In Jawbreaker Gary Berntsen, until recently one of the CIA’s most decorated officers, comes out from under cover for the first time to describe his no-holds-barred pursuit of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
With his unique mix of clandestine knowledge and paramilitary training, Berntsen represents the new face of counterterrorism. Recognized within the agency for his aggressiveness, Berntsen, when dispatched to Afghanistan, made annihilating the enemy his job description.
As the CIA’s key commander coordinating the fight against the Taliban forces around Kabul, and the drive toward Tora Bora, Berntsen not only led dozens of CIA and Special Operations Forces, he also raised 2,000 Afghan fighters to aid in the hunt for bin Laden.
In this first-person account of that incredible pursuit, which actually began years earlier in an East Africa bombing investigation, Berntsen describes being ferried by rickety helicopter over the towering peaks of Afghanistan, sitting by General Tommy Franks’s side as heated negotiations were conducted with Northern Alliance generals, bargaining relentlessly with treacherous Afghan warlords and Taliban traitors, plotting to save hostages about to be used as pawns, calling in B-52 strikes on dug-in enemy units, and deploying a dizzying array of Special Forces teams in the pursuit of the world’s most wanted terrorist. Most crucially, Berntsen tells of cornering bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains—and what happened when Berntsen begged Washington to block the al-Qaeda leader’s last avenue of escape.
As disturbingly eye-opening as it is adrenaline-charged, Jawbreaker races from CIA war rooms to diplomatic offices to mountaintop redoubts to paint a vivid portrait of a new kind of warfare, showing what can and should be done to deal a death blow to freedom’s enemies.
CIA Commander Gary Berntsen on...
His eyebrow-raising style:
“Most CIA Case Officers advanced their careers by recruiting sources and producing intelligence, I took a more grab-them-by-the-neck approach...I operated on the principle that it was easier to seek forgiveness than ask for approval. Take risks, but make sure you’re successful. Success, not good intentions, would determine my fate.”
Doing whatever it took:
“I didn’t just want to survive: I wanted to annihilate the enemy. And I didn’t want to end up like one of my favorite historical characters—Alexander Burns...He was one of the first of more than 14,000 British soldiers to be wiped out by the Afghans in the First Afghan War. Like Burns before me, I was also an intelligence officer and spoke Persian. This was my second trip into Afghanistan, too. The difference, I told myself, was that Burns had been a gentleman and I would do whatever it took to win.”
Dealing with a Taliban official who controlled American hostages:
“Tell him that if he betrays me or loses the hostages I’ll spend every waking moment of my life hunting him down to kill him. Tell him I’m not like any American he has ever met.”
The capabilities of his Tora Bora spotter team:
“Working nonstop, the four men directed strike after strike by B-1s, B-2s, and F-14s onto the al-Qaeda encampment with incredible precision. Somehow through the massive bureaucracy, thousands of miles of distance [and] reams of red tape...the U.S. had managed to place four of the most skilled men in the world above the motherlode of al-Qaeda, with a laser designator and communications system linked to the most potent air power in history...As I listened over our encrypted radio network, one word kept pounding in my head: revenge.”
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Gary Berntsen spent more than twenty years as an officer in the Clandestine Service and served in an array of Field Command assignments. He has been awarded both the Distinguished Intelligence Medal and the Intelligence Star.
Ralph Pezzullo is a former journalist, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, and is the author of At the Fall of Somoza, Plunging into Haiti, and the mystery novel Eve Missing.
THE ATTACK--7 AUGUST 1998
"Dawn comes not twice to awaken a man." --an Arab proverb
* * * * * *
I jumped out of bed by the second ring and grabbed the STU-III secure telephone from the waist-high dresser. The digital clock read 4:23 a.m. in the dark bedroom of our Reston, Virginia, townhouse. My wife, Rebecca, sat up, rubbing her eyes.
A voice on the other end said, "Gary, it's Dorothy in the watch office."
I recognized her voice immediately. Dorothy was one of XXXXXXX officers assigned to my staff in the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. Our job was to identify, penetrate and disrupt the activities of Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO)--the Hezbollah's terrorist arm and the most deadly organization of its kind up to that time.
"One second," I said, removing the top of a XXXXXXX by the phone, extracting a XXXXXX key XXXX and inserting the key into the phone. "I'm going secure."
After pushing the "secure voice" button, a small horizontal panel lit up indicating that the encryption sequence was underway. It took fifteen seconds before the screen on the phone read "TOP SECRET."
Dorothy said: "I have you TS."
"I have you TS," I echoed back.
"Thirty-five minutes ago the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi was attacked with a large explosive device," Dorothy began. "Ten minutes later our Embassy in Dar es Salaam was also attacked with an explosive device. I just talked to Chief CTC O'Connell [CTC is the CIA's Counterterrorism Center]. He wants you to come in."
"Do you have numbers on casualties? Did we lose any of our people?" I asked.
Hearing the word "casualties," my wife gasped.
"There have been large-scale casualties, including some of our people," Dorothy answered.
"Thanks," I said. "I'm on my way in."
I turned the key, extracted it, XXXXXXXXXX, carefully reset the top and stood for a moment in the darkness. I was one of our country's most experienced clandestine counterterrorism officers, but news like this still filled me with cold, seething anger. Pictures of the carnage from bombings I'd witnessed in places like Sri Lanka and Nepal flashed in my head.
My wife understood instinctively that something terrible had happened. "Where?" she asked.
Being an intense, aggressive guy, I imagined myself rushing to the scene immediately and grabbing the bombers. But I managed to remain outwardly calm. "Nairobi and Dar es Salaam," I answered. "We've just had two Embassies bombed within thirty minutes."
