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CIA insider says U.S. fighting wrong war

A career CIA officer, who cannot reveal his identity, is making some bold and controversial claims in a new book about his specialty, fighting terrorism. He says the U.S. is fighting the wrong war in the wrong place. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

A career CIA officer claims in a new book that America is losing the war on terror, in part because of the invasion of Iraq, which, he says, distracted the United States from the war against terrorism and further fueled al-Qaida’s struggle against the United States. The author, who writes as “Anonymous,” is a 22-year veteran of the CIA and still works for the intelligence agency, which allowed him to publish the book after reviewing it for classified information.

In an interview with NBC’s Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell, he calls the U.S. war in Iraq a dream come true for Osama bin Laden, saying, “Bin Laden saw the invasion of Iraq as a Christmas gift he never thought he’d get.” By invading a country that’s regarded as the second holiest place in Islam, he asserts, the Bush administration inadvertently validated bin Laden’s assertions that the United States intends a holy war against Muslims.

In his book, titled "Imperial Hubris," he calls the Iraq invasion "an avaricious, premeditated, unprovoked war against a foe who posed no immediate threat,” arguing against the concept of pre-emptive war put forward by President Bush as justification for the Iraq war.

The book also argues that the U.S. focus on bin Laden as a terrorist is the wrong way to fight him and the wrong way to think of the foe. The real enemy, he asserts, is the radical form of Islam that bin Laden and his followers espouse. And he calls for escalating the level of violence in the war against al-Qaida.

Read the complete transcript of Andrea Mitchell’s interview with Anonymous below:

Andrea Mitchell: "What is your background? How many years were you, are you in the agency?"

Anonymous: "Well, I've been in the intelligence community for 22 years. My background is I was trained as a historian, British imperial history. But I've been here since 1982 and have had a very good career."

Mitchell: "Starting in 1996, the CIA decided to create a station devoted to Osama bin Laden. Why?"

Anonymous: "I think it was created because the intelligence community had turned up bits and pieces of information in multiple areas of the world, after the end of the Afghan war, that indicated bin Laden was involved in one way or another with various Islamist groups who were opposing the Egyptian government or the Saudi government, the Yemeni government. And it was decided to try to make a concerted effort against this individual, to see where it would lead, to see if he was either a spendthrift billionaire, or if he was a serious military-minded opponent of the United States. And that was, I think, the genesis of the effort."

Mitchell: "Now, you were placed in charge of this station, the first time that the CIA developed a station just devoted to a man, to a person, not to a country."

Anonymous: "That's what I understand, yes."

Mitchell: "You say in your new book that the United States is not making a dent in the war on terror against these foes. Why do you think so?"

Anonymous: "Well, I think we have made a dent in some areas. I think in the leadership, the first generation of al-Qaida leadership, we've made a — certainly made a dent. America's clandestine service has done a terrific job in that regard. But we are — we remain in a state of denial about the size of the organization we face, the multiple allies it has, and more importantly probably than anything, the genius of bin Laden that's behind the movement and the power of religion that motivates the movement. I think we are, for various reasons, loath to talk about the role of religion in this war. And it's not to criticize one religion or another, but bin Laden is motivated and his followers and his associates are motivated by what they believe their religion requires them to do. And until we accept that fact and stop identifying them as gangsters or terrorists or criminals, we're very much behind the curve. Their power will wax our costs in treasure, and blood will also wax."

Mitchell: "But isn't it a distortion of Islam, what they espouse? How can you say that this is the Muslim belief to attack us and to wage war against us?"

Anonymous: "I'm certainly not an expert and neither am I a Muslim. I think the appeal that bin Laden has across the Muslim — I indeed think he's probably the only heroic figure, the only leadership figure that exists in the Islamic world today, and he does so because he is defending Muslims, Islamic lands, Islamic resources.  From his perspective it's very much a war against someone who is oppressing or killing Muslims.

