As best as I can tell, the head of the bin Laden unit was not such a prominent position at Langley when it was first created. George Tenet writes in At the Center of the Storm that the “Alec Station,” named for Scheuer’s son, was meant to be a “virtual station.” The idea behind these “virtual stations,” Tenet says, “was to create stateside units that would act as if they were an overseas operation.” The idea was to create one of these virtual stations as an experiment given “the limited funds” in the CIA’s tight intelligence budget and the desire to get analysts to start thinking more about potentially looming threats. The Alec Station, according to Tenet, was the only such virtual station ever established and was originally called the “Terrorist Financial Links” (“TFL”) Station, over something similar. This office came to be focused on bin Laden as more and more mentions of him showed up on the CIA’s radar and thus the TFL station came to be renamed. Tenet says that the virtual station was originally supposed to “run for two years, after which time the experiment would be evaluated and its functions folded into the larger Counterterrorist Center under which it fell.” “As it turned out,” Tenet explains, “the unit operated for almost a decade.”
So, the unit Scheuer headed was originally an experimental outfit and not some great bureaucratic post. This is consistent with what we know about the CIA’s early take on bin Laden. We know from the government investigations that have come out over the last couple of years that the CIA never did really put together a robust picture of al Qaeda – even up until 2001. Even after Tenet told everyone al Qaeda was at war with us, there doesn’t appear to have been any real comprehensive analysis of al Qaeda. The CIA Inspector General’s report, which was recently released to the public, says quite clearly that “no comprehensive report focusing on” Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda had been produced during the entire period from the early 1990′s to September 11, 2001.
Gabriel Schoenfeld has more on the IG’s report and Scheuer here. Schoenfeld deduces that the “Alec Station” was somewhat of a bureaucratic backwater, and I think this is right based on what Tenet has said as well as other evidence. But there is a larger point in all of this.
Look, the record is fairly clear: the CIA did not know what was going on prior to 9/11. It never had a good understanding of al Qaeda (the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center didn’t even know that 9/11 mastermind KSM was a bin Laden confidant, despite the fact that they were hunting him for past transgressions). That’s why it is so ridiculous that many mainstream media outlets to treat former spooks as if they are fantastic expert witnesses. They’re frequently not. And they often have their own agendas – political, ideological, bureaucratic, etc. Former CIA types, in particular, have a vested interest in rehabilitating their image. Some have also become highly political and inserted themselves into the political discourse in ways that is not often intellectually honest.
Scheuer is a good example of this. He once was able to find all sorts of evidence connecting al Qaeda and Saddam’s Iraq. During a presidential election year, however, he changed his mind. I won’t bore you with all the details, but his explanation for this about-face rings hallow. So far, only one journalist (Tim Russert) that I know of has asked him why he changed his mind. It would be nice if more journalists would explore Scheuer’s history at the CIA and the evolution of his views. It’s the least they can do since they love to cite him so frequently.