After nineteen years married to a CIA officer, my wife knew the drill. "Should I pack a bag for you now?" she asked.
I thought of practicalities for a second. "I have to go into the building first. If I fly out I'll come back first and get some things. Why don't you go back to bed?"
"Go back to bed?" she asked, incredulously. "I can't go back to bed now. I'll make you some coffee and start getting your stuff ready."
Using the encrypted phone, I called one of my branch chiefs, Ted--an FBI agent assigned to CTC. The CIA and the FBI, in the spirit of cooperation, had begun placing officers in each other's counterterrorism units, and Ted was one of the first FBI detailees.
Ted was one tough guy. Prior to joining the FBI, he'd been a Maryland State Police officer. While working undercover, he infiltrated a motorcycle gang suspected of major criminal activity. One night, they got suspicious, dragged him into a deserted field on Maryland's Eastern Shore and stuck a gun to his head. Ted didn't lose his cool. Not only did he talk the gang out of killing him, he eventually locked up sixty of them for crimes varying from grand theft, to drug trafficking, to murder. At the Bureau, he played a lead role in a number of important counterterrorism investigations, including the Iraqi attempt to assassinate former President George Herbert Walker Bush after the Gulf War.
He was the kind of officer I wanted at my side in a crisis. I quickly filled him in.
Then I jumped in the shower, skipped shaving and got dressed, foregoing a jacket because it was going to be a hot, humid August day. Exiting the bedroom, I ran into my seventeen-year-old daughter, Alexis, on the landing. The sound of my moving around had roused her.
She asked, "Dad, what's going on? Why are you guys up so early?"
There was no point trying to hide the truth. Alexis already knew that I was one of the CIA's senior counterterrorism officers, but her thirteen-year-old brother, Thomas, thought I had a desk job at the XXXXXXX.
"There were some attacks on our Embassies in Africa so I need to go in early," I told her.
"Are you going to Africa?"
"Maybe, sweetheart, but not right now."
After a quick cup of coffee and kisses for my wife and daughter, I started out the door. Over my shoulder, the first reports of the bombings aired over CNN.
Standing outside our townhouse was my maroon 1987 Chrysler K station wagon--the car my son and daughter teasingly called "the red rocket." No, it wasn't an Aston Martin or a Land Rover equipped with surface-to-air rockets, but it got me where I wanted to go. My wife and daughter got the new wheels.
I'd taken this route so many times I could drive it in my sleep: down the Dulles toll road, onto route 123, a sharp turn into CIA headquarters twenty minutes later. At this hour of the morning the vast parking area was almost empty, except for vehicles belonging to members of the watch office and Directorate of Intelligence personnel who worked on the President's Daily Brief.
Passing through the CIA entrance, I swiped my badge over an optical reader and punched in my security code. My watch read 5:05 a.m. as I entered an elevator of the oldest wing of the three-building complex and hit five.
The Crisis Center consisted of two large rooms--one packed with communications racks with radios and multiple workstations to monitor Counterterrorism Center (CTC) developments around the world. The second room housed a large conference table and chairs.
CTC is part of the CIA's Directorate of Operations. The rest of the CIA's XXXX employees are organized under three other directorates: Science & Technology, Intelligence and Administration. Most of them are analysts, scientists and administrators.
The Directorate of Operations (DO) is the place that employs clandestine case officers like myself. Back in the mid-'90s the Clinton administration had reduced the number of operations officers by twenty-five percent. The DO is responsible for collecting human intelligence and running operations against 6 billion people and governments around the globe who want to harm the United States.
The FBI, for purposes of comparison, has approximately 10,000 field officers (special agents) covering the United States. There are one thousand FBI officers assigned to New York City alone.
You could say that working for Operations is challenging. Most of my closest colleagues are type-A individuals who won't back down from anyone or anything. We accept the fact that we live in a hard world and deal with that reality. It's dangerous work.
In the past, I've stopped dozens of bombings and assassinations overseas. I've also hunted down and captured terrorists from various groups. These are CIA successes that were never reported in the news.
When we're portrayed in the media, ninety-five percent of what's said or written is dead wrong. Books like Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger where the Deputy Director of the CIA personally hunts down terrorists--ridiculous. Movies like Three Days of the Condor where CIA operatives assassinate members of the American Literacy Historical Society--disgusting!
* * *
I felt a jolt of energy as I entered the Crisis Center. Chief CTC Jeff O'Connell stood in the dimly lit conference room speaking on a secure phone directly to the White House. Especially at that early hour of the morning, it was an intensely focused group. Ted (my FBI deputy) as well as the top officers in CTC were already there. News reports from CNN were being projected on the wall behind the head of the table.
O'Connell was around fifty, with slightly thinning reddish blond hair, five-foot-ten and fit. An excellent Arabist, O'Connell had served with distinction in multiple Middle East posts fighting Palestinian terrorist groups like Black September and Abu Nidal. Every time I saw him I was reminded of William Buckley and my early days in the Directorate of Operations.
I'd met both men in 1984 when--fresh out of training--I received my first assignment in NE Division (Directorate of Operations Near East and South Asian Division) working on Iraqi issues. It was a hell of a time to cut one's teeth. Two days before my assignment, on April 18, 1983, a van packed with two thousand pounds of explosives blew off the front of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, collapsing the front portion of the seven-story structure and killing sixty-three people including the XXXXX. In one fell swoop, the creme de la creme of the United States' Middle East intelligence had been wiped out. A single CIA officer, who happened to be out of the building buying a carpet, survived.
The attack was the work of Hezbollah, Lebanon's Shiite Muslim political party (Party of God), under the banner of the Islamic Jihad Organization (I...
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