He Hunted Bin Laden for CIA. Now He Wants Americans Dead.
Michael Scheuer used to hunt Osama bin Laden, whom he now says he admires. Now his quarry is Donald Trump’s enemies, whom he equates with terrorists.
Michael Scheuer calls Black Lives Matter a “terrorist organization” and a “semi-human mob.” On his blog and his podcast, Scheuer rages against a widespread, treasonous conspiracy targeting not only President Trump but the fundamental character of the American republic. It deserves “punishment... we’ve not seen before in this country.” Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year old charged with murder for shooting demonstrators at a Kenosha, Wisconsin, protest, is a “young hero.” If America is lucky, Scheuer wrote last week, “Rittenhouse’s necessary, patriotic, and constitutional actions will power the formation of militias across the United States.” In July, he wrote that “loyal Americans know their domestic enemies, as well as their locations, in detail, and will be able to act swiftly to eliminate them and the threat they pose.”
Scheuer’s advocacy of violence follows a long trajectory. In December, he endorsed the increasingly violent QAnon conspiracy movement, which the FBI has called a potential wellspring of domestic terrorism. Those who deny QAnon’s unhinged hallucinations are, to Scheuer, “coup-ists [and] insurrectionists.” Last month, Scheuer claimed vindication against critics when Trump seemed to acknowledge QAnon. Scheuer has long been comfortable with violence. His career-making 2004 book Imperial Hubris argued that America would need to wage a far bloodier war, including the destruction of civilian infrastructure, unless it divests its imperial role in the Mideast. Sixteen years later, Scheuer’s enemy is domestic. “The only thing I would be upset about if it came to war is that not enough Democrats would get killed,” he said on his podcast in July.
Counterterrorism experts have long since written Scheuer off as a crank. Yet Scheuer’s advocacy of political violence looks disturbingly like a harbinger. Trump’s one-time consigliere Roger Stone urged Trump to declare martial law and jail his critics if he loses the November election. Ally Michael Caputo, now at the Department of Health and Human Services, reportedly invented a left-wing insurrection on a Facebook Live chat. And over the weekend, Trump endorsed federal agents shooting dead a suspect in the killing of a right-wing protester. “That’s the way it has to be, there has to be retribution when you have crime like this,” he told Fox News, echoing a point he made earlier in the summer.
“I think we’ve held our fire for four years, really for me since 1973, since they’ve been killing babies,” Scheuer said, referencing Roe v. Wade. He anticipates massive Democratic voter fraud in November, even though Trump is the one pre-delegitimizing the election. “I just think it’s unreasonable for the Democrats to think that no one will respond to that kind of an attempt to take over the government.”
However untethered Scheuer may be today, the CIA once placed him in crucial roles. He was the first chief of its Osama bin Laden Unit—he named it Alec Station after his son—in charge of analyzing al Qaeda in its pre-9/11 phase, from 1995 to 1999. And not just analysis: During that time, Scheuer ran rendition operations—that is, kidnappings of terror suspects for torture in partner countries—the seed that would sprout into the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program. Scheuer may no longer be respectable enough for the members of the security state that operate the war on terror. But Scheuer represents a phenomenon unfolding this summer across American cities: the war on terror coming home.
CIA alumni distance themselves from Scheuer. Four people who worked with him directly at the agency were unwilling to comment for this story; neither were two others who dealt with Scheuer peripherally.
Some former colleagues expressed a fraternal concern for Scheuer while being unsurprised by his fanatical turn. They remembered a man who they considered exceptionally smart and whose early writings on al Qaeda reflect enduring insight. At a time when prevailing opinion viewed al Qaeda as nothing more than religious fanatics, Scheuer assessed that bin Laden reacted to specific U.S. policy decisions—its hegemonic influence over the Middle East and its governments and the violence that Muslims experienced—that embittered millions of Muslims worldwide. Others prefer that Scheuer not receive any mainstream attention owing to his violent invective.
Few of Scheuer’s contemporaries recall him being as conspiratorial at the agency as he is today. Nor do most interviewed for this story believe the CIA could have spotted warning signs. The exception is Glenn Carle, a retired CIA operations officer who knew Scheuer’s co-workers. “He’s always been an extremist. That’s a psychological characteristic, not a political attribute of his,” Carle said. “Clearly and without exception he’s derogatory, to the point of being grotesque, in his unfairness toward any political figure who shows any temperance.”
