“With the death of Bin Laden, the West scored a tremendous tactical victory,” announced ex-CIA man, Michael Scheuer, as he began his reflective speech on Al Qaeda and the war on terror.
Already billed in the book festival programme as “controversy guaranteed,” that’s exactly what we got when he was unable to continue after a loud male voice boomed from stage left: “You’re talking absolute shite pal!”
Scheuer turned to face his accuser, the lights full in his face and a silence befalling the audience inside the tent. “I think you’re an arse,” continued the man. “You’re talking a pile of crap.”
“I think there’s a time for questions at the end,” replied Scheuer, but the man wouldn’t be appeased.
Cue an intervention from Ruth Wishart, who approached the man and explained quietly that this event was now over for him.
“I’ve paid my money and I can tell him what I like,” the man bellowed.
“You can tell him from outside,” said Wishart. “You’re leaving.”
And with that, Security arrived and hauled the man out as he left a stream of abuse directed towards Wishart, his political views about the CIA now forgotten.
Re-taking her seat, and with an air of tension still floating in the room, Wishart turned to Scheuer and said: “See what happens when you bring your boyfriend in with you?”
And so Scheuer, the man who led the CIA team tasked with locating Bin Laden between 1996 an 1999, and worked as special adviser to its chief from 2001 to 2004, restarted his speech from where he left off.
“We’re at war because of the choices made by Western governments,” he explained. “And we are faced with a problem largely of our own making. Until we realise our actions have consequences, we will lose all over.”
A grim perspective and it only got worse: “In terms of Al Qaeda, it’s impossible for them to grasp how much progress they’ve made since 9/11 because America is far from being able to develop a proper foreign policy on its own.”
On the Arab Spring, he said :“Despite what many writers have commented, the so called Arab Spring hasn’t made Al Qaeda irrelevant. It has delighted them and has been an intelligence disaster for us.”
Scheuer was asked whether he wished his unit had taken Bin Laden when they had the chance prior to 9/11. “It was always the intention to take Bin Laden alive at first but we could have killed him a dozen times over. Politically, though, it just wasn’t on the cards.”
The issue of America’s continued involvement in the Middle East came with an element of 20/20 hindsight. “We should let the Arabs rule themselves—or kill each other if they want to—but no good will come from the U.S.A. getting involved with their idea of what a democracy is. I think the idea that a U.S. Marine should have to die so that Mrs Mohammed can have a vote is a tragedy of epic proportions.”
And on the current political landscape in Washington, Scheuer commented: “We live in hope that one day we will stop electing politicians and start electing statesmen.”