by James A. Scott
The Targeter: My Life in the CIA Hunting Terrorists and Challenging the White House by Nada Bakos, 354 pp., 2019, Back Bay Books/Little Brown, and Company, New York, NY.
The events of September 11, 2001, generated many changes in how government agencies are organized and operated to keep us safe from foreign enemies. Few were more profound than those at the Central Intelligence Agency. Responding to a void of knowledge about al-Qaida, and our fears, anger, and demands for action, the Agency undertook major adaptations. In addition to its traditional missions of collecting, analyzing, and providing intelligence, it began to use that intelligence to hunt down and kill foreign terrorists. As with other adaptations, it took its toll on those who, in one way or another, dipped their hands in blood to avenge the 9/11 attacks and prevent another. This book is emblematic of their stories. It describes the little-known challenges they faced, their courage and dedication, and the price many paid.
Nada Bakos, The Targeter, was an analyst in the Directorate of Intelligence (now the Directorate of Analysis) on 9/11. She volunteered for the CIA’s relatively new Counterterrorism Center (CTC), where her unit was tasked to find the terrorist, Abu Musab al Zarqawi. He was a high school dropout, ex-con, drunk, drug dealer, and rapist of both genders. Zarqawi adopted the violent Salafi-jihadism doctrine and named himself Musab, in honor of Musab bin Umayer, patron saint of suicide bombers. At the height of his power, Zarqawi commanded al-Qaida in Iraq and was responsible for thousands of deaths, Iraqi and American. He was killed in 2006.
The book contains enough insider observations about the CIA targeting operations and culture to hold the reader’s interest. Equally interesting, but not as well-publicized, is the toll the work took on CIA analysts. In the wake of 9/11, the overwhelming demand for information drove the work, and work often had a detrimental impact on their personal and professional lives. Some excerpts: In late 2002, “[T]he pace in our office reached a fevered pitch. My dinners were often reduced to leftover bags of tortilla chips from some happy hour . . . rescheduled or simply forgotten . . ..” Bakos’ weight gain drew comments. She adds, “[M]y fear of [making a mistake] drove me to almost obsessive ends.” Even in analyses that did not bear her name, “my word served as the official Agency position. It created tremendous pressure.” Some colleagues left CTC because of it. Others suffered broken relationships, odd workdays that defied body rhythms, harassment for politically inconvenient findings, and crazy questions that mocked hard work: What kind of underwear does Zarqawi favor?
There is also humor mingled with the work of tracking a ruthless killer. Bakos, describes the difficulty of finding normal male companionship in Washington. A few pages relate her hilarious and sad experiences with online dating or looking for a straight male in her neighborhood, as cross-dressers dash past her window in the annual High Heel Races near Dupont Circle.
Regarding the role of Agency females, Bakos states that, initially, most CTC targeters were women. They often tracked the most dangerous targets, were critical in defining al-Qaida, and instrumental in the CTC start-up. One of the more troubling disclosure is the post-traumatic stress that analysts experience long after their work is done. Bakos writes, “The brutality [Zarqawi] unleashed plagues me to this day.”
The Targeter should be read in tribute to the work of our fellow citizens at the CIA and as an education in history, terrorism, and Agency culture.