Former CIA Targeting Officer on the Post-9/11 Hunt for Terrorists


This is the intelligence matters podcast with former acting director of the Michael Morell, sponsored by Raytheon. My breast you've asked for volunteers. So I went ahead and raise my hand, I ended up being the second person from our team. The went to Iraq. My job was to continue to support my team in answering questions on whether or not we would find any further evidence that Iraq was connected to nine eleven. I did that through talking to detainees that Ramon, Terry custody. In addition to former regime officials. What was a typical debriefing session, like, and did you try to build some report, as you kind of went into the room. Yeah. But that sometimes worked other times, there was just so much resistance. It was clearly not going to be productive. The one exception being Tareq Z's. I think the first time I met him was in was in the hospital and he decided he wanted to disarm me and throw me off. So he opened his right in front of me. Just sitting there in his underwear. I didn't respond, but yeah, that was probably the more unique was the foreign minister of rock war. Yeah. Eventually become branch chief of the dark a unit essentially, you guys are looking for him. Right. So, by this point, or Kelly had joined Qaeda, he took violence to a whole different level. He was basically doing anything wanted to just so chaos. Were you surprised that L Qaeda in Iraq was able to bounce back and ultimately become this thing called ISIS? Or did you always see the roots such a bride network and that extremist ideology, we knew from what happened with Al Qaeda wasn't going away? So while it wasn't surprising that it morphed. It was slightly surprising that it, morphed in such an intense dynamic way that it did. Mehta Bacchus was an analyst in targeting officer at the Central Intelligence Agency. Her work helped United States, successfully track one of the world's most wanted terrorist Abu Musab, ELS Hikari, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the predecessor organization to ISIS. Neda is now a senior fellow in the program on national security at the foreign policy research institute, last week, native published her memoir, the target her in which she shares her experience, as a, a officer, I had a chance to sit down with native to discuss her new book, and what it's like to be a CIA analyst and CIA target her. I'm Mike morale. And this is intelligence matters. Nato welcome to intelligence matters. It is great to have you on the show. Thank you for having me, and congratulations, on the publication of your book, the target her. I know it took a while and actually I wanna come back and ask you about that at the end. But maybe the place to start our discussion is at the very beginning your Montana. You grew up there. You went to school there. How did you end up at the Central Intelligence Agency? Yeah. It was a circuitous path. I really wanted to live overseas in work overseas. And I was really interested in working for an international organization. And when I graduated from undergrad, there was a bit of a recession in the US, not a lot of jobs. I started here was this was in nineteen Ninety-one, and I started a grad program actually, in India in New Delhi, and after a fight the first half of that year, I decided I wanted to go back to the US and. Just didn't seem to be a lot of options. So I chose positions that were I could get a job in a lot of those ended up in HR, even though my academic background was an economics. And so when I saw job advertised for CIA for an organizational development person, I went ahead and applied. And so you started as a human resources officer, what did you actually do? Well, when I came in they were looking at trying to modernize the operation side of the house. So I was working a bit with rob Richard trying to allocate resources and figure out. How do we Justice to rob at that time was probably the number two he was the number two and rations? Yeah. So he of course, in, in the good case officer way was trying to recruit me to come to come to DO side and case officer. I you know, I did that job for a little while up into of until nine eleven and then you transition to be an analyst. Yes. How did that happen there? There was an opening in OT ir office of transnational issues, and it was an illicit finance. So I applied for that role and fully got in, in that changed obviously the trajectory of my career there. So I started in the predecessor office OT I, I started in the office of global issues, and it's, it's had a bazillion different names over the years, but actually started there, so NATO, can you give the listeners, a sense of what it's like to be an analyst at CIA? What is a kind of a typical day look like we've had a lot of operations officers on the show, but not a lot of analysts. Right. So what is it like to be Alice? Also, one of the reasons I wrote this book, it just felt like there's just not a lot of analysts who write books. In addition to women who write books analysts job is, you know, listeners have probably heard you talking about it as well is really to digest information, pick out the salient pieces, and right products for the policymaker or. Reefa policymaker. So it's while it doesn't sound sexy. It's really, really interesting work because you get to see a huge swath of information. So I'm gonna get a lot of people mad at me here on the operational side of the agency, but I actually think the point of the spear is the analytic