Press Box

Who Is Anonymous?

He’s Michael Scheuer. But why won’t the Times and the Post say so?

Journalism’s most famous anonymous source is Bob Woodward’s “Deep Throat.” Over the past three decades, hundreds of reporters and scholars have devoted themselves to unmasking the chain-smoking, parking-garage-loitering informant. But Deep Throat-stalking isn’t just a parlor game: Sleuths hope that identifying Deep Throat will determine why he helped Woodward, one of Watergate’s many unsolved mysteries and possibly the key to others.

Reporters similarly stampeded in 1996 to expose the identity of the author of the best-selling novel Primary Colors. After a fury of investigations and speculations, the Washington Post definitively named reporter Joe Klein as the author.

Given journalists’ lust to name names, what should we make of the top news organizations’ lack of interest in identifying the anonymous author of a new book, Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terrorism? The book currently stands in the No. 3 spot on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list. Ordinarily when a little-known author writes a serious-book turned best-seller, he receives multiple profiles in the top papers. But not only have the Washington Post and the New York Times neglected to profile Anonymous, they’ve shied away from identifying him by name. When writing about him and his controversial book, they rarely do more than supplement the biographical information found on the book’s dust jacket, which reads, ” ‘Anonymous’ is a senior U.S. intelligence official with nearly two decades of experience in national security issues related to Afghanistan and South Asia. He is the author of Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America.”

Sussing out the identity of Anonymous isn’t a parlor game, either, as investigative reporter Steve Weinberg insists in his review of Imperial Hubris in the Orlando Sentinel. It’s a matter of public interest when a government official such as Anonymous criticizes the administration’s handling of the war on al-Qaida and its invasion of Iraq; describes Osama Bin Laden and his allies as insurgents, not terrorists; and calls for “blood-soaked defensive military action” against Islamists who threaten the United States.Are these the views and recommendations of a first-rate mind, an intelligence crank, or a low-level munchkin? “Publication of such important books without the author’s true name attached is unconscionable and counterproductive,” Weinberg writes, continuing:

Without knowing [Anonymous’] name, his education (including knowledge of Arabic, if any), his professional experience (for example, desk work in Langley, Va., or first-hand observation in Baghdad), his workplace history (satisfied analyst or oft-disciplined malcontent) and financial status (did he write such a strident book because he needed the money?), motives are impossible to discern.

What makes the Times’ and Post’s continued reluctance to name Anonymous even weirder is that reporter Jason Vest revealed his identity as senior CIA analyst Michael Scheuer in the July 2 edition of the Boston Phoenix. A variety of columnists and book reviewers writing in the Detroit Free Press, the Dallas Morning News, Orlando Sentinel (Weinberg), the Wall Street Journal editorial page (George Melloan), Salon, Slate, and for the  UPI have published the name since. Meanwhile, Anonymous has been interviewed repeatedly on television (This Week, Hannity & Colmes, CNN), face unseen, to publicize his views. Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern named him on C-SPAN on July 22. Although USA Today did not identify Anonymous, it ran a lengthy editorial page interview with him (one cheer for them). The Los Angeles Times published a thorough, context-laden news story about Anonymous on July 1, quoting extensively from its interview with him, even supplying the first name of “Mike.” (Two cheers for them.)

Scheuer didn’t choose his anonymity, as did Deep Throat, Joe Klein, and most other anonymice. The CIA thrust anonymity upon him as a pre-condition of publishing the book, as he confirmed to Vest during several telephone conversations. Vest writes that “Anonymous does not, in fact, want to be anonymous at all. …” Nor is Scheuer’s CIA status secret, as was undercover officer Valerie Plame’s, because he works on the overt side of the agency.

To be fair, the CIA has sent out misleading signals about Anonymous’ anonymity. The agency told the New York Times (June 23) it shouldn’t use his full name because of the risk of making him an al-Qaida target. When Nightline invited Scheuer to appear in 2003, the agency told the program that anonymity was Scheuer’s idea, Vest reports. Imperial Hubris editor Christina Davidson protested to the CIA on Anonymous’ behalf and got a May 25, 2004, letter from the agency stating that the CIA and not the author insisted on anonymity.

Vest confirmed Anonymous’ identity with “Nearly a dozen intelligence-community sources” (none of whom he names) and that Anonymous’ identity is “well-known to at least a few denizens of the Washington press corps,” as he writes in the Phoenix.

Indeed, D.C. press corpsmen are very familiar with Scheuer. While preparing selections from Imperial Hubris for publication in the July 11 Washington Post, “Outlook” section editor Steven Luxenberg says he confirmed through reporting sources the author’s intelligence bona fides and learned that he was CIA officer Michael Scheuer.

Yet when the Times and the Post write news stories about him they usually dust the page with every conceivable detail but his shirt size and full name. See, for example, the previously mentioned June 23 New York Times piece by Douglas Jehl and this June 26 Washington Post article by Walter Pincus, both of which describe in lavish detail Anonymous’$2 22-year career at the CIA, his role leading the Bin Laden unit, and his current employment at the agency. (Jehl adds the first name “Mike.”) The Post’s June 27 book review of Imperial Hubris by former National Coordinator for Security and Counter-Terrorism Richard A. Clarke—surely on a first-name basis with the author—calls him “a current CIA official.” James Risen reports in the Aug. 5 New York Times that Anonymous is “known publicly only as Mike,” which is true if the definition of the public doesn’t includes the readership of the Phoenix, the Dallas Morning News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Orlando Sentinel, the Detroit Free Press, or viewers of C-SPAN.

