Ever since the Guardian of London revealed last month that "Anonymous," the author of the soon-to-be-published Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror (Brassey's Inc.), is a CIA figure "centrally involved in the hunt for Bin Laden," the American press has been playing catch-up -- yet in a strangely coy sort of way.
Public interest in the book itself is easy to understand: it's not every day that an active U.S. intelligence officer publishes a work that disputes the Bush administration's assertions, holding that, among other things, bin Laden is not on the run; the invasion of Iraq has not made the United States safer; and that Islamists are in a campaign of insurgency, not terrorism, against the United States because of U.S. policies, not out of hatred for American values. But what's a bit harder to grasp is exactly why the media seem so reflexively deferential to the idea that "Anonymous" must be anonymous -- especially when critical details revealed in a June 23 New York Times story indicated that his real identity is well known to at least a few denizens of the Washington press corps.
Indeed, the Times piece revealed that Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll knows more about Anonymous than most -- enough to give him a first name and details of his career in Coll's recently published and highly acclaimed 2004 book, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (The Penguin Press). While the Times identified "Mike" via Coll's book as a 22-year CIA veteran who ran the Counterterrorist Center's bin Laden station (code-named "Alec") from 1996 to 1999, the paper also reported that in spite of that revealing detail -- and despite the fact that "Mike" is an overt CIA employee whose name is not a state secret -- a "senior intelligence official" held that "Mike's" full identity had to remain unknown because revelation of his full name "could make him a target of Al Qaeda."
To be sure, anonymous sources are common -- overused, some would argue -- in journalism. It's impossible to effectively report on the intelligence community without granting sources at least some degree of anonymity. For sources with security clearances, or sources close to those who have them, mere association with reporters might be enough to imperil their access, clearances, jobs or even lives. So journalists accede to requests for "background" status, ideally convincing the source to allow for some significant identifiers, such as "a senior intelligence official with direct responsibility for counterterrorism operations," or "a recent London station chief." The more practiced or paranoid sources generally demand something minimal, such as "a senior intelligence official" or "a retired CIA officer."
Rare, however, is the case when an intelligence community official -- particularly one who's already known to at least some reporters -- makes it explicitly clear to his employers and implicitly clear to others that he'd actually like his name and other identifiers attached to a quote or piece of writing and has been told by his bosses that he can indeed express himself -- but not by name.
FOR THE MOMENT, ALL THE GENERAL PUBLIC KNOWS about Imperial Hubris comes from excerpts posted on a handful of Web sites and a slew of brief television and radio interviews, where Anonymous has appeared in silhouette. He also published another anonymous book two years ago, Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama Bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America (Brassey's Inc.), which analyzed the structure and motives of Al Qaeda. Anonymous is not squishy: Both Hubris and Enemies' Eyes seem sufficiently apocalyptic to warm the heart of the most anti-Islamic and bloodthirsty among us. So if liberals seem ecstatic that yet another career national-security official is blasting the Bush administration for unnecessarily invading Iraq and bungling the so-called war on terror, they're also horrified by Anonymous' apparent advocacy (largely rhetorical, actually) of a military campaign that includes "killing in large numbers" and "a Sherman-like razing of infrastructure" as part of "relentless, brutal and blood-soaked defensive military action until we have annihilated the Islamists who threaten us."
But at issue here is not just the book's content, but why Anonymous is anonymous. After all, as the Times and others have reported, his situation is nothing like that of Valerie Plame, a covert operative whose ability to work active overseas cases was undermined when someone in the White House blew her cover to journalist Robert Novak in an apparent payback for an inconvenient weapons-of-mass-destruction intelligence report by her husband, Joseph Wilson. Anonymous, on the other hand, is, by the CIA's own admission, a Langley-bound analyst whose identity has never required secrecy.
In fact, Anonymous does not want to be anonymous at all. His anonymity is neither enforced nor voluntarily assumed out of fear for his safety, but rather compelled by an arcane set of classified regulations that are arguably being abused in an attempt to spare the CIA possible political inconvenience. Given this, the press' standard of secrecy essentially amounts to colluding with the CIA in muzzling a civil servant -- a standard made more ridiculous by the ubiquity of Anonymous' name in both intelligence and journalistic circles.
When asked to confirm or deny his identity in a recent interview, Anonymous declined to do either, and said, "I've given my word I'm not going to tell anyone who I am, as the organization that employs me has bound me by my word." His publisher, Brassey's, likewise declined to comment. Nearly a dozen intelligence-community sources, however, say Anonymous is Michael Scheuer -- and that his forced anonymity is both unprecedented and telling in the context of CIA history and modern politics.
"The requirement that someone publish anonymously is rare, almost unheard-of, particularly if the person is not in a covert position," says Jonathan Turley, a national-security-law expert at George Washington University Law School. "It seems pretty obvious that the requirement he remain anonymous is motivated solely by political concerns and ones that have more to do with the CIA. While I'm sure some would argue that there's some benefit to book sales in being anonymous because it's mysterious and fuels speculation, the fact is that if his full name and history were known and on the book, it would get a lot more attention. It's difficult for the media to cover an anonymous subject who has to abide by limits on what he can say about himself or anything that might reveal who he is."
Upon reviewing Scheuer's manuscripts, the CIA could have done what national-security agencies have done in the past with employees' works that were based on open -- unclassified or publicly available -- sources, but whose wide distribution might be problematic: stamp a "secret" or "top secret" classification on it so it never sees the light of day. Yet according to intelligence-community sources, this really wasn't an option with Scheuer's work, given the unusual origins of Through Our Enemies' Eyes.
"That book actually started as an unclassified manual in 1999 for new counterterrorist officers working bin Laden and Sunni extremism," says one veteran CIA terrorism specialist. "Scheuer had written it at the request of his successor as Alec station chief, who specifically wanted it to be something that was drawn from open sources in the Arab and Islamic worlds for two reasons: one, so people could take it out of the building and digest it at their leisure, and two, because he wanted new officers to appreciate how much is actually out there that's useful that isn't classified, particularly if you have a context for it."
Given his in-house manual's open-source-based, unclassified status, Scheuer figured it wouldn't be much of a problem to cull more public material to recast the approximately 100 pages as a marketable academic manuscript -- which he did over the course of late 1999 and early 2000, submitting the book to the CIA's Publications Review Board (PRB) in the spring of 2000. According to Scheuer, the manuscript was at first denied release because the board took issue with the book's brief favorable discussion of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" theory, which posits that antagonism between Western and Islamic cultures (among others) will drive world conflict in the coming years.
"They wrote back saying our Arab friends would be upset, and his views of Huntington's paradigm bring into question his ability to perform official duties,'" Scheuer says. "That came back, and I thought it was beyond the pale, so I appealed directly to the seventh floor [higher-ups]. And it took the better part of a year to get permission to submit it for publication. I believe it was because of 9/11 that they suddenly became less concerned with what they first considered areas of sensitivity.' But the condition was that I remain anonymous and that there be no mention of my employer on the cover or anywhere else."
Some have speculated that "Anonymous" has been publishing with at least a measure of blessing from a CIA so angered by certain White House and Pentagon elements that it has taken the unprecedented step of allowing an active intelligence officer to inveigh against the administration -- and is enjoying the fact that it can unleash a critic protected by the vagaries of national-security protocols. But the fact of the matter -- as interviews with other intelligence-community officials and CIA correspondence show -- is that while there might be an element of truth to that now, the agency has only reluctantly approved Scheuer's books for release because he shrewdly played by the rules. And the unique nature of CIA rules has forced him into an unhappy compromise where, even when confronted with his own name, he has to publicly deny his identity unless the agency changes its mind.
The CIA did not acknowledge a call seeking comment for this story, and recently "declined to comment on [Imperial Hubris] or its author" to the Associated Press.
