Book Review: Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and al-Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA’s Key Field Commander


by Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo

New York: Crown Publishers, 2005. Pp. 328. Illus., maps, glossary, index. $25.95 . ISBN:0307237400

Rarely am I as excited to get my hands on a book as I was awaiting the arrival of this one. Gary Berntsen commands an effective presence on the radio and on television, and his appearances on both convinced me to read his first-hand account of his experience.

Berntsen is a veteran of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. He joined in the early 1980s, at a time when CIA officers were being killed or kidnapped overseas. Coming out of these experiences, he puts forth two lessons that permeate the rest of his account: “focus on those groups that pose an immediate threat and strike them quickly; understand that the risks cannot be removed even though CIA and political leadership will always gravitate towards risk-free solutions.”

Confronting dangerous terrorists is something Bertsen was doing long before September 11th. As an officer assigned to the Counterterrorist Center, which was established during the Reagan administration to bridge the gap between the FBI and the CIA, he deployed to East Africa following the embassy bombings in 1998. Bernsten was on the ground in Afghanistan in 2000, met Ahmed Shah Massoud (the famous Northern Alliance leader who was assassinated by agents of bin Laden just before September 11th), and angrily was forced to withdraw with his team before they could complete the mission—under pressure from Washington. Then-CIA Director George Tenet and President Clinton, he writes, lacked “the will to wage a real fight against terrorists who were killing U.S. citizens.” In the aftermath of September 11th, Berntsen is sent to Afghanistan as leader of the Jawbreaker team, which was tasked with assisting the Northern Alliance topple the Taliban and hunting down al Qaeda.

Time and time again, his absorbing account shows him and his team taking risks to complete a very risky, but vitally important, operation. As shaky as the Northern Alliance was, sometimes the US had to be firm with its allies in order to win the war. His accounts of the various meetings between CIA officers and Afghan leaders are humorous, scary, and illuminating. Bernsten also discusses the interplay between the Special Forces on the ground and the CIA, an astonishingly successful partnership. One dramatic mission that develops on the sidelines as the book progresses is his team’s attempt to rescue the several Christian hostages being held by the Taliban. The account of the riot at Qala-I Jangi prison, in which CIA officer Mike Spann was killed, is powerfully gripping.

For those who watch Frontline or have read Bob Woodward’s Bush at War, there are contained herein few, if any, stunning revelations—but that’s not the point. Berntsen tells what happened in a way that a news report could never do, partly by humanizing names that will be familiar to news junkies. He provides the reader with detailed descriptions of meetings between General Tommy Franks and Northern Alliance leaders, revealing the general to be a tough negotiator. In one of his cameo appearances, Michael Scheuer, the CIA’s former bin Laden hunter and anonymous author of Through Our Enemies’ Eyes and Imperial Hubris, complains that the Clinton administration is too risk-averse. Berntsen hails Cofer Black as a “very capable” counterterrorist leader. Mike Spann is first described not as our first fatality, but as someone who trained alongside one of Berntsen’s colleagues. Gary Schroen, the former CIA officer who wrote First In, departs from Afghanistan just as Berntsen arrives, telling his replacement: “Get it done.”

The closest thing to a revelation is in Berntsen’s account of Tora Bora. A CIA officer working with him, an expert on bin Laden’s voice, heard the Islamist leader over the radio. As team leader Berntsen was certain bin Laden was in the caves at Tora Bora. He promptly requested the military deploy a few hundred US Army Rangers on the eastern border, since the Afghan fighters were notoriously unreliable—but his request was denied. Inste

Reviewer: Tristan Abbey   

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