Art Keller had something to tell his girlfriend. It was early January 2006, and because of their busy work schedules, he decided to let her know via e-mail.
"I'm going to Pakistan for for a while for work," he wrote.
Keller was vague about what he would be doing there. He'd been dating this woman for a couple of months and had told her he worked for the State Department, in the Bureau of Non-Proliferation. He found that people's eyes glazed over when he told them this, and questions about his work dried up. As a CIA agent, this is precisely what he wanted.
"Dating is one of the challenges of the CIA," he says. "You're not supposed to tell people what you do right up to the point when you pop the question. At which point they wonder what else you've been lying about."
There was more that Keller, then 35, couldn't share with his girlfriend. Frustrated by the agency's bureaucracy, he planned to leave the CIA, and knowing that this was his final year, he had decided to take on one of the agency's most challenging assignments: to join the team of what most experts believe to be between 50 and 100 CIA agents and Special Operations Forces officers whose clandestine mission is to find and kill Osama bin Laden and other top Al Qaeda leaders in the hostile, barren border regions of Pakistan. In the CIA, it's always possible to find a post in Pakistan. Compared with, say, Paris or Manila or Moscow, the tribal regions of Pakistan are, in Keller's words, "not fun."
"The conditions are so miserable they'll take anyone," he says. "They're desperate for volunteers." Keller signed up for a 90-day tour—short by normal standards—and began preparing for his new job, which was to be the acting chief of one of the agency's bases in the heart of Al Qaeda and Taliban territory. On the other side of the border, in Afghanistan, U.S. and NATO forces operate openly. In Pakistan, American soldiers and agents must work in secret, because the government wants to avoid antagonizing Islamist militants.
By his own account, Keller was not the CIA agent with the best qualifications for this job. He spoke German and some Russian but none of the languages of the Middle East or South Asia. He was an expert on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and like nearly every CIA agent in the post-9/11 era, he had intermittently worked on counterterrorism. He had worked for the CIA's Counterterrorist Center but had never officially been part of the group. Nor was he an expert on militant Islam, Al Qaeda, or Pakistan. Still, after four years as a CIA case officer, Keller was experienced enough to know that his mission would be daunting.
Keller had two months to prepare for his stint in Pakistan. He was working full-time as a CIA case officer in a midsize American city, meeting with agents he had recruited from local Middle Eastern communities as part of his WMD cases. He read as many books on Al Qaeda and Pakistan as he could, before leaving for Langley, Virginia, where he would spend his final week in the States reading the bin Laden files and researching local tribal dynamics at CIA headquarters.
At Langley, Keller learned that there was disagreement within the CIA about the Pakistanis. "There is an ongoing pissing match between [the CIA stations in] Kabul and Islamabad," the desk officer told him. "Kabul says the Pakistanis are dirty from head to toe. Islamabad says the Pakistanis are only partially dirty and we get something out of working with them."
Courtesy of Reuters
The relationship with the Pakistanis was one of many problems that had plagued the CIA's hunt for bin Laden since December 2001, when he escaped during the battle of Tora Bora. (Although bin Laden was never sighted at Tora Bora, CIA agents and special-forces soldiers involved are convinced he was there.) While the Pakistani government publically offered the United States its support in the war on terror, according to intelligence sources, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), have at times actively sabotaged the CIA's work.
In 2005, for example, the CIA helped the Pakistani military coordinate an attack on Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin, senior Taliban leaders who had been aiding Al Qaeda. In the run-up to the operation, a source within U.S. intelligence says, the CIA caught a Pakistani officer tipping off the Haqqanis about the forthcoming attack.
The ISI was woven into the hunt for bin Laden shortly after 9/11, when according to a source familiar with the negotiation, then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage struck a deal with President Pervez Musharraf to allow the CIA and special ops soldiers to work in Pakistan—on the condition that the ISI could shadow the bin Laden hunters at all times. (One U.S. intelligence source says there are only a handful of CIA agents in Pakistan who operate without the Pakistanis' knowledge.)
Before leaving for Langley Keller had called his parents to tell them he was going to Pakistan. They knew he was in the CIA, but, he says, "like most people they didn't know what a case officer actually does." The family didn't ask too many questions. They had another pressing concern: Keller's father had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. No one knew how long he would live. "It was a thing of do you stay or do you go?" Keller says.
As he left for Islamabad he maintained two hopes: that he could help capture or kill the terrorists who were a threat to America, and that he would see his father again.
Keller spent eight days in relative comfort in Islamabad, getting to know his colleagues at the CIA station before boarding the helicopter that would take him to the base that would be his home for most of the next three and a half months. The helicopter passed over flat, parched farmland until the ground below began to rise steeply. These were the mountains of the tribal areas. Keller could see the square, mud-walled compounds that are typical of the villages of the region. There were few roads. The mountains stretched on for hundreds of miles, one treeless peak appearing behind another in a constant overlap. There was the occasional old British fort, a relic of an earlier failed attempt to control the region.
"You never really get it until you've been there and you've seen the area and you get a feel for it," Keller says. "And you're like, Oh yeah, this is obviously the most hostile operational environment outside Russia under Stalin."
The helicopter touched down not far from the border of Afghanistan, and he unloaded his bags. The CIA station was in what Keller describes as a "piece-of-crap Pakistani building" with crumbling walls, next to a military base. But there were some comforts. He had a proper bed and his own room in the main building. There was a trailer with a kitchen. Another trailer, home to a small gym with a treadmill and a Bowflex multi-trainer, served as a meeting place.
And then there was the communications room. This was the hub for Keller and the representatives of other U.S. spy agencies. It was where most of the hunt was conducted. Americans in Pakistan don't generally go out kicking down doors in the tribal regions. They send out Pashtun spies to do their snooping; they use technology to listen and watch from the skies; they find targets for the deadly, armed drones that buzz over the mountains. All of that is done using just a keyboard.
Courtesy of Reuters
Before 9/11, the handful of agents in what was known at Langley as Alec Station—a unit within CIA headquarters set up in late 1995 with the intention of capturing or uncovering an opportunity to kill Osama bin Laden—believed they were fighting an undermanned, losing battle. The events of 9/11 were a painful fulfillment of their direst warnings. And the result was a sudden flood of agents into the unit.
"[The increased level of staffing] sounds good, but it makes sure veteran officers spend most of their time teaching and not chasing," says Michael Scheuer, a cheery, bearded former agent who founded Alec Station. "We had reinforcements come from all over the agency, volunteers who were eager to help. Smart guys and women, but they don't know how to do a name trace. They might be able to trace Joe Smith trying to get into a compound, but Ahmed Zubaida is another kettle of fish for them—especially when it can be spelled three ways."
There were also differences within the CIA over how best to allocate resources. One dispute, which lingers to this day, was over whether to entrust the task of finding bin Laden and his henchmen to agents capable of shifting between regions and specialties or to men who, like Scheuer, had spent much of their careers building up knowledge of Al Qaeda.
In the wake of 9/11, senior CIA officers set up a new unit at Langley called the Afghan Operations Group. It became a rival to Alec Station, and relations between the two were tense. "They brought in officers with experience in either Latin America or Africa, where Cofer [Black, the director of the Counterterrorist Center at the time] had worked," Scheuer says, speaking from his home in Falls Church, Virginia. "They made it so secluded you had to have a green sticky dot on the back of your badge in order to get into their offices. Only the most senior officials got a green sticker."
But the focus on crushing Al Qaeda in Afghanistan didn't last long. The Bush administration soon turned its attention to preparing for a possible war in Iraq. Accordingly, there was a shift in priorities at the CIA, too, and the bin Laden unit began to lose manpower. And it wasn't the recent arrivals with little experience in counterterrorism who were leaving, it was many of the linguists, who were crucial to the hunt. "By April, May 2002, we began losing people to the groups that were preparing for the Iraq war," Scheuer says. "We were losing Arabic speakers. Very experienced people."
That left big holes, and people like Keller were being called to fill them. One of his responsibilities was to forge working relationships with the special-ops soldiers who work with the CIA in Pakistan. Intelligence sources say the CIA depends on the military, with its vastly superior resources, to provide crucial tools like unmanned Predator aircraft and satellite imagery. Keller got on well with his military counterparts, but others involved in the hunt say the joint teams are not always so harmonious. Officially, the CIA runs the hunt. That sticks in the craw of some military men.
"The relationship can vary from one of animosity and turf protection to cooperation and supporting efforts," says Jim (not his real name), a former soldier who commanded bin Laden-hunting special-forces troops on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border.
Jim describes spending weeks living in safe houses in conditions that were severe enough to aggravate already strained relations between colleagues. One month in an animal stall in Afghanistan. Another month in a slaughter room on a farm that was infested with rats.
"It used to be not uncommon to have an agency chief of base spend eight weeks in the place and rotate home," Jim says, communicating by e-mail. "Picture a CIA chief of base who has a college degree in astrophysics showing up to some far off safe house in the middle of nowhere, where a few black ops [military] guys who don't impress easily await. The agency guy can either swallow some humble pie or he can act like he owns the place and try to make all decisions. Black-ops guys typically have no use for officers or commanders, and an agency college boy is no different."
Courtesy of Reuters
Beyond personalities, there are practical differences in the way the CIA and the military operate that can cause tensions between the two groups.
"One of the biggest issues among the joint teams is the speed at which decisions are made and information passed," Jim says. With the special forces, he explains, "the guy on the ground can be standing on a mountain, see some activity, make an assessment, and dial up the boss back at Bagram using his SAT phone. He simply tells him over a secure net what he sees and his analysis of it. The agency guy standing next to him on the same hilltop sees the same thing. But he must get back in his pickup truck, drive back to the safehouse, peck away at his laptop, [and send] a cable to the chief of station in Kabul or Islamabad ensuring he uses proper agency writing style. If he is smart, he might even take the time to ask the same SOF [special ops] guy on the hill to read it and check it for accuracy. Once everyone hacks off on it, he sends it.
"By this time the chief of station is in an uproar because the military channels have already passed the news up and over to the agency and the chief has yet to hear about it. It makes for some very ruffled feathers."
Soon after arriving at the base, Keller settled into a routine—ordering food supplies from Islamabad, making sure there was enough gas for the generator, taking turns cooking in the evening. He exchanged e-mails with his six siblings about their ailing father. "In a way, it was a luxury being that far away because it allowed me not to think about it so much," Keller says. "You're focused on a job, and it's kind of a blessing."
The only time the Americans at the base went outside was to play volleyball or to unload the helicopter when it arrived with supplies. The ISI men wouldn't let the CIA men venture any farther. It's too dangerous, they said. Keller and his colleagues believed the ISI just wanted to restrict their movements. In fact, Keller's suspicion of the ISI shadows was such that he made sure there was always at least one American in the communications room.
Keller spent his days there monitoring intelligence traffic. Like all CIA agents involved in the hunt, he had three main sources of information. First, there was sigint, or signal intelligence—the interception of electronic communications. Then there was the overhead imagery that was supplied by satellites and unmanned aircraft. Last, there was HUMINT, or human intelligence—old-fashioned undercover spying.
Besides the terrain, bin Laden's other protective shield in the border region was the local tribal code of honor, which dictates that a Pashtun has a duty to lay down his life for anyone visiting his home. As long as bin Laden remained among the estimated 28 million Pashtuns in Pakistan, he was surrounded by people who were compelled to protect him. More than that, many of the Pashtuns in the region see bin Laden as a benefactor and hero. The slightest suggestion that you might be a spy for the American, Pakistani, or Afghan government is enough to get you killed.
A senior Afghan intelligence official in Kabul says that in 2005 the National Directorate for Security, the CIA-allied Afghan intelligence service, recruited a low-level mullah to go into Waziristan, in the Pakistani tribal region. His mission was to see whether there were any Arabs in the area, which would indicate that bin Laden and his inner circle might be present, and to report back to Kabul. Some days after the mullah set off, residents of the militant-dominated town of Miram Shah in Waziristan found the man's body on the side of the road.
The mullah's head was missing. Folded into his shirt was a message warning that this was what happened to spies.
Courtesy of Reuters
In the years since Osama bin Laden escaped at Tora Bora, the CIA has not had clear sight of the Saudi terrorist, intelligence sources say. Despite a constant stream of information as to his purported whereabouts, there has never been an instance in which the agency felt it was close to locating him. Bin Laden aside, most CIA agents end their tours without ever coming close to grabbing any Al Qaeda target. And even if they find one, it takes a long time, usually months, to build a case for military action. To order up an attack requires immense amounts of surveillance on the ground and approval from Langley. But one day Keller thought he was about to get lucky.
It was a few weeks into his tour, and Keller had flown to Islamabad for a medical examination—he had a lump on his abdomen. From there he was diverted to another base in the tribal areas, where agents had been tracking a high-level terrorist. The man was an Arab and a senior commander for Al Qaeda.
"We were working with the Pakistanis, and they had an inside guy who was able to watch a compound where they believed this guy was staying," Keller says. The ISI members stationed at this base were cooperative and competent. "They were not jerking us around as they do in other bases," he says. Keller had two ways to collect information on the target—through the informant and through what he will only describe as "technical means." For two weeks, he sat in the base and received updates from his ISI colleagues on the whereabouts of the Al Qaeda commander.
"So we were watching this place, and did he show up?" Keller says. "Not while I was there. I later learned he showed up after I left. They took a shot and missed him. They got some of his bodyguards." Keller's tour came to an end in July 2006. Sick with food poisoning and exhausted, he slept the entire flight home. Shortly after he returned to the United States, he went to see his father in Phoenix. A few months later, his father died. "A couple of people said they almost thought me going [to Pakistan] kept him alive longer," Keller says. "He wanted to make sure that I made it back."
It was Keller's last mission for the CIA. His relationship with his girlfriend ended, and he now lives in Albuquerque, where he hikes in the nearby mountains and has finished writing a spy novel. He's determined to be a success as a writer, but he misses the sense of purpose that came with being in the CIA and hunting bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
"It's definitely galling," Keller says of bin Laden's continuing freedom. "If you go to one of these places, it does involve sacrifice. People don't mind serving in bad conditions if you feel you've got something out of it. At the end of the day, if you don't feel you got something out of it—and I'm not sure I did—then it feels like time wasted, time spent to no end."