Another person who views an essential continuity between the Scheuer of the CIA and the Scheuer of today is Scheuer himself. “I never thought I should care about the enemies of the state,” he said. “My job at the CIA or my job in the little role I have now writing is to make sure the republic survives, in a republican small-r form of government, that the Constitution prevails, that there’s equality before the law and I see all these things disappearing before my eyes. I think it’s a direct line. I never gave a good goddamn about killing an enemy of the United States.”
Several agency veterans recalled what one described as Scheuer’s “rage.” It manifested in two ways. Scheuer clashed with other counterterrorism officials, at the Clinton White House as well as the CIA, and elevated disagreements into litmus tests for who was and wasn’t willing to protect Americans against al Qaeda. Some of his ex-colleagues think Scheuer’s opponents were intransigent, but considered his vitriol to go too far; one called it “batshit crazy.” As well, they saw him express disinterest at civilian deaths that would result from strikes on al Qaeda targets. “He didn’t care about collateral damage as some of us” did, a different former colleague said.
That was on display in his writings and post-CIA statements. Scheuer called the renditions he designed “the most successful covert operation that’s ever been run by the CIA.” But intelligence work could never substitute for the mass violence that he considered tragically necessary for the U.S. to inflict upon the Muslim world. “[W]e will have to use military force in the way Americans used it on the fields of Virginia and Georgia, in France and on Pacific islands, and from the skies over Tokyo and Dresden,” Scheuer wrote in Imperial Hubris. That included a “Sherman-like razing of infrastructure,” waged against the enemy’s “support base” of civilians, to destroy “roads and irrigation systems; bridges, power plants and crops in the field; fertilizer plants and grain mills.” It remains unclear how such mass immiseration of civilians would have defeated jihadists rather than inspire waves of new ones, as 20 years of a war on terror did.
Before Scheuer left the CIA in 2004, his colleagues saw another quality in him they considered unsettling. He had a tendency to respect “revolutionaries,” as one put it, from the Founding Generation and beyond, who were willing to use violence in pursuit of their interests and beliefs. It led him in Imperial Hubris to describe bin Laden in terms that went beyond a healthy respect for an adversary. “Americans would do well to recall that bin Laden, in Muslim eyes and hearts, is not unlike another man—also, ironically, pious, quiet and dedicated—who strove for four extremely bloody years to destroy the United States, and, in doing so, evoked unprecedented loyalty and love from millions that endures even today.” Scheuer was referring to Robert E. Lee, and did not mean the comparison to damn either the Confederate general or bin Laden.
Asked about his views on bin Laden, Scheuer said he was “very willing to admire anyone who speaks his mind and speaks it with consistency and pointedness. Before the Jesuits became new-era fairies, that’s what the Jesuits taught you to do: speak your mind, and if you believe it, speak it loudly and never back up. That’s why I admired Ron Paul. That’s why I admired Osama bin Laden.”
Scheuer was hardly alone in believing that victory over terrorism was a matter of applying sufficient brutality. That animated Scheuer’s CIA colleagues in the torture program—one of whom he later married. He also shared their belief that the CIA’s valiant sacrifice would inevitably be betrayed by frivolous liberal politicians. During a 2007 congressional hearing, Scheuer testified that journalists who revealed the CIA’s black-site torture chambers and the politicians who criticized them “ought to publicly apologize to the CIA’s men and women who have executed their government’s rendition program.” Those who led the agency were little better. “Expertise is a career killer, especially in the intelligence community. Most prized is the ‘generalist’... conversant in many topics, expert in none, these usually male officers are fast-tracked for senior management,” he wrote in Imperial Hubris. Elected officials receive intelligence briefings from “well-dressed, articulate and politically sensitive dilettantes, and hear nothing from idiosyncratic, intuitive and reality-prone experts.” The result, he wrote, was the “disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
All that gave Scheuer a framework to process the agonizing reality that the war on terror produced neither peace nor victory. The war was doomed not from without, not because the war was doomed to fail, but from within—first from elites who were unprepared to relinquish the American hegemony that bin Laden assaulted; and also from the elites who were unprepared to martial the needed violence that would somehow pacify what he characterized in his book as “much of Islam.”
