Recommending "Jawbreaker"

By Joseph Normandin

Posted by John McHale

Over the weekend I finished "Jawbreaker," a book on CIA efforts in Afghanistan to defeat Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda . It's the personal account of Gary Bernsten the CIA's field commander in Afghanistan following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He co-wrote the book with Ralph Pezzullo.

It reads like a thriller novel, a quick-paced page turner, even though we basically know the outcome -- the U.S. succeeds brilliantly in defeating the Taliban but still doesn't get bin Laden.

Bernsten hits hard with his criticism of President Clinton, former CIA Director George Tenet, and the bureaucracy of the "seventh floor" at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., for failing to act years before the attacks and for not doing everything to get bin Laden afterwards.

He was particularly harsh on Tenet for closing CIA operations in Afghanistan and other unfriendly countries prior to Sept. 11, 2001

Bernsten said he was chosen to lead the Afghanistan operation because he was aggressive and took opportunities to attack the enemy rather than wait for permission from above.

This characterized by his response to an Army Maj. Gen who wanted to drop pamphlets to Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in the mountains of Tora Bora encouraging them to surrender.

He said "don't drop the leaflets or invite them to negotiate! They came to fight, didn't they? So let's oblige them. No damn leaflets! Let's fight the war!"

After cornering Al Qaeda in the mountains, Bernsten wanted 800 Army Rangers to block bin Laden's entrance into Pakistan. He was refused after repeated requests. U.S. military leadership wanted to leave it to the Northern Alliance forces to hunt bin Laden down.

In the book Bernsten says that the U.S. head of Central Command (CENTCOM), Gen. Tommy Franks, testified before Congress maintained that this was the right decision.

Bernsten disagrees saying that the biggest failure of CENTCOM leadership came at Tora Bora when "they turned down my request for a battalion of U.S. Rangers to block bin Laden's escape."

Today, Bernsten says that bin Laden is hidden in the mountains of Pakistan, but that he can still be taken if "we're creative, aggressive, and not afraid to take risks."

CIA censors felt various parts of Bernsten's book were risky, redacting a good chunk. These sections are marked by black lines in the book.

While the censors did black out quite a bit of text from the book, it's understandable wanting to keep a lid on their intelligence gathering methods. However, it seems ridiculous to black out material that was already publicly released in news reports and other books as Bernsten points out in the text.

That said, it's a bit of stretch to claim it's "the book the CIA doesn't want you to read," as the publisher does on the back cover.

I read it and I don't think CIA censors are losing sleep over that fact.

I also feel Frank Rich of the New York Times was stretching things a bit with his quote on the back cover, that reads "this honest account doesn't do the president any favors."

That is unless Rich was referring to President Clinton, who Bernsten criticized strongly for mild responses to the attack on the USS Cole and our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

Bernsten was quite complimentary to President Bush for his willingness to fight.

Jawbreaker is available on .

I highly recommend it.

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The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

May 2015
Volume 26, Issue 5

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