Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA’s Key Field Commander
By Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo
Crown, $25.95, 328pp.
Review by David Forsmark
The first thing you notice about Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA’s Key Field Commander is the big red starburst on the cover that proclaims, "THE BOOK THE CIA DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ!"
And if you're unaware of the way in which a significant wing of the Agency has been working to undermine the Bush administration, the first thing you will wonder when you finish the book is, "Why didn’t the CIA want me to read that book?"
Simply put, the tale of Operation Jawbreaker is the most positive story about the CIA in its nearly 60-year history.
Back in the days of Philip Agee and other traitorous or anti-American writers who exposed the "evils" of the CIA by revealing secrets and sources, it was obvious why the CIA would not want a book to be read. But Jawbreaker tells, in thrilling fashion, the story of what may be the CIA’s greatest triumph -- the joint operation of CIA paramilitary groups and military Special Forces that toppled the Taliban and put Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar on the run. Why wouldn’t the CIA want that story told?
The CIA signed off on the publication of Imperial Hubris:Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, in which Michael Scheuer (writing as "Anonymous" while still with the CIA) savaged President Bush in the heat of the 2004 election season. But author Gary Berntsen had to sue to get Jawbreaker approved, and even then portions -- large and small, significant and ridiculous -- are redacted by a CIA censor who seems determined to be intrusive only because he can. Face it, can it really matter if we know what kind of airplane the team investigating al-Qaeda's embassy bombing in Tanzania few in?
Judging this book by its cover, you might think Jawbreaker is just another Bush-bashing book about the "failure" of the war on terror. The good news is that liberals who read the whole book will find themselves with an education rather than the mental masturbation they are seeking.
The increasingly strange Michael Scheuer takes a break from spinning Zionist conspiracy theories to offer this hysterical blurb on the back of the dust jacket: "Read this heartbreaking book, keep it safe, and reread it after al-Qaeda detonates a nuclear device in America. You will then know who signed the death warrant for tens of thousands of your countrymen."
Sure, Mike, I’ll put it in the bomb shelter right behind the canned food and bottled water.
The biggest problem many in the CIA might have with Jawbreaker is that Berntsen, the CIA’s key field commander in Afghanistan, may be too complimentary of President George W. Bush.
Consider: Not only did the Agency approve the unprecedented publication of Imperial Hubris, but it also sent Joe Wilson, a John Kerry supporter, on a mission to Niger to investigate a key claim made by the White House about Iraq's attempt to develop nuclear weapons.
Wilson then became a media darling by falsifying the results of his half-baked investigation and essentially calling Bush a liar — while implying that Vice President Dick Cheney chose him for the mission. Next, the CIA demanded a Justice Department investigation when someone defending the administration noted that Wilson’s wife recommended him for the job, not Cheney. The Agency claimed Mrs. Wilson — AKA Valerie Plame — was an undercover CIA operative, whose exposure was a criminal act.
If being married to a public figure who calls attention to himself by attacking the president under false pretenses and using a CIA mission to do it is what the Agency calls "cover," that might explain a lot about the Agency’s inadequacies in the past 30 years.
Another indication that a hidden agenda is at work in what the CIA approves for publication is the fact that Gary Schroen's First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan sailed through the censorship process. First In is far more focused than Jawbreaker on settling bureaucratic scores and criticism of the Defense Department in favor of the CIA brass. With considerable sly humor, Berntsen corrects Schroen's account in several instances.
Berntsen opens his book with a warning that 90 percent of thrillers get the CIA and intelligence work exactly wrong. But he later sounds an awful lot like a Vince Flynn hero when he briefs his gung-ho crew in Afghanistan:
"We can’t unhook ourselves from NA [Northern Alliance] intel, just because you want to go to the front and start shooting guys in the head. Besides, we’re not going to win this war by killing guys one by one. There are only a few of us, so we have to use intel to identify large elements of the enemy and kill in the hundreds. If anyone wants a day off each week to go down to the front line and shoot guys, that’s fine. I know some of you live for that sh*t, but that’s not going to win the war."
