Michael Scheuer

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Michael Scheuer is a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who headed the Osama bin Laden "virtual station", between 1996 and 1999, who resigned in 2004. He has been critical of several U.S. administrations in not being aggressive enough against bin Laden and al-Qaeda, but has also written insightfully of what he considers the enemy's motivation. Scheuer is currently an Adjunct Professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, as well as consulting for organizations including CBS News. He calls himself an unreconstructed Reaganite, and argues for a US-first policy.

Scheuer has described al-Qaeda's motivation viewpoint as Islamic, but more focused on a sense of Muslim unity than on classic Salafism.[1] While he considers Osama bin Laden an enemy, he considers him a competent one to be respected, and believes that the United States Government has long misunderstood his appeal, either minimizing him or trying to force him into a Cold War model. He points out that while 9/11 may have been a surprise to the US, it was not to al-Qaeda, and they moved assets out of Afghanistan before an expected counterattack; controlling even the failed state of Afghanistan is not equivalent to defeating the enemy. [2]

He has repeatedly pointed out that bin Laden is quite explicit in the reasons for its anger at the US:[3]:

  1. The US military and civilian presence in what bin Laden terms the "land of the Two Holy Places", primarily Saudi Arabia
  2. Unqualified US support for Israel
  3. US support for state oppressing Muslims, especially China, India and Russia
  4. US exploitation of Muslim oil and suppression of its price
  5. US military presence in the Islamic world beyond the Arabian peninsula, including Afghanistan and Iraq
  6. US support, protection and funding of Arab police states

Bin Laden learned from the Iranian revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini — few Muslims were willing to die in a durable jihad based merely on the "decadence and debauchery of US civilization". Scheuer observes that the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings were as much nationalist as religious.

Cold War thinking

He considers the Cold War ahistorical:

in many ways, it was a fifty-year, out-of-the box experience that absolutely required out-of-the-box thinking. For the first time in human history, national leaders had the ability to kill many tens of millions of people over the course of twenty-four hours, while simultaneously making large swaths of the world uninhabitable for generations if not centuries. [4]

There were also luxuries such as surprise attack being unlikely, and an acceptance of Mutual Assured Destruction. Current leaders have, however, not let go of a number of Cold War-appropriate assumptions:[5]

  1. Proxies: the US and USSR avoided nuclear confrontation by avoiding direct fighting, so assisted countries, or insurgencies, around the world, usually to block the other superpower. This also established, for the US, a habit of becoming involved in other peoples' wars
  2. Antinational organizations: the Cold War and its threat, as well as the international cooperation that took place under a nuclear umbrella, led to proliferation of non-governmental organizations, often based on an activist interpretation of human rights and pacifism. At different times, they wanted US intervention, but also wanted US disamament
  3. Soft power and public diplomacy: while economic and social methods played a role in defeating the Soviets, again, Scheuer points out this took place under a nuclear umbrella and may have led to avoidance of appropriate hard power and covert action
  4. Nation-state fixation: He points out a need to find a nation to blame for the 9/11 attack, the emphasis on the nuclear threat of Iran and North Korea while ignoring non-national groups who might well use weapons of mass destruction
  5. just war theorists: Under the principles of just war theory, response has become extremely proportional and discriminating, to a point that wars are not finished and enemies survive and grow. As examples, he mentions the cruise missile attack, made at night against Iraqi intelligence headquarters, avoiding the key personnel; even more strongly, he disapproves of failing to attack a mosque at a training camp at a time that bin Laden was expected to be in it, along with fighters, and probably noncombatants — fewer noncombatants than were in the World Trade Center

Direct action recommendations while in government

In 1998, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet said that he supported Scheuer's proposal for a covert operation to capture bin Laden, but finally decided against authorizing it due to the opposition of operations officers in the chain of command between Tenet and Scheuer, [6] presumably Jim Pavitt. Scheuer was also critical of the advice given by National Security Council staffer. Richard Clarke. He responded to Clarke's accusation that Scheuer was an ill-informed middle manager with the comment that Clarke "had a tendency to interfere too much with the activities of the CIA, and our leadership at the senior level let him interfere too much...So criticism from him I kind of wear as a badge of honor." [7]

Criticism before leaving

He went quasi-public in 2004 as "anonymous" with the book Imperial Hubris, criticizing U.S. counterterrorism policy while still a serving CIA officer. [8] After resigning, he acknowledged the book.

Questions have been raised, however, about why he was retained in the CIA after going public. The timing of its publication, shortly after the 9-11 Commission Report, suggested to some that it was a defense against criticism of CIA al-Qaeda intelligence. [9]

Current recommendations

His three most urgent recommendations are for the US to start a massive energy program to make it independent of Middle East oil, accelerate the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program to secure the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union and to increase border security. [10]

He sees, as a longer-term effort, disengaging with Muslim states with authoritarian governments and eliminating unconditional support of Israel. If, however, it is necessary to use military force, it may need to be far more intense than has ever been seen. Discrimination is possible only with much better intelligence. [11]

WMD Threat

Scheuer has been particularly dramatic about the threat here. Not all arms control specialists regard it as quite as severe. In November 2004, he said, in response to an interviewer on CBS 60 Minutes, "You've written no one should be surprised when Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda detonate a weapon of mass destruction in the United States," to which he responded,

I don't believe in inevitability. But I think it's pretty close to being inevitable...A nuclear weapon of some dimension, whether it's actually a nuclear weapon, or a dirty bomb, or some kind of radiological device...Yes, I think it's probably a near thing."[12]

