I don't review this book as a spy story. That's already been done, if not in reviews, then in the book jacket blurbs. This book is the story of how the treachery of a suicide bomber claimed the lives of seven of our best and brightest at the Khost base in eastern Afghanistan, in addition to the lives of two valued allies. As a way of determining what went wrong and what can be learned to avoid repetition, this book offers much. Its author impressively reached behind the scenes to assemble rarely seen documents and obtain rarely granted interviews. But to one extent or another, any non fiction writer does that or should.
The particular value added with this writer is that he has shown how nations come to devalue human life as a matter of public policy, and how they organize departments, bureaus and cells to etch that into permanence. An example occurs on page 14 where the author writes about Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan as "... most interesting because of who he worked for....Osama al Kini, senior Al Qaeda commander in Pakistan. The two men had been on a bloody two year rampage, killing hundreds of people in a series of increasingly spectacular attacks in Pakistan."
But on page 12, senior Pakistani intelligence officials are quoted as saying "Al Qaeda is not very strong but you've made it into a ten foot tall giant," and a reader is left to wonder how any organization that can orchestrate the killing of hundreds of people can be deemed "not very strong" unless human life has been devalued immeasurably and life spans are viewed strictly as a numbers game. That this cheapening of human life has become national policy in parts of the world where there is no outrage to significant slaughter supplies one of the major shocks of the book.
Responsibility for 9/11 hangs over this book in a chapter called "Haunted" in which the author recounts how the CIA Inspector General John L. Helgerson drew up a list of career CIA officers most responsible for the national security failure that occurred on that day.
Prior to 9/11, when the CIA researched facts, it did so for the sake of simply having the information. Whether it led to anything concrete was always of secondary importance. On the other hand, when the FBI researched facts, it did so to win a court case. It was prosecuting someone. It practiced applied research. The author never includes this distinction in his book. CIA officers who received data and didn't distribute it were acting according to the laws of the land and deeply embedded policy. Should common sense have overridden policy for the sake of the nation's safety? Of course. What is obvious now is that adhering to rigid policy created an intelligence blindspot for security planners. But discussing the people responsible for 9/11 without discussing the policy that brought us 9/11 represents a shortcoming of this book.
As if taking on the world's most dangerous terrorist organization isn't enough to fill anyone's plate, the book is replete with instances of brutal gender warfare where men square off with women in attempts to prove equality, superiority, survivability or all of the above in a scuffle which seems to not only get in the way of, but actively undermine the primary CIA mission: making this country secure for American citizens. We are given a portrait of Khost base commander Jennifer Matthews, who died in the December 30, 2009 attack, and her struggle alongside "a cadre of other tough women who were ascending into the divisions of leadership ranks a few career jumps ahead of her." A counselor who advised Matthews before she assumed command of the Khost base in Afghanistan said "You're telling boys how to do their business. Typically, the answer is `Missy, you don't know what it's like.'" Readers come away realizing that the men and women in Khost that tragic day in December, 2009 had a lot more on their minds than the gathering, evaluation, and dissemination of intelligence. They were fighting more wars than the war on terror, and sadly, the distractions this caused may have played a role in what happened.
In places, the book has a rushed febrile tone as though it is on the same deadline to deliver results as the Khost commander. Sometimes, the author slows the pace, and the results soar above journalism, creating a permanent poetic portrait of Ali Bin Zeid, a cousin of the King of Jordan and solid American ally who also died in the murderous December 30 assault: "He would drive to Cape Cod to wander the beaches, or sit in the cheap seats at Fenway Park to ponder the mysteries of American baseball and the allure of the frankfurter."
The book ends with a description of the raid that brought down Osama bin Laden. With his death, the 9/11 generation of terrorist planners have been mostly killed or captured and the book makes the point that a new generation of jihadists has sprung up to take their place, their 9/11 hatred burning, it seems, as bright as ever.