—Frank Rich, New York Times
—Michael Scheuer, author of Imperial Hubris and Through Our Enemies’ Eyes
Gary Berntsen, the CIA’s key commander coordinating the fight against the Taliban forces around Kabul, comes out from under cover for the first time to describe his no-holds-barred pursuit—and cornering—of Osama bin Laden, and the reason the terrorist leader escaped American retribution. As disturbingly eye-opening as it is adrenaline-charged, Jawbreaker races from CIA war rooms to diplomatic offices to mountaintop redoubts to paint a vivid portrait of a new kind of warfare, showing what can and should be done to deal a death blow to freedom’s enemies.
The Attack — 7 August 1998
“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 4:23AM in the dark bedroom of our Reston, Virginia townhouse. My wife, Renee, sat up rubbing her eyes.
“Hello.”A voice on the other end said : Eric, it’s Mary in the watch office.”
I recognized her voice immediately. Mary was one of twenty-six officers assigned to my staff in the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center Hezbollah Working Group. 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 porcelain vase by the phone, extracting a black plastic key lined with metal strips 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”.
Mary 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,” Mary began. “Twenty 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 Counter Terrorism 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,” Mary answered somberly.
“Thanks,” I said. “I’m on my way in.”
I turned the key, extracted it, placed it back in the porcelain vase, carefully reset the top and stood for a moment in the darkness. I was one of our country’s most experienced Case Officers when it came to counterterrorism , but news like this still filled me with cold, seething anger. Pictures of the carnage from bombings I had witnessed in places like Sri Lanka and Nepal flashed in my head.
My wife understood instinctively that something terrible had happened. “Where?” she asked.
I’m an intense, aggressive guy. I imagined myself rushing to the scene immediately and grabbing the bombers, but managed to remain outwardly calm. “Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam,” I answered. “We’ve just had two embassies bombed within 30 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, Ed — an FBI agent assigned to CTC. The CIA and the FBI, in the spirit of cooperation, had begun placing officers in each other’s counter terrorism units, and Ed was one of the first FBI detailees.
Ed B. 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. Ed didn’t lose his cool. Not only did he talk the gang out of killing him, he eventually locked up sixty of them up 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 standing next to me in a crisis. So I quickly filled him in.
Then I jumped in the shower, skipped shaving, and got dressed forgoing a jacket because it was going to be a hot, humid August day. Exiting the bedroom, I ran into my seventeen year-old daughter, Alexandra, on the landing. The sound of me moving around had roused her from her sleep.
She asked: “Dad, what’s going on? Why are you guys up so early?”
There was no point trying to hide the truth. Alexandra already knew that I was one of the CIA’s top counter terrorism officers — a latter-day combination of Sidney Reilly and Elliot Ness. But her thirteen year-old brother, Thomas, thought I had a desk job at the State Department.
“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.
Waiting in front of 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. To my way of thinking, guys who drove image cars were weak.
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…..