President George W. Bush has a bold plan: to gradually shift American intelligence operatives-now free from hunting down Saddam Hussein-to Afghanistan to find Osama bin Laden.
To Julie Sirrs, it’s a case of too little, too late. A former military analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency, Ms. Sirrs was the first intelligence officer to report on the significance of Osama bin Laden moving his terrorist operation from the Sudan into Afghanistan. She wasn’t listened to five years ago, and though she’d like to speak before the Congressional 9/11 commission, it is unlikely that she will be listened to now. Her story is a tableau of tangled politics and internal wrangling that got in the way of vital intelligence-gathering leading up to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
To find Mr. bin Laden now, Ms. Sirrs said, “would be a huge symbolic victory for the U.S.
“But the fact he has been able to elude us for so long would allow any followers to spin his story as a martyr,” she said. “Those roles have shifted to other people, so Al Qaeda could still go on very well without bin Laden.”
Five years ago, Ms. Sirrs warned of an equally diabolical jihadi terrorist leader who also remains at large-Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Egyptian doctor, the chief military-operations planner for the Al Qaeda network, has become the movement’s mouthpiece while Osama is on the run. His most recent taped message, broadcast on Al-Jazeera last week and said to be authentic by the C.I.A., warned: “Bush, strengthen your defenses and your security measures, for the Islamic nation which sent you the legion of New York and Washington brigades has determined to send you legion after legion seeking death and paradise.”
Dr. al-Zawahiri and Mr. bin Laden have been partners in the terrorist business since 1993, when Mr. bin Laden merged Al Qaeda with Dr. al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian jihadi movement. The two met when Mr. bin Laden was treated for low blood pressure by the Egyptian doctor, who was six years older and, as founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, already a full-fledged fanatic credited with the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar al Sadat.
Dr. al-Zawahiri and Mr. bin Laden announced the launch of their “campaign of terror” in November of 1997.
It was one month earlier that Julie Sirrs, her long auburn hair concealed under a burka, made her first investigative trip to Afghanistan. But at that time, she was an odd duck within the American intelligence establishment. She had become intrigued by Afghanistan while in high school in Virginia Beach and devoured every book on that war-torn land in her public library-”all 12 of them,” she said, laughing. By the time she graduated from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service in 1992, the Soviets had been driven out of Afghanistan by the mujahedeen .
On her own and with tutors, Ms. Sirrs studied the languages of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Persian and Pashto. In September 1995, she was hired by the D.I.A. as a military analyst.
“I hire a lot of people,” said J. Saunders, Ms. Sirrs’ former superior, “but I regarded her as one of our highest-potential employees.”
In 1996, when she found out that Mr. bin Laden had left the Sudan and gone into Afghanistan, Ms. Sirrs thought she saw her chance to get an assignment to the country that had intrigued her for almost a decade. But the only official visit available for a U.S. government operative was a day trip from Pakistan.
So, on her annual leave in October 1997, she dressed as an Afghan woman and slipped over the border from Pakistan. Traveling with relatives of her Pashto tutor, who were going to visit their family in Taliban-controlled territory, she was able to stay for a week outside of Kabul.
On the morning she boarded a bus to depart Kabul, as the sun broke the horizon, she heard the passengers gasp. Struggling to see through the mesh covering her face, she saw three men outside the bus, dangling from ropes with blackened faces. The Taliban had accused them of being spies for the resistance.
Over the next year, two American embassies in East Africa were the targets of sophisticated terrorist bombings that killed 259 people and wounded 5,000.
“We knew Al Qaeda was behind the attacks,” said Ms. Sirrs.
C.I.A. director George Tenet sent a notice to his staff that fighting Al Qaeda was now the agency’s top priority, but little attention was paid. President Bill Clinton, mired in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, ordered missile strikes on three of Mr. bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan, but the attacks missed the Al Qaeda leader himself, and the effort was widely dismissed as a wag-the-dog distraction tactic.
After that failure, Ms. Sirrs saw that the C.I.A. wasn’t sending operatives into Afghanistan.
“That seemed ludicrous,” she said. “If I had been able to go in, as a woman, why couldn’t covert agents?”
