WASHINGTON — Every day that Osama bin Laden was alive was a day that the CIA's reputation took a hit. His killing begins the process of erasing a decade-long image problem.
"It's a big shot in the arm for the agency, because it should say to the U.S. public that this place knows what it is doing," said John McLaughlin, who briefly served as acting CIA director in 2004 and was deputy director at the time of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
The spy agency was roundly criticized for missing signs in 2001 of the imminent 9-11 attacks. In the decade that ensued, the CIA was embroiled in controversies ranging from revelations about water-boarding prisoners to kidnapping suspects who were secretly sent to third countries where torture was practiced.
These events tarnished the agency's image, and still bin Laden remained a free man.
U.S. intelligence was reshaped top to bottom after the attacks orchestrated by bin Laden, with the CIA yielding ground in 2004 to the new director of national intelligence. The period also saw the rise in importance of the Joint Special Operations Command, an amalgam of classified task forces across the military and intelligence agencies.
Against that backdrop, May 1 may become a date etched in history as an agency accomplishment.
Most Americans view the agency at one end of two extremes, said McLaughlin, who spearheaded a "lessons learned" drive after 9-11.
"The CIA is the most misunderstood institution in American life ... people think of it either as James Bond or Maxwell Smart," said McLaughlin, referring to the fictional sophisticated British spy and buffoonish American spy, respectively.
While technology was clearly vital in finding and killing the al Qaida leader, old-school agency tactics involving sources and informants were equally important. Bin Laden's Pakistani compound had no phones or Internet connections, relying on couriers to communicate his messages to operatives.
"It's painstaking, it's a hard slog, it's a grind, it is very labor intensive," McLaughlin said. "Those of us who have been involved in this obviously feel very good about it. ... This issue has been the driver at Langley (CIA headquarters), the thing they think about the first thing when they wake up every morning. I think it's a very big boost for them."
There've been five CIA directors since the 9-11 attacks, including McLaughlin, with a sixth coming soon, and plenty of dissent and turmoil over that period within the agency. That was evident in a new book titled Osama bin Laden by Michael Scheuer, the CIA's first head of a unit formed to capture him.
In the acknowledgements section of his book, released in February, Scheuer praises the nameless CIA agents trying to thwart al Qaida.
"They accomplished this mission, many times over, risking their lives and careers in the process. They were thwarted ... by self-seeking cowardice and by the ideological obsessions rife in the senior levels of the intelligence community," wrote Scheuer, who headed the bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999.
Reuel Marc Gerecht was a Middle East specialist at the CIA from 1985 to 1994, and he's a frequent critic of its performance. He's dubious of the storyline being offered of a unilateral surprise raid without Pakistani knowledge, and he's holding judgment on what May 1 will mean for the CIA's public image.
"When you get a 'Black Ninja' moment like this, it's sexy, so the agency looks better," he said, cautioning that in weeks and months ahead, leaks to the news media are likely to paint a different narrative.
As a deputy assistant treasury secretary for intelligence, Matthew Levitt worked closely with the CIA, helping the agency understand and trace sources of terrorism financing. He, too, thinks bin Laden's death will help to buff an unpleasant narrative.
"It's a great boon for U.S. intelligence after a number of bad news stories," said Levitt, who also warned that success would bring new problems: "Bin Laden is the next Che Guevara. He will be on posters and T-shirts."
Guevara, an Argentine who helped lead the Cuban revolution, was captured and killed in 1967 by Bolivian troops with support from CIA operatives. His hands were chopped off for identification and his body buried alongside a forgotten runway, building his martyr credentials. Until bin Laden, he was the agency's biggest "get," albeit one known in spy parlance as a "liaison" operation.
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