"And the genius that lies behind it, because he's not a man who rants against our freedoms, our liberties, our voting, our — the fact that our women go to school. He's not the Ayatollah Khomeini; he really doesn't care about all those things. To think that he's trying to rob us of our liberties and freedom is, I think, a gross mistake. What he has done, his genius, is identify particular American foreign policies that are offensive to Muslims whether they support these martial actions or not — our support for Israel, our presence on the Arabian Peninsula, our activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, our support for governments that Muslims believe oppress Muslims, be it India, China, Russia, Uzbekistan. Bin Laden has focused the Muslim world on specific, tangible, visual American policies.

"And there seems to be very little opposition to him within the Muslim world, and that's why I think that our assumption that he distorts Islam is just that, it's analysis by assertion. I'm not sure it's quite accurate."

Mitchell: "Well, you say in your book that the reality is that there is a large and growing among the world's 1.3 billion Muslims against America, not because of a misunderstanding of America but because they understand our policies very well."

Anonymous: "That's exactly right. I certainly believe that, and I think the substantial amount of polling that's been done by the Pew Trust and by other very reputable pollsters in the Islamic world indicate that most of the Islamic world believes they know exactly what we're up to, and that's to deny the Palestinians a country, to make sure that oil flows at prices that may seem outrageous to the American consumer, but are not market prices in the Islamist's eyes, supporting Russia against Chechnya. I think very coolly bin Laden has focused them on substance rather than rhetoric. And his rhetoric is only powerful because that is the case.  He's focused them on U.S. policies."

Mitchell: "You're saying that no amount of public diplomacy will reach the Muslim world and change their minds because they hate everything that we stand for."

Anonymous: "No, I don't think they hate everything that they — that we stand for. In fact, the same polls that show the depths of their hatred of our policies show a very strong affection for the traditional American sense of fair play, the idea of rule by law, the ability of people to educate their children. I think the mistake is made on our part to assume that they hate all those things. What they hate is the policy and the repercussions of that policy, whether it's in Israel or on the Arabian Peninsula. It's not a hatred of us as a society, it's a hatred of our policies."

Mitchell: "You call for some very tough actions here. You talk about escalating our war against them, and you say in your book that killing in large numbers is not enough to defeat our Muslim foes. This killing must be a Sherman-like razing of infrastructure. You talk about civilian deaths. You talk about landmines. Is that really what we have come to in this war on terror?"

Anonymous: "I think we've come to the place where the military is about our only option. We have not really discussed the idea of why we're at war with what I think is an increasing number of Muslims. Which — it's very hard in this country to debate policy regarding Israel or to debate actions or policies that might result in more expensive energy. I don't think it's something that we wanted to do, but I think it's where we've arrived. We've arrived at the point where the only option is military. And quite frankly, in Iraq and in Afghanistan we've applied that military force with a certain daintiness that has not served our interests well.

Mitchell: "But in fact in your book you argue that we are waging half-failed wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan that have only further incited Osama bin Laden and his sympathizers."

Anonymous: "Well, I think we made no impression on them with our military might. We are unquestionably the strongest military power on earth. And in both Iraq and Afghanistan, our opponents rode out that war. I wrote in the book that if we give the military, you know, substantial credit for actions, probably 40,000 Taliban fighters went home with their guns in Afghanistan; probably 400,000 Iraqis went home with their guns in Iraq, all to fight another day. We seem to have a little bit of trouble distinguishing between winning a war and winning a battle. And I think —

Mitchell: "In other words, we're winning the battles but not the war."

Anonymous: "We're — yes, ma'am. We've won, we won quite a few battles and marvelously so, but we're fighting opponents that perceive tactical losses rather than strategic losses. And it's quite clear that these wars are half-started."

Mitchell: "You call the invasion of Iraq, ‘an avaricious, premeditated, unprovoked war against a foe who posed no immediate threat.’ Why do you think so?"