A key to this step was Barack Obama, whose presidency Scheuer considered both a surrender in the war on terror, particularly after Obama ended the CIA torture program, and the rise of a tyrant. In 2014, he suggested that assassinating Barack Obama was legitimate. Scheuer, by that point, was far outside the respectable conservative mainstream and his media appearances dwindled. By 2015, he was writing that “enough is coming very close to being enough” from a tyrannical government that “allow[s] its citizens to be killed at home because of its refusal to wage war mercilessly.” But all that made him a pioneer of the nationalist critique of the war on terror that Donald Trump offered: against wars made unwinnable by craven elites who were unwilling to use sufficient violence against “radical Islam.”
Most prominent CIA veterans have been appalled by Trump, even if they rarely acknowledge that Trump marshalled the Islamophobia and other resentments that their post-9/11 wars unleashed and aggravated. Scheuer approaches Trump from the opposite perspective: a president who finally gets it. Terrorist groups remain a threat “because America’s generals are failures and moral cowards.” Immigration ought to be limited to “white South Africans and white Europeans from a limited number of EU countries” and those persecuted by “violent Muslims.” Trump’s clashes with intelligence leaders prove to Scheuer that Trump has the right enemies, the people who robbed America of victory, even if any definition of a Deep State would have to include CIA veterans like himself. It was a short step to QAnon.
In December, Scheuer blogged that “those who do not believe QAnon will be mighty surprised.” It made him the senior-most former intelligence official to embrace a social media-born cult that portrays Trump’s political enemies as a pedophile conspiracy. “There is so much accuracy, and well-proven accuracy,” he wrote of a theory holding John F. Kennedy Jr. is alive and secret indictments will soon imprison Obama and others at Guantanamo.
“QAnon is a very interesting person to me. I listen to it whenever I can. In intelligence operations, if you get one thing out of 10 to work, that’s usually a pretty good deal, and I think that his information has been, to my mind and what I’ve seen in terms of corroboration, about 60 percent, which is extraordinary in this day and age,” he said.
But the conspiracy was less important than what it licensed: “Personally, I would prefer immediate and lethal, post-trial punishment —by loyal-citizen firing squads chosen by lottery,” he wrote. Targets included the “Kenya-born” Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, John Brennan, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, Russiagate’s Christopher Steele and leading congressional Democrats. Other hit lists include journalists, academics, “any police chief or officer” who supports police budget cuts, and “all medical doctors, teachers, and teacher unions advocating the continued closure of schools across the republic,” which Scheuer sees as commensurate with the predations of Jeffrey Epstein and, allegedly, Ghislane Maxwell. “There is no Constitutional protection for U.S. citizens who wage war against their country, especially those who enlist foreign governments to assist them,” Scheuer judged—meaning not the “Russia, if you’re listening” president, but Trump’s opponents.
But the upheaval of summer 2020 has seen Scheuer openly endorse the sort of violence on Americans that he previously reserved for jihadists and their “support base.”
To Scheuer, there are no protesters. There is instead a “sub-human insurgent threat,” armed by the Democratic Party and funded by people like George Soros and Bill Gates, “rioting in honor of felonious scum” like police brutality victims George Floyd and Jacob Blake. “If you have enough loyal general officers to destroy the domestic enemy, arrest the disloyal generals and do so as soon as you can, and use as much violence as is necessary to terminate this threat forever,” Scheuer urged Trump on June 5, when the president’s D.C. crackdown was underway. The generals who opposed using the military for that termination were exemplars of America’s lost wars who were now “helping the Democrats to destroy the republic.” If Joe Biden wins the election, Scheuer predicted the next month on his podcast, Democrats would be “silly to imagine it’s going to preserve their lives.”
After a career inside the CIA, Scheuer no longer invests much hope in institutions to save the republic. Hope lies instead with people inspired by men like Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot “Democrat terrorist[s]” in Kenosha. Rittenhouse’s “gift,” Scheuer contended, was in showing “his fellow citizens… that no U.S. citizen is obligated to stand by and watch his home, car, or business being burned by Democratic swine, or to fail to inflict fatal consequences on the same scum when they seek to harm or kill him, his family or his neighbors.” That gift was especially important “to young military veterans,” Scheuer assessed. Before the 2020 election, Scheuer urged Americans to form “local and nationwide” armed militias to stop the potential Democratic theft.
