The agent sits on a too-soft velvet sofa and struggles to resist the gravity that pulls him into the sofa cushions. The shades are drawn. He has suggested a friend's apartment in a Washington suburb as a meeting place, because he wants to go straight to work after the interview. He is in his early fifties, slightly overweight, bearded, and wears glasses. It is hot outside, but he wears plaid wool socks and light brown, thick-soled shoes. His ID card – reversed – is in his shirt pocket. One could call him Anonymous or Mike. It isn't really that important.
Mike has spent most of his career hunting down America's enemies. For three years, he was in charge of a CIA unit whose mission was to capture Osama bin Laden. At least that's what the newspapers say. He himself has no comment on these reports.
For someone who is not allowed to reveal his identity or where he works, Mike enjoys a rather high profile at the moment. His book, "Imperial Hubris," his analysis of "why the West is losing the war on terror," has been in bookstores since last Thursday. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have reported extensively on the book. All major networks have interviewed Mike. All of America is now at least familiar with the back of his head and his profile.
This isn't a bad time for a book about Al Qaeda and the intelligence services. Two weeks ago, the US Senate issued a report on the CIA's shortcomings in assessing the situation in Iraq. Last Wednesday, the British published the outcome of an investigation of the work of their intelligence services. The only reason the British report was not as condemning as its American counterpart is that its author, Lord Butler, is a very polite individual and a loyal public servant.
"Imperial Hubris" comes to devastating conclusions. In the author's opinion, the upper echelons of America's intelligence services are vulnerable, and not just for reasons of incompetence. This vulnerability, in Mike's view, is also attributable to careerism in upper management, a lack of decision-making capability, and an unwillingness to see things as they are.
The central thesis of this book is that the leadership elite in the West still lacks a clear understanding of the nature of the enemy. In fact, according to the book, the United States is not just being opposed by a small group of fanatic terrorists, but by virtually the entire Muslim world.
Mike sees only two long-term options for the Americans: Either they withdraw from the Middle East, or they deploy their military force with the amount of firepower they once used against Germany and Japan in World War II. It sounds a bit radical and a little as if Mike may have a score or two to settle.
In fact, this man who calls himself Anonymous has lived a rather conventional life. He has four children, a house with a garden, a mortgage that's almost paid off, and if you ask this agent about his political leanings, he will tell you that he has never voted for a Democrat.
He joined the intelligence service 22 years ago, when he responded to a classified ad. He rose quickly through the ranks, and when the Al Qaeda team was established in 1996, he was appointed its director. But then bombs began to explode with increasing frequency, first at a US military base in Saudi Arabia and then at the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. In the wake of the latter attack, Mike and his staff began to intensify their efforts. They developed plans for kidnapping bin Laden, for assassinations, and for rocket attacks.
There was always a reason not to follow through on these plans. "One time, they told us that some Saudi prince was nearby, and another time they said that a local mosque could be hit by shrapnel."
Even though "Imperial Hubris" only touches upon his internal struggle, the book does convey a sense of the frustration and smoldering anger of a man who was largely ignored over the years. Sometime in 1999, his supervisor told him that he was burned out, and that he needed a break: "I had become too much of a burden for them."
Does he feel vindicated by September 11, 2001? "Not vindicated, just sad and angry, because I knew that we had the opportunity to eliminate Osama bin Laden."
He doesn't have much to lose anymore. They have placed him on the sidelines, but he refuses to do them the favor of resigning. The only mistake he cannot make is to violate regulations.
His supervisors spent four months reviewing the manuscript. Because he did not use any classified information, they couldn't do very much about it. The only condition they imposed was the anonymity clause.
Naturally, Mike is pessimistic about the future. He believes that the Taliban, or some other Islamist group, will regain power in Afghanistan. In Iraq, fighting the insurgents will require more troops, which will only further fuel the insurgency.
Mike believes that the next attack is inevitable, and that the big issue is whether Al Qaeda will already be able to use weapons of mass destruction this time around. And then he smiles. If he is right, he will once again have made the correct prediction.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan