"Weapons of Mass Deception"


BuzzFlash interview: Michael Scheuer

Michael Scheuer, ex-CIA bin Laden Unit Chief, Explains Why Insurgents Are Willing To Die Fighting Us...Maybe It's Not Our Freedom They Hate...

I’m very much frustrated with the inability of our leaders to make more than a superficial effort to understand the enemy, not because we need to sympathize with them or empathize with them, but because he’s so dangerous. We really need to take the measure of the enemy and why the enemy is fighting us.... Islamic militancy is a complex issue, but it’s not impossible for Americans to understand if they’re talked to directly and frankly. So far, we’ve gone through 12 or 15 years with not a single frank discussion with the American people.


Known as "Anonymous" when his book, Imperial Hubris, came out in 2004, Michael Scheuer served in the CIA for 22 years and as chief of the bin Laden unit of the Director of Central Intelligence Counterterrorist Center from 1996-1999. Since publication of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror, and his subsequent resignation from the CIA in November, 2004, Scheuer has offered informed, passionate, and controversial commentary on U.S. policy in the Middle East. Frustrated with the Bush Administration's simplistic portrayal of terrorists as "freedom haters," he talked with BuzzFlash about the anti-American insurgency and the American foreign policy choices that he believes fuel it. An advocate of frank discussion of the Muslim perspective, he both urges us, and helps us, to understand this war, and why it won't be easy to end. He also characterizes our recent U.S. presidential campaign as "completely barren on both sides of any discussion of the foreign policy issues that are at play in this war..." We don't agree with everything Scheuer has to say (we think, for instance, there is a distinction to be made between the Sharon Likud government and Israel, just as there is a distinction to be made between the Bush government and America), but he knows terrorism about as well as anybody and needs to be heard.

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BuzzFlash: You argue in your book, Imperial Hubris, that the United States cannot fight an effective war on terror because the Bush administration doesn’t even understand or is unwilling to comprehend how our U.S. foreign policy impacts the Islamic world. You argue that the U.S. government doesn’t comprehend that we have a perception problem, and that the invasion of Iraq, as well as our policies towards Israel and Palestine, fuel this perception problem which drives anti-American sentiment, which therefore breeds terrorism.

Explain, if you could, what Americans should know about our recent history and our foreign policy in the Middle East, and how the Islamic world perceives it.

Michael Scheuer: I think the most basic thing for Americans to realize is that this war has nothing to do with who we are or what we believe, and everything to do with what we do in the Islamic world. Mr. Bush, Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush before Mr. Clinton -- they all identified Islamic militancy as being based on the hatred of Western democracy and freedom, and that’s clearly not the case. They surely don’t like our way of life, but very few people are willing to die to keep us from having primary elections or because we have freedom of the press.

Universally in the Muslim world, at least according to the most recent polling data, American foreign policy in several specific areas is hated by Muslims. Majorities of 85-90 percent are registered as hating or resenting American policies, towards our support for Israel, our ability to keep oil prices low, or low enough to satisfy Western consumers, our support for Arab tyrannies from Morocco to the Indian Ocean, our support for Putin in Chechnya.

BuzzFlash: Another major thesis of yours is that the West falsely believes that it is, in fact, fighting the global terror network. But, as you argue, in reality it really is more of an anti-American insurgency in the Middle East in an attempt to get the United States out of dominating and essentially corrupting that region.

Michael Scheuer: Or at least protecting the governments that are corrupt. Yes, certainly what the United States is facing is not terrorism. The groups that America has traditionally identified as terrorists would have been destroyed by now if they had suffered the amount of damage that America has inflicted on them. Al Qaeda and its allies are much more insurgent organizations, such as those that grew up during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. And so our kind of law enforcement mentality of catching them one at a time, as the President says, is surely never going to suffice to protect America or to defeat the enemy.

BuzzFlash: The Bush administration has deceived the American people about linking the campaign to defeat Al Qaeda with the war in Iraq, which we believe to be completely wrong. What are your thoughts on the spiraling violence in Iraq? How could someone explain to the American people that leveling Fallujah or fighting insurgents on the streets in Iraq has anything to do with protecting Americans against terrorism or defeating Al Qaeda?