Anonymous: "For several reasons. That was a passage cut from a larger passage where I describe my personal aversion to aggressive war, to the war started by the United States. And I tried to draw an analogy between our war against Mexico in the 19th century and just saying it is not part of the American character or our basic sense of decency to wage wars except in self-defense or preemption.

"The major problem with the Iraq war is that it distracted us from the war against terrorism. But more importantly, it allowed—it made us invade, or it caused us to invade a country that's the second holiest place in Islam. It's not really the same as the Russians invading Afghanistan in 1979. Afghanistan is an Islamic country, but it was far from the mainstream of world Islam.

"Iraq, however, for both Sunnis and Shias, is the second holiest place in the Islamic world. And to invade that country, on the face of it, is a great offense to Islam and an action which almost entirely validated bin Laden's assertions about what the United States intended vis-à-vis the Islamic world."

Mitchell: "But we were encouraged by many of Iraq's neighbors quietly saying, you know, go ahead and do it as long as you get Saddam, which we did."

Anonymous: "Yes, they certainly did. But you need to remember that, I think the neighbors of Saddam were afraid of Saddam. I'm not sure our goals were their goals in those countries."

Mitchell: "You believe that, you believe that al-Qaida is going to hit us again and harder, in this country?"

Anonymous: "I believe that's the case, yes."

Mitchell: "Why?"

Anonymous: "Well, they stay very much on message and on task. And although the line is not perfectly straight, bin Laden since 1996 has told us he will attack us periodically with incremental increases in the amount of destruction he causes. And he's been true to his word. Whether you start with Somalia and move on to the explosions in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, you take one step further to 1998 and two embassies that were destroyed in East Africa. The attack on the Cole in 2000, and then the attack on New York City and Washington in—"

Mitchell: "Since there has not been an attack on the homeland since 9/11 —"

Anonymous: "Yeah?"

Mitchell: "— doesn't that suggest that al-Qaida has either lost some of its ability to mobilize and/or that our homeland security has been improved?"

Anonymous: "Well, that might indeed be the case. I tend to think that's more analysis by assertion. The one thing these people have, bin Laden and his ilk, is tremendous patience. One huge failing of the American counterterrorist community throughout its existence has been the assumption that if someone hasn't attacked us in a while, they can't attack us. And I think that's where we are, the kind of mindset that if it hasn't happened, it's because they can't. I tend to think bin Laden will attack us when he wants to. He's an individual who has been very unmoved by external events. If there's a man who marches to his own drummer in terms of timing, it's certainly bin Laden and al-Qaida."

Mitchell: "Have we not managed, by capturing Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other of his henchmen, have we not managed to get at al-Qaida and undermine his ability to attack?"

Anonymous: "There is no doubt that the clandestine service of the United States has staged stunning attacks against al-Qaida. I would say that damage that the clandestine service has inflicted on al-Qaida would have wiped out any other terrorist group that we've ever known of in the last 30 years, maybe longer.  The point I would make is al-Qaida is not a terrorist group. It's more akin to an insurgent organization. It pays tremendous attention to succession, to leadership succession. Were all of those people that were killed or captured important?  Absolutely. Did it hurt the organization? Of course it did. But there were successors waiting in the wings; there were understudies. The organization goes on.

"Just the other day in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis killed the man responsible for the, the kidnapping and murder of Mr. Johnson."

Mitchell: "Al-Moqrin?"

Anonymous: "Yes, Mr. Moqrin. And within hours of that, al-Qaida announced that Moqrin was indeed dead and named a successor. Part of the problem when we're judging success is looking at this group as if it is a gangster organization or a criminal organization or a traditional terrorist organization. It's none of those things. And just as the American army or any army in the West would have a backup to their leader in the field, so does al-Qaida. And it's an organization that replicates itself with tremendous dexterity and speed."

Mitchell: "Do you think bin Laden is still able to call the shots?"

Anonymous: "My own inclination, for what it's worth, is yes. He's in a country where he is, as Kipling would say, the little friend of all the world. He has no enemies in Afghanistan or most of Pakistan. He's been there for 20 years. For better or worse, he stood by the Afghans from the invasion in 1979 until today. I think he probably has an ability to elude us for the, for the foreseeable future."

