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The secret history of Anonymous
The author of Imperial Hubris is unmasked and says he fears for his job at the CIA, not for his life at the hands of Al Qaeda
Provocative language

Based on some of the interviews with Imperial Hubris author Anonymous (CIA officer Michael Scheuer, as we’ve revealed) over the past couple of weeks, it’s hard to avoid concluding that Scheuer is not spoiling for a crusade of bloody constraint against the Islamic and Arab worlds. He recently told NPR that "I’m not, you know, a warmonger." Still, phrases from the book like "killing in large numbers is not enough to defeat our Muslim foes" and "proceed ... until we have annihilated the Islamists who threaten us," suggest otherwise to many.

Scheuer’s fits of bellicosity are best understood in context, so here’s a brief summation of the book.

On one level, Imperial Hubris is likely to confound everyone and satisfy no one, given Scheuer’s heterodox analytical style. Neocons, for example, will doubtless be warmed by his occasional veneration of Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, Victor Davis Hanson, and others. They won’t be at all happy, however, about how he parses neocons and their philosophy as a whole, subjecting them — along with just about everyone else across the political spectrum — to withering criticism where deserved.

Indeed, Scheuer blasts most elite experts, whatever their political or philosophical persuasion, for "a process of interpreting the world so it makes sense to us, a process yielding a world in which few events seem alien because we Americanize their components." Ultimately, "ignorance of their own and world history, failure to appreciate the power of faith, and disdain for the views and analyses of idiosyncratic American and non-Westerners" begets a particularly perilous imperialism.

While much of Imperial Hubris isn’t necessarily polemical, it does lead to a provocative conclusion. One thrust of the book is that at least three decades of US foreign policy fed what has become an intractable worldwide defensive Islamist insurgency, whose violent strain is performing what it considers a jihad in defense of Islam — necessary because, as bin Laden professes, Muslims have failed to demonstrate adequately their love for Islam and one another. In Scheuer’s view, because the American public seems either unwilling or unable to hold an honest debate about the wisdom of certain US policies, the insurgency will perpetuate and multiply.

Scheuer’s take on the matter — certainly debatable in and of itself — is intended not so much to champion total war, but to prompt discussion. At the end of the book, Scheuer offers up a handful of what he casts as not as policy suggestions but "guidelines" — some over-the-top and ill-considered — whose utility lies not necessarily in literal application, but in reinvigorating a much-needed national dialogue.

"The rhetorical frameworks and public acrimony from such a debate would greatly stimulate thoughtful policy reevaluation by Americans," he writes, and arguing further that this would "allow Americans to know what they are signing up for: a policy status quo that will guarantee broadening conflict with escalating human and economic expense, or new policies that have potential over time for a less confrontational and bloody relationship with Islam."

Or, as Scheuer put it in an interview with the Phoenix last Friday morning, though he doubts that any form of diplomacy is likely to make for a better world vis-à-vis the "War on Terror," his call for a purely militaristic approach is premised on the idea that current US policies won’t change. "It’s less about advocacy," he said, "than provocation for debate."

— Jason Vest

EVER SINCE THE Guardian of London revealed almost two weeks ago that "Anonymous," the author of the soon-to-be-published Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror (Brassey’s, Inc.), is a CIA figure "centrally involved in the hunt for Bin Laden," the American press has been playing catch-up — yet in a strangely coy sort of way.

Public interest in the book itself isn’t at all hard to understand: it’s not every day that an active US intelligence officer publishes a work that disputes the Bush administration’s assertions, holding that, among other things, bin Laden is not on the run; the invasion of Iraq has not made the United States safer; and that Islamists are in a campaign of insurgency, not terrorism, against the US because of US policies, not out of hatred for American values. But what’s a bit harder to grasp is exactly why the media seem so reflexively deferential to the idea that "Anonymous" must be anonymous — especially when critical details revealed in a June 23 New York Times story indicated that his real identity is well-known to at least a few denizens of the Washington press corps.

Indeed, the Times piece revealed that Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll knows more about Anonymous than most — enough to give him a first name and details of his career in Coll’s recently published and highly acclaimed book, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. While the Times identified "Mike" via Coll’s book as a 22-year CIA veteran who ran the Counterterrorist Center’s bin Laden station (code-named "Alec") from 1996 to 1999, the paper also reported that in spite of that revealing detail — and despite the fact that "Mike" is an overt CIA employee whose name is not a state secret — a "senior intelligence official" held that "Mike’s" full identity had to remain unknown because revelation of his full name "could make him a target of Al Qaeda."

FOR THE MOMENT, all the general public knows about the book comes from excerpts posted on a handful of Web sites, and a slew of brief television and radio interviews, where Anonymous has appeared in silhouette. He also published another anonymous book two years ago, Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America, which analyzed the structure and motives of Al Qaeda. Anonymous is not squishy: both Hubris and Eyes seem sufficiently apocalyptic to warm the heart of someone as anti-Islamic and bloodthirsty as, say, Ann Coulter. So if liberals seem ecstatic that yet another career national-security official is blasting the Bush administration for unnecessarily invading Iraq and bungling the so-called war on terror, they’re also horrified by Anonymous’s apparent advocacy (largely rhetorical, actually) of a military campaign that includes "killing in large numbers" and "a Sherman-like razing of infrastructure" as part of "relentless, brutal and blood-soaked defensive military action until we have annihilated the Islamists who threaten us."

But at issue here is not just the book’s content, but why Anonymous is anonymous. After all, as the Times and others have reported, his situation is nothing like that of Valerie Plame, a covert operative whose ability to work active overseas cases was undermined when someone in the White House blew her cover to journalist Robert Novak in an apparent payback for an inconvenient weapons-of-mass-destruction intelligence report by her husband, Joseph Wilson. Anonymous, on the other hand, is, by the CIA’s own admission, a Langley-bound analyst whose identity has never required secrecy.

A Phoenix investigation has discovered that Anonymous does not, in fact, want to be anonymous at all — and that his anonymity is neither enforced nor voluntarily assumed out of fear for his safety, but rather compelled by an arcane set of classified regulations that are arguably being abused in an attempt to spare the CIA possible political inconvenience. In the Phoenix’s view, continued deference by the press to a bogus and unwanted standard of secrecy essentially amounts to colluding with the CIA in muzzling a civil servant — a standard made more ridiculous by the ubiquity of Anonymous’s name in both intelligence and journalistic circles.

When asked to confirm or deny his identity in an interview with the Phoenix last week, Anonymous declined to do either, and said, "I’ve given my word I’m not going to tell anyone who I am, as the organization that employs me has bound me by my word." His publisher, Brassey’s, likewise declined to comment. Nearly a dozen intelligence-community sources, however, say Anonymous is Michael Scheuer — and that his forced anonymity is both unprecedented and telling in the context of CIA history and modern politics.

"The requirement that someone publish anonymously is rare, almost unheard-of, particularly if the person is not in a covert position," says Jonathan Turley, a national-security-law expert at George Washington University Law School. "It seems pretty obvious that the requirement he remain anonymous is motivated solely by political concerns, and ones that have more to do with the CIA. While I’m sure some would argue that there’s some benefit to book sales in being anonymous because it’s mysterious and fuels speculation, the fact is that if his full name and history were known and on the book, it would get a lot more attention. It’s difficult for the media to cover an anonymous subject who has to abide by limits on what he can say about himself or anything that might reveal who he is."

Upon reviewing Scheuer’s manuscripts, the CIA could have done what national-security agencies have done in the past with employees’ works that were based on open (i.e., unclassified or publicly available) sources, but whose wide distribution might be problematic: stamp a "secret" or "top secret" classification on it so it never sees the light of day. Yet according to intelligence-community sources, this really wasn’t an option with Scheuer’s work, given the unusual origins of Through Our Enemies’ Eyes.

"That book actually started as an unclassified manual in 1999 for new counterterrorist officers working bin Laden and Sunni extremism," says one veteran CIA terrorism specialist. "Scheuer had written it at the request of his successor as Alec station chief, who specifically wanted it to be something that was drawn from open sources in the Arab and Islamic worlds for two reasons: one, so people could take it out of the building and digest it at their leisure, and two, because he wanted new officers to appreciate how much is actually out there that’s useful that isn’t classified, particularly if you have a context for it."

Given his in-house manual’s open-source-based, unclassified status, Scheuer figured it wouldn’t be much of a problem to cull more public material to recast the approximately 100 pages as a marketable academic manuscript — which he did over the course of late 1999 and early 2000, submitting the book to the CIA’s Publications Review Board (PRB) in the spring of 2000. According to Scheuer, the manuscript was at first denied release because the board took issue with the book’s brief favorable discussion of Samuel Huntington’s "clash of civilizations" theory, which posits that antagonism between Western and Islamic cultures (among others) will drive world conflict in the coming years.

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Issue Date: July 2 - 8, 2004
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