She was itching to go back, and by then she had her own contacts. The Afghan representative to the United Nations told her that if she could make it to Uzbekistan, the Northern Alliance would help to get her into the territory they controlled. She saved up her vacation days, notified the D.I.A. security office of her plans, and received permission to go on her own.
The only obstacle, as she saw it, was her husband. Owen Sirrs also worked for the D.I.A., and though he feared for her safety, she resolved to take off, alone, on an Uzbek Airways flight in October 1998. She felt the nausea of fear while driving through the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, which was just recovering from a civil war. The only way to get into Afghanistan was on a leftover Soviet MI-17 helicopter, literally held together with duct tape. She was the only passenger. She watched while the pilot sat astride the engine, pumping in fuel as he nonchalantly smoked a cigarette.
“But by then, I’d come too far to turn back,” she said.
After the copter cleared the jagged peaks of northern Afghanistan and settled down in the Panjshir Valley, she was relieved to be told that she would be able to meet with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary military commander of the Northern Alliance. Massoud and his ragtag coalition of Afghan fighters were at war with the Taliban.
“The Northern Alliance was a significant force that was engaged on the ground against Al Qaeda–sponsored fighters”, Mrs. Sirrs learned. “But it was discounted by the U.S. policy-making establishment. “The Taliban’s brutal regime was being kept in power significantly by bin Laden’s money, plus the narcotics trade, while the resistance was surviving on a shoestring. With even a little aid to the Afghan resistance, we could have pushed the Taliban out of power. But there was great reluctance by the State Department and the C.I.A. to undertake that.”
Unocal, a California-based company, had been courting the Taliban to build a massive pipeline system across Afghanistan that would connect the vast oil and natural-gas reserves of Turkmenistan to ports in Pakistan. The American energy giant partnered with a Saudi company, Delta Oil Co. Ltd., and promised the Taliban that it could expect up to $100 million in transit fees from the proposed $4.5 billion project.
“Massoud told me he had proof that Unocal had provided money that helped the Taliban take Kabul,” Ms. Sirrs said. Among Afghans, this was popularly believed. It didn’t take much imagination: State Department officials openly promoted the pipeline, and Unocal brazenly hired former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as consultant. He would later be President Bush’s first choice to head the supposedly independent 9/11 comission.
Massoud, she also learned, had survived several assassinations attempted by Mr. bin Laden’s fighters.
All fired up after two weeks in the country, Ms. Sirrs couldn’t wait to get back to her job to share her new maps, photographs and interviews, and to give briefings on Afghanistan. But when she arrived at Reagan National Airport, an agent from the security office of the D.I.A. demanded that she hand over all of her films and tapes. When she tried to go into her office the next day, a Saturday, to type up her notes, she was barred from the building and had her badge confiscated.
“She had gotten the proper clearances to go, and she came back with valuable information,” said a senior colleague who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, “but her trip had caused a serious row involving several government agencies. The undersecretary of state and the C.I.A. had been exchanging high-level messages. They were so intent on getting rid of her, the last thing they wanted to pay attention to was any information she had. Everybody was quick to turn on her.”
She was accused of espionage by the F.B.I. and called in for a five-hour polygraph test. Simultaneously, her husband, also a D.I.A. professional, was given his own lie-detector test. Both passed. Ms. Sirrs showed the F.B.I. the written permission given to her by the D.I.A. for personal travel to Afghanistan and demonstrated that she was only too willing to cooperate. The F.B.I. wrapped up its investigation, and Ms. Sirrs hoped that any misunderstanding had been cleared up.
But the nightmare didn’t go away.
“To be treated like I had done something wrong when I thought I was just doing my job was pretty shocking,” she recalls in a voice by now drained of emotion. “The D.I.A. gave me a list of charges, including going against the wishes of my husband. The charges tried to make me look like Mata Hari, having a crush on the Afghan resistance fighters-it was extremely insulting. They were playing like the Taliban.”
Ms. Sirrs said she believed that her information was discounted because it was damaging to the Taliban.
“The State Department didn’t want to have anything to do with Afghan resistance, or even, politically, to reveal that there was any viable option to the Taliban,” she said.
