Gary Berntsen is a decorated former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) career officer who served in the Directorate of Operations between October 1982 and June 2005. During his time at the CIA, he served as a CIA Station Chief on three separate occasions and led several of CIA’s most important counterterrorism deployments including the United States’ response to the East Africa Embassy bombings and the 9/11 attacks. He was awarded the Distinguished Intelligence Medal in 2000 and the Intelligence Star in 2004. In August 1998 Berntsen led the response team to the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam. The subsequent investigation led to the capture of some 21 individuals involved with the planning and execution of the attacks.
Berntsen went to Afghanistan in March 2000 as a part of a CIA team that planned on capturing a senior Al Qaeda leader. Berntsen writes that though leaders at the CIA, particularly Cofer Black and Henry Crumpton “had shown a willingness to plan and execute risky missions,” top US government leadership including President Bill Clinton and CIA Director George Tenet were unprepared to take the increased risks. It is recognized that the environment for covert CIA operations in areas of Central Asia significantly shifted after the September 11 attacks in 2001 on New York City and Washington, D.C. The legitimacy for conducting such operations received widespread recognition and the actions carried out by CIA personnel after the attacks allowed for greater efficacy in targeting Al Qaeda personnel planning and conducting operations against US interests. Furthermore, Berntsen’s mission was also undermined by a CIA station chief in a neighboring country, dubbed Lawrence, who contacted CIA Headquarters calling for the mission to be called off. The mission was never executed and the CIA’s indecision would lead the Northern Alliance’s leader Ahmad Shah Massoud to conclude that the US was “not serious” about fighting the Taliban.
In his 2005 book, Jawbreaker, he alleges that Osama bin Laden could have been captured at Tora Bora if the US military (specifically United States Central Command) had devoted more resources to the operation. This claim gained substantial traction due to a Senate Report on the circumstances of bin Laden’s escape. According to both Berntsen’s account and the Senate Committee’s report, “Bin Laden and bodyguards walked unmolested out of Tora Bora and disappeared into Pakistan’s unregulated tribal area.” Berntsen insists this would have been stopped by a US military presence on the Afghan-Pakistan border, instead of a reliance on corrupt local warlords.
In November 2008, Berntsen published Human Intelligence, Counterterrorism, and National Leadership: A Practical Guide. This book was written to serve as a manual for the incoming president and White House staff and includes highly specific recommendations and policy prescriptions for human intelligence and counterterrorism operations.
Berntsen continues expressing his opinions and analysis to the news media and several government entities including police departments and federal agencies.