Mitchell: "And why do you think the CIA has not been able to capture him, to find him?"

Anonymous: "As I wrote in the book, the intelligence community as a whole has been at war against bin Laden and al-Qaida with various degrees of commitment. I would go beyond that and say the Defense Department and the intelligence community, from my, from my personal experience as I've watched as a member of the intelligence community, the Directorate of Operations at the CIA has been, has turned in a performance that's nothing less than stellar. But it cannot do it all itself."

Mitchell: "Where is the falling down? Where is our effort falling down?"

Anonymous: "Part of it, I think, is again, as I wrote in the book, is the unwillingness of senior bureaucrats in the intelligence community to take the full truth, an unvarnished truth to the president, whether it's Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton.  I'm not sure that it's proper to blame al-Qaida's existence, continued existence or attacks on any elected official.  I think the, the bureaucracy at the senior levels in the intelligence community is selective in what they take to the president. I think they are loath to describe the dire problem posed by bin Laden for a number of reasons. One of them is basically political correctness. It's not career-enhancing to try to engage in a, in a debate about religion and the role it plays in international affairs. And so we, we, we address bin Laden from the perspective of law enforcement, picking them off one at a time, arresting them, killing them. And I think that's a, the, the, the result of no one frankly discussing the size of the problem or the motivation behind the problem."

Mitchell: "And what do you think the size of the problem is, first?"

Anonymous: "I think the size of the problem is — I think the first step in understanding the problem is to try to divorce yourself from the emotions generated by bin Laden's activities and rhetoric and the activities and rhetoric of the people who agree with him, or support him. The decapitation of people, the flying into the World Trade Center, the destruction of the, of the Destroyer Cole raise emotions that they must raise among Americans. But they — when we respond to those in a law enforcement manner, in a manner that describes these men as, again, criminals or terrorists, we, we fail to understand the size of the organization that supports al-Qaida and the size of the organization that al-Qaida has bred for over 20 years. I think we also forget that it's a 20-year-old organization. It's an organization that has Muslims from every ethnic group in the world. It's extraordinary. It's a singular accomplishment on bin Laden's part to have created an organization where all those Muslims from different ethnic groups, different linguistic groups work together in a manner that's effective enough to take on the United States in a war. We watched the Palestinians for 50 years unable to agree amongst themselves — and they're all Palestinians.

"So that's one problem. The other is an analytic problem. If you're looking at a terrorist group, you don't put together an order of battle as you would for an army or an insurgency. And so you talk about taking down three-quarters of al-Qaida's leadership. Well, at the end of the day, what we, what we've done is take down three-quarters of the al-Qaida leadership we knew of on 11 September 2001. And if you take that as a measurable success, it is. But you don't know, first, how big the organization was you started to work against; and second, the assumption is that it's a static, sterile organization that doesn't grow. And the one thing we can be certain of is that the attack on Afghanistan by the United States and the continued occupation of Afghanistan has caused the number of volunteers going to al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and the amount of money going to al-Qaida in Afghanistan, to have increased, I would say, probably dramatically.

Mitchell: "What is George Tenet not telling George Bush?"

Anonymous: "I'm not in a position to tell you that. I'm in a position where I could tell you what I would like to tell the president."

Mitchell: "What would you like to tell the president?"

Anonymous: "I would like to tell the president, I think, and, and it's presumptuous of me, but I genuinely think that we have underestimated the scope of the enemy, the dedication of the enemy and the threat that it poses to the United States. I think someone should have gone to the president when the, when the discussion of going to Iraq was broached and have said, Mr. President, this is something that can only help Osama bin Laden. Whatever the danger posed by Saddam, whatever weapons he had, is almost irrelevant in that the boost it would give to al-Qaida was easily seen. And if that message wasn't delivered, then I think there was a mistake made. I also think that Mr. Lincoln's view that one war at a time is plenty is probably a good piece of guidance."