On Glen Beck's Fox News show, he said

The only chance we have as a country right now is for Osama bin Laden to deploy and detonate a major weapon in the United States. Because it's going to take a grass-roots, bottom-up pressure. Because these politicians prize their office, prize the praise of the media and the Europeans. It's an absurd situation again. Only Osama can execute an attack which will force Americans to demand that their government protect them effectively, consistently, and with as much violence as necessary.[13]

It has been confirmed that Bin Laden sought and obtained a fatwa approving the use of nuclear weapons against the West. [14]

A 2007 report from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University and the Nuclear Threat Initiative said that the Bush Administration had cut proposed fiscal year (FY) 2008 budget for cooperative threat reduction. It expressed concern that both funding and leadership were needed to "carry out the 'maximum effort' to keep nuclear weapons and materials to make them out of terrorist hands that the 9/11 attack Commission recommended." [15]

In 2002, the Arms Control Association cited a 2002 National Intelligence Council report that expressed mixed views on the security of Russian nuclear materials and weapons: Russia maintains “adequate security and control of its nuclear weapons, but a decline in military funding has stressed the nuclear security system,” Unauthorized use is s “highly unlikely,” given “current technical and procedural safeguards.” It does say “The security system was designed in the Soviet era to protect weapons primarily against a threat outside the country and may not be sufficient to meet today’s challenge of a knowledgeable insider collaborating with a criminal or terrorist group.” Further, it warns Russian security varies widely, “Facilities housing weapons-usable nuclear material…typically receive low funding, lack trained security personnel, and do not have sufficient equipment for securely storing such material,” and that “weapons-grade and weapons-usable nuclear materials have been stolen from some Russian institutes.” The greatest concern was an unconfirmed allegation by Viktor Yerastov, head of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy’s Nuclear Materials Accounting and Control Department, that an amount of fissile material “quite sufficient to produce an atomic bomb” was stolen from an unidentified site at the Chelyabinsk nuclear complex in 1998.

“Even with increased security…Russian nuclear power plants almost certainly will remain vulnerable to a well-planned and executed terrorist attack.”[16]

US state-level initiatives

He sees the border security aspect as most plausibly driven by state governors rather than the Federal government; he also sees a need for the governors to refuse the use of National Guard forces in undeclared wars.

Energy policy

He does not have specific recommendations on energy policy.

US-Israel policy

Some of the strongest criticism of Scheuer appears to relate to his lack of support for Israel. He argues "Clearly, no nation has a right to exist."[17]

He is critical of the Obama administration's approach, centering on Israel policy:

Since Jan. 20, Obama and his band of Israel-Firsters have shown the Muslim world – moderate, conservative, radical, and fanatic – that George W. Bush was no one-off fluke, that Democrats intend to wage war on Islam just like the Republicans. In just over 100 days, President Obama is on the verge of ensuring that militant Islam’s war on America will be waged for decades to come and its forces will never suffer manpower or money shortages. How did he accomplish so much in some little time? He simply behaved as all U.S. political leaders behave; that is, as an ignorant and arrogant interventionist.[18]

In a Wall Street Journal opinion article, Ira Stoll, speaking of antisemitism in the US, wrote

Here in America, the Web site of National Journal is hosting an "expert blog" by former CIA official Michael Scheuer, now a professor at Georgetown, complaining of a "fifth column of pro-Israel U.S. citizens" who are "unquestionably enemies of America's republican experiment."[19]


  1. Michael Scheuer (March 28, 2006), "Al-Qaeda Doctrine: Training the Individual Warrior", Terrorism Focus, The Jamestown Foundation
  2. Michael Scheuer (21 May 2007), "Al-Qaeda's Waiting Game: Bush isn't winning in his battle against our real enemy.", American Conservative
  3. Michael Scheuer (2008), Marching toward Hell: America and Islam after Iraq, Free Press, ISBN 9870743299695, pp. 149-150
  4. Scheuer, Marching toward Hell, p. 77
  5. Scheuer, Marching toward Hell, pp. 61-77
  6. George Tenet with Bill Harlow (2007), At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, Harpercollins, ISBN 9780061147784, pp. 113-114
  7. Rebecca Leung (November 14, 2004), "Bin Laden Expert Steps Forward", 60 Minutes, CBS News
  8. "Anonymous" (Michael Scheuer) (2004), Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, Potomac Books Inc
  9. Jeff Helmreich (13 September 2004), "Empirical Hubris: How "Anonymous" Disguises the Real Threat to the West and Damages the CIA", Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (no. 4)
  10. Scheuer, Marching toward Hell, pp. 250-260
  11. Scheuer, Marching toward Hell, pp. 261-265
  12. Rebecca Leung (Nov. 14, 2004), "Bin Laden Expert Steps Forward: Ex-CIA Agent Assesses Terror War In 60 Minutes Interview", 60 Minutes, CBS News
  13. "Michael Scheuer interview by Glenn Beck", Fox News, June 30, 2009
  14. Nasir bin Hamd al-Fahd (May 2003), A Treatise on the Legal Status of Using Weapons of Mass Destructions against Infidels, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  15. Anthony Wier and Matthew Bunn (February 2007), Funding for U.S. Efforts to Improve Controls Over Nuclear Weapons, Materials, and Expertise Overseas: Recent Developments and Trends
  16. Philipp C. Bleek, Report Evaluates Russian Nuclear Weapons Security, Arms Control Association
  17. Scheuer, Marching toward Hell, p. 27
  18. Michael Scheuer (May 19, 2009), "Obama Steers Toward Endless War With Islam", Antiwar.com
  19. Ira Stoll (6 April 2009), "Anti-Semitism and the Economic Crisis: Many people still blame Jews for capitalism's faults.", Wall Street Journal