Are the Times and the Post trying to have it both ways and failing? I think so. I understand how on one level, they’ve tried to establish Anonymous’ standing as an authority without naming him because the CIA didn’t want him named. But they can only do that by detailing Anonymous’ professional experience. By the time they’ve drawn a portrait in connectable dots, they might as well have named him!

To the best of my knowledge, “Mike” first appears on the journalistic scene in Steve Coll’s February book, Ghost Wars. Coll identifies him as “Mike, Chief, Bin Laden Unit, Counterterrorist Center, 1997-1999.” Coll, managing editor of the Washington Post, says he didn’t name Scheuer in full because he believed—incorrectly—that “Mike” was a case officer in the clandestine service.

If I had known that he was an analyst, I still might have weighed whether to withhold his last name because of his role directly supervising spy recruitment and paramilitary operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, because I would have worried that naming him without a full discussion might have accidentally gotten someone killed overseas,” Coll writes via e-mail. Coll consulted with the CIA about naming names while writing the book and voluntarily withheld the last names of some operators. But he named those who gave him permission and those whose names had already been published in full. He adds that “Mike” did not wave him off from publishing his name in Ghost Wars. “The CIA never said anything to me about whether or not to name Mike specifically in the book,” he writes.

So, why are the Times and Post keeping mum on Scheuer, especially now? Coll says the Post hasn’t made a decision not to name Anonymous. “The question hasn’t come up,” he says, adding that Anonymous’ identity “wasn’t ripe” when the first stories were published about Imperial Hubris. “Now that his opinions are resonating in the body politic,” Coll says, it seems fair to ask questions about Anonymous’ identity.

Vest speculates in an interview that big news organizations tend to self-censor so their beat reporters can remain on good terms with the agency. Why needlessly antagonize Langley by naming Anonymous when they blocked him from using his name on his book? The press has another excuse because the agency hasn’t been completely truthful about the reasons for Anonymous’ anonymity in talking to reporters. Another explanation for withholding Scheuer’s name: Reporters may be overreacting to the Valerie Plame affair.

The bizarre press coverage aside, why did the CIA allow Scheuer to publish Imperial Hubris—but require his easily punctured “anonymity”?

Current and former CIA employees who write for publication (books, articles, novels, letters to the editor) must submit to the agency for pre-publication approval anything that might touch on agency business. (Diet and gardening books and the like are exempt.) John Hollister Hedley, who chaired the CIA’s Publications Review Board for three years in the late ‘90s, writes in the CIA’s Studies in Intelligence that tougher restrictions apply to current CIA employees than former ones. The PRB will block former employees from disclosing classified information that might damage national security, but as a matter of policy it doesn’t throttle opinions that may cause the agency discomfort or embarrassment. A tougher three-part test exists for current employees. The agency can “deny permission to publish statements or opinions that could impair the author’s performance of duties, interfere with the authorized functions of the Agency, or have an adverse impact on US foreign relations,” Hedley writes.

Surely Scheuer’s forceful opinions in Imperial Hubris trigger one or two of these three trip-wires, especially given the ease with Vest uncovered his CIA identity.

Hedley notes in an e-mail interview that several CIA employees, himself included, have written books under their own names while serving in the agency. While he considers the anonymous credit forced onto Imperial Hubris “unusual,” he rejects the theory advanced by some that the “CIA wanted to make public a message the Agency had been unable to convey effectively in private.”

Hedley continues, “I cannot convincingly answer the question of why the reviewing official would have thought that using ‘anonymous’ was a good way to protect the author’s safety. … It is reasonable to think, in an age of terrorism, that it is not a good idea to identify by name someone who works in the Counterterrorism Center. Perhaps the reviewing official simply did not think (naively, as it turned out) that determined journalists would come up with the identity on their own and publish it anyway.”

If the CIA hasn’t come to regret the publication of Imperial Hubris, it’s already demonstrated that it’s unhappy with what Anonymous is saying to the press. Back in late June when Imperial Hubris was just coming out, an unnamed CIA official sighed to the Post, “We would prefer officers keep their personal views personal, but we are not in [a] position to prevent him from expressing his personal views in writing done on his own time.”

By Aug. 7, the agency changed its tune after the author gave multiple opinionated interviews to newspapers, magazines, and TV programs, ordering him to secure permission to do interviews in advance and to outline for the agency what he would discuss. “It is inappropriate for CIA personnel to comment on current events unless specifically sanctioned to do so,” an unnamed CIA official told UPI, adding that Anonymous can discuss his book but not questions about intelligence reform. The speech restrictions bring Anonymous into line with other active employees, the agency told the Times.

Now that the opinionated Scheuer is firmly bound and gagged, shall we look forward to the inevitable Times and Post profiles with excitement or dread?


Dread. Send e-mail, preferably after pre-publication review, to (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)