Alec Station was the U. S. government-sanctioned Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) program designed to hunt down, capture, or kill Osama bin Laden. Two members of the Bill Clinton administration, Tony Lake (the national security adviser) and Richard Clarke (the national coordinator for counterterrorism) met in late 1995 with the head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center to discuss the need for a unit to concentrate solely on Osama bin Laden. Soon afterward, the director of the CIA, George Tenet, approved just such a unit. The plan called for Alec Station to run only a couple of years before merging completely with the
Counterterrorism Center, but as bin Laden became a greater and greater threat, Alec Station continued its operations for more than a decade.
When the CIA began Alec Station, on January 8, 1996, bin Laden was mostly known as a financier of terrorism. Soon afterward, it became apparent that bin Laden had declared open warfare against the United States and its allies, and the campaign against bin Laden was stepped up. Mike Scheuer, a veteran CIA agent, was placed in charge of the program when it was founded; although the formal title of the program was the Usama Bin Laden Issue Station (UBL), it soon took the name Alec Station, after Scheuer’s adopted Korean son, Alec. Alec Station functioned as a subunit of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC). Sponsors of this program set it up as an interagency unit running agents from both the CIA and the FBI. The plan was for this unit to fuse intelligence disciplines into one office—including operations, analysis, signals intercepts, overhead photography, and covert action. As the unit developed, its strength lay in analysis. It started out as a small unit with a staff of only about 15 analysts, mostly young women. It was not considered a choice assignment. Alec Station was a low-profile operation and was at first housed outside Langley until it moved to the CTC.
By 1998 Scheuer was convinced that bin Laden posed an ongoing danger to the United States, but he had difficulty convincing his superiors—partly because of his difficult personality, which managed to alienate even those who agreed with him. After Scheuer learned that bin Laden had attempted to acquire nuclear materials, he had difficulty making his superiors accept the information and use it to inform others in the government. Scheuer believed that bin Laden constituted a clear and present danger, and he became increasingly frustrated by the lack of action taken toward bin Laden.
Scheuer also had difficulties with the FBI. Although Alec Station had been set up as an interagency operation, the FBI often refused to share information with the CIA. The most notorious member of the FBI in this regard was John O’Neill, the FBI’s top counterterrorism expert. O’Neill possessed a notebook captured from an Al Qaeda operative that he refused to turn over to Alec Station for a year. In another instance, an FBI agent was caught raiding CIA files with the intent of taking their contents back to the FBI. Scheuer has claimed that Alec Station sent 700 to 800 requests for information to the FBI but never received answers to any of them.
Alec Station planned to capture bin Laden after he moved to Afghanistan in May 1996. For the first time, the CIA knew where bin Laden and his family lived—in the Tarnak Farm compound 12 miles outside Kandahar. Beginning in 1997, plans were made with Afghan tribal leaders to kidnap bin Laden and take him to an Arab country or the United States for trial. The CIA even staged four rehearsals for the operation in late 1997 and early 1998. Then, on May 29, 1998, George Tenet, the head of the CIA, called off the operation. Scheuer’s reaction was swift. He complained that the CIA had enough intelligence against bin Laden and Al Qaeda to eliminate both, and he couldn’t understand why the U. S. government had failed to take the chance to do so. The Clinton administration responded that it feared collateral damage and any negative publicity that might follow a less-than-perfect operation.
It was only after the bombings, on August 7, 1998, of the two U. S. embassies in East Africa that the attention of the Clinton administration was redirected toward bin Laden in the August 20, 1998, attack on an Al Qaeda Afghanistan training camp near Khost and on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum in which 79 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from U. S. Navy ships in the Arabian Sea. However, warnings from Pakistani sources made certain that bin Laden escaped the missiles, and the Sudanese plant proved a harmless pharmaceutical plant. Several other plans were made to either capture or kill bin Laden, but they were cancelled each time because of one difficulty or another. Most cancellations were caused by a lack of confidence in intelligence sources and information.
The most promising opportunity was in February 1999. CIA agents learned that bin Laden was going to join a number of sheikhs from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at a desert hunting camp in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Satellite pictures identified the camp on February 9. CIA operatives confirmed bin Laden’s presence and requested a missile strike. Over the next several days, the Clinton administration debated a missile strike without deciding before learning that members of the UAE royal family were also present at this camp. Because of foreign policy complications with the UAE (a provider of gas and oil supplies), nothing happened, and Scheuer was furious. His e-mails expressing his unhappiness traveled around government circles.
Tenet removed Scheuer from his position as head of Alec Station in the spring of 1999. Scheuer’s inability to work with superiors and the FBI led to his dismissal. His critics intimated that he had become dysfunctional because of his vendetta against Osama bin Laden. CIA analysts at Alec Station blamed John O’Neill for the firing of Scheuer because the dispute had reached the level of the agency heads of the CIA and FBI—Tenet and Louis Freeh. Scheuer’s replacement was a key assistant on Tenet’s staff and a Middle East specialist, but he lacked Scheuer’s drive. By this time, Alec Station had grown from 12 analysts to 25. Most of these analysts were women, something that hurt their credibility in the male-dominated CIA. There was a feeling in the Counterterrorist Center that others in the CIA ridiculed members of the Alec Station for their zeal in tracing the actions of bin Laden.
The status of Alec Station became more precarious after September 11. Some of the criticism directed against the CIA for failing to uncover the September 11 plot descended on Alec Station, and Scheuer reappeared as a senior analyst at the Station after September 11. Members of Alec Station adamantly insisted that little, if any, connection existed between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, something they communicated to Tenet. However, this stance made them enemies in the Bush administration, which wanted the CIA to provide justification for the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Hussein. Those in the CIA who opposed the
Invasion became enemies. Personnel were transferred out of Alec Station until only 12 analysts remained. Scheuer protested this action, resigning from the CIA on November 12, 2004. Not long afterward, the CIA disbanded the Station entirely.
Stephen E. Atkins
See also Bin Laden, Osama; Central Intelligence Agency; Federal Bureau of Investigation; Freeh, Louis; O’Neill, John; Tenet, George
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