CIA officials walk viewers through the methodical, sometimes misguided ‘Manhunt’ that led to Osama bin Laden

April 7, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 7, 2013

When commercial jet planes struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, most Americans had not heard of al Qaeda or the rich Saudi Arabian who headed it.

That was not the case for the men and women of the Central Intelligence Agency unit that tracked al Qaeda’s leader. Alec Station, founded in 1995, knew that Osama bin Laden had declared war on America, and they had tied him to a number of terrorist operations around the world as the man who had either directly ordered or given other organizations funds to facilitate them. Al Qaeda itself had carried out deadly 1998 attacks against two U.S. embassies in Africa as well as one against the U.S.S. Cole.

Alec Station had been issuing warnings throughout 2001 that a large Qaeda operation, evidently targeting the United States, was in the works. Their inability to determine just what would happen, and where, would end up haunting many of the unit’s members; it also led, perhaps unfairly, to some blame for the 9/11 terror attacks being laid at their feet.

Prior to the Sept. 11 assault, the so-called Sisterhood that tracked Islamic terrorism was looked down upon by many others in the CIA. Analyst Cindy Storer tells documentary filmmaker Greg Barker in Manhunt, his new feature-length film, that she was counseled on one performance review that she was too passionate about finding bin Laden.

Once al Qaeda’s 19 hijackers brought down the Twin Towers and brought jihad to the headquarters of the world’s most powerful military, that all changed; resources poured into counterterrorism operations.

The attack on American soil prompted other modifications as well. “We changed the rule book a bit,” says former CIA field officer Marty Martin, who was brought back after 9/11 to lead the agency’s war on al Qaeda. “We were empowered more. We did get a bit more aggressive.

“My job is to kill al Qaeda,” Martin continues in the film. “Either get shoulder to shoulder with us or get out of the way.”

Yet even with these transformations, the bin Laden hunters spent nearly 10 years exploring dead ends and delving into dark places before they could find the world’s most-wanted terrorist. 

Manhunt methodically lays out the painstaking efforts that eventually tracked bin Laden to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The story, of course, has been told before in at least two books: one by Peter Bergen, which shares the title of and serves as a basis for this film, and another, The Finish, written by Mark Bowden. But Barker’s picture presents the tale clearly and engagingly in a format that can be digested much more quickly than virtually any nonfiction volume.

To the credit of Barker and his colleagues, the film — which is slated to be broadcast by HBO on May 1, the second anniversary of the covert raid that killed bin Laden — touches upon a number of controversial issues. One is torture, or enhanced interrogation, if you will, the contemporary American use of which the film traces to the capture of Abu Zubaydah.

He was the highest-ranking Qaeda official captured to that time, and handling him required a new set of protocols, says Jose Rodriguez, who ran CIA counterterrorism operations. Lesser terrorists had been “rendered” to friendly nations for interrogation, but Zubaydah was too important for such treatment.

An initial period of cooperation with American interrogators ended after Zubaydah recovered from injuries sustained in his capture. The CIA, faced with a decision on how to proceed, turned to coercive techniques.

Martin defends this decision in the documentary. “If we can’t make them [terrorism suspects] uncomfortable to save lives, we’ve missed the boat,” he tells Barker, adding, “They’re straight-up haters. There’s no reasoning with them.”

Rodriguez, like Martin, presents an ends-justifies-the-means rationale for coercive interrogation (which included several techniques, such as slapping captives and grabbing their collars, that he considers weak sauce).

“You can’t argue with success, and the fact of the matter is we became extremely successful” at hunting down Qaeda officials after the decision was made to apply physical and psychological pressure to Zubaydah.

Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Ali Soufan appears in the movie to dispute Rodriguez’s assertion. Soufan, who describes an evidently masterful interrogation session he conducted after 9/11 that relied mainly upon his ability the gain the trust of a terrorism suspect, tells the camera that all the good information provided by Zubaydah came before he was waterboarded some 180 times.

“The traditional interrogation techniques worked tremendously,” Soufan says.

Rodriguez argues that “only three terrorists with American blood on their hands were ever waterboarded,” raising the (unanswered) question of how many men not suspected of being killers were subjected to that kind of physical coercion.

