August 26, 2011

Special Abu Muqawama Q&A: Counterstrike!

I spent part of my vacation reading the new book by Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda. Thom and Eric wrote the book while on a writing fellowship here at the Center for a New American Security, so I'm relieved that I a) very much enjoyed reading it and b) can recommend it to the readership. It's a brisk read -- short enough to read while trapped in your houses as a hurricane blows over, for example -- and has all the hallmarks of the great reporting you have come to expect from two of the NYT's finest. 

This will come as no surprise to those who have followed your reporting for the New York Times, but this book was carefully and exhaustively reported. You guys face a tough dilemma, though: when reporting on secret programs, the best sources will often not talk. And although you have managed to interview some of the key decision makers, are you worried that your reporting is limited by its sources? How do you write “The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda” and not “The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda As Told To Us By The People We Got To Speak On The Record?”

It’s wonderful to be asked why we had so many people on the record! Usually we are criticized for too many confidential sources. In Counterstrike, we used both, extensively. Our book is drawn from more than two hundred interviews conducted with current and former military personnel, diplomats, and intelligence officers, as well as law enforcement, Pentagon, and White House officials who participated in the operations, intelligence analysis, and policy making in the decade following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When possible, we named the sources. But because of the nature of reporting on sensitive operations and policies, often involving classified information, many of our sources spoke to us on the condition that they remain anonymous. In each case where we used anonymous sources, we carefully weighed the trade-offs between the need for transparency in reporting this book and the important information that confidential sources could provide. We also found that many sources who might be otherwise reluctant to talk to us for an article for the daily newspaper agreed to speak to us for the book. They wanted to ensure that their perspective on this historic period was understood and chronicled.

You guys cover a lot of breaking, Page A1 news. How difficult is it to step back and write a more reflective piece of journalism looking at a decade-long era?

The hardest part was time-management. We found that to make it all work we had to give 50 percent of our time to our reporting for the Times; 50 percent of our time to the book; 50 percent of our time to our loving and long-suffering wives; and 50 percent of our time to our kids (we each have two). Fortunately, all the time left over was ours, and we could use it to relax. In many ways, we began reporting the book on 9/11, even though we didn’t begin considering a book until about three years ago. But this is what we have done for the past decade. What we discovered in our first work of long-form narrative was the incredible amount of detail a reporter can develop when working on a two-year book project: The ability to return to sources not just once, but multiple times. The ability to check and cross-check stories, and really dig for details. The ability to trace a tip about an important counterterrorism raid and have time to track down participants from the small unit up to the senior commanders – and trace the effect and impact across the inter-agency. The ability to identify characters who had significant counterterrorism roles throughout the decade after 9/11, and were willing to talk to us. Those things you simply cannot do on a daily deadline.

If I had a complaint about the book, it’s that it often read, especially in the middle chapters, like a list of inputs and not effects. This is a real and common problem we researchers have in evaluating counter-terror programs. We know what we are doing. What’s tougher to tell is, what effect are we having on the enemy? To that end, what programs do you think are having the biggest effects on al-Qaeda? What is working? What is not?

You are a smart reader. The insurmountable problem is that we are covering counterterrorism missions from only one side. For obvious reasons, we could not bounce our reporting off of some Al Qaeda press spokesman or operations officer or financier to say, “Hey, we are writing about this mission. Is this how it went down against you? Is this how successful it was?” But we did our due diligence by comparing what sources told us to what responses appeared on jihadist Web sites, and it usually tracked with what we heard from sources here. Clearly, the kinetics have had an impact, as have missions to dry up sources of finances. What remains in the D- department, if not failing, are the efforts to counter the message of violent extremism. If the United States and its allies have been forced to offer an effective counterposing narrative to those who bomb and behead innocents, then the United States has lost before it has even started.

Along the same lines, you guys don’t outright grade the performance of the past few administrations on counter-terror, so I’m going to give you the chance to do that. On an A-F scale, what grade would you assign …

a. The Bush Administration, 2001-2003?

b. The Bush Administration, 2003-2005?

c. The Bush Administration, 2005-2007?

d. The Bush Administration, 2007-2009?

e. The Obama Administration, 2009-2011?

