“Never Mind, We’ll Do It Ourselves” is the character-driven story behind the origins of the Predator drone program and the dawn of unmanned warfare. A firsthand account told by an Air Force team leader and a CIA team leader, “Never Mind, We’ll Do It Ourselves” takes the reader into the back offices and secret government hangars where the robotic revolution went from a mad scientist idea to a pivotal part of global air power.
The story will reveal the often conflicting perspectives between the defense and intelligence communities and put you inside places like the CIA’s counterterrorism center on the morning of 9/11. Through the eyes of the men and women who lived it, you will experience the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the evolution of a program from passive surveillance to the complex hunter-killers that hang above the battlespace like ghosts. Poised at the junction between “The Right Stuff” and “The Bourne Identity,” “Never Mind, We’ll Do It Ourselves” will document the way a group of cowboys, rogues, and bandits broke rules and defied convention to change the shape of modern warfare.
This excerpt from Chapter 6 covers when the team put eyes on Bin Laden in September 2000.
Preparation for our eighth mission to clandestinely sneak into Afghanistan included a review of our best available intelligence for where we might find Bin Laden. Together with a hard shake of the Magic 8-Ball, we launched the mission which had us winging our way towards Kandahar. On the verge of entering the last thirty days of our nine-month window, success hung on the slim hope of catching up with Usama bin Laden.
Hal and I were managing the mission, and we settled into a lazy circuit in the sky high above Tarnak as the afternoon call to prayer began. More vehicles were in the compound than normal, situated in what looked like a security posture. People had been coming and going, some standing idle while others went about their respective tasks. We couldn’t hear the call to prayer, a mournful sound typically piped from loudspeakers perched on poles and rooftops. But we knew when it started.
We had our eyes on a building known to be one of bin Laden’s many homes when a man emerged. Looking through the soda straw, we could see that he was tall, dressed head to toe in white. He was greeted with great deference by a small group between the home and the adjacent mosque.
I felt the buzz of adrenaline surge through me like voltage. We didn’t need the imagery experts to measure the 6′2″ figure to know what we had found. On my screen was Usama bin-freaking-Laden, not a photo from last week or a report from yesterday. From half a world away, we had eyes on the worst terrorist in the world, right here, right now. The most improbable, unlikely, unbelievable words flashed through my mind: Son of a bitch, we did it.
As directed by the national security advisor on behalf of the president of the United States, our team had actionable intelligence in less than nine months from receipt of tasking, in advance of the deadline—mission accomplished.
I picked up the secure line and started lighting fires up the food chain. We formally requested a strike package of submarine-launched cruise missiles. Springing up from beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean, the TLAMS should be here in under two hours. We had front-row seats, waiting for Uncle Sam to bring the hammer down on a deadly enemy.
Charlie Allen walked out of his planned meeting after the urgent call from Hal and came down the hall from his office. As soon as he saw the screen, he knew it was bin Laden and proclaimed it emphatically before getting on the secure phones himself to work the next steps to take action. We had notified our chain of command and prepared to support confirmation calls before strikes were launched—or so I thought.
Setting aside all the Jedi mysticism that Hollywood wants to wrap around intelligence training, we really do learn a lot about reading people—body language, how human eyes move when someone is using the left side of the brain versus the right. We’re not mind-readers or walking lie detectors, but any intelligence officer worth his salt can tell when something is going wrong. It’s tucked away in the little stammers, the funky excuses, the moments of uncertainty as somebody ducks and weaves when he or she should be swinging.
Fielding multiple calls and visits with my chain of command, my CIA “spidey sense” was activated. I had just delivered the report of the century—the miracle Hail Mary pass had just been caught in the end zone with two seconds left on the clock. All we had to do now was kick the extra point to turn “mission success” into “crushing victory.”
But the kicker was nowhere in sight. The special-teams squad wasn’t running onto the field; we weren’t shifting into a kick formation. The coaches on the sideline looked content to run out the clock.
To say I felt sick was an understatement; the knot twisting my guts went way beyond nausea. My eyes were fixed on the screen, on the tall man moving slowly through the group of figures that bowed in his direction.
I walked past DJ, and said, “Get Mark on the handset.”
There was a click, and Mark’s voice came on the line, his tone one of anticipation. “Birds away?”
