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July 4, 2006
Bin Laden Unit Closes At CIA

Reflecting a different approach to the war on terror, the CIA has closed its Alec Station unit that dedicated itself to the capture of Osama bin Laden, the New York Times reports today. The unit had focused entirely on Osama for over a decade, long before the 9/11 attacks and even the al-Qaeda chief's infamous fatwa against the United States:

The Central Intelligence Agency has closed a unit that for a decade had the mission of hunting Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, intelligence officials confirmed Monday.

The unit, known as Alec Station, was disbanded late last year and its analysts reassigned within the C.I.A. Counterterrorist Center, the officials said.

The decision is a milestone for the agency, which formed the unit before Osama bin Laden became a household name and bolstered its ranks after the Sept. 11 attacks, when President Bush pledged to bring Mr. bin Laden to justice "dead or alive."

The realignment reflects a view that Al Qaeda is no longer as hierarchical as it once was, intelligence officials said, and a growing concern about Qaeda-inspired groups that have begun carrying out attacks independent of Mr. bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Plenty of outrage will come from this decision, and one can expect some to take the opportunity for a little partisan sniping. Michael Scheuer, who wrote a book criticizing the Bush administration as soft on terror over a year ago, decried the end of the unit he named after his son when he ran it before his retirement. "This will clearly denigrate our operations against al-Qaeda," he told the Times. Scheuer says that the move reflects a mistaken notion that the AQ hierarchy represents more of an inspirational threat than an operational threat.

Administration officials disagree. They claim that they still will have people dedicated to the capture of bin Laden, but that Alec Station represented an old approach that no longer has validity since the destruction of much of the AQ hierarchy. They need greater flexibility to address the fluidity of terrorist organizations, post-Afghanistan. That has some rationality; most of the terrorist attacks since the Taliban fell in 2001 have been conducted not by the original AQ network but by terror cells only affiliated with AQ by inspiration, such as Madrid, London, and others. The most active and coherent AQ network works in Iraq, but outside of that, Osama appears to have lost most of his operational capability -- or at least become very quiet.

However, if Michael Scheuer wants to lay blame for the mothballing of Alec Station, he needs to lay it at the feet of the 9/11 Commission and the politicians who insisted on enacting their slate of reforms without debate.

Alec Station's assets haven't disappeared, after all; they got swallowed up by the Counterterrorist Center. The CTC sprang into being from the 9/11 Commission's insistence on creating more bureaucracy in our intel community. Instead of taking the alphabet soup of agencies and councils handling intelligence and simplifying them into two or three spheres -- domestic (FBI), international (CIA), and military (DIA), the panel chose to keep all the agencies but created a national directorate of intelligence to sit on top of them all. This directorate would then provide additional analysis at the CTC and the office of the Director of National Intelligence -- pushing raw intel at least two additional layers away from the President and forcing data to go through more paper-shuffling before it became actionable.

The result? The new directorate has sucked resources away from the field agencies and created a new bureaucratic fiefdom for John Negroponte. Last March, the House tried to withhold appropriations from the DNI after it grew to over seven hundred employees, most of them drained away from the intelligence agencies that now report to Negroponte. We have warned over and over again about the folly of these 9/11 Commission recommendations, but when John Kerry seized on them as a campaign issue, he forced the Bush administration to adopt them almost in toto. (Not coincidentally, the recommendations for reforming Congress failed to get the same attention and have yet to be fully implemented.)

When people insisted on the kind of bureaucratic expansion and analytical centralization on which the 9/11 Commission insisted, this result became unavoidable. Robert Grenier ended Alec Station in his capacity as the CTC director -- because he wanted the assets in the CTC. Who knows how many other programs and special task forces the CTC has closed down for the same reasons?

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at July 4, 2006 8:23 AM

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