President Barack Obama and members of the national security team in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011

Heads in a Box

On September 11, 2001 Gary Schroen had just enrolled in the CIA’s ‘retirement transition program’. One week later, the former station chief in Kabul and Islamabad was on a plane to Afghanistan, leading a six-man assassination team in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and his general staff.

In his memoir First In, Schroen recalled the orders he received from Cofer Black, the CIA’s head of counter-terrorism: ‘Capture Bin Laden, kill him and bring his head back in a box on dry ice.’ As for Bin Laden’s associates, Cofer said, ‘I want their heads on pikes’.

Schroen remembers his reply to Cofer: ‘Sir, those are the clearest orders I have ever received. I can certainly make pikes out in the field but I don’t know what I’ll do about dry ice to bring the head back – but we’ll manage something.’

Not much, as it turned out. No dry ice, no pikes. He returned home empty-handed to the company’s retirement program. Apparently he retained his faith in the agency, since in 2005 he confessed surprise that the CIA had still not managed to track Bin Laden down after nearly four years. The hunt, which had begun years earlier in the Clinton presidency, apparently ended this May in the old garrison town of Abbotabad in Pakistan. Apparently, that is to say, because seriously conflicting accounts of what happened on the night of May 2nd immediately began to emanate from both official and off-the-record sources following the commando raid on the compound in Abbottabad.

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Published in Photoworks Issue 17, 2011
Commissioned by Photoworks

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