side. Right. That's the representation of our work to the people who make decisions. Right. And so, I think it, it is extraordinarily important. Richard Helms, who is a beloved director used to say the most important thing agency does is analysis. I agree. It's the culmination of all the efforts coming together. Right. So you were part prior to the war in Iraq. You were part of the team that was tasked with addressing the link between Iraq and L Qaeda. Can you talk about that? So I came into the team it was kind of a second innovation of the team. It had a new branch teeth. She was fantastic. She had been briefer. I think she's a mutual friend of ours, and she was really, you know, building the analysis around the question of whether or not Iraq had anything to do with nine eleven al-qaeda. And so we were continually working with operation side of the house to, to collect information fill in any gaps that we have a lot of questions we were being asked by by the policy me, lots of questions. Is there a link? Is there a link? Is there a link? Yes. And you guys answer that we did. And what did you would? Did you conclude the ultimate conclusion was that there was not a link to put it plainly there? We couldn't find substantial evidence that Saddam had ever really worked with Al Qaeda, and there was no link between Iraq and nine eleven. Right. And we I think we did say that there was some communication between them going way back. But even that turned out to be wrong, right? Exactly. The end of the day. Yes. If I remember correctly, we wrote two papers. We wrote a paper that said, if we were going to make a case that there was a link. Here's the best case we can make. And you there for that. That was, I think you're referring to the murky paper I came in right after that. So we wrote that paper which I think, gave the wrong impression a little bit. Yes. And then we corrected it and I remember I was then the number three on the inside of the agency and we put out kind of the paper, and it didn't get a great response from the policymakers if. I remember correctly. And did you guys feel that with the, the Libyan particularly yes we did. So it was a long paper. And we called it the bible, because everything we had had gone into it. Trying to, to at least fill in all of the gaps that we had on the collection as much as we possibly could. So that paper didn't resonate necessarily with the White House. It didn't resonate with pieces of the Pentagon. So we had the again, the continual questions about around some of the nuances of the analysis that we had on the paper. So the paper concluded no relationship. Yeah, no Iraqi involvement in nine eleven. Yep. No rocky foreknowledge of nine eleven. Right. And yet some members of the administration continued actually, to this very day to suggest that, there was a link right? And this is where all the sound bites that we're seeing in the media now on on. On all the news networks, where administration comes out with this sort of nuanced language of trying to push this narrative that changes that trajectory of the truth that was happening a lot, especially with this issue, and even I think probably on the WMD side to a certain extent, but certainly with the issue of whether or not Iraq was connected to al-qaeda, the implication was from some members of the White House, and some members of DOD as that there was some kind of connection. And. How did you guys this is a question about, I guess about me at the end of the day, and the people on the seventh floor? How did you feel? You were supported with regard to what you were saying and the pushback, receiving. I mean I d have fantastic teeth in. She had a lot on her shoulders in the sense of this was such an unprecedented moment. I think for us in time she because she had that connection and experience with the White House. I think she was leading a lot of the effort and some of the direct communication just because she was capable so on one hand we were. Probably interacting more with directly with senior leadership than I am traditional team would be at the same time we felt supported from the seventh floor. Well, you know, we got a lot of things wrong on Iraq. But this piece we got. Right. And you should feel very good about that. I know I do, but you should feel really good about that. So NATO after the initial invasion of Iraq. You do a tour in Iraq. We asked to go did you volunteer? How did that happen? We my brush Steve asked volunteers. So I went ahead and raise my hand, I ended up being the second person from our team that went to Iraq. I really didn't have any idea what to expect. When did you go, it was I left DC in may of two thousand three okay? At the end of may. The, you know, the person that went right before me. He was in kind of in a slightly different situation. You lined himself with a case officer who had been there for a little bit longer. So they had the structure kind of setup routine setup for what they did on, on a daily basis. When I got there, the DO had changed over, so we were rebuilding the structure of what we needed to do and achieve on a daily basis. So what did you do? What was your job? My job was to continue to support my team in answering questions. On whether or not, we would find any further evidence that Iraq was connected to nine eleven Okita. So how did you do that? I did that through talking to detainees that were military custody in. In addition to former regime officials like Tareq Aziz and sort of tell me how that worked you were