The final word on torture, which may or may not have elicited vital information leading to the location of bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout, is given by another top counterterrorism official. Phil Mudd says that the CIA knew knowledge of its interrogation techniques would eventually become public.

“I understand people are uncomfortable with this, but the options we had were not very good,” Mudd explains.

Although intelligence officials spent years without being able to find bin Laden, to the frustration of themselves as well as Congress and the president, they became adept at hunting down other Qaeda members. (Rodriguez suggests at one point that the CIA was too busy finding bin Laden’s top deputies to locate the Qaeda chief himself.) This was partly accomplished by converting analysts, who were concerned with developing strategic information and producing large-scale pictures, into targeters, who were assigned to find specific high-level terrorists and work with American special forces to plot and execute capture-or-kill raids.

Over time, this deadly fusion of targeters and special operators became what analyst-cum-targeter Nada Bakos calls “a well-oiled machine.” Former Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who had authority over special operations, tells Barker that at one point his forces were conducting 300 counterterrorism raids per month — an average of 10 a day!

Viewers may find this military marvel admirable or frightening. McChrystal himself, interestingly, counsels caution about the work his men did, which sometimes involved crossing over to what he calls the dark side.

“There are times when that may be appropriate, but it is dangerous,” he says. “It’s easier next time to cross.”

Indeed, the film touches upon the civilian carnage unintentionally wrought by some of these raids, which former CIA official Susan Hasler calls counterproductive.

“Shock and awe does not end terror,” she says in an interview. “It only creates more terrorism.”

Hasler also says, in an apparent reference to misconceptions top officials in President George W. Bush’s administration have about the Arab world, “I think still those people don’t understand why they hate us.”

This is an ironic counterpoint to the Muslim deaths that were deliberately inflicted by al Qaeda’s top Iraqi proxy, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi’s tactics were so bloody that they too became counterproductive. Bin Laden was so troubled by Iraqis’ averse reaction to the civilian death toll Zarqawi inflicted, and by Zarqawi’s refusal to change course, that he sent an emissary to Iraq to intervene. That messenger was captured and later provided key information that helped point to bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound.

Manhunt provides no information about the planning or execution of the raid that was conducted there; for that, interested parties will have to turn to Bowden’s book (which also describes decisions by President Barack Obama that shaped the operation), Nicholas Schmidle’s August 2011 New Yorker account of the night of May 1, 2011, and No Easy Day, a memoir by a participant in the raid.

Instead, somewhat incongruously, the film devotes a segment to documenting a suicide bombing by a Qaeda double agent that killed seven CIA employees in December 2009 at a U.S. base in Khost, Afghanistan. One of the victims was the agency’s station chief, Jennifer Matthews, who had been trying to run bin Laden to ground for 15 years.

Although the bombing did claim the life of a dedicated bin Laden hunter, and although it amply demonstrates the risks taken by CIA officers — especially in the revamped world of counterterrorism, which places targeters in or near the field — the decision to emphasize this episode and omit any description of the Abbottabad operation seems curious at best.

Nevertheless, Manhunt is very much worth seeing because of the insight it provides into America’s covert war on terrorists. Despite the complicated nature of the hunt for bin Laden, Barker and his crew never overwhelm the audience. Interviews with former CIA analysts and other officials are wonderfully supplemented by clips from bin Laden TV and radio messages, views of Qaeda propaganda magazines and videos, captivating original footage of Middle Eastern locations, graphics mimicking the “link charts” analysts frequently use, and music composed and performed by Philip Sheppard.

The movie ends by asking sobering questions about Americans’ failure to understand the world around them and the future of this nation’s struggle wih the tactics of terrorism and the ideology of radical Islam.

Bakos notes that bin Laden was very successful at promulgating those tactics and ideas. “How do you kill an ideology?” she asks. “Killing one person doesn’t end that.”

“It’s a nice chapter to close,” Martin says, but adds, ominously: “It’s not over. Sadly, I think we’re going to be in this situation again.”

This viewpoint, along with others in Manhunt, needs to be heard and understood. I hope this film starts a conversation about how America has handled its war on terror and how we can fight our enemies without creating more of them.

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