According to several long-time intelligence officers familiar with Scheuer's situation, there's no question that the agency's conditional permission was grudging. "Think back to 2002, and imagine what would have happened if a book had come out that said by Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA's bin Laden unit' on the cover -- it would have been a bestseller overnight, reviewed and discussed all over the place," says one veteran spook. "But because it was anonymous' and didn't even say what exactly he did, let alone what agency he worked for, it was destined to be what it's become: a required read among people who work this stuff, but not much else. Ironically, it seems to be selling well in the agency gift shop at Langley, and everyone from the [National Security Agency] to [the Center for Strategic and International Studies] has had him over to lecture about it. But I don't think it even got reviewed but a couple of places."
One doesn't have to read the manuscript terribly closely to see how it provides some benefit to the CIA. Critical as Anonymous is of his own organization -- as well as of the Bush and Clinton administrations -- he absolutely blasts the FBI on pages 185 through 192. Many progressives may not cotton to the broad notion he advances here -- namely, that the United States should simply dispense with any sort of legalistic, law-enforcement approach to combating Al Qaeda and leave it entirely to the covert operators. But in the context of Washington's political postmortems on 9/11-related intelligence failures, this is stuff that at least makes the FBI look worse than the CIA.
Among some in the intelligence community who have either obtained copies of the Imperial Hubris manuscript or heard about certain passages, the rough consensus is that a not-long-for-his-job George Tenet indicated to the PRB that the book's publication should be allowed, as it might blunt or contextualize some of the scathing criticism likely to assail the agency in forthcoming 9/11 Commission and Senate Select Intelligence Committee reports -- and also might aid the cause of intelligence reform. According to several intelligence-community sources, the manuscript was in limbo at least three months past the Review Board's 30-day deadline earlier this year. Says one CIA veteran: "I think it's possible that it got the approval around the time Tenet decided for himself that he was leaving."
WHATEVER THE PRB'S RATIONALE, Scheuer -- who in interviews for this story never explicitly said he works for the CIA, only an "intelligence agency" -- says he's agreed to the conditions because, regardless of any issues he may have with the agency, he truly enjoys what he does and has no desire to quit government service. "I could make more money if I left -- I have contractors leave cards in my office and take me to lunch, and I have a marketable set of skills, and it would be better for the books if I could actually say who I was. But I really like working where I work and doing what I do. We do marvelous things and stupid things here, but this place is essential to the security of America, and I think we have been at the lead of making the country safer. I'm not disgruntled. If I was, I would have left already. I just want this information and perspective out there."
What he does not like, however, is the notion advanced by the agency that he's agreed to be "Anonymous" based on safety concerns. According to Scheuer and his editor at Brassey's, Christina Davidson, when Nightline wanted to interview Scheuer in 2003, the agency told the program that his anonymity was not compelled but his own choice -- an assertion the agency also made in a 2002 note to Brassey's. Davidson was so infuriated that she demanded the CIA state its actual position in writing, which it finally did in a May 25, 2004, fax signed by Paul-Noel Christian, chair of the agency's PRB. The fax reads in part: "This letter is to confirm that it is the Agency, and not the author that insists that approval for the manuscript is predicated upon the author maintaining his anonymity and also that his association with the Agency is not disclosed."
In the wake of the June 23 New York Times story, Davidson sent a terse note to CIA spokesman Bill Harlow that has yet to receive a response. "To say that our author must be kept in the shadows because he has expressed fears about al Qaeda retaliation is patently false and impugns his courage," she wrote, adding the "respectful request that you cease and desist from spreading this falsehood and inform all members of your staff to do the same."
In an interview after the Times story came out, Scheuer sounded none too pleased: "I suppose there might be a knucklehead out there somewhere who might take offense and do something, but anonymity isn't something I asked for, and not for that reason; it makes me sound like I'm hiding behind something, and I personally dislike thinking that anyone thinks I'm a coward. When I did the first book, I said it would be a more effective book if I used my name. And they said no."
- Emma Daly
- Anonymous does not want to be anonymous at all. His anonymity is not assumed out of fear for his safety, but rather compelled by regulations that are arguably being abused in an attempt to spare the CIA possible political inconvenience. But why are journalists complying?