Michael Scheuer: Whatever the threat was from Saddam Hussein or weapons of mass destruction, the invasion of Iraq was a countervailing issue that should have been discussed very fully in terms of the war against Islamic militancy. By invading and occupying Iraq, America, or its allies, now occupy the three holiest places in Islam -- Saudi Arabia, first; second, Iraq; and the Israeli control of Jerusalem, the third. Of course, the Israelis are viewed simply as an extension of the United States, so, in essence, in the Muslim mind, all three of their sanctities are occupied by the United States and its allies -- something that was bound to offend 1.3 billion Muslims, whether or not they supported Osama bin Laden.

The real question I think for Americans is, was the President briefed on that? Did Mr. Tenet, when he was the Director of Central Intelligence, inform the President of this countervailing problem? Further than that, the ongoing insurgency in Iraq will grow over time. It’s not, as so many of our generals say, primarily the people who used to support Saddam. In fact, I would venture that a percentage of the insurgent force made up of Iraqis is probably growing smaller over time. But Iraq is now what Afghanistan was in the late 1970s and throughout the 80s into the 90s, and that’s an insurgent magnet, if you will, a Mujahideen magnet, only much, much worse. This is because Iraq is in the middle of the Middle East and the middle of the Arab world, the second holiest place of Islam. The fighters are coming there from all over the Islamic world, from Uzbekistan, from Afghanistan, from Saudi Arabia, from Jordan and Algeria, and it’s going to continue that way, I think, for the foreseeable future.

BuzzFlash: One of the biggest problems is that the Bush Administration believes the answer to defeating terrorism is with overwhelming military power to intimidate and dominate the enemy. We believe this strategy has been a colossal failure. It seems that the battle against Al Qaeda should really be fought with diplomatic, humanitarian, intelligence and law enforcement means. Of course, we’re not even discussing even some of the other, maybe perhaps more important, systemic problems such as poverty, that help fuel terrorism and violence. Would you agree with that?

Michael Scheuer: I don’t agree with it in its entirety. Al Qaeda -- just to take your last point first -- and many of its allies are basically middle class and upper-middle-class individuals. These people who came from good families had a fairly good education -- sometimes a scientific or engineering education -- and were people who had a future. These are not desperate people who had nothing to live for. These are people who have just decided to give up what they could have gained in order to protect what they see as a threat against their religion.

I also disagree with the idea that intelligence activities and military force aren’t necessary. Indeed, at this point, we’ve got ourselves into such a box that the only thing we have left is the military and the intelligence services, and neither of them has been applied with particular vigorousness. We’ve not intimidated anyone, we’ve not scared anyone, and that’s a problem in the Middle East where force and intimidation is generally a kind of a lingua franca.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban survived the war in Afghanistan, and they must figure, gee, we rode this one out. They’re not that strong. The same thing happened in Iraq. We used our military power with a little too much daintiness. The real problem for Americans is that the intelligence services and the military can’t hold the ring forever. America really has a choice between war and endless war, not between war and peace. And what we have to do is to find a way to slow the growth in the Muslim world of support for Osama bin Laden. And that comes down to understanding that the motivation for the people fighting us has to do with our policies.

Until America reviews those policies in an open and democratic way to decide whether they still serve the interests of the United States, we’re really just buying time a little bit at a time, in the sense that, again, the military can’t possibly win this war over the long term.

BuzzFlash: When you look at suicide bombers -- whether they’re in Palestine or in Afghanistan or in Iraq -- you don’t believe that perhaps part of the mechanism that fuels young men and women to die in this war is poverty? You don’t believe that there’s an underlying problem that helps the insurgency and the anti-American sentiment to fester?

Michael Scheuer: I think there clearly are problems with poverty, illiteracy and health across the Muslim world. But the evidence available to date does not indicate that terrorism is at all powered by desperateness or a sense of hopelessness. Indeed, the most powerful bases of strength for the fundamentalists -- at least for the militant movement in the Islamic world -- is in the educated classes, in the doctors, in the physicians, in the engineering guilds in Egypt, for example. Bin Laden himself came from a family of billionaires. Many of his associates are engineers or former professional military officers. The problem we have is people don’t commit terrorism because they’re poor. We have great numbers of people in the United States who are poor and illiterate and we don’t have terrorism based on that here. It’s a sense that the Islamic religion and the Muslim people are under attack by policies followed by the United States and its allies in the West.