But before he gets to the point where he’s given the operational freedom under Bush to make such a speech, Berntsen details how the Clinton administration hindered every operation involving Al-Qaeda, offering such comments about the president and his CIA bosses as, "That will never happen, President Clinton doesn’t have it in his DNA to act that boldly," or "Clinton’s contempt for military action coupled with risk aversion on the seventh floor (the DCI’s office) makes it a nonstarter."
Berntsen reveals that, under Clinton and CIA Director George Tenet, aggressive operations officers transferred out of counterterrorism because they knew nothing they proposed would ever come to pass. When Clinton and Tenet claimed they had "declared war on Al-Qaeda," the news was treated with humorous contempt as everyone knew it was mere talk. "Thanks for sharing," was one officer’s response.
On his way to his first mission with the Northern Alliance in early 2000, Berntsen writes, he was enthusiastic: "I considered myself lucky to be living this great adventure in the company of brave men." But Tenet and Clinton pulled the plug on his operation just as two top Al-Qaeda lieutenants were about to be captured, leaving Berntsen disgusted and the Northern Alliance disillusioned.
Berntsen then was transferred to South America, where his station chief specifically warned him not to focus on any counterterrorist activity.
Everything changed after 9/11 and, Berntsen implies, the 2000 election. The complaints about the lack of political will to fight terrorism stopped, as did much of the animus toward the brass. Late in his tour in Afghanistan, while in the midst of a policy dispute on cornering Bin Laden, Berntsen offered a toast that was enthusiastically received by his men: "First a toast to our commander in chief. God bless him for not being afraid to fight."
But the meat of Jawbreaker is not political. This is a thrilling, action-packed, first-rate war memoir about how a handful of CIA paramilitary units combined with a few Special Forces detachments (a little help from the Air Force) toppled a nasty regime by forming an alliance with warlords the naysayers said could never be united. It is in a league with last year’s terrific Shooter and ranks as one of the best first-person narratives of the war against Islamofascism.
The lasting image readers will take from this book is of CIA agents and tribesmen charging on horseback after the devastation of a Daisy Cutter bomb decimates Taliban lines.
While Jawbreaker is being marketed as the story of how bin Laden escaped the American trap, it certainly wasn't as simple and clear cut as Sen. John Kerry’s incessant claims that "We had Osama bin Laden cornered in Tora Bora and let him get away" during the 2005 presidential campaign.
Kerry implied bin Laden's capture would have been a slam-dunk with the right determination, and he would have sent troops into the mountains. "George W. Bush outsourced the task of capturing bin Laden to Afghan warlords" was the catchphrase Kerry employed.
While Berntsen disagreed with some parts of the operation, he also shows this to be a wild charge that depends on the ignorance of its audience.
The detailed and exciting account of the four-man CIA team that followed al-Qaeda into the mountains gives us a view of the improbability of introducing large numbers of American troops into the vast area that is one of the most rugged places on Earth. Although he was not as comfortable with the Eastern Alliance forces in the Tora Bora operation as he had been with the Northern Alliance, Berntsen did used them willingly.
Berntsen called for Rangers to block the exits to the Tora Bora area near the Pakistan border in what he admits would have been a "daring" operation. However, he received no support from his CIA superiors, and CENTCOM never answered.
Unlike Scheuer's blurb on the dust jacket that refers to "uniformed bureaucrats masquerading as U.S. generals," Berntsen maintains a positive attitude about most — particularly Gen. Tommy Franks and eventual Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The notable exception is Gen. Dell Daley, who seems to have actively quashed Berntsen’s plan.
Berntsen also does not speculate about his sudden removal from the command of Operation Jawbreaker just as it was wrapping up, but before the bin Laden question was settled. The reader can only speculate that he lobbied a bit too hard and offended a few too many bureaucratic sensibilities.
The readers’ sensibilities are likely to be comforted by the fact that, as George Orwell wrote, "We sleep safe in our beds because rough men [like Gary Berntsen and his team] stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm."
It should bother us, however, that even after 9/11, softer men can still thwart their ultimate success.
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