Clark comment: Berntsen replaced Gary Schroen as head of the CIA's JAWBREAKER operation in Afghanistan in early November 2001, and headed the CIA effort through the fall of Kabul and in the hunt for Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora and beyond. He left in mid-December. The success of the CIA-led war against the Taliban certainly makes the decision not to give all covert operations to the military look pretty good. The speed at which the CIA was able to move and the flexibility shown in responding to the ever-changing situation is impressive. Berntsen's frustration, even anger, over the failure "to finish the job" -- that is, kill Osama bin Laden -- is clearly stated and heartfelt. Whether he is correct in his assessment of that "failure" is open for discussion. His book needs to be read in conjunction with Gary C. Schroen, First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan (Novato, CA: Presidio, 2005). Taken together, the two books are a stunningly detailed view of a major paramilitary operation.
John Lehman, Washington Post, 12 Feb. 2006, says that this book "provides a valuable new account by a major participant that fills in many blanks" in the new kind of war waged in Afghanistan. At various times, CIA veteran Berntsen "had elements of the Delta Force, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs and tactical air units reporting to him." The "best aspect" of the book "is its day-by-day account of the execution of an aggressive strategy that originated at the most senior levels of the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA."
For the former Secretary of the Navy and 9/11 Commission member, the author "recounts very credibly how he and others pleaded with Gen. Tommy Franks and the Pentagon brass to put in blocking forces so that bin Laden and the remnants of al Qaeda's leadership could not flee into Pakistan. But for reasons that remain unclear to Berntsen..., the Bush administration or Franks decided to depend instead on local Afghan warlords rather than put U.S. forces on the ground to block bin Laden's escape." This "was a huge blunder."
To Peake, Studies 50.3 (Sep. 2006) and Intelligencer 15.2 (Fall-Winter 2006-2007), "Berntsen offers highly detailed and, if they are to be accepted, disturbing perspectives of numerous events.... Published with many parts blacked out in the Agency's classification review, it still tells an important story and should be read by all those who want to learn about CIA counterterrorism analysis at Headquarters and operations in the field."
See Richard Leiby, "Knocking on Osama's Cave Door: The CIA Operative Says He Was There at the Right Time. His Ex-Bosses Insist No One Was Home," Washington Post, 16 Feb. 2006, C1, for an interview with Berntsen. See also Dana Priest, "Suing Over the CIA's Red Pen: Retired Operative Says Agency Unfairly Edited His Book," Washington Post, 9 Oct. 2006, A15, for a report on Bertsen's legal efforts to get redacted portions of his book restored.
[CIA/00s/Gen; MI/Ops/Afghanistan/Books; Terrorism/00s/Gen]
Return to Berl-Berz