This is the interview with Dr Michael Scheuer, the founding head of the CIA's Station Alex, the "virtual" unit headquartered in Langley, devoted to combatting Osama Bin Laden, that Richard and I wrote up for Magill in September 2005, in time for the 4th anniversary of 9/11. Dr Scheuer is described as an obsessive and determined character who would begin work before dawn and rapidly got to grips with the novel threat of Al Qaeda. He also was the first to propose some serious violence to stop him, advocating his kidnap and/or killing by Afghan associates of the CIA, an operation that seems, by various accounts, including the 9/11 Commission (which refers to Scheuer as "Mike") to have withered somewhere in the chain of command between then CIA director George Tenet and President Clinton, also involving the White House office of counter-terrorism co-ordinator Richard A Clarke.
Clarke, incidentally, also seems to have been the person who did the most to kill any possibility of US military intervention to stop Rwanda's genocide in 1994, at least in Samatha Power's telling.
Scheuer's second book, Imperial Hubris, which I reviewed in detail for the Jerusalem Post, was critical of the conduct of the war on terror under President George W Bush, calling for either radical changes in US foreign policy to defuse tensions with Muslims, such as ending support for Israel and the Arab oligarchies, and withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan or a step-up in the violence used to produce terror and devastation in the Islamic world. In spite of a number of close readings of the book, I never figured out which exactly Dr Scheuer was advocating or in what mix. Mainly, his thesis that western policy is to blame for the Al Qaeda campaign chimed well with the critique of much of the European left and many realist scholars of international relations.
Scheuer, who describes himself as a die-hard Republican and "moderate isolationist" found himself embroiled in controversy over his denigration of Israel and its American advocates.
Still, he remains a popular analyst, often appearing on the BBC and US television. Whatever reservations I have about his analytical skills and some of his political attitudes, I think that there is no doubting his patriotism, dedication to his work at the CIA and the judgement he showed in his anti-terrorist role before being removed in 1999.
Mike Scheuer, a 22-year veteran of the CIA, headed the team covering Osama Bin Laden, from 1996-1999. In this time, he was responsible for building up the first analysis showing the scale and global reach of the growing threat from Al Qaeda and he organised a number of attempts to capture or kill the terrorist leader. In his recent bestselling book, “Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the Terror”, published anonymously before he left the Agency last year, he criticises the US government for giving a distorted picture of the threat and shying away from the measures needed to counter it.
Q: Why do Al Qaeda attack us?
The political leaders of both parties have lied about the motivation of bin Laden and other Islamic militants. They are attacking America because they believe US foreign policies are a threat to the survival of Islam and Muslims. They are not attacking us because of our freedom, liberties, elections, or because female movie stars go about in public with bare midriffs.
We get attacked for a couple of reasons. First, Bin Laden thinks we’re far weaker and less able to taken pain than the Saudi royals and the rest of the dictators. The second thing is that he doesn’t think those governments can survive – Israel included – without the support of the Americans. His goal in attacking us is not to occupy California, it’s just to get us out of the way so that he and his allies can go after the other governments.
We must prepare to fight savagely a patient, well-led, and religiously motivated enemy for as long as we decide to maintain our current foreign policies toward the Muslim world.
Q: Does oil play a role?
Political leaders have wilfully failed to do anything to improve America’s energy security since the first OPEC oil embargo. For thirty years, we have left our economic welfare in the hands of massively corrupt and anti-Western Arab princes. And now we are paying extortionate prices for fuel, and our children in the military are dying, in part, so we can pay even more extortionate prices in the years ahead.
Q: What was your opinion of the London attacks?
The London attacks struck me, especially the first one, as precisely in al-Qaeda’s modus operandi of separate simultaneous attacks. Strategically, it hit the three big things - mass casualties, economic damage, and symbolic impact. They proved that the eight strongest men on Earth couldn’t stop it.
The way I look at London is that it’s another in the secondary campaign that they’re conducting against America’s allies. Britain, France, Italy, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Spain – they’ve all been attacked since 9/11.
Q: Why in your book do you warn that America’s use of force to date has been “dainty” and counsel that without radical changes in foreign policy, America must, “get used to and good at killing”?
I’ve been treated both as an appeaser and as a warmonger in reviews, but there’s a great aversion to considering force. In my experience the idea of collateral damage of killing someone when you’re after someone else is a showstopper. One time they had a chance to kill bin Laden and there was an Arab prince having lunch with him and they said ‘No, you can’t do that’. You’re never going to get a chance to kill him when there would have been less collateral damage. The US government is palsied by this. I used to think it was all rhetoric and it was just people being either duplicitous or saying the right thing for the media, Bin Laden is alive today because people were afraid of collateral damage.
Q: You’ve taken criticism and have even been accused of anti-Semitism for saying that Israel is employing covert, clandestine intelligence activities, using lobbyists, spies and even Washington’s Holocaust Museum to influence or control US foreign policy. What is your response to this?
I am unperturbed by such statements and accusations. Calling people anti-Semitic is just a way to denigrate and shut-up speakers who raise topics the slingers of that epithet do not want to debate. I am a firm supporter of Israel’s right to do anything and everything it believes is necessary to defend its territory and people. That is the right of every nation state.
What we have is the ability of Israel to influence very important policymakers and very important leaders in the United States – the media elites, the governing elites, and certainly in the cabinet. That’s a public activity, and a less public activity we know have this unfolding case before the courts on activists from AIPAC [the main pro-Israel lobbying group] were getting classified information from American civil servants.
Q: Who should be America’s allies?
I think there are very few countries in the world where the United States is obligated to support a country largely without question, and I think it stems from two World Wars. I would only put the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand in that particular basket of countries towards whom our nation has a debt of honour.
Q: Will America and its allies win the war against Al Qaeda?
Eventually it’s going to dawn on Republicans and Democrats alike that their chance to win this war was when they had a chance to kill him. It’s gone and the chance to win has passed.
I think the best terms on which this can finish is that we get out of the way and let whatever’s going to occur in Islamic society occur. There are so many scores to settle, there’s sectarian differences that are going to be fought out, there is retribution against people like [Egypt’s President] Mubarak and the Saudi royals. It’s going to be a messy Islamic civilization for a long time but it’s not necessarily one that can remain united against us, the West, once we’re out of the way, because I think we’re only the target because we’re seen as the prop for the ones they hate the most which is their own government.