taking. They were you went to their cell. They were taken to a debriefing room. How did how did that work? So how did you an how'd you find that right? Because you're writing analysts and all of a sudden you're face to face with. Yes, people who are under arrest so working the little bit through one of the I think it was a deputy chief station at the time he was he had told us kind of with a structure was for the detainee population. So I worked with the general population, which we were set up in these sort of plywood, debriefing rooms when they would just pull him out of these pens at at Baghdad international airport and. And set him up in for once they had shade. I think you know, it was essentially a break for them with a regime officials. They were held in a separate area. We were in buildings were we able to, to talk to them for longer periods of time. And what was a typical debriefing session like well with the general population, it varied, some of these guys were arrested because they were suspected to be what we were terming insurgents and some of these guys suspected could be foreign fighters and my whole interest, really at the time was were these guys working with third Kelly where he is. He is he still in the country and what is he doing at the moment? Did you have a kind of standard set of questions now or it defendant on, on these circumstances of how the person was arrested? So I would have to just play by ear how cooperative this person was going to be what their background was? There was a lot of regime, like former military, some former rock intelligence service. It would just depend, and did you try to build some report, as you kind of went into the room. And yeah, that's that sometimes worked other times, there was just so much resistance. It was clearly. Going to be productive. The one exception being Tareq Aziz. I think the first time I met him was in. He had a heat stroke was in the hospital, and he was in a hospital robe as most people are when they're spittle sitting across from me on a cot, and he decided he wanted to disarm me and throw me off. So he opened his little robe right in front of me. Just sitting there in his underwear. I didn't respond, but yeah, that was probably the more unique the foreign minister of Iraq war. Yeah. Yeah. So what, what were your enduring memories of that? I tore and what, what, what really stands out to you. I think more than anything was the lack of cohesion of process and strategy. What were we going to do? Once we were there once everything was dismantled. We didn't seem to have a plan. There's no way to put anything back to government. We as a government and a coalition. We just. Didn't seem to have. Any any kind of plan to be able to provide electricity water any kind of infrastructure after it was taken apart. Could you have a sense? Did you have a sense when you were there that this was going ahead in the wrong direction as a result of that? Yeah, I did. I remember having a phone call with my husband. Well, it wasn't yet. My husband at the time just relating to him. How hopeless it already started to seem because we didn't really have a grasp of what was happening. I thought on the ground in a in a way that would be productive. This was clearly ramping up to the huge fight native a few months after you return from Iraq, you quit. Yeah. In fact, you sent a resignation Email. I understand. But days after that, you were back at work again. What what happened there? So people smarter than me has tried peeling off my branch going to other jobs. They had been there, quite a while. While it was burnt out, essentially, I stayed on longer as analysts largely to prove myself. This is the first you know, really high profile account, I had been on, I was writing a lot of the presidential daily briefs at that point I just I was burned out. And I was really tired of answering the same question over and over and over again that came back to me constantly in addition to trying to keep up on the daily intelligence, it was coming in, and trying to provide that information back to the policymaker. And so you said I'd had enough. I'm done. I had filled full bring capacity at that point. And it just just do it anymore. And so you say, I quit, and then what happens ended up getting a call from another senior manager, who worked in counterterrorism center, and said, did you have any idea what you were going to do that? You were going to go work. Someplace else were you gonna figure that out later? I had I did have an offer from one of the contractors. I wasn't really interested in it. I was just the offer letter had been sitting at my house, and I hadn't done anything with it at that point. I when I got the call from the senior manager from the counterterrorism center, and he said when you come back into the DO side. Yeah. Fraiche inside of become a targeting officer. I've just had a lot more allure to me. And what was it about being a targeting officer that was different than what you were doing before that excited, you? Well, having the strategic background of, of the d, I am the type of analysis that we did there and being able to apply that to working with the action arms and trying to dismantle our Cowboys network was I felt like at least at that point, I'd be doing something versus answering a question, so we should take a second to tell the listeners what is a targeting officer. And what is a targeting officer do? At that time, they were just in the operation side, now, they're in both sides of the