Mitchell: "Now, you told the 9/11 commission that there were people in the agency who basically ignored the advice of your unit, the Osama bin Laden station, because they thought you were a little over the top, a little too zealous."

Anonymous: "Yes. I think we, we were certainly convinced by late in 1996 that we had an organization that was militarily competent, that was structured in a way that made it very difficult to isolate and attack, in the sense that it was structured in 40 or 50 countries around the world…"

Mitchell: "Do you think, do you think that your advice was ignored? Did they, did the people within the CIA, the people in charge think that you were all exaggerating the threat of Osama bin Laden before 9/11?"

Anonymous: "I'm not sure if the people thought we were exaggerating so much as they just didn't take it very seriously at all. They thought that bin Laden was just one more terrorist on a list of terrorists. I really believe Mr. Tenet was the one person who did take it seriously almost from the start, but the rest of the senior leadership in much of the intelligence community, I think, did not take it seriously.

"But I think the most important failure was in the, in the years between 1996 and 2001, the failure to correct obvious dysfunctions within the intelligence community was what led in large part to no one being able to claim that the intelligence community did the best it could before 9/11. They were failures of cooperation, failures of leadership that were brought to the attention of the senior-most members of the intelligence community and to the attention of some people at the NSC. And whether or not they ever got to the people who could actually change things, to the, to the committees in the Congress or to the president, to our elected leaders, I'm not sure.

"I know for, for many years we told various members of the Congress and the executive branch that there was seamless cooperation between the FBI and the CIA. And from my seat and from — and admittedly, from a very small portion of the total relationship between those two organizations— I cannot imagine that in any way that could have been true."

Mitchell: "The CIA and the FBI weren't cooperating even though they were supposedly assigned together in the counterterrorism which you worked."

Anonymous: "From my — over my career in the intelligence community, the CIA is an organization that produces intelligence for the rest of the government. The idea that somehow we, somehow the CIA produced information and didn't share it is a, a, a shibboleth that, that receives wide repetition.  In my experience, the flow of information out of CIA to the community is extraordinary.

"The people, as I understand it, the people who were placed in the terrorism components of the intelligence community from FBI or other U.S. government agencies were put there to ensure that the CIA did not become involved with domestic U.S. criminal prosecutions, looking at U.S. citizens— anything that was beyond our purview, our legal statutory responsibilities. And so they brought in officers from other agencies who, again, in my knowledge, read everything that a CIA officer would read. And their responsibility was to cull through that information and return it, as appropriate, to their own headquarters for use domestically, something that was, again, meant to ensure the rights, the privileges of American citizens. And rightly so.

"My biggest experience was that was not done. And I think if there is a failure in these various investigations of 9/11, it's, it lies in the fact that many members seconded to the counterterrorist arena did not perform the intermediary job they were assigned to perform."

Mitchell: "According to Steve Coll of the Washington Post and his book, the White House complained over the course of several years to George Tenet that you were too myopic in your approach to bin Laden. Do you want to respond to that?"

Anonymous: "Let me say that within the intelligence community there was a group of officers, mostly women, very young, who worked extraordinary hours, who gave up vacations, delayed operations, and ruined marriages because, by the fall of 1996, they had recognized the threat posed to the United States by bin Laden and al-Qaida and the rising tide of, of the resentment in the Islamic world directed against U.S. policies; and that those two factors— the lethality of bin Laden's organization and the increasing ire of Muslims against America who were coming together in a way that threatened the United States.

"I can't take any personal credit for identifying that. My role, to the extent I had one, was to bring forth the findings of those extraordinary officers and their extraordinary colleagues in the field."

Mitchell: "But what about the criticism that you were too myopic?