I really think there’s only a limited amount that could be done with economic policy. The 9/11 Commission suggested that we have to do a lot more to train and educate Muslim youth, as if some sort of a New Deal was the answer for the Islamic world, and I don’t think there’s any evidence to support that. I also think the idea that public diplomacy, which the 9/11 Commission Report recommends as way out of this box, is also mistaken because we’re not going to talk these people out of what they’re up to.

I think it’s a mistake to think the Muslims don’t understand our policy. Whether they understand it correctly or not is another question, but it’s certainly viewed as predatory policies in terms of the exploitation of natural resources in the Islamic world, in terms of supporting police states across the Islamic world, whether in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, or in support for Israel against virtually everyone else on any Islamic world. So no, I’m afraid I’m not one that thinks that curing poverty or humanitarian aid is going to make much of a difference in this war.

BuzzFlash: It’s difficult now to differentiate between perhaps a young man in Fallujah who has taken up arms vs. a member of Al Qaeda. So perhaps we may be talking about two separate things and we’re not even sure how to separate the two now.

Michael Scheuer: Or are they separable?

BuzzFlash: Correct. Well, let me ask you that -- are they?

Michael Scheuer: No. I think what’s happened is that the American educational system over the last 30 years has bred into Americans the idea that somehow wars can be conducted without casualties. Clearly during the Clinton years at least, we were very eager to conduct military activities as long as we didn’t suffer casualties. We had a chance to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998, and the government decided not to do it because we might risk the lives of several of our intelligence officers. And at the same time, they were bombing the daylights out of the Serbs who posed no threat to the United States at all. So I really believe that much of the problem lies in the way we understand or misunderstand history.

War hasn’t changed since Hannibal. And the truth of the matter is we’re facing an enemy that is indistinguishable from the civilian population, and they don’t wear uniforms. And because we’ve whittled our own choice down to military or intelligence actions, the reality is that many innocents or civilians are going to be killed if we are to defend America properly.

BuzzFlash: Now that we’re bogged down in Iraq, what do we do? It seems the situation is un-winnable, but, as you indicate in your book, the Bush Administration is concerned about being labeled weak, so withdrawing probably won’t be an option, despite the horrific losses to American soldiers and civilians. What do you think should be done?

Michael Scheuer: You know, people have a hard time admitting mistakes, and certainly nation-states have a harder time than people. I don’t know what the answer is going to be in the long term to what’s going on in Iraq. Clearly we’re not winning. Clearly no one wants to hear the reality of what’s going on. I noticed in the New York Times today that people are attacking again the CIA for writing the truth about what’s happening on the ground in Iraq.

To me, the main problem with neo-conservatives is that they live in a fact-free environment: the world is as they want it, not as it is. Iraq is a beautiful example of that because of just the way the insurgency is rising there. It’s not an accident that so many Saudis and Kuwaitis and Jordanians are being killed in the fighting in Iraq. People are coming from all over the Muslim world to fight there. Do we withdraw? I don’t know. As I said, that’s a very hard decision for a great power. Certainly we’re not going to win there in the near term with 150,000 troops. It looks to me like, until we accept the reality of the world, the way the world is, we’re going to continue to send troops in there, and we’re going to continue to bleed but not win.

BuzzFlash: What should the United States do, in your opinion, with respect to our policies towards Israel and the creation of the Palestinian state? Would a fundamental change help curb anti-American sentiment in the Middle East?

Michael Scheuer: Well, I think that the Israel-Palestinian issue certainly has become a gut issue for the whole Muslim world. Fifteen years ago, it was kind of a hot-house issue. There were sets of diplomats who spoke the jargon and played the game, but everybody was pretty much happy if they kept talking to each other and there was no conventional war. Since the birth of Arabic satellite television and CNN and the BBC television around the world, Palestine now is a much greater issue for Muslims. It’s a gut issue. And yes, I think it would make a difference if there was some kind of change in our policy toward Israel.

Of course, when you raise that, people label you an anti-Semite as if you’re saying abandon them to the wolves, and really what we’re talking about is to look at our alliance with the Israelis and see if it isn’t time that the American dog leads the Israeli tail, instead of the other way around. The perception of our relationship with the Israelis right now is getting Americans killed. There’s no doubt about that, and that needs to be at least discussed. I think that’s where we are.