We think readers of our book would come away seeing that the Bush administration adopted a muscular if clumsy capture-kill strategy in the months after 9/11. Understandable, necessary, but not sufficient. And, as Rumsfeld noted in his famous October 2003 memo, kinetics alone risked creating more jihadists than were taken off the battlefield. By the second Bush administration, officials were adopting a more nuanced strategy, one that involved the whole of government to try and counter violent extremism with every tool available. Although Obama was certainly the un-Bush, it is historic fact that his administration has been as much continuity in the CT world as change. Drone strikes? Embraced and expanded. SOF raids? Tempo increased. But Obama certainly has changed the tenor of the discussion with the Islamic world, and even with European allies, and his efforts to close Gitmo, while still unsuccessful, set him apart, to be sure.

This book covers a lot of ground. What chapter do you wish you could have expanded on or dug deeper into?

Cyber and counter-messaging.

I usually end these interviews by asking people to name their favorite bars and such. For you guys, I’ll ask a different question: what are the three weirdest places you have ever met a source for an interview?


1. Radovan Karadzic’s chalet at Pale, his mountain redoubt above Sarajevo. He was not yet an indicted war criminal, but we were reporting extensively on the atrocities he had ordered, so it was difficult to get an interview with the Bosnian Serb leader. So we drove from Belgrade up into the mountains, and while my translator was speaking with his aides, I tried to strike up a conversation with his bodyguards, who were playing poker. “Hey guys. What’re the stakes?” I asked. One responded: “Winner gets to shoot the guy from the Trib.” At the time, I was the guy from the Trib.

2. When I was a Moscow bureau chief, dissidents and underground artists always wanted to meet foreign correspondents. So you’d choose a big public location, with signals to identify one another. One spot was a big toy store across Dzerzhinsky Square from the old Lubyanka KGB prison. Sort of hiding in plain sight, I guess. Many of those I met were legitimate outsiders who had a bona fide story to tell about the crimes of the Soviet state. But not always. And I guess the KGB didn’t want to send its stooges too far, because over the course of five years and hundreds of such meetings I went to Children’s World several dozen times -- and among those I met were a Ukrainian nationalist, a Jewish refusenik and a formerly imprisoned poet; but all three of these were the same guy, who obviously couldn’t keep track of which reporters he had tried to set up.

3. I have one defense industry source who likes quick meetings. He will drive up in front of our bureau on Farragut Square, roll down the darkened windows of his SUV and toss me documents. One day our bureau chief was heading out to lunch and saw the exchange, which was too bad. It made the job of Pentagon correspondent look way too easy.


1. Inside a sweltering reed hut in Al Turaba, Iraq, a dust-choked village 20 miles from the Iranian border. I was traveling with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz in July 2003. He had flown to the village to listen to a dozen wizened tribal elders from the area who asked him to restore a way of life that Saddam Hussein had taken away. Sitting cross-legged in his stocking feet on a Persian rug, Wolfowitz nodded in agreement as the old men chronicled the plight of the marsh Arabs, an ancient people whose homeland in southeastern Iraq had been drained into desert as punishment for their independence and Shiite faith. It was 120 degrees outside the hut and even hotter inside, but Wolfowitz still wore a blue blazer and red tie, both coated with dust. It was hard to hear him and the elders over the raucous banter of scores of villagers jammed inside the hut and a donkey's braying outside.

2. Several hundred feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean inside the U.S.S. Kentucky, one of the Navy’s Trident II ballistic-missile. When I was a young Pentagon correspondent in the early 1990’s, I tried to get out with troops as much as possible. I flew in an Air Force fighter jet. I rode in Army M1-A1 tank. But inside the submerged submarine on a training run in 1993 was eerie. Capt. Mike Riegel and his crew were amenable to talking about their vessel. But no loud voices, please. The cold war was over by then, but there were still reminders of a time when crew members feared that the slightest racket on board could give away a submarine’s position to the Soviets. Equipment was lined in plastic or rubber to avoid pings or banging. Signs in toilet stalls sternly warned crew members: "Don't Drop That Seat. Shhhhhh!"

3. On a very sensitive story several years ago that involved American spies, commandos and scandal, one of our main sources agreed to meet periodically at a coffee shop along a major Interstate freeway in a Western state. But we never met him in the same place twice. The source gave me and my colleague a cell phone. We never knew exactly when he was going to call. But when he did, he gave us the name of a highway exit and a coffee shop there. We met several times over about many months, each time collecting new information from him and corroborating (or rejecting) tips we heard from other sources. He was always spot on. After the article was published, we received a cryptic message, “Well done.” We never heard from him again.

Wow, who knew John McCain had gotten so paranoid about reporters! Anyway, thanks for the interview, guys. Buy Counterstrike here.