The CIA analyst could not believe it. After her unit had issued literally dozens of warnings that Osama bin Laden was planning kill Americans in their own country, after they had practically run screaming through the halls at Langley trying to get somebody to listen, she and her colleagues were being accused of an “intelligence failure” that killed thousands of people on Sept. 11. “You didn’t help us at all,” she told one caller from another CIA office. “And now you’re blaming us.” The tear that rolls down her cheek as she recounts the conversation a dozen years later is not one of sorrow, but bitter rage.
Her interview is emblematic of HBO’s Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden, a documentary based on journalist Peter Bergen’s book of the same name, that delivers considerably less than its title implies. Far from a complete accounting of how the United States government tracked down and killed its Public Enemy No. 1 — even the SEAL raid that ended with his death is hardly mentioned, much less described — this film might be better titled The Spooks Strike Back.
Mostly it consists of interviews with former members of the Alec Station, the CIA unit formed in 1995 for the single purpose of hunting bin Laden. (It borrowed its name from the name of the young son of the unit’s first chief.) Reviled as misanthropic, one-track yahoos before Sept. 11 and derided as bumblers and hacks after it, the Alec Station analysts are finally getting a chance to tell their side of the story. And it’s well worth watching.
Years before Alec Station was created, a handful of CIA analysts (almost all of them women, an oddity that Manhunt does not pursue) had noted that an disquieting number of terrorist bombings in the Middle East involved fundamentalist Muslims who had fought against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. The first CIA warnings about the fundamentalists were issued even before the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. But the agency wasn’t certain how important bin Laden was, whether he really headed a terrorist group or merely wrote checks on his whopping family construction fortune to fund others.
Alec Station documented the existence of bin Laden’s group al Qaeda, warned that its capabilities were growing and predicted that its terrorist ambitions extended outside the Middle East to the United States. The rest of the CIA scoffed. One Alec Station analyst, Cindy Storer, was even criticized in her annual performance for spending too much time on bin Laden. “Yes, we were borderline obsessive,” she agrees in Manhunt. “But I thought it was for a good reason.”
By 2001, Alec Station’s alarms about bin Laden had become banshee shrieks. “There was just warning after warning after warning, all spring,” recalls Storer. Yet, as several of the analysts admit, the warnings lacked “actionable intelligence,” concrete who-when-and-where information about al Qaeda plans. And after bin Laden did strike at the United States on Sept. 11, Alec Station would be condemned for what it didn’t know instead of celebrated for what it did. “People say, ‘Why didn’t you connect the dots?’” recalls Storer. “Well, because the whole page is black.”
After Sept. 11, Alec Station’s objectives changed. Instead of generating intelligence about al Qaeda’s strategy and plans, its analysts became trackers, following the digital trails left by the phone calls, emails and credit cards of bin Laden and his lieutenants in an effort to pin down their whereabouts so they could be killed or captured. The latter often resulted in what the CIA delicately refers to as “enhanced interrogation techniques” and much of the rest of the world calls “torture.” And it is on this point that Manhunt will kick off a firestorm of controversy.
Manhunt says explicitly what last year’s fictionalized account of the pursuit of bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, only hinted at: that torture was morally justified and, more importantly, it worked. Several CIA officers interviewed in Manhunt say Bin Laden’s senior commander, Abu Zubaydah, gave up nothing until he was waterboarded, then sang like a jihadist canary.
Zubaydah’s disclosures allowed U.S. forces to go on a killing spree against al Qaeda leaders, gunning them down in such profusion that one CIA official laughingly offers an imaginary promotion ceremony: “Congratulations, Abu Butthead, you’re now No. 3 in al Qaeda. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you’re now No. 3 in al Qaeda. You’d better buckle your chin strap because your career path is going to be pretty short-lived.”
“You can’t argue with success,” says one CIA analyst. “And the fact of the matter is that we were extremely successful once we started the techniques on Abu Zubaydah.”
Another notes that a key break in the case — the identity of bin Laden’s trusted personal courier, who eventually led the CIA to the secret Pakistan compound where the al Qaeda leader was killed in 2011 — came after a captured bin Laden aide was interrogated by Kurdish security forces. Asked what happened during questioning to make him give up the name, her only response is a tiny smile that curls into the grin of a Cheshire cat.