You can ask me, as you did, what should we do. My answer to that is, first of all, we need a shot of democracy inside the United States. The just-completed Presidential campaign was completely barren on both sides of any discussion of the foreign policy issues that are at play in this war against Islamic militancy. The American people, I think, deserve to at least have a voice in policies that have basically been on auto-pilot for 25 years, whether toward Israel, energy policy, support for the Saudis and the Egyptians -- all of that -- I think it deserves a debate.

If, at the end of the debate, in our democratic process, the decision is to keep those policies kind of as they are -- well, I think that might be a mistake. But, at the same time, if that's what the country would want, then at least the country would be going into the war against Islamic militancy with its eyes open, knowing that those policies, more than anything else, motivate our enemy.

We would go into it with our eyes open. We’d be expecting a very long war, and a very bloody and costly war. And so I really believe, before you can actually say what the policy should be, you need to examine those policies to see if they are still in America’s interest.

BuzzFlash: Why do you believe that there has not been another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil since September 11?

Michael Scheuer: I think the world has been going in the direction of Osama bin Laden since 9/11. The U.S. military was completely unprepared to respond to the attack. It took them nearly 30 days to attack Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. And when they did, Al Qaeda and the Taliban had basically dispersed. Then we fought for awhile in Afghanistan, and we won the cities, which was the winning of a battle, but we mistook that for winning the war. Now we have a rising insurgency there, so it’s going to become increasingly bloody for the United States.

The second reason is, I wrote in my book that if Osama was a Christian, the invasion of Iraq would have been the Christmas present he long desired but never thought his parents would give him. It is an activity which has kind of broken the back of U.S. counterterrorism policy and undone much of the good we’ve accomplished in the last decade for the reasons we talked about earlier. It is now a contemporary Afghanistan which will motivate fighters for the foreseeable future.

I’d also say that one of the problems besetting the American intelligence community on the issue of terrorism is to assume if someone doesn’t attack us when we expect them to attack us, that he can’t, and that he is defeated. And bin Laden is a man who we have never been able to either push into action or away from action. He’s somebody who kind of works at his own schedule and is not influenced to any great extent when it comes to attack by external forces.

The final thing I would say to you is Americans tend to be a little bit short-sighted on Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s all we see. If you step back and look over the last 18 months, for example, you would see a rise of Islamic militancy in the world that is, in some ways, quite startling -- the current unrest and violence in southern Thailand, for example; a great deal of Muslim-Christian violence in northern Nigeria; the growth of Islamic militancy at a rapid rate in a place like Bangladesh; the great increase in Pakistan in sectarian violence inside the country.

Maybe most startling is the ongoing violence in Saudi Arabia. Five or six years ago, Saudi Arabia was one of the safest places on earth in terms of violent crime. And now, you know, as recently as yesterday [December 6], we had an American consulate in Jeddah attacked. So for all those reasons and others, I think bin Laden figures the world is going in his direction.

BuzzFlash: Do you believe the United States, the homeland, is safer from threats of terrorism since 9/11?

Michael Scheuer: Well, I hope it is. My own experience in government over pretty close to a quarter century is that bigger bureaucracy is seldom the answer for a dysfunctional bureaucracy. And the Department of Homeland Security and now a new national counterterrorism center, and a new chief for the intelligence community, seems to me that although we may be bigger, I don’t know if we’re any better. Certainly the failure after 9/11 to find out who was in our country legally and who was here illegally was botched. We didn’t take advantage of it. We still don’t have a firm idea of who’s in this country. And now they want to legalize nine million immigrants. There’s arguments on both sides of that issue. But from strictly the national security aspect, if there are only three Al Qaeda in every million, you would have close to 30 Al Qaeda people able to travel freely across the United States without any real means of checking on them.

So of all the people who are defending America, I tend to think that the immigration people, the FBI, the local police forces, the local Department of Homeland Security people -- they have a desperately difficult job. And I’m not sure at all that the federal government, at least, has addressed that issue satisfactorily.

BuzzFlash: As a side note, sometimes I get the sense from you, perhaps from your years of working in government, that your job is to solve the problem, and that you struggle or are frustrated with sensitive issues of perception and politics.