I struggled to say it clearly. “Mark, I don’t think they’re gonna take the shot.”
“Not gonna . . .” half a heartbeat passed as Mark processed the most unlikely words he would hear this day or any other day. “What the frick are you talking about?” His volume doubled as the impact hit home. If anyone in the GCS had an inkling that things were amiss, the worst fears were now confirmed.
“It’s not official, Mark,” I wanted to be clear if for some reason I was wrong, but with each passing moment I was growing more convinced. “Nobody’s talking with the subs, nobody is double-checking with the shoot authorities. I swear to God, I don’t think anybody was prepared for us to really do it.”
“Well somebody better get prepared and right now” Mark tore into an anger-fueled rant that to this day defies print. But his point, no matter how incendiary the delivery, was valid. We’d been tasked with building a new capability and inventing a way to fly it around the world. Done. We’d been told we had to do it in nine months and along the way lay eyes on the most dangerous man on the planet, hiding in a sandbox the size of Texas. Done.
Hal caught my eye, and I put my hand over the phone. “What’s up?”
“We are being asked if we can guarantee that bin Laden will still be there in two hours.”
My inside voice channeled Mark: Two hours? We spec’d a Wescam Versatron ball, not a crystal ball.
But my outside voice remained quiet. “Can we guarantee” is not a question for somebody looking to act; it is a question from somebody looking for an excuse not to act. I could already hear the briefing in my head: No sir, we chose not to shoot because we couldn’t guarantee he would still be there when the missiles arrived.
Hal came back, anger rising. “Alec, they aren’t going to pull the trigger. Can we kamikaze the plane?”
I gave it a thought, a serious one. But as attractive as the idea seemed there was no way to make it work.
DJ stepped into my line of vision as I refocused on my reply. “No, no sir. I cannot guarantee where he will be.”
DJ waved me off, the urgency in his eyes forcing me to silence. He plucked the phone from my hand, pressing the mouthpiece against his side as he pointed toward my computer. “Roger’s on the chat line,” he said tersely. “We have a problem.”
“They’re talking about you.”
The words on the chat line had come from Roger at NSA. A brilliant linguist, Roger was a one-of-a-kind resource who could pluck a string of Pashto, Dari, or Urdu out of a garbled radio transmission.
The intercept from Kandahar threw Roger into unfamiliar territory. His experience focused on extracting intelligence from subtleties of nuance and inflection, not tactical air and air defense. This course of events had just thrown him into a crash course on aerial combat and evasion. We had experts in air and air defense on our team at Ramstein. This was going to take a team effort. Colonel Boyle and the Lieutenant Colonel “Dash” Jamieson, the 32nd AIS commander, gave us their best analysts. That group included a Mr. Brian “Fish” Fishpaugh, USAFE’s senior air analyst, along with Captain Shane H., as well as Master Sergeant Rich Keady—all the best analysts. “They are trying to launch something.” A tangible note of tension crept into his words.
“I want eyes on the airfield.” Mark barked, knowing that an order to swing the camera off Tarnak and bin Laden would send the Agency guys off the rails, but he had to know what was about to join us in the sky. The Taliban had an early warning radar with ground-control intercept capability adjacent to the airfield. Just to the west sat another SA-3 surface-to-air missile battery.
As expected, Hal was in the GRC and said no on giving up the camera, but Mark had the benefit of being the mission commander in the GCS. He punched the speakerphone button to get Captain Ty Peterson on the line and said, “F this.”
Mark snapped his attention to Gunny. “Eyes on the airfield, now.” Gunny didn’t bat an eye. They could just imagine the cussing all the way back to Langley when the video feed smeared into a horizontal blur as the camera slewed about 140 degrees to the north, squaring up on the airfield. In the world of infrared, small grey specks swirled around a dart-shaped silhouette.
“Fishbed,” Mark muttered, the profile unmistakable.
Mark stepped back, his mind processing the options. We had discussed the scenario, planned for it, even trained for it. But nobody in the history of flight had ever done it for real, with the weight of national security on our shoulders. The only thing that could possibly make the moment worse would be to have Mark’s boss magically appear, so naturally Colonel Boyle walked in the back door. His eyes met Mark’s across the GCS and I’m quite certain he read “aww, damn” in Mark’s eyes.
God love Colonel Boyle. He just nodded, gave some sage advice, and let Mark run with it.
Turning back to the screen, Mark watched a single gray dot scuttle up the ladder and disappear into the jet fighter. The other ants scattered as the heart of the gray silhouette blossomed coal black as the engines roared to life. The Fishbed rolled from the tarmac and aligned itself on the runway. It turned out that Predator looked less like a flock of geese on radar than it did the broad side of a school bus.
Cruiser, another pilot from General Atomics, was at the stick.
He saw Mark get target lock and said, “What’s the call, Cooter?”
Mark looked him in the eye and said, “You have thirty minutes to live. Time to do some of that pilot stuff.”
The command may have sounded flip, but the reality on the screen was clear, and Mark was glad to have Cruiser in the pilot seat. If anyone had a shot at exploiting the outermost fringes of our flight capabilities to play cat-and-mouse with a Soviet-built jet, it was Cruiser.
The jet fighter shot down the runway and blistered into the night sky, its pilot’s every moment of training focused on hunting other jet-powered objects moving hot, high, and fast.
The Fishbed had high rails, a design that put the pilot deep in a steel bathtub. He could see well enough ahead and above, but visibility below was terrible. The disparity of speed was a huge advantage to the jet in a fight, but it could be all but crippling in a search. With his foot to the floor in an adrenaline-fueled urgency to find us, the Fishbed could blow by in the night and never glimpse a small, slow speck crawling along the corner of its blind spot.
Gunny once again brought his own special A game to the fight, using the sensor ball in ways for which it had never been designed. The Versatron could spot a dog in the desert or tell if a car’s engine was running. The 1,200-degree exhaust from a jet fighter running full afterburner makes it by far the brightest star in the thermal sky. Back in Indian Springs, Gunny had utilized that to follow the Thunderbirds as they trained there.
There was little to see of a jet as it approached, but it shot by us with a Roman candle up its butt. Gunny expertly slewed the thermal camera like a bloodhound on a scent. The smear of heat banked to starboard and swept off to the south. Mark watched it race away for several seconds before remembering to breathe.
If we were lucky, we might catch a second break. Most of the Afghans flew under old Soviet protocols in which a highly experienced senior pilot on the ground micromanaged the mission via radio communication with the pilot. Ground control would say turn left, the pilot would execute and then describe where he was and what he saw. With that exchange going on, Roger was gold.
“They’re climbing to twenty-five thousand,” Roger reported, “swinging to heading two-two-niner.”
Mark glanced at the map. The Fishbed was roaring up into the clouds to the northwest of the airfield. Our bird was below it, headed for the mountains that sloped up to the north.
Our exit point was a dead spot in radar coverage, where the eyes of the enemy couldn’t peer over a ridgeline.
If we make that, Mark thought anxiously, we become a very small fish out in the open ocean.
“He’s about to come around.” Roger declared. “Holding altitude, coming to zero-niner-zero.”
“Damn.” The word came out under my breath. A dead-east heading would put the MiG on an intercept vector. But would he see us if he didn’t know what he was looking at?
“Stay below and point into him,” Mark said, Cruiser nodding in confirmation. Mark and the other Weapons School grads on the team were using our “patches” for all they were worth. If the Afghan kept his foot on the floor, his jet would rocket across our path at a right angle . . . about two minutes ahead of us.
Alec Bierbauer has spent a lifetime conducting counterterrorism and counterintelligence operations in venues ranging from Bosnia to Yemen and Afghanistan. With an emphasis on integrating emerging technologies into high-risk special programs, he was the CIA’s point man in the development of the Predator program. Bierbauer resides in Huntsville, Alabama.
Retired Air Force Col. Mark Cooter, a distinguished Air Force intelligence officer, has operational experience in DESERT STORM, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya operations. As a Predator squadron operations officer, Mark led Predator programs from their near inception in Bosnia through joint Air Force/CIA operations in Afghanistan and beyond. Col. Cooter lives in San Angelo, Texas.
Michael Marks has worked around the world within the U.S intelligence and special operations community, a career that stretches from the jungles of Nicaragua to the mountains of Afghanistan. A bestselling author, his books have been adopted by venues such as the FBI Academy and the Army Asymmetric Warfare Group. Marks resides in New York City.
Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.