The domestic war Scheuer is exhorting is more than an imaginary reckoning between American factions. The fantasy of it, not only its victory but its finality, displays a redeemed version of the war on terror, down to the “Democrat terrorists” in place of phantom jihadists. It replaces the horrors of the lost wars with a restored glory, one only possible through the blood of those who allegedly stopped America from winning. Among the ironies of the radicalization of the CIA’s first bin Laden hunter is a Scheuer podcast episode from the summer in which a cleric warned that “God delegated [the Trump administration] to use that sword, to put down anarchy. You can call it martial law, you can call it anything you want to call it.”
One thing Scheuer wanted to clarify is that he means what he says. Black Lives Matter has “destroyed more property” than al Qaeda, making them “absolutely” terrorists. (A vandalized courthouse building; the World Trade Center: what’s the difference?) Left-wing radicals are setting the West Coast on fire—something that was apparently the subject of a Q drop this weekend, according to New York Times reporter Kevin Roose. Violence is “unfortunately inevitable.” Asked if he would participate in it, Scheuer said that at 67 years old he wouldn’t last long, “but I’m certainly armed.”
“People seem to think that I say things I don’t mean. I truly am offended by that. If I say something, it doesn’t mean I’m testing the waters. This is what I think, take it or leave it,” he said.
Scheuer is far more extreme than most—“I’m not extreme at all,” he rejoinders; journalists like me just don’t see what he sees—but he represents a broader phenomenon. Summer 2020 has seen the domestic use of an apparatus of repression purpose-built for the war on terror.
The Department of Homeland Security, the quintessential post-9/11 creation, turned elite militarized forces on demonstrators in Portland in response to property damage, and used sophisticated aerial surveillance assets to spy on multiple U.S. cities. The attorney general informed the Joint Terrorism Task Forces uniting local and federal law enforcement that they were to investigate protesters. Police around the country, in some cases armed with equipment received from Pentagon overstock or DHS grants, treated demonstrators like people under occupation. The rhetoric of the war on terror inevitably followed, from Trump vowing to designate antifascists as terrorists to his announcement of a “surge” of federal law enforcement into allegedly besieged cities. Even the emerging far-right militias borrow from the culture of the war on terror, naming themselves things like the literal English translation of al Qaeda. More respectably, 20 years of war, and 400 years of white supremacy, helped make proposing to crush the protests with the U.S. military mainstream enough for a U.S. senator to propose and the New York Times op-ed page to publish.
Scheuer’s advocacy of mass civil violence may be an extreme manifestation. But his trajectory shows the untenability of pretending the disfiguring effects endless wars have on their practitioners can be cordoned off abroad. Most of Trump’s CIA-alumni critics, as well as their colleagues across the security services, have operated as if the generation-long war they waged had no relationship to the broader unraveling of American politics. They rarely paid attention to the conspiracism and repression the war generated until it was unignorable within their institutions. It’s no coincidence that the radicals and conspiracists in the security state tend to implicate other Americans as a “fifth column” to explain away the failures of the war, like the West Point academic who in 2015 advocated “great destruction, innumerable enemy casualties, and civilian collateral damage” wanted the U.S. military’s target lists to include lawyers who criticized the war on terror. “The war on terror is a vector for the fracturing of American society,” observed Glenn Carle, Scheuer’s former CIA colleague, whatever its architects might have intended.
Carle noted that “elements” like Scheuer’s were present within the CIA, but he considers that a derivative of agency culture reflecting “the diversity of American society,” rather than the CIA incubating future Scheuers. He recalled struggling with that when he participated in the torture program, a life-changing experience for him. “Almost all my colleagues are honorable, dedicated, principled individuals. Yet it was astounding to experience that as soon as the order came, ‘Do this because we’re in danger,’ so many unthinkingly accepted it, simply because it was an order from the commander in chief. But it was against the fucking law,” Carle said. “This phenomenon happens in times of stress, unconsciously, we’re tribal and visceral. This is happening in American society in a larger sense, and it’s what’s going on with Scheuer.”
Carle continued: “I don’t know if it was inevitable to turn the war on terror into a domestic weapon. But 20 years of an absolutist response to a problem rather than a textured one leads to extreme perspectives on domestic issues, which can only in the end lead to violence and discord.”
As our conversation wound down, Scheuer said that our disagreements over the basic circumstances of American society and the legitimacy of violence to rectify them shouldn’t stop us from having coffee or a beer.
“I hope so, but you keep talking about killing people like me,” I said.
“Well, you know, there’s always collateral damage in a civil war, and you can’t goad people forever and expect them not to respond,” replied the former CIA official.