guantanamo. The recidivism rate—of those released from the facility who were later recaptured or killed after returning to the fight—exceeds 20%. Mr. Bergen gives the game away when he reduces the figure to a reassuring 4% by excluding those whose lethal conduct is directed at non-U.S. targets. In short, Mr. Bergen asks us to take comfort in the news that it’s our allies’ end of the boat that’s sinking, not ours.
Or consider Mr. Bergen’s account of events leading up to the invasion of Iraq: He does not discuss Saddam Hussein’s history of seeking nuclear weapons, going back at least to 1981, when Israel interrupted his plans by destroying the nuclear reactor at Osirak. That history included a resumption of Iraq’s nuclear program so effective that intelligence experts were stunned by what they found during the first Gulf war. Taking into account the deteriorating sanctions regime before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it is at least worth contemplating what the world would look like today with Saddam Hussein and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad competing to be the first kid on the block with nuclear weapons.
The connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda is a subject that warrants a book in itself, and in fact there exists such a book, by Stephen F. Hayes, called, appropriately enough, “The Connection.” Consider the following tidbit: A planning meeting was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000 attended by several people who would later participate in the 9/11 attacks, including Khalid al Midhar, who was at the controls of the plane that struck the Pentagon. Al Midhar was met at the airport, and his entry into Malaysia was facilitated, by an Iraqi national named Ahmed Hikmat Shakir. Shakir was later arrested by the Jordanians and released over our objection, after pressure from Saddam’s regime. The 9/11 Commission treats this subject in a footnote to Section 6 of its report, where we are told that this Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, in the view of the commission, differs from an Iraqi intelligence agent with a similar name—which tells us not very much about what an Iraqi national was doing in Kuala Lumpur facilitating the travel of an al Qaeda terrorist or about why Saddam’s regime was so eager for the man’s release.
Finally, consider Mr. Bergen’s assertion that “mainstream Islam” is rejecting al Qaeda and that the 9/11 attack was “un-Islamic,” a judgment that fails twice over, including once on his own evidence. If by “mainstream Islam” Mr. Bergen means moderate Islam, there is no such thing. There are many moderate Muslims, but there is simply no body of doctrine within Islam that provides a principled basis for condemning the 9/11 attacks.
Elsewhere in his own book Mr. Bergen discloses that a fatwa authorizing attacks on civilians—the fatwa that is thought to have provided the theological basis for the 9/11 attacks—was issued by Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind cleric whom I sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and in a later plot to bomb New York landmarks. In one section of “The Longest War,” Mr. Bergen touts Abdel Rahman’s status as an authoritative theologian; in another, he dismisses the attack that Abdel Rahman authorized as “un-Islamic.” It’s hard to see how that works.
Mr. Bergen also cites condemnation of the 9/11 attacks by a cleric from Cairo’s Al Azhar University, but that is the institution that gave us Abdel Rahman. Similarly, Mr. Bergen notes the rejection of such violence by cleric Yusuf al Qaradawi, a darling of the bien-pensant left, but neglects to tell us that Qaradawi’s oeuvre includes a fatwa authorizing women to engage in suicide bombing.
Mr. Bergen ends his book by seconding a proposition from Mr. Scheuer that, whatever the ultimate fate of bin Laden and al Qaeda, they have accomplished their goal of instigating and inspiring. Mr. Bergen has given us journalism, not history—some of it perceptive, some reheated, some overheated. What gets bypassed in the process are two basic rules of both journalism and history: that if you ask the wrong questions you get the wrong answers, and that if you don’t look for facts you won’t find them.
—Mr. Mukasey served as attorney general of the United States from 2007 to 2009 and as a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of New York from 1988 to 2006. He is a lawyer in private practice at the New York office of Debevoise & Plimpton.