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The al Qaeda hunter

Ex-FBI agent questions policies, stresses catching bin Laden

By Henry Schuster

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit, has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on the people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those. He is the author of the newly published book, "Hunting Eric Rudolph."

Dan Coleman
Retired FBI agent Dan Coleman hunted Osama bin Laden for 10 years.
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CNN's Deborah Feyerick speaks with former FBI agent Dan Coleman about his search for Osama bin Laden. (March 2)
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Osama Bin Laden

(CNN) -- Ten years of hunting for Osama bin Laden, and Dan Coleman only has a brick to show for it.

The brick is from bin Laden's house in Kabul, Afghanistan, destroyed by U.S. bombs in late 2001. It sits on the living room mantel of Coleman's New Jersey home.

But the ex-FBI agent would rather have bin Laden dead than a souvenir.

"It's disappointing to me he hasn't been killed," he said. "I don't normally think like that or say things like that, but in his case there's no other solution. It would be like capturing Hitler. Why would you want to?"

The sentiment is out of character for the normally understated Coleman, who recently retired from the FBI for health reasons after 30 years. But it reflects his strong professional and personal commitment to defeating al Qaeda.

Colleagues called him "the Professor" because of his knowledge of al Qaeda, collecting anything and everything about the terrorist network. When a top suspect came in, Coleman would help lead the interrogation -- intent on getting information that could save lives.

But the hunt for bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders continues -- a job he believes should have been finished by now.

Coleman questions whether U.S. policies past and present have undermined the United States' moral stature, as well as its national security.

A new threat to track

At the end of the Cold War, Coleman was tracking East German spies in New York. After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, his new target became Islamic extremists.

"I remember looking at my notes years later, and there was something to the effect that he was a Saudi prince," said Coleman, recalling when bin Laden first came to his attention in late 1994 or early 1995. "That was completely wrong."

Coleman and others soon realized bin Laden was a threat and not, as he puts it, some sort of "Saudi dilettante." By early 1996, he was assigned to a CIA-FBI task force created specifically to track bin Laden.

Coleman's chief responsibility was law enforcement -- to build cases and bring people like bin Laden to justice in American courts.

In 1997, he found himself in Kenya investigating an al Qaeda cell. His unit helped to disrupt some of the cell's activities, but did not prevent the U.S. embassy bombings there and in Tanzania a year later.

Before those bombings, Coleman's task force proposed a mission to snatch bin Laden from Afghanistan. But the plan never made it past the CIA's senior leadership, according to the 9/11 commission.

The African embassy bombings and the 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, that killed 17 U.S. sailors should have made al Qaeda's intentions and capabilities obvious, Coleman said.

He believes the U.S. response -- launching cruise missiles at al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and leaving the rest to law enforcement -- should have been more forceful.

"How much clearer did he have to make it that he not only declared war on the U.S., but was trying to carry it out? And then he attacks the U.S. -- it shouldn't have come as a surprise."

Interrogation methods

What happened after the September 11, 2001, attacks did surprise Coleman.

Bin Laden house rubble
Coleman holds a souvenir from his FBI work, a piece of rubble from one of bin Laden's homes in Afghanistan.

"It was astounding to me after ... 9/11 that we were so ready to give up our laws, our values and everything in order to defend ourselves," he said. "We can't do that. It's wrong."

Detaining "enemy combatants" at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without giving them access to legal counsel is wrong not only for moral but also practical reasons, says Coleman.

If detainees were given access to lawyers from the start, some might have cut deals and offered useful information, he said. And forced admissions are by no means foolproof.

"Any information that's obtained by coercion is suspect," he said. "Because if someone is abusing you physically or psychologically, you pretty much say anything to get them to stop."

Coleman speaks from experience: Before 9/11, when there was a prize al Qaeda catch, he would handle the interrogation.

Patience was key to his interrogation methods: Building up trust. Working the relationship. Always in pursuit of the ultimate prize -- information.

"Get them to the point, in the intelligence world, where they commit treason," he said.

Coleman added, "What has come out of Guantanamo that's worth anything to anybody? Almost nothing."

The Pentagon disputes Coleman's criticisms.

Information from Guantanamo detainees has "undoubtedly saved the lives of U.S. and coalition forces in the field [and] thwarted threats posed to innocent civilians at home and abroad," said Bryan Whitman, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.

A personal mission

Coleman comes from a family of police officers. His son Danny is continuing the tradition of maintaining security, in a different way.

The younger Coleman became a U.S. Army Ranger and joined his father in the hunt for bin Laden. That's one reason the elder Coleman didn't retire earlier. He wanted to keep tabs on his son.

Danny Coleman participated in an October 2001 raid in which U.S. special operations forces swooped into Kandahar, hoping to snatch Mullah Omar and other senior Taliban leaders.

Back from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Danny Coleman plans to serve out the rest of his Army career as a recruiter.

His father is now a full-time househusband, caring for his five children.

But Coleman's desire to eliminate bin Laden and al Qaeda remains strong, as do his beliefs about how the United States has managed and, in his view, mismanaged the war on terror.

"Quite bluntly, the job in Afghanistan wasn't finished when we started up in Iraq," he said.

"This guy killed 3,000 people in New York City. My son was put at risk trying to find him, which is fine because that's his job. I was put at risk trying to get him, that's my job. Fine."

"But he's still alive, he shouldn't be. And the idea that somehow that he should be, that there's still some idea that we're going capture him, we can't wait to capture him -- the hell with that, you know?"

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