Anonymous: "‘Myopic’ is generally a term for ‘fanatic’ that's used by senior bureaucrats when you're delivering a message that they don't want to take to the White House. I genuinely don't believe that an elected official, whether it's the President of the United States or a congressman or a senator, would not want to hear the truth. My suspicion is that accusations of fanaticism or myopic focus came from senior bureaucrats at the White House rather than anyone else.

"But the book explains. And it's one guy's opinion. You need to take it for what it's worth. My own experience in the intelligence community for the past now almost 10 years on this particular issue is that the hard, hard truth has not been delivered to the elected officials. Certainly the truth that — as it is seen by the people who work the issue on a day-to-day basis has not been delivered — again, with the possible exception of, of Mr. Tenet, who, to his credit, recognized this early on, perhaps did not as much as he could to drive the community to address the issue."

Mitchell: "And what are you going to say to those who say that this is anti-American and that this is a really prejudiced approach? What do you say to those who say that your call for a war against Muslim people, is really only going to make the situation worse?"

Anonymous: "I wonder how much worse the situation can be, in the first instance. We continue to believe that somehow public diplomacy or words will affect the anger and hatred of Muslims. And I'm not advocating war as my choice. What I'm advocating is, in order to protect the United States, it is our only option. As long as we pursue the current policies we have, until we have a debate about those policies, there's not a lot we can do. We won't talk them out of their anger, we won't convince them we're an honest broker between the Israel and the Palestinians. We won't convince that we're not supporting tyrannies in the Arab world from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.

"It's the only option. It's not a good option; it's the only option. And I'm not saying we attack people who aren't attacking us. But in areas where we realize our enemies are, perhaps we have to be more aggressive."

Mitchell: "Even if it means civilian casualties?"

Anonymous: "That's the way war is. I've never really understood the idea that any American government, any American elected official is responsible for protecting civilians who are not Americans. My experience working against bin Laden was there was multiple occasions when we did not take advantage of an opportunity to solve the problem because we were afraid of killing a civilian, we were afraid of hitting a mosque with shrapnel, we were afraid of disrupting sales of arms overseas. Very seldom in my career have I ever heard anyone ask what happens if we don't do this.

My own opinion is we should err on the side of protecting Americans first. And if we make a mistake in that kind of action, I think the American people will accept that. It's — this is a matter of survival. This is not a nuisance anymore. No one wants to be bloodthirsty, but we're at a position in this war where we've cornered ourselves in many ways, to the point where only the military option is available to us. And if we don't use that, and we continue to pursue the policies we are pursuing, then it's a very dicey situation for America…that the war in Iraq was bin Laden's dream come true."

Mitchell: "You've said that you think the war in Iraq motivated bin Laden. What do you think the impact of the war in Iraq was on bin Laden?"

Anonymous: "Bin Laden, I think, and al-Qaida and other of America's enemies in the Islamic world certainly saw the invasion of Iraq as a, if you would, a Christmas gift they always wanted and never expected to get. It validated what they all said about American aggressiveness against Islam. It made us the occupiers of the second holiest place for Muslims in the world. In fact, now we are occupying, in the eyes of our opponents, we're occupying the two holiest places, Saudi Arabia, the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq, and the Israelis are occupying the third, in Jerusalem. The reaction of the clerical community to our invasion of the Islamic clerical community to our invasion of Iraq was uniformly negative."

Mitchell: "So what, what is the war in Iraq to bin Laden?

Anonymous: "It is, I think, a proof of his thesis that America is malignantly inclined toward Muslims, that it is willing to attack a Muslim country that dares to defy it, that it is willing to do most anything to defend Israel.  It's certainly viewed as an action which is meant to assist the Israeli state. It is in every way predictably, if you will, a godsend for those Muslims who believe as bin Laden does."

Mitchell: "It's a dream come true."

Anonymous: "If you're familiar with that wonderful Christmas movie, ‘The Christmas Story,’ at the end of the day, Ralphie getting his air rifle even though his mother was worried his eye would get shot out. It's a terrific gift."

Mitchell: "OK. Thank you very much."

Anonymous: "You're welcome."