house. But on the operation side, their job is to either recruit and look for assets for the US government reclining, the person who has yet the information we need. We'll spy for us or it's to target individuals that we are looking for like star Kelly or bin Laden or members of all Qaeda to find them. Find out why they are. Yes. And what's the difference between what an analyst does on a day-to-day basis? And what a targeting officer does, is there much of a difference there. It's still analysis, but it's tactical analysis. So you move from trying to really paint his broader picture, too much smaller not necessarily Pinho version, but a much smaller bandwidth of information that you're looking at so you're really trying to just find ways insertion points and vulnerabilities to dismantle the network or an organization. One of the you talk about in the book, is that. You felt as being an analyst, particularly on the Iraq al-qaeda question as you're always looking backward. Right. And one of the things you liked about targeting is essentially, we're looking forward. Right. That played a role in how you felt about the two jobs. It did. And really, you know traditional analyst job is you are looking forward. And that's what was so interesting. And exciting about being an analyst, so going to the targeting officer role in some way was like being in a traditional analyst. Again, maybe in retrospect, I should have looked for another analyst. Okay. I think he did okay has a targeting officer. So Nate you eventually become branch chief of Zarcal unit. So what's the arc our unit essentially, you guys are looking for him? Right. Right. So by this point R Kelly had joined Okada. Is organization where he was? You know, building up within rock was garnering all the resources and money and recruits, Al Qaeda, traditionally had drawn. So in Iraq prior to the war, you know, he moved into northern Iraq, right? Prior to the invasion. He had set up a camp that included a rudimentary poisons lab in northern Iraq, and he was co located with another indigenous terrorist organization. And then when the vacuum occurs he, he starts filling it. Right. So he was basically lying in wait waiting for that vacuum to occur so that he can take advantage of it and extremists start joining him because, yeah, he's got this great personality. And he's got a already had built a network. He was Colocation with Al Qaeda in Harare Afghanistan in the late nineties. So he he'd already been building this extremists network for a while. And what made him so special? I guess what made him so good from one perspective. Right. And so bad from another perspective. Right. He took violence to a whole different level. This is one of the first times that we had seen a tactic that had continuous rolling vehicle bombs, so he would take two or three vehicles and load them up with Idees and push them through to a target one at a time right after another as caused huge destruction. It was one of the first time that we'd actually seen that would seem mention of that as a plan before, but had not ever seen it executed. He was also targeting civilians, other Muslims, lots of Shia. He was basically doing anything wanted to just so chaos. And you talked about the relationship between him and al-qaeda and that evolved over time. Can you talk about that a little bit? Yeah. When he first joined Qaeda, there was a struggle between. How he was supposed to build his strategy, according to what Al Qaeda central wanted. And then what's our Cowie wanted? So they, they was they were butting heads for a while. And eventually, he won then wasn't wasn't part of the debate. They wanted him to focus on the foreign presence, and he wanted to focus on creating this dynamic between Susan Shia in Iraq. That's exactly right. So he was he was wanting to just make sure that he was taking advantage of the situation internally they wanted him to go after the foreign targets because they were still really focused on the United States and western European countries al-qaeda, and what was by focusing on the internal target? What was he trying to achieve? Well at that point, he, he had a point plan that ISIS, actually took in co-opted Calif. It was toward the bottom of his list. He wanted to control territory so that he could start building his own caliphat, and people need to know that, that this. Organization that he created al-qaeda in Iraq, eventually more into ice. Yes. Someday. So you then go back to Iraq for a second time. When did you go? And what did you do? So this is a targeting officer. I actually was managing the team at the time, and we had a person that was co located with special forces, so well we had a person rotating through there on in addition to sometimes having people in Baghdad. We were working with special forces, we're working with station, and we were really trying to take advantage of any kind of vulnerabilities. We could find within Kelly's organization, so special forces was quite often are action arm. And that's that was true in Afghanistan. And guess probably still true today. Yes. So Nate you had some near misses in in getting him. In fact, in February of two thousand five you almost got him, but he got away wha- what happened? We had intelligence from somebody who was tired of czar Kelly taking advantage of everybody that said he'd be traveling at a certain period of time with another individual in a white pick-up truck. So we had surveillance on we were able to see overhead where we saw pickup truck. Leave a certain