STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Two days after the September 11th terrorist attacks, Gary Schroen got a phone call. Schroen is one of the CIA's most experienced spies. The phone call was about his new assignment: `Fly to Afghanistan, pave the way for US military forces to invade the country, find Osama bin Laden and kill him.' Six days later, Schroen was on a plane. This morning we begin a two-part report on the hunt for bin Laden. Today we focus on Gary Schroen and the team he led into Afghanistan. He told his story to NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.
MARY LOUISE KELLY reporting:
The morning of September 11th, CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, resembled just about every other office across the country. People huddled around TV screens, watching in horror and disbelief. At Langley, they knew immediately this was the work of Osama bin Laden, and Gary Schroen knew better than most. He's a former CIA station chief in both Kabul and Islamabad in Pakistan. He speaks Dari; he knows everyone worth knowing in the region. Nevertheless, the first orders he got on September 11th were `Go home.'
Mr. GARY SCHROEN (CIA): We got a call from the seventh floor that the building was being evacuated. And, of course, the irony of it was we all ended up sitting in the parking lot because there was a monstrous traffic jam trying to get out of the agency.
KELLY: On September 11th, 2001, Gary Schroen was 59 years old. He was also 11 days into the CIA's retirement transition program. On the day of the worst terrorist attacks in US history, Schroen was, as he saw it, a fifth wheel.
Mr. SCHROEN: When I went home that night, I mean, I was just, like, `Why am I in retirement? Why--I should be--I don't want to do this. I want to be in the fight.'
KELLY: Schroen spent two days moping. He contemplated taking a vacation. Then his phone rang.
Mr. SCHROEN: When the call came on the 13th, that I was supposed to come in and see Cofer Black, the next day I was excited.
KELLY: Cofer Black, chief of the CIA's counterterrorist center, asked Schroen to put his retirement on hold and instead head to Afghanistan, negotiate with the fractious warlords who made up the Northern Alliance and persuade them to help a US invasion.
The next few days were a blur. Schroen picked his team and started packing. Their gear included laptops, handheld radios, instant coffee, and three million in hundred-dollar bills. Before leaving on September 19th, 2001, Schroen and his deputy, a paramilitary expert, stopped by Cofer Black's office for their final instructions.
Mr. SCHROEN: Cofer said, `Gentlemen, your basic marching orders are to link up with the Northern Alliance, get their cooperation militarily, and they will take on the Taliban. And when we break the Taliban, your job is to capture bin Laden, kill him and bring his head back in a box on dry ice.'
KELLY: As for other al-Qaeda leaders, Cofer Black ordered, `I want their heads up on pikes.' Black and another CIA official, who oversaw the mission, declined to comment on the specific language used, but they don't dispute Gary Schroen's account. Schroen says he was stunned that in more than 30 years with the CIA, this was the first time he'd been told to kill someone rather than try to capture them alive. He told Black he'd do his best.
Mr. SCHROEN: I said, `Sir, those are the clearest orders I've ever received. I can certainly make pikes out in the field, but I don't know what I'll do about dry ice to bring the head back, but we'll manage something.'
KELLY: That night, Schroen flew to Germany, then on to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and, finally, in an old Russian helicopter, over the Hindu Kush mountains and into the Panjshir Valley in northeast Afghanistan. Three pilots joined Schroen and his six-man team. They set up camp in a rundown compound the Northern Alliance had used as a field headquarters. They could communicate with Langley, but for weeks--35 miles from enemy front lines--they were on their own.
Mr. SCHROEN: We were the only 10 people, American government personnel, you know, on the ground from the 26th of September until the 19th of October.
KELLY: Schroen believes despite efforts to keep a low profile, the Taliban and al-Qaeda knew almost immediately they were there.
Mr. SCHROEN: I think within probably three or four days, there was a fellow from the valley who was living in Warsaw. We actually learned that he was calling Kandahar and talking to senior Taliban leadership within a week, saying that, `I know from my guys in the valley that the Americans are there already.'
KELLY: But the Taliban couldn't shoot a rocket that far. They couldn't fly overhead and bomb the CIA camp because of the Northern Alliance's anti-aircraft missiles, which left Schroen and his team mostly free to get on with their mission. The night they arrived, Schroen sat down with the Northern Alliance's intelligence chief.
Mr. SCHROEN: The first thing was to convince the leadership that we were the tip of the spear, that the entire weight of the US military was going to come down behind us and then land on the Taliban, and that it was in the interest of the Northern Alliance to really cooperate with us.
KELLY: Schroen says it was immediately clear it would be impossible to stage an attack on Osama bin Laden from the Panjshir Valley. So Schroen embarked on a two-stage plan: Work to defeat the Taliban government sheltering bin Laden, and then go get him. The CIA team started plotting the GPS coordinates of Taliban targets. They organized cash payments, up to a million dollars stuffed into a backpack, to ensure cooperation from Afghan commanders. As the days and weeks passed, supplies ran low. Schroen recalls drafting a resupply request that featured more money and a few other wish-list items.
Mr. SCHROEN: Somebody put in 100 pounds of Starbucks Coffee, and two little percolators. And we thought, `Hey, nobody's going to send us that.' And sure enough when the helicopter arrived, there was a hundred pounds of Starbucks Coffee, and so we were just ecstatic. And that was the first thing--we dropped everything else. We even had $10 million sitting there. We just said, `Put that stuff in the car here and let's make coffee.'
KELLY: Fortified on Mocha Java, Gary Schroen began working to orient US Army Special Forces who were, by mid-October, trickling into Afghanistan. He also explored ways to hit bin Laden's deputy, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. The plan was to hire a small group of local assassins.
Mr. SCHROEN: We actually supplied them with some silenced weapons. They wanted silence machine guns and silence pistols and some night-vision stuff. And he was supposedly in the eastern part of Kabul in an area that these guys knew.
KELLY: But Schroen says the plan fizzled, and he suspects the local hit men may just have been scamming the CIA for equipment. As for bin Laden, Schroen says the CIA never really got close.
Mr. SCHROEN: We had tribal elements down around the Kandahar area who were able to track him fairly well. So we had some degree of--but you could never tell where the man was going to be that night.
KELLY: And without knowing where bin Laden would be ahead of time, Schroen says it was almost impossible to pull off a strike. Bin Laden is widely believed to have slipped across the border into Pakistan during heavy fighting in the Tora Bora mountains in December 2001. Schroen argues that in the years since then, the US has dropped the ball. He says it's almost inconceivable that more than three and a half years after he was ordered to deliver bin Laden's head on ice, bin Laden is still a free man.
Tomorrow, Schroen's theory for why that's the case, and a look at how aggressively the US is pursuing bin Laden today. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: You can find photos of Gary Schroen and the CIA camp in the Panjshir Valley at npr.org. Schroen shares more of his story in a book out later this month called "First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War On Terror in Afghanistan."
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