Jawbreaker NPR coverage of 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. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
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The Attack On Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda: A Personal Account By The Cia's Key Field Commander

by Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo

Hardcover, 328 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $25.95 |


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The Attack On Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda: A Personal Account By The Cia's Key Field Commander
Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo

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Book Summary

A CIA field commander offers an inside look at the war in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden, explaining how he and his handpicked team of CIA and Special Operations Forces launched an offensive against al-Qaeda.

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'Jawbreaker': The Hunt for Bin Laden

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Jawbreaker



"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 (IJO). Led by the Shiite cleric Fadallah, Hezbollah was closely tied to the Islamic regime in Iran.

I'd entered NE Division during its darkest hour. The darkness grew thicker a few months later when the man dispatched as the new chief in Beruit, William Buckley, was kidnapped by Hezbollah. Hezbollah wanted the government of Kuwait to release Mustafa Badr al-Din (the brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyad, Hezbollah's IJO terror chief), who was responsible for the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City. But the United States would not allow itself to be blackmailed by terrorists.

Despite the heroic efforts of many brave men and women to try to rescue Buckley, he was tortured and maltreated and eventually died in captivity. One of my last tasks before being deployed in the field was to review tapes of Buckley sent to the CIA by Hezbollah. As long as I live, I'll never erase the heartbreaking image of that tired, broken man, dressed in a sweat suit and holding up a newspaper to confirm the date, forced to read Hezbollah propaganda.

I promised myself right then and there that I'd do absolutely everything in my power to guard against myself or any of my people getting kidnapped by terrorists. Out of the Buckley experience, I derived two important lessons: focus on those groups that pose an immediate threat and strike them quickly; understand that the risks cannot be removed even though CIA and political leadership will always gravitate towards risk-free solutions.

Most of the officers in the Crisis Center conference room had lost a friend or colleague in the '83 Beirut bombing. O'Connell lowered the sound on CNN so that it played like a silent horror movie on the wall behind him. I watched as shocked, injured people climbed out of the rubble of the U.S. Embassies. O'Connell pointed out that initial estimates indicated that casualties were higher in Nairobi than in Dar es Salaam. When he mentioned the name of a young XXXX assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, found among the confirmed dead, I felt like I'd been kicked in the chest. XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.

O'Connell wasted no time. "I think all of us probably sense Hezbollah fingerprints on both these bombings," he said. "But let's keep an open mind." Then he reviewed the bombing report for the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. In 1996, after years of not attacking the U.S., the Hezbollah and the Iranian Government set off a gigantic bomb in a fuel truck that killed nineteen U.S. servicemen in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

O'Connell looked directly at me. "Gary will lead an Emergency Deployment Team (EDT) to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Ted will lead a second team to Nairobi. Both of you understand Hezbollah, but I'm going to cover my bets. I'm going to give each of you an officer out of the bin Laden shop in the event bin Laden has decided to go big."

The CTC Chief of Operations gave us our air deployments. I would leave that afternoon on a XXXXXX jet. Ted would travel with a big contingent of FBI special agents out of Andrews Air Force Base at noon.

Ted raised his hand. "Given that initial reports indicated larger loss of life and damage in Nairobi, I recommend that Gary lead the Nairobi team. I can serve as his deputy and you can insert someone else into Tanzania."


O'Connell said, "We're going to have a massive deployment of the FBI in Nairobi. Ted, I need you to ensure that we do not get off track with the FBI. Any more questions?"

O'Connell dismissed the group. The Chief of Operations (who was my immediate supervisor), Ted and I waited until the others filed out. The Chief of Operations, a former Marine and experienced Near East veteran, turned to me and said, "Your assuming command of the EDT teams has not been coordinated with the CIA Special Missions folks. I'll smooth it over. They already have established teams. You'll be layered on top of the existing structure."

"Don't worry," I said with a grin. "We'll work like one big happy family."


The three of us left at 6:00 a.m.--the Chief of Operations for his office in CTC; FBI Ted and I in search of Africa's Chief of Operations. With twenty years' experience in the field, the Chief of Operations/Africa quickly described the size of the missions in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, approximate number of employees. XXXXXXXXXXXXX

"Who's the CIA Chief in Nairobi?" I asked.

" J.T. He's an intelligence analyst."

"An intelligence analyst?" I blurted out. "What the hell's the matter with you guys sending a DI [Directorate of Intelligence] type to Nairobi?"

The Chief of Operations/Africa tried to explain: "Dave Cohen [the former Deputy Director of Operations and an Intelligence Officer himself] felt that analysts are Intelligence Officers, too, and should have a chance to lead in the field."

"Come on," I said. "That's like putting the mayor of a small city in charge of an Aircraft Carrier Battle Group."

"J.T.'s a smart guy, but he's not in-country."

"Where is he?"

"On leave somewhere in the Midwest."


Under former CIA Director John Deutsch (a President Clinton appointee who served from 1994 to 1997), intelligence analysts--whose job was to study open and clandestine source material and write reports--were put through the ops course and sent into the field to run CIA offices. The fact that they had no real experience running agents or managing operations didn't seem to matter. It's one of many things instituted by former Director Deutsch and his deputy and successor George Tenet that I felt undermined the Agency.