point that was navigating toward a destination that we were told about so special forces in lined up on you thought that ramble him we thought that was him. They scrambled up behind. They were still a good half mile away, but we had surveillance overhead and but at the time our surveillance wasn't able to see through some clouds in some of the tree, canopy. So he would disappear periodically. And then he pulled into a farmhouse into what Montana we call shelter belts. Canopy of trees and we couldn't see him. He got a truck and ran. So by the time special forces pulled up the individuals were gone, but there was a laptop that was left inside the pickup. So how did how? How did you and your team feel at that point? It. That was it on one hand it was it was fantastic. We were able to get that close figure that we could again. But on the other hand to be able to be that close and odd actually capture him or kill him at that point. That was incredibly frustrating. So then you turn, and you do another job transition. Yes. Right. And then but we eventually do get him. Yes. So about three months prior to start Kelly being killed I transitioned to another job within the operations field. And so my, my former colleagues. And some of the team that I had worked with, and the US military ended up getting him in how did how did that happen to the extent you can talk about it? They had actually human intelligence about where and when he would be arriving in a certain place. So US military was actually able to, to leverage, all of that information and, and continually update intelligence also working with the CIA and they ended up killing him. So then how did you how did you hear about it? Right. And you feel. So I was I was with were colleagues. We were actually traveling at the time I came down into this hotel lobby, and they told me they saw it on the news, that he'd been killed, and I, I was shocked. I mean, I knew it was coming, right? Rear? He's inside this country. There's coalition forces everywhere. But it was I felt like it was a huge relief. I knew it wasn't the end of anything -sarily, but it was huge relief. And then we're you. Were you surprised that Al Qaeda in Iraq was able to bounce back on an ultimately become this thing called ISIS or did you always see the roots of that? He had such a broad network and that extremist ideology, we knew from what happened with al-qaeda wasn't going away. So while it wasn't surprising that it morphed. It was slightly surprising that it more in such an intense dynamic way that it did drawing so much from Iraqi. Did we know of al-baghdadi at that time we knew of him but he wasn't a player necessarily, but he became radicalized we know before R Kelly really took over? So she a member of L Qaeda in rock. If he I don't know if he ever swore Bayat R Kelly, but he certainly was part of that network. So Nate, then you decide to leave CIA. Yeah. Right. Why? Well, my husband at the time didn't work there. It's really difficult to. I wanted to live overseas. I didn't really want to go back to the mother ship, in DC that badly for a long period of time, and it's really difficult to ask somebody who's mid career to senior career. To move every few years with me overseas in different capacities. So. That was just a rate on moment for us both to make that change. Do you miss it? I do miss it. Yeah, I missed it right away. I missed the Camry. I missed the ability to, you know focus on different topics at any given time. It was a great place kind of reinvent yourself. So a lot of discussion in your book about the role of women and CIA. Let me ask you two questions about that. One is you saw a difference in the role that women had on the analytic side of the agency and the rule that they had only operational side agency. Can you talk about that? So on, on the analyst side, you know, it was largely there was largely gender equity. It seemed to be semi equal numbers. You were really judged on your capability, and the products that you right? As you know, when we send things out to for our colleagues to, to tear apart they do it equally. It doesn't. Matter who you are. They wanna make sure that we have the analysis right on the operation side and still felt very misogynistic at times, sometimes I was the only woman in the room and in various meetings. And I, I was looking around for someone to be a mentor, especially because I wasn't a case officer, and it was just really difficult to find women that were able to create a balance on the upside. And I saw this and in fact, I saw to the point where we made a decision to bring in Madeleine Albright and have her look at this issue of what happens to women on the operational side of the agency. And she wrote a great report and made a whole bunch of recommendations. And I sure hope they've been implemented because there was there was a difference. Absolutely second question. Second question about women, which is that a lot of has been made about women as targeted right? Most targets are women, and then people even make the argument that women make better targets than men. What's your sense on that? So I don't I always push back on him because I think, regardless of who you are. It depends on individual skill sets. Right. That's like saying men are Jen are generally better at X, because they're men. I don't think that's true. And it depends on the person regardless of what gender you identify with your capable of, of doing great things. There were a lot of women focused on Al Qaeda before nine