Michael Scheuer: I’m very much frustrated, certainly so, with the inability of our leaders to make more than a superficial effort to understand the enemy, not because we need to sympathize with them or empathize with them, but because he’s so dangerous -- we really need to take the measure of the enemy and why the enemy is fighting us. There’s just such a reluctance to get into the whole discussion of religious motivation or the chance that our policies and Americans are hated for some reason.

I guess fortunately, and unfortunately, at the same time, I was educated by Jesuits. They always said it’s sometimes necessary to manipulate others, but never fool yourself. That’s kind of where I am on this. At a very selfish level, I have four kids and three grandchildren. And they’re not being adequately protected. Islamic militancy is a complex issue, but it’s not impossible for Americans to understand if they’re talked to directly and frankly. So far, we’ve gone through 12 or 15 years with not a single frank discussion with the American people.

BuzzFlash: What do you believe is the greatest security threat facing the United States?

Michael Scheuer: Our failure to understand what we’re facing. The President, the Vice President, Mr. Clinton, Mr. Kerry -- most of our political leaders continue to identify bin Laden as a thug and a gangster and a deviant personality, and nothing could be further from the truth. He is, in every sense, a great man, without a connotation of positive or negative, but in the sense of a man who has changed the course of history. Already, since 2001, if you just try to take your children’s grammar school class to visit something in Washington, whether it’s the White House or the Congress, and you see the security guards first passing these fourth graders through electronic detection, and then running the wand over them and making them empty their pockets. Try to get on an airplane. Look at the concentric rings of defense around the White House. It’s like it’s under siege.

The American way of life has changed, and bin Laden’s activities and our fear of him is directly responsible for that. Look at the spiral in the budget deficit. All of that is attributable either to Osama bin Laden or the gift we gave him by invading Iraq. To me, the most dangerous thing is that Americans think we’re on the verge of winning this war when indeed we have barely started to fight it.

BuzzFlash: Having read other interviews with you and parts of your book, I want you to clarify something. On one hand, it seems that you indicate that we’ve been, in some respects, too sensitive in not using enough military force. You indicated our hesitancy to strike at bin Laden or retaliating against Al Qaeda terrorist attacks in the 90s. At the same time, it seems that the very civilian casualties in Afghanistan, as well as attacks in Iraq, are fueling the insurgency and the anti-American extremists through propaganda and through perception. It seems a vicious cycle.

Michael Scheuer: Yes, in many ways it is a vicious cycle. I don’t think it’s necessarily contradictory. What I did argue in the book was that because we have left these policies unchanged -- and indeed, someone said the other day that most of them are immutable so they can’t be changed -- we’ve left ourselves only the military and the intelligence services to defend America.

Now if we believe America is worth defending, we have to use the tools that are available, and we have to use them aggressively until we come up with another tool to complement those tools. I tend to believe that whatever increased anger we cause in the Muslim world is going to be on the margins. I don’t think that our leaders have really quite taken the measure of the hatred across the Islamic world. We have polling information for the first time in the last five or six years that’s been taken by major Western companies -- the Pew Trust and Gallup and the BBC -- that show, in many Muslim countries, Islamic countries, majorities in the range of 85, 90, 95 percent hating the same U.S. policies that bin Laden has identified.

At the same time, those polls show majorities -- sometimes large ones -- who admire our society for its basic striving toward equity, for the ability of parents to educate their children and provide health care, and find employment. And so the idea that they hate us for what we are needs to be taken off the map. They wouldn’t run their lives as we run ours, surely. But they wouldn’t be dying in increasing numbers because they oppose our elections, for example.

We need to approach this problem for what it is. It’s a war. No war can be won solely by military and intelligence work. But until we do something about the perception, at least, of our policies in the Islamic world, public diplomacy, economic activities, humanitarian aid, are of very marginal use to us. And so we’re stuck. And there’s no one more than I who wants to be able to complement military and intelligence activities with a group of policies that will assist in winning this war and protecting America, but right now, we don’t have the option.

Several people have said it’s a schizophrenic book. I probably should have written more clearly. But I really think that the hatred for U.S. policy is so deep across the Muslim world that whatever we do to defend ourselves can only increase hatred for us at the margin.

BuzzFlash: Thank you for your time.

Michael Scheuer: It’s nice to talk to you. Thank you very kindly.


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Milton Frihetsson, 03:12


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