At the operational level of the C.I.A., there were agents who argued that they needed operatives down around the campfire with Massoud’s men. But higher-level officials, both at the C.I.A. and the State Department, were vehemently opposed.
The senior colleague verified that the State Department was furious that Ms. Sirrs had showed up as a private citizen with her own entrée to Massoud and the resistance forces.
“The State Department called the director of D.I.A., repeatedly, demanding her ‘execution,’” the colleague said, echoing the agency parlance for firing.
A month after her return, Julie Sirrs’ security clearance was revoked.
Even after hiring a lawyer and struggling for a year to regain her security status within the agency, Ms. Sirrs remained out in the cold. She left the D.I.A. in the fall of 1999.
Even after she left the agency, Julie Sirrs continued to follow the Afghan resistance movement. She made two more trips to the country, in 1999 and shortly after the terrorist bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000.
Still, the C.I.A. wasn’t interviewing the Northern Alliance’s Al Qaeda prisoners.
Ms. Sirrs tried to drive home the idea that not only was Mr. bin Laden building a terrorist network in Afghanistan, but also that Dr. al-Zawahiri was there, along with Saudi militants and other groups. “All of these people we really needed to be worried about were right there in Afghanistan, being given safe haven by the Taliban,” she said.
Ms. Sirrs is only faintly encouraged by the efforts of the independent commission looking into the failures that led up to 9/11.
“I don’t get the sense they’re really interested in getting to the heart of the policy problems,” she said.
Like many other early-warners and whistleblowers, Ms. Sirrs would like to testify before the commission. She has sent her biography and written reports to the commission’s investigators. She has never heard back.
In the commission’s next public hearing, on March 23 and 24, among the key witnesses will be Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The commission already knows that the Bush administration began to negotiate with the Taliban shortly after taking power in January 2001. The Taliban even hired a niece of former C.I.A. director Richard Helms, Laila Helms, as its public-relations face in Washington. The last meeting between the U.S. and Taliban representatives took place in Afghanistan five weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Three days before Al Qaeda’s spectacular attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, two men claiming to be journalists came to interview Massoud. The camera they pointed at the Northern Alliance leader was actually a bomb, which blew a hole in Massoud’s chest. Two hours later, the C.I.A. identified the assassins as Al Qaeda members.
According to Gerald Posner’s book, Why America Slept , a proposal from the Bush cabinet to engage with the Northern Alliance hadn’t reached the President’s desk by Sept. 11.
When one talks to Julie Sirrs today, the yelps of her second baby are bound to be heard in the background.
“I’ve downshifted in my career to have time to raise a family at home,” said Ms. Sirrs. It’s the same story again and again with women who tried to warn about the growing terrorist threat of Islamic extremism, but ran up against closed eyes and ears within officialdom. They have downshifted or “retired,” some to their alternate jobs as mothers and nurturers.
Ms. Sirrs herself was supposed to be in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, invited by her former colleagues to help analyze the Afghan resistance after Massoud’s assassination. Her new daughter was 9 months old.
“The minute I knew it was a terrorist attack, I knew it was bin Laden,” she remembered. “Everything I had been trying to stop had happened. Bin Laden had killed Massoud, and now our country was under attack. I was so used to going to Afghanistan and facing dangers there. To suddenly see the smoke rising from the Pentagon, a mile from our condo …. ” Her voice trailed off.
“In all honesty, when Sept. 11 happened, I was disillusioned. I was trying to get the U.S. government more involved to counteract the threat, and it didn’t work.”
Even after 9/11, a State Department official said it was “premature” to “[hatch] plots with the Northern Alliance.”
She thought: “If thousands of dead Americans aren’t going to get them to consider helping the Afghan resistance, nothing I could have said before Sept. 11 would have helped, either. All my efforts-the trips I took, the stress on my marriage, my husband being dragged through an investigation, losing my own career-I thought it was worthwhile for this cause.”
Now, she is convinced, any bold reforms in America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, won’t happen unless there is another catastrophic attack-the very kind of attack she had sacrificed so much in her efforts to prevent.
“I don’t like the morbidity of waiting around for that kind of thing,” she said. “I live in Arlington.”