eleven. It wasn't a super sexy job. There wasn't an immediate payoff. And I think women are willing to put up with that to his stint patient. Yeah. And not looking for that bump in career, I guess, at the time, but there were lots of men working focusing on the analyst, I'd also on Okita. So fantastic analysts who I, I highly respect, so there is has been a lot said about women doing documentaries have have been a theme of the documentary. So NATO been great with your time, too few more questions. Number one. Roll like yours was fictionalized the role of a targeting officer was fictionalized in the film zero dark thirty. I'm sure you've seen. So how accurate is that as a description of a targeting officer, engage should ask you that question? I would love to fly around. Get to ask the question. I mean it wasn't really my experience as a targeting officer. I'm sure it was, you know that one single person her experience as she saw it. I, I personally saw everything is a much broader bigger team effort. I think what happened in the film is that they had to create one. Absolutely. Yeah. Who did everything it's hard to have a huge ensemble cast and Ryan movie round. Right. The second question was. In your mind. How much of the breakthroughs that happen in targeting case are attributable to a moment of intuition, a moment of brilliance. And how much just really hard data work. There were some people that actually analysts that had worked for me that I was just amazed at their ability to find and dig up and create these just connections that were. Initially when we talked about it just didn't seem plausible, but they would in a finding these nuggets on hunches and be able to make those connections, and they would turn into real time operations. And sometimes, I think it is based on your instinct, and there is some value to being able to have some Harris. Good skill to do that job. And, and where do you where do you think those hunches? And intuition, what do you think that comes from knowing how either the individual target functions? Or else understanding the organizational dynamics, where, where would they go to leverage their strength at this point? So, so real deep knowledge, the target in the organization, looking at yes, creates a moment where you say that's not the way they would do this, this is the way they would do what I think we should focus on this. Exactly interesting. And ate a one last question this one related to your book. You've been very vocal about the frustrations of. Of getting your book through the publication review process at CIA. We all sign a piece paper when we start to work there that we will do that the rest of our lives. Right. You've been filed a lawsuit to get your book. And loose so to speak, what happened. What was what was going on there? I had Senate in as I was supposed to the entire manuscript. I didn't hear anything back for a long period of time. And by the time I actually did receive some receive something, I think it was at least a year and a half later, you Senate. You didn't hear anything for a year and a half. Right. It came back largely black with zero explanation. There were some things that they said, well, if you change this, it can be that, but there were huge chunks of this, that were just completely redacted and they couldn't answer some of those questions, because it was done by another agency some of it was done by DOD, and I couldn't sit down with anybody. They weren't willing to to does just discuss why they what they thought something. So I had no book at that point. And I couldn't even move forward with publishing so without getting answers. I ended up having to file a lawsuit so that I could at least try to clarify what more could be doing differently. And that's when they actually sat down, and we had a whole discussion, so I talked to several different agencies in individually and work through the process. But there's the process is so broken so, so at the end of the day, how different is what was published from what you originally sent them. How much ended up being redacted I would say twenty five percent of it was completely redacted and removed and another thirty percent changed. And when they explain to you, why they wanted redacted it make sense to you ten percent of it. Did there was some stuff that they just gave back to me when I'm sitting there were sitting there and discussing it they're like you can have that back. You can have that back. So there really wasn't any rhyme or reason as to why they redacted the information some of the information that they did. Interesting. So after more than two years of going through that the books out, so you must feel really good about it very much. It is, was a labor but it's, it's really nice to just finally have it out there native. Thank you so much for your time today. The book is the target her, and the authors, native Baku's. Thank you so much. You welcome. That was native Bacchus. I Mike Morrell. Please join us next week for another episode of intelligence matters. This has been the intelligence matters podcast with former acting director of the CIA, Michael Morell, sponsored by Raytheon. The podcast is produced by via gases, JV Benson and Enya guitar. If you haven't already subscribe rate, and review or ever, you download podcasts you could follow the show on Twitter at Intel matters, pod, and follow Michael at Michael. Jay morelle